Hindsight 14: Weaponizing the Youth

Hindsight for Monday, April 18, 2022

ONE OF the most troubling episodes of the war now raging in Ukraine happened a couple of weeks ago not in Kyiv or the eastern region—where ghastly atrocities have taken place—but in Penza, a city in western Russia. A 55-year-old teacher named Irina Gen was arrested after a student reportedly taped her remarks criticizing the Russian invasion; the student’s parents got the tape, and turned it in to the authorities, who went after Ms. Gen. She now faces up to ten years in prison for violating the newly minted law against “spreading fake news” about Russia. Earlier, in the city of Korsakov, students also filmed their English teacher Marina Dubrova, 57, for denouncing the war; she was arrested, fined, and disciplined.

That the Russian state is punishing its critics is nothing new. It’s reprehensible, but you expect nothing less from the place and the party that invented the gulag, that frozen desert of concentration camps where millions suffered and died over decades of political strife and repression, mainly under Joseph Stalin. 

What I found particularly alarming was the role of students as informants, a virtual extension of the secret police that are the staple of repressive societies. This, too, is nothing new. Throughout modern history, despots have drawn on their nations’ youth to lend a semblance of energy and idealism to their authoritarianism, ensure a steady stream of cadres, and at worst, provide ample cannon fodder.

In Russia, the Komsomol rose up in 1918 to prepare people between 14 and 28 for membership in the Communist Party. Four years later, the Young Pioneers took in members between 9 and 14, and just to make sure no one who could walk and talk was left out, the Little Octobrists were organized in 1923 for the 7-9 crowd. 

The Hitler Youth was preceded and prepared for by youth organizations that formed around themes like religion and traditional politics, and it was easy to reorient them toward Nazism. An all-male organization matched by the League of German Girls, the Hitler Youth focused on sports, military training, and political indoctrination, but they soon had to go far beyond marching in the streets and smashing Jewish storefronts. Running short of men, the Germans set up a division composed of Hitler Youth members 17 years and under, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. It went into battle for the first time on D-Day in June 1944; after a month, it had lost 60 percent of its strength to death and injury.

Chairman Mao relied on China’s teenage cadres—the Red Guards—to unleash the Cultural Revolution in 1966 against the so-called “Four Olds” (old customs, culture, habits, and ideas, which came to be personified in elderly scholars and teachers who were beaten to death or sent off to prison camps for “re-education”). 

Under Ferdinand Marcos Sr.’s martial law, the Kabataang Barangay was created by Presidential Decree 684 in 1975 to give the Filipino youth “a definite role and affording them ample opportunity to express their views.” That sounds innocuous enough, and indeed the KB would go on to engage in skills training, sports, sanitation, food production, crime prevention, and disaster relief, among other civic concerns, under the leadership of presidential daughter Imee. 

At the same time it was clearly designed to offset leftist youth organizations like the Kabataang Makabayan and the Samahang Demokratiko ng Kabataan by drawing on the same membership pool and diverting their energies elsewhere—more specifically, into becoming the bearers and defenders of the New Society’s notions. (Full disclosure: I was an SDK member, but my younger siblings were KB.)

I would never have thought that the “Duterte Youth” meant something else, but it does; evidently, it’s just shorthand for “Duty to Energize the Republic through the Enlightenment of the Youth Sectoral Party-list Organization.” Organized in 2016 to support the Davao mayor’s presidential campaign and later his policies as President, the Duterte Youth have affected quasi-military black uniforms and fist salutes. Its leader, Ronald Cardema, reportedly brushed off comparisons with the Hitler Youth by pointing out that the Germans had no patent on the “youth” name, which he was therefore free to use. (Uhmm… okay.)

Adjudged too old to represent the youth in Congress (his wife Ducielle took over his slot), Cardema was appointed to head the National Youth Commission instead, from which perch he then directed “all pro-government youth leaders of our country… to report to the National Youth Commission all government scholars who are known in your area as anti-government youth leaders allied with the leftist CPP-NPA-NDF.”

I acknowledge how Pollyannish it would be to expect young people and even children to be shielded from the harsh and often cruel realities of today’s world. The war in Ukraine, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the pandemic are just the latest iterations of conflicts and crises that have turned 12-year-old boys into executioners in Sierra Leone and child miners in Bolivia, Madagascar, and, yes, the Philippines. 

Their enlistment in political causes—of whatever orientation—is another form of maltreatment or abuse for which we have yet no name, but few governments or anti-government rebels will let them be. Their minds are soft and malleable, their fears obvious and manipulable, their rewards simple and cheap. With the right incentives and punishments, it can be easier to turn them into monsters or machines than to safeguard their innocence. They can be weaponized.

I’ve mentioned this in another column, but there’s a scene in the classic movie Cabaret, set in the Nazi period, where a handsome and bright-faced boy in a brown uniform begins to sing what seems to be an uplifting song about “the sun on the meadow.” But as it progresses we realize that it’s a fascist anthem which is picked up by ordinary folk with chilling alacrity. Watch this on Youtube (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) and then look at your son or nephew, or the children playing across the street. If you want, you could vote to have them marching and singing a similar tune in a couple of years.

(Photo from Rappler.com)

Penman No. 200: Memoirs of a Teenage Maoist

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Penman for Monday, May 23, 2016

 

 

A SMALL item in the foreign news caught my eye last week: a note that the 50th anniversary of China’s Cultural Revolution had gone unnoticed—in China itself, with no parades or ceremonies to mark the historic event. For those of us too young to remember, the Cultural Revolution was launched by Chairman Mao Zedong on May 16, 1966, to consolidate his power and purge his rivals within the Communist Party in the guise of doing away with old ways of thinking. To fight the old, Mao rallied the young—millions of “Red Guards” who turned on their parents, teachers, and superiors, feeling suddenly empowered to reject authority and traditional learning and to see themselves as the vanguards of a new age.

