Thursday, December 1, 2022
It's Thursday, December 1st, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Totalitarianism vs. Human Dignity in China: The Chinese Communist Party and its Surveillance State, Protests, and COVID Captivity
Politics comes with consequences, political systems come with consequences, and that's particularly true when you look at a dictatorship, an autocracy, and most fundamentally when you look at the rise of totalitarianism, especially in the 20th century, continuing into the 21st century. And here's where we need to notice that when you're talking about totalitarianism, it is actually far easier to imagine totalitarianism in the 20th century than say in the 19th, and as you look at the 21st, well, just look to China. It is even more totalitarian than the Soviet Union was during the 20th century. What do I mean by that? Well, let's just remind ourselves of what makes totalitarianism totalitarianism. It is the word total. What does that mean? What's the ideology? The ideology behind the totalitarian state is that the state is everything. The total state, the state is the totality.
When it comes to, say, a western understanding of a constitutional form of government, something that includes democratic practices like voting, one of the things you have to note is that there is a clear distinction between the public and the private. That very clear distinction between the public and the private is exactly what is denied in a totalitarian state. So, let's put it this way. Who is responsible for children in a Western society? Well, at least in theory, and according to also a biblical tradition, it had better be parents. But in a totalitarian state, it is the state that lays claim upon children. Parents may have some function in raising those children for the state, but the reality is that in a totalitarian form of government, the state declares that it owns everything. And by the way, most ominously, the state owns the bodies of those who are the citizens or inhabitants of that state, and the state owns the minds.
Now, as we look at the annals of history, there've been all kinds of tyrannical kings and emperors, and also dictators and others, but as you are looking at that history, you understand that even as they had armies and they had police and they had all forms of, well, means of coercion, the reality is they didn't have what became available only in the 20th century, and they certainly didn't have what became available only in the 21st century. What became available in the 20th century was the apparatus of the massive bureaucratic state. Now, there were beginnings of that bureaucratic state back in the 19th century, and in particular with the rise of the influence of Bismarck in Germany. But that pales when compared to something like the rise of, say, the Soviet Union, a massive totalitarian regime that basically put together a bureaucratic apparatus that was at least intended or designed to control every dimension of life in the entire nation, period, and you also had the forms of social control, including ideological control.
The state had an official doctrine. The state denied the existence of God and put together what could only be described as an idolatrous state religion. The state was at the center of life. Parents were redefined merely as serving at the convenience of the state. The children belonged to the state. The educational system was designed to make very clear that the children belong to the state. Children were encouraged to betray their own parents in the interest of the state. When it comes to material objects, when it comes to crops, when it comes to anything in terms of goods and services, everything belongs to the state and is distributed according to the will or not distributed, by the way, according to the will of the state. That's also going to become interesting in just a moment.
But human beings, and we know that this is due to the fact that we are made in the image of God, we have to have some object of worship. We are worshiping creatures in a sinful world. That worship is often corrupted and misdirected away from the one true and living God and towards some form of idolatry. That's a story as old as the scripture itself, and one of the chief means of that idolatry in the modern age has been ideology. And so, if you were to go to the Soviet Union and say, "What is your religion?" they would say, "There is no religion." But trust me, they had an official god, and that was the government itself, the Communist Party itself, and often the leader of that party himself. But you also have the question, well then, what is your worship? Well, the great patriotic displays that were the ostentatious and grotesque displays of the official ideology of communism in the Soviet Union, communism's a critical word here. That was the central doctrinal or ideological system.
But by the end of the 20th century, there were other totalitarian ideologies that rival communism, and one of the most important of those was militant Islam, and that is exactly what took place and was put in power in the Iranian revolution of the late 1970s into the 1980s, and thus, all of this comes full circle. Both of the World Cup games where the United States just recently beat Iran, but also in the protests, most importantly, that are taking place on the streets of cities in China against the repressive regime there, and also the riots and protests taking place in the streets and in the squares of Tehran and other Iranian cities.
