Ai Weiwei is an artist and human rights activist whose dissident activities against the Chinese Communist Party led to his incarceration and eventual exile from his native country. He’s a figure who knows totalitarianism when he sees it.
When he appeared on Margaret Hoover’s “Firing Line” on PBS for an interview which aired Friday, it wasn’t a surprise that he saw it in the United States. The surprise: It wasn’t from former President Donald Trump, but from wokeness instead.
Host Margaret Hoover — a conservative commentator who was staunchly anti-Trump during the 2020 campaign — thought Ai would actually go for the former president, judging by the fact she read from a part of his autobiography which compared Trump with communist China’s most notoriously totalitarian leader.
“In your book, you were describing the directives of Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution that would be distributed publicly every night,” Hoover said.
“And then you write — this is your quote — ‘They served a function similar to Donald Trump’s late-night tweets while in office. They were the direct communication of a leader’s thoughts to his devoted followers, enhancing the sanctity of his authority.’
“So, do you see Donald Trump as an authoritarian?” she asked.
He didn’t seem to think so.
“If you are authoritarian, you have to have a system supporting you,” Ai said.
“You cannot just be an authoritarian by yourself. But certainly, in the United States, with today’s condition, you can easily have an authoritarian. In many ways, you’re already in the authoritarian state. You just don’t know it.”
Hoover asked why that was.
“Many things that happen today in the U.S. can be compared to the Cultural Revolution in China … like people trying to be unified in a certain political correctness. That is very dangerous.”
When asked what he thought had gone awry with political correctness, Ai said, “It’s very philosophical. With today’s technology, we know so much more than we really understand.
“The information [has] become jammed. But we don’t really — and really have the knowledge, because you don’t work. You don’t — you don’t have to act on anything. You just think you’re purified by certain ideas that you agree with it. That is posing dangers to society, to an extreme divided society.”
Ai, again, is a man who knows authoritarianism. He was kept in what was known as “residential detention” for 81 days by the Chinese Communist Party in 2011, something that he documented through his art:
Ai Weiwei, the renowned Chinese contemporary artist, “reconstructed” his daily life in detention in series of scene models. He’s being closely watched by 2 Chinese officers in PLA uniform at all times when he was eating, sleeping, taking shower or using toilet.
— ☆:**:. ℭ𝔢𝔷𝔞𝔫𝔫𝔢 🇭🇰 ᶜᶜᴾ 👎🏻 .:**:.☆ (@CriticalCezanne) July 15, 2020
— Artspace (@artspace) December 27, 2018
And he espies this in America? Perhaps not yet — but you can see where the similarities arise.
There’s the stilted jargon of “wokeness” — the “speaking as a [insert group identification here]” statements, the unpleasant souls who seek to educate you in when you should use “person of color” and when “BIPOC” is more apt, the too-frequent use of words like “cisgender” and “gaslighting.”
More importantly, there’s the punishment when you use the wrong language.
Just look at Dave Chappelle stating obvious biological facts or the preposterous Yale Law “trap house” fiasco. If you’re guilty of one of these solecisms, the transgressor is expected to publicly grovel at the feet of society for a chance at rehabilitation — you know, just like people who fall out of line in authoritarian states.
Sometimes, you don’t even need to do anything to have to apologize. All you need is “privilege.” If you’re adjudged to be in possession of any, you’re going to have to wear cultural sack-cloth, like someone from a bourgeois background who wanted to get anywhere in a Marxist regime.
One doesn’t need to be thrown into a Chinese jail for 81 days to recognize all of this as a form of soft authoritarianism. It doesn’t hurt, though.