Peggy Noonan advises us to “get ready for the coming struggle session.” What’s a struggle session? The term comes from Communist China’s cultural revolution of the 1960s. Noonan explains:
In the struggle sessions the accused, often teachers suspected of lacking proletarian feeling, were paraded through streets and campuses, sometimes stadiums. It was important always to have a jeering crowd; it was important that the electric feeling that comes with the possibility of murder be present.
Dunce caps, sometimes wastebaskets, were placed on the victims’ heads, and placards stipulating their crimes hung from their necks. The victims were accused, berated, assaulted. Many falsely confessed in the vain hope of mercy.
Noonan sees “the spirit of the struggle session” in contemporary American politics. She attributes it in part to the internet, in part to the “extremity of our politics,” and in part to loneliness.
What is the evidence that the spirit of the struggle session is upon us: Noonan writes:
The air is full of accusation and humiliation. We have seen this spirit most famously on the campuses, where students protest harshly, sometimes violently, views they wish to suppress. Social media is full of swarming political and ideological mobs. In an interesting departure from democratic tradition, they don’t try to win the other side over. They only condemn and attempt to silence.
The spirit of the struggle session is all over Twitter . On literary Twitter social-justice warriors get advance copies of new books and denounce them for deviationism—as insensitive, racist, appropriative, anti-LGBTQ. Books on the eve of publication have been pulled, sometimes withdrawn by authors who apologize profusely. Everyone’s scared. And the tormentors are not satisfied by an apology. They’re excited by it and prowl for more prey.
Has the struggle session spilled over from college campuses and the internet into electoral politics? A few months ago, I might have said it hasn’t. But that was before Democratic presidential candidates commenced groveling:
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand understood the mood of things when she self-abased all over television after she announced for president. Once a Blue Dog Democrat, now a progressive, she nervously expressed remorse at her past deviationism. Her previous conservative stands, she said, were “callous.” “They certainly weren’t empathetic.” “I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives.” She was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” of past stands. “I was not caring about others. . . . I was wrong.”
At least no one cut her hair [as occurred during China’s cultural revolution]. Maybe that will be in the 2024 cycle.
Joe Biden understands the moment. He quickly apologized last week after calling Vice President Mike Pence “a decent guy.” Progressive Cynthia Nixon denounced Mr. Pence as “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader and asked Mr. Biden to “consider how this falls on the ears of our community.” “You’re right, Cynthia,” he quickly responded.
All the Democratic candidates have apologized for something. Elizabeth Warren is abjectly sorry she took a DNA test.
There’s a distinction, of course, between apologizing for past positions taken as a means of winning over voters and apologizing to avoid being executed by the government. Still, the mea culpas are unseemly and maybe a little frightening.
I have had a mixed view of social media, in which I do not participate. It’s obviously a cesspool. On the other hand, it’s an outlet. It gives would-be warriors a place where they can go over-the-top in expressing outrage without the need to act out the outrage in violent ways.
This view increasingly seems too optimistic. I take it that after a while, even the most venomous social media posts can feel inadequate as an expression of rage. Moreover, a social media mob can, to some extent, impose “struggle sessions,” not so much on its enemies — for now, anyway — as on those who, in general, tend to agree with the mob, but not angrily or wholeheartedly enough.
Noonan is right to conclude that “none of [this] portends good.” What it portends, I fear, is cold civil war.