What is going on here? Well, first, let's look to China. There has been a lot of Western press reporting about the fact that protests have broken out, and some of the protests have been measured in thousands or at least in some cities in hundreds, the point is that there is no totalitarian regime that has ever in human history come close to the totalitarian ambitions of the Chinese Communist Party. Now, we talked about Russia, we talked about the Soviet Union, the USSR, and its totalitarian ideology. But you know what the USSR didn't have? It didn't have the modern surveillance state. Now, it did have an internal police. It did have the KGB. It did have the intelligence services that were available in the 20th century. It had police. It had prisons. It had dungeons. It had gulags. But what it didn't have was digital technology.
It would take the digital revolution to make totalitarianism as total as it is known in China right now. China is a surveillance state. It is a digital control state. The Chinese people right now, if they want to work, they have to have a smartphone with a certain kind of app that will identify them and give them clearance even when it comes to COVID. But the biggest issue going on right now in China is the fact that COVID has been the cause, at least as claimed, of the Chinese Communist Party and of the Chinese government under the control of that party, basically shutting much of China down indefinitely.
Now, in the United States, there was justified outrage against the political actions taken by many governors, and for that matter, at least by some federal authorities that were claimed to be necessary under the conditions of COVID. But as draconian and unconstitutional as many of those acts were, they simply pale over against what has been happening and is still happening in China. In China, the surveillance state means that citizens are monitored nearly 24/7. The state, remember, in a totalitarian system, there is no divide between the personal and the public. Everything is known to Chinese authorities, what you had for lunch, where you went to lunch, who was in proximity to you, and you say, "How can they have that many police officers? How can they have that many intelligence agents?" They don't. They have the digital technology. That digital technology allows the surveillance state of the Chinese Communist Party to know who has been in proximity to whom, who has basically communicated with whom, what did they communicate.
Now, you might think that your interior life is entirely hidden from that kind of surveillance. I just want to tell you, it's not. Based upon computer internet searches, based upon other kinds of digital data, the state can basically make some pretty informed inferences about who you are and what you're thinking about and what you believe, and well, just go down the list. You can understand how that leads to a level of totalitarian control that hadn't been technologically possible in any previous generation, but is not only possible but actual in China right now. Will there be questions about the protests and the future of those protests both in China and in Iran, but we are looking at two different totalitarian systems.
What they share is a commitment to totalitarianism and also a central ideology. It's communism, or at least the Chinese version of communism or Marxism in China. It is radical Islam in Tehran and in particular a Shiite version of Islam. The COVID shutdown is more than just a lockdown, it's a shutdown going on in China, has had horrifying effects upon the Chinese economy, and you would think given the Chinese Communist Party and its insistence upon a certain level of economic activity, you would think that the Chinese Communist Party might have adjusted its draconian policies in light of the country's economic need and its danger. But that hasn't happened, and here's what that tells us. The Chinese Communist Party actually prizes its totalitarian power and the power of the surveillance state, the power it claims over the hearts and minds of Chinese, even more than it prizes money, economic gain, the expansion or the survival of the Chinese economy.
That really does tell us something, especially when you'll recall that Marxism is based upon what Marx described as a dialectical materialism which is to say there is nothing greater than the material, than the stuff. And if you really believe that, then you would be likely simply to say, "There's nothing more important than the economy." But on the other hand, it tells us something else about materialism. The materialism that the Chinese Communist party cares about more than anything else is the material power of the Chinese Communist Party. That is to be maintained over everything, and this leads to another interesting question. What does the Chinese communist leadership truly think about COVID? The reality is we don't know because right now it is more centrally a matter of the power, and that means supposedly the unquestioned power of the Chinese communist authorities.
But that power is not unquestioned, and here's another aspect of technology. You may be able to construct a surveillance state, but a 14-year-old with a smartphone might be able to get around you, at least to some degree, might be able to reach outside your system, and that might include even some listeners to The Briefing today who are listening where supposedly it is forbidden. God bless you.
