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Avoiding Extremism: Lessons from Authoritarian Overreach and the Value of Democracy

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Avoiding Extremism: Lessons from Authoritarian Overreach and the Value of Democracy

Commentary By Pete Haug | FāVS News

I’ve never affiliated with a political party because, over time, parties oscillate between extremes. When one gains ascendency, government shifts, passing through middle ground, then veering extreme. In the 1960s, a largely peaceful Civil Rights movement was brutally attacked by extremists on the right. Returning Vietnam War veterans, draftees who’d had no choice, were greeted by taunts from extreme leftists.

And in China…

Extremism has ebbed and flowed in China for millennia. During 11 years teaching English there, Jolie and I learned of cruelties endured by colleagues during the Cultural Revolution.

We arrived in Beijing in 1993, 17 years after that “revolution” and 15 years after China opened to the West. That short-lived experiment ended June 4, 1989, when the Peoples’ Liberation Army massacred an indeterminant number of unarmed protesters in Tiananmen Square. Arriving four years later, we formed friendships with students and colleagues who had survived those events. Their first-hand stories were chilling.

During the Cultural Revolution, Mao banished intellectuals and scientists to the countryside for “re-education” through hard labor. Students were encouraged to persecute their professors. Mr. Chen, a colleague, was the classic Chinese gentleman, dignified and mild-mannered. English was his second foreign language, after French. An accomplished pianist and cellist, he had taught music in Beijing. His students had beaten him almost to death with their belt buckles. “I never knew why,” he told us.

Henry, another colleague who had taught with Mr. Chen, seemed very embittered. Chen explained why. Henry was a classically-trained violinist whose students had hung him by his fingers until they broke. A third colleague told us how, when he was rusticated, he had bought and buried a large container of sleeping pills to end his life if he couldn’t bear conditions.

“A single tear…”

Jolie and I began our third year in 1998. One day in the teachers’ lounge, an elderly man was sending email. Our principal introduced the stranger and his wife. I recognized him from a photo on a book cover. As we shook hands, I asked, “Did you write a book?”

This was Ningkun Wu. He and his wife Yikai Li, had written “A Single Tear: A Family’s Persecution, Love, and Endurance in Communist China.” It documents their 30 years of persecution after returning to China. During WWII, Wu had interpreted for Chinese pilots-in-training in Florida. After the war, he left a University of Chicago doctorate program when invited to teach at Beijing’s Yancheng University.

Six weeks after his return, Wu became a target in a nationwide campaign, “a declaration of war on the mind and integrity of the intelligentsia,” Wu wrote. It lasted forty years. His book describes his three decades in and out of prisons and his close brush with death during the Great Chinese Famine (1959-1961), estimated to have killed between 15.5 and 45 million. His wife saved his life by taking him food in prison.

Wu told us, later that day, “Many of the people mentioned in my book are still alive and influential. I didn’t know whether I’d be permitted off the plane.” By then he had a U.S. passport. During the next few days, we spent additional time with this delightful couple. Wu died in Washington, D.C., in 2019 just shy of his 99th birthday, with his wife of 65 years at his side.

These experiences of friends and colleagues highlight the extreme power of authoritarianism. Authoritarian governments strive to expand their influence while blocking dissenting ideas. By 1998, China was already monitoring the internet. Restrictions tighten, according to friends living there.

And in America…

Although most states permit free speech, a few autocratic state governments embrace “thought police mentality,” banning books, even words, in our “land of the free.” A recent Florida governor forbade “climate change” from state documents.

As our election looms, we must understand our own biases. Often they contain accumulated wisdom, but they can also lead us astray. We can ask ourselves, “What do I believe and why do I believe it?” Honest answers will reveal our biases and better prepare us for filtering political propaganda, separating truth from falsehood, fact from fiction, possibly even alerting us to artificially-generated information.

Understanding our biases will help us vote wisely, choosing those we wish to govern us. Instead of a “Great Leap Forward,” how about a steady, positive advancement in a nation that pioneered democracy? When Baha’u’llah’s son ‘Abdu’l-Baha visited America in 1912, he left us this prayer:

O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world. O God! This American nation is worthy of Thy favors and is deserving of Thy mercy. Make it precious and near to Thee through Thy bounty and bestowal.


The views expressed in this opinion column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of FāVS News. FāVS News values diverse perspectives and thoughtful analysis on matters of faith and spirituality.

Pete Haug
Pete Haug
Pete plunged into journalism fresh out of college, putting his English literature degree to use for five years. He started in industrial and academic public relations, edited a rural weekly and reported for a metropolitan daily, abandoning all for graduate school. He finished with an M.S. in wildlife biology and a Ph.D. in systems ecology. After teaching college briefly, he analyzed environmental impacts for federal, state, Native American and private agencies over a couple of decades. His last hurrah was an 11-year gig teaching English in China. After retiring in 2007, he began learning about climate change and fake news, giving talks about both. He started writing columns for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News and continues to do so. He first published for favs.news in 2020. Pete’s columns alternate weekly between FāVS and the Daily News. His live-in editor, Jolie, infinitely patient wife for 62 years, scrutinizes all columns with her watchful draconian eye. Both have been Baha’is since the 1960s. Pete’s columns on the Baha’i Faith represent his own understanding and not any official position.

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