Applauded, but wrong…

…or: Marginalized, but right.

A fascinating piece in the New York Review of Books on Pierre Ryckmans and his book The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. Ryckmans demonstrated an understanding of the scale of human and cultural destruction happening in China since the Cultural Revolution far better than his academic colleagues.

Yet his insight into the brutality of the revolution and tens of millions starved or otherwise killed wasn’t due to any particular insider knowledge so much as what could be called a willingness to see. Whereas Western academics dealt with China and her people as an intellectual abstraction, Ryckmans would read the China News Analysis newspaper and thereby learn about the life of the people.

Ryckmans explains the failure of Western academics to admit what was happening to China’s people and culture this way: “What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism—and also out of cynicism.”

In this context George Orwell’s alleged observation that “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” In other words, we tend to become invested in what we wish to believe—whether in petty personal grievances or in sweeping cultural appraisals.

Thus did Ryckmans willingness to see (or as the Review of Books put it, his “getting it right”), represent something revolutionary. Yet “getting it right” put him on the margins of the academic consensus when it really mattered, when Western elites could have perhaps worked to meaningfully disgrace Mao’s endeavors.

I have a tendency to place greater trust in those on the margins of consensus (in people like Ryckmans) because those are almost always the people with the least to gain and the most to lose—and yet they’re risking their reputations anyway. Which indicates, Hey, maybe there’s something there…

Consensus often doesn’t seem to ask much of those expected to embrace it. In the China/Ryckmans case, the Western elite could comfortably dismiss his perspective in the 1950s-70s when real people were suffering because an ideal divorced from its consequences was popular, and the same elite can now comfortably embrace his having “gotten it right” by admitting the truth about Mao’s revolution years after the point at which such insights had the chance to impact history.

At minimum, it helps to intentionally escape the illusions we cultivate for ourselves—to touch reality through a willingness to see. The ultimate point of life isn’t simply to be comfortable.

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