The Don’t Talk About History Law

It’s really hard to talk about Langston Hughes in the context of the Harlem Renaissance without touching on not only his interest in the Soviets and their system, but also touching on why a number of African-American intellectuals (Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others) were drawn to “revolutionary” ideas, and to Communist ideology — after all, after hundreds of years of things not getting too much better, of pretty constant material, cultural, and social oppression and marginalization, I think it’s not hard to see why some African-Americans would have felt that a sudden, forceful reorganization of society would be the only way forward.

None of which is incendiary, mind you… discussing why Hughes included a lot of “red” imagery in poems like “Roar, China!” doesn’t need to get one into hot water. But one must be careful not to be misunderstood, across a language barrier. Saying, “It’s not surprising that members of an extremely oppressed group would be attracted to a radical ideology, when after all lots of people in comparable positions–and even in positions of privilege–were too,” might, across a language barrier, come out looking like just about anything.

Basically, I told my class we were talking about a moment in American history, about a radical intellectual who, while he was interested in radical politics at the time, was also a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a crucial moment in African-American history and in the history of American and global culture too. I explained that I wasn’t praising Communism, as much as acknowledging it was a part of Hughes’ politics, as well as a major part of the political and historical development of US society through the 20th century.

But with all those disclaimers, I am left wondering how in the heck history gets taught in Korean classrooms. Even if you’re officially anti-Communist, it’s hard to explain why without explaining a bit about it — unless you just start demonizing adherents to that system willy-nilly, which people will not take seriously for long. It’s like asking a Sunday School teacher to teach Christian morality without mentioning sin: it’s pretty hard to talk about Christian morality without it, and you end up having to just say, “Um, there’s, you know, stuff you’re not supposed to do,” and blush and hope you get what they’re talking about. People will start avoiding not just sin, but the near occasion of sin, and sooner or later, they will just start avoiding everything enjoyable as it might be sin. And then, sooner or later, they stop going to church.

Much better to lay it all out: here’s what sin is, here’s why it’s a sin, and here’s what we don’t consider a sin… any questions?

Maybe that’s the problem, though: anyone who is smart enough to see the problems in one ideology will see the problems in all of them — including your official one. It’s not so much that people will join the opposite ideology, as it is that they will just as effectively critique yours. Intellectuals are dangerous that way: they love to critique things, pull them apart, and expose the weaknesses.

It reminds me of how hackers used to sometimes get hired to develop better security, back in the old days, though in reverse: intellectuals are like computer experts that are hired to figure out and understand the enemy’s memetic system, and then finally turn their understanding against their own society’s memetic system too.

But also, it reminds me of the cost-benefits of estimating security wrong, which Bruce Schneier discussed here. After all, if you can maintain a certain ideology without having to ban its opposing ideology, and hunt down people who are interested in it, and take away books that discuss it, you’re going to save a lot of time and energy. You’re going to be able to spend that time and energy educating people so that they can see just how untenable that ideology is — for, after all, all ideologies are untenable in at least some ways. (Self-contradictions seem, after all, to be inescapable; they may even be a fundamental force in human cultures.)

Yet there lies the rub: if you train a bunch of people to be competent enough thinkers to see through someone else’s ideology, at least some of them will apply those skills to all ideologies, including their own… or, more importantly, yours.

Which certainly seems to explain the shell-gamey ideology-banning that we see in practice in certain places in our world.

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