Over the decade that the Cultural Revolution ran its course until Mao’s death in 1976, many millions died—from executions and from famine. While Mao’s legacy would live on, there’s firm consensus both within and outside China that the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated man-made disaster, something the Party itself in 1981 blamed for “the most serious setback and loss for the Party, the country and the people since the founding of China.”

What did this have to do with us and with me? Well, to put it as simply as I can, I was a teenage Maoist, and for a while back there, I and quite a number of like-minded comrades saw ourselves as the local chapter of the Red Guards. Call it madness, but we saw Mao as a demigod, and looked to his China as a beacon of hope and a model for other countries like ours—also beset by centuries of feudalism and colonial rule—to follow.

How did that happen? I had joined the student activist movement and had gone to my first demonstrations in high school, and as soon as I entered college in 1970, I signed up with the Nationalist Corps. It wasn’t a communist organization, but it was a short step from reading Renato Constantino to reading Mao. Mao’s teachings (in contrast to the heavy-duty theorizing of Marx and Lenin) were attractive in their seeming simplicity, in their pithiness, in their rosy optimism. It was chicken congee for the soul.

Until today, you’ll hear 60-somethings from my cadre recite gems, chapter and verse, from Mao’s Quotations (better known as the LRB, or the Little Red Book) like “A revolution is not a dinner party, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” “Dare to struggle, dare to win,” “Wherever there is struggle there is sacrifice, and death is a common occurrence…. All men must die, but death can vary in its significance.” Among my favorites—music to my 17-year-old ears—was “The world is yours, as well as ours, but in the last analysis, it is yours. You young people, full of vigor and vitality, are in the bloom of life, like the sun at eight or nine in the morning. Our hope is placed on you. The world belongs to you.”

It wasn’t too different from what Rizal or the Desiderata said, especially about the youth as the fair hope of the fatherland, but I think what drew us to Mao at that point and to his brand of Marxism was his emphasis on classes and class analysis, his awareness of society as one divided between rich and poor (with the rich collaborating with foreign powers to keep themselves in place), and the fact (or the fantasy) that in China, things were actually going according to the socialist plan. Very few of us had ever been to China then (famously, of course, three senior activists would get stranded there—Eric Baculinao, Chito Sta. Romana, and Jimi FlorCruz), but we accepted it as an article of faith that Chairman Mao was doing right by his own people.

In Manila, we did our best to copy the flag-waving strokes of Peking Opera (eg, “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy”), learned about obscure heroes like Norman Bethune, and wore the LRB like a talisman in the breast pockets of our army fatigue jackets. (Procured from US military surplus stores in Dau, it was the closest we could get to the Mao—actually the Sun Yat-sen—jackets that the Red Guards adopted as a uniform, with the red star on the matching cap; but we at least wore genuine “Ho Chi Minh” sandals fashioned out of rubber tires.) At dawn, we tuned our transistor radios to the faint and crackly signal of Radio Peking, for our regular dose of socialist top tunes like the “Internationale,” “Sailing the Seas Depends Upon the Helmsman,” and “The East Is Red”—plus, of course, the daily rundown of the news from the global war on US imperialism. An enterprising fellow even then, I corresponded with a Hong Kong bookseller who seemed only too happy to mail me copies of the Peking Review, even if I had no money to pay him.

Only years later did the failings of Mao’s experiment and the horrors of the Cultural Revolution emerge, revealed not so much by Western propaganda as by the Chinese themselves, who had suffered the most from its excesses. It would take time—and, indeed, a personal visit to China—to appreciate this disconnect between our long-distance romance with Mao’s socialist paradise and cold reality.

It was in July 1987 when I was finally able to set foot on hallowed ground—Tiananmen Square in Beijing, where I was doing a cultural exchange visit along with writer-friends Krip Yuson, Ricky de Ungria, Eric Gamalinda, and Timmy Lim. We had been assigned a translator and a minder, whom we’ll call Chang—a tall wisp of a man who spoke decent English and who was working, he said, on a translation of a biography of Elvis Presley in his spare time. (Had he ever listened to Elvis? No. We sent him a cassette of Elvis from Manila.)

Standing just meters away from Mao’s mausoleum—there seemed to be thousands of Chinese visitors waiting in line to go in—I asked Chang if he could help me see Chairman Mao. “What you want to do that for?” he asked incredulously. “He killed my grandfather in the Cultural Revolution!” Ooops—I tried to say that I was sorry to hear about his angkong, but I had to tell him that I was once a Mao fanboy and just had to meet the man, even his current state of embalmed repose. Chang still didn’t seem ready to believe me, so I sang him the first few lines of the “Helmsman” song: “Sailing the seas depends upon the helmsman, life and growth depend on the sun, rain and dewdrops nourish the crops, making revolution depends on Mao Tsetung Thought!” Chang shushed me up before a crowd could gather: “Okay, okay, I bring you inside, but hurry, okay?”

And so I filed past my fallen idol, awash in conflicting emotions; frankly Mao’s waxen face did little to exude revolutionary vitality, and in just two more years that same square would be bathed in fresh young blood.

I would return to China many times since then as both tourist and writer, and at one point I would chance upon a Mao jacket in a backstreet shop in Shanghai—you’ll never find them in the glitzy stores—and some days I wear it to remind me of what people today will surely say was a youthful folly. Sometimes I’ll stick a most unproletarian Montblanc into the breast pocket, but then again, it’s where the real Chinese revolution led—the freedom to shop for baubles on Nanjing Road.

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[Image from chineseposters.net]