This leads to the case of Jimmy Lai. He is a man who is currently being tried in Hong Kong by the Chinese communist authorities. He has pled not guilty which means that the prosecutors are going to try to make their case, and of course they'll be successful because of the corrupt court system. But William McGurn writing an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled The Innocence of Jimmy Lai, and by the way, he knows Jimmy Lai very well, he gets right to the point when he says this, "Simply put, Jimmy is making what may be his last stand for truth. The larger prosecution narrative is that Jimmy is selling out China to the West. But Jimmy has never, for example, advocated independence for Hong Kong or Taiwan and has always insisted protests must be peaceful. All he asked for is that the world holds China to its promises."
Later, McGurn writes this, this is really important, "Lies have always been the foundation of communist authority. Communists also have a habit of insisting that their victims embrace the lies. In Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, Rubashov is convicted of treason on charges he knows are false. Nevertheless, he confesses before he is shot because he is a faithful communist who in the end puts the party's needs first." Later in the article, William McGurn writes this, "To get by under communism, a man must say one thing in private and something else in public. So it was in the Soviet Union where Natan Sharansky was arrested and falsely accused of treason in 1977. 'If my aim is physical survival,' Sharansky told an interviewer in 2013, 'then the KGB will defeat me.' He aimed instead" says McGurn, "to live as a free person which meant never, ever ascending to the lie."
Now, here's what we know to expect in China. We should expect that the Chinese Communist Party will respond to these protests with outright repression, the use of force, and the use of deadly force if necessary. But it is also a sign that the failure of a totalitarian government isn't the failure to shut down a protest. It is a failure to shut down the interior life of a human being, the brain, the intelligence, the soul. A totalitarian regime may seek to have absolutely total control over everything, but when it comes to the interior life of a human being, there the totalitarian government may seek to corrupt, but it cannot totally control.
Totalitarianism vs. Human Dignity in Iran: Protests Against the Islamic Republic and Draw Attention at the World Cup Games
Meanwhile, as we shift to Iran, something very interesting is happening there, and it might be a bit different in terms of its result than what is at least in the short-term predictable in China.
We can hope in China that a spirit of liberty breaks out in such a way that eventually the totalitarian regime there is toppled, and that's another problem with totalitarianism. Once a crack appears, that crack almost inevitably continues to grow, just ask the former leaders of the Soviet Union. But when it comes to the Islamic ideology that drives the Islamic Republic of Iran, well, just understand that the brutality of that regime, which by the way is no less brutal than the Chinese, it is a more obvious brutality. It is an advertised brutality. It's a brutality that has led to the fact that children and teenagers have been killed and injured in the official police crackdown on the protests, and as a matter of fact, the immediate fuel for the growth of protests in Iran is the repressive police actions against young people and one young woman in particular.
And here's what's interesting. Once that message gets outside of a repressive regime, it takes on a life of its own. And so, one of the interesting things to observe is the fact that just about all the worldwide media covering the World Cup in Qatar actually have to make some reference to what is going on in Iran because the Iran national team has been a part of the athletic endeavor.
By the way, someone might say, "Well, when you're looking at the totalitarianism of Iran, it's overtly religious, whereas China is overtly atheistic." But here's what we need to say, the Christian worldview reminds us that atheism is a form of religion. It has its own doctrines, it has its own theological claims. It may claim to be no religion, but the surest way to frustrate an atheist is by asking that atheist what exactly atheism means. Even in order to define atheism, they have to mention God. The only point of being an atheist is to claim that you don't believe in God, but the very fact that you have to talk about God in order to say what you don't believe, well, it is an intellectual quandary which actually illustrates the paradox of atheism, and the fact that atheism and the Bible's very clear about this is in itself a religion.
But one more thought on China, as you're thinking about China and its efforts to try to control COVID by basically shutting down the entire society, you will notice that it may not be possible for protestors on the street to topple the regime, but you know what? The regime can topple the regime, and that is something that has happened in so many cases. The greatest danger to Xi Jinping, the current dictatorial leader there in China and head of the Communist Party, the greatest danger to him is not a college-aged protestor in Shanghai.
The greatest danger to him is that his Chinese Communist Party colleagues would decide he is simply too expensive and is now expendable.
‘Survival Was A Moral As Well As A Physical Struggle. . . The Good People Died First.’: The 90th Anniversary of the Holomodor and Another Horror of Totalitarianism in the 20th Century
By the way, before leaving this, I just want to remind us also that as we're thinking about totalitarian forms of government and the evil that totalitarianism brings, we need to remember that this past month marks the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor.
That is the intentional starvation that was brought by communist dictator Joseph Stalin in the USSR against the Ukrainian people. The estimates are that at least 3.5 to 5 million people died in an intentional effort to starve the people undertaken by the Soviet regime. Timothy Snyder, an historian who has given particular attention to this part of the world, especially in the 20th century, writing of Holodomor, he wrote this, "Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did."
That just points to another issue that comes with totalitarianism, and that is an inversion of morality. If the state puts itself at the center of worship and claims to control all of life, it will have to create a moral code in which all morality is transformed into that which serves or doesn't serve the state. And that, by the way, in every case, will turn deadly. That is the saddest lesson of the history of totalitarianism.
One final thought on this issue is we think about China's surveillance state, we think about it's totalitarian control that is now fueled by digital technologies, it's not as if China has technologies that aren't available in the West. It is to say that in the West there are at least limits on what governments, what states can do with that information. But some of those limits do not apply to private actors, which mean that some of the threats to liberty coming in the West are not just from governments, but also from big businesses. In one sense, Silicon Valley represents a threat to the privacy and to the division between the private and the public in the United States, but that's going to require an entirely different conversation.
History Revealed and History Made: The 100th Anniversary of the Discovery of King Tutankhamun’s Tomb
But next, on a very interesting note of history, this past month marks the 100th anniversary of what is described as the discovery of King Tut's tomb.
Just about everyone who knows anything about Egypt and about history, just about anyone who knows anything about mummies and pyramids knows about King Tut, or at least thinks there is some knowledge about King Tut. The reality is that we talk about King Tutankhamun not because he was well known as one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt, because he really wasn't. He was a boy pharaoh who died relatively young, but what he had was a magnificent tomb and a tomb that was discovered 100 years ago in the most amazing story.
The Valley of the Gods, as it is known there in Egypt, was an area in which you had all these pyramids. The pyramids were known even by people in previous centuries to be ornate tombs for the burial of Egyptian pharaonic royalty. But the reality is that there had been grave robbers and others who had desecrated and robbed many of these sites and emptied many of these tombs of their contents. There were pyramids, and frankly, they were still there in the sands, but there was no real understanding of how even to read the symbolism, much less the language of hieroglyphics in which all the messages were written.
All that began to change in the 19th century, and this largely had to do with the control of that area by the British Empire. And by the way, European empires fought for control of this area with the French and the English in particular fighting over the area. But the British during the 19th century basically had supremacy, and thus, they had control over excavations in the great voyages and the great missions of discovery. But it's really important for us to recognize that the discovery of King Tut's tomb, as it is known, almost didn't happen, and that points to something else. Who was funding all of this? Well, in general, it was very wealthy, private individuals who were very interested in what was then known as Orientalism, in trying to understand this part of the world, particularly there in the East, trying to decipher its secrets, and there were no secrets that appeared to be more enticing than the secrets of pharaonic Egypt.
The leader of the expedition that eventually found or discovered King Tut's tomb was Howard Carter. His patron, the man paying the bills was Lord Carnarvon who was the 5th Earl. By the way, the residential seat of this earl is Highclere, Highclere Castle as it is known, and American TV viewers would know it as it's called on television, Downton Abbey. It was the 5th earl who was then living in Highclere who paid for this expedition, but he really reached the point where he wasn't going to pay anymore because Howard Carter hadn't yet found anything much worth interest when Howard Carter convinced Lord Carnarvon that he should fund the expedition just a little while longer. Soon thereafter, Howard Carter and his team discovered what appeared to be the door to a tomb, but so many of those doors had been found, and it basically led nowhere or had led to an empty room.
With great expectation, but with a perhaps rather brittle hope, Howard Carter and his team pressed on. They excavated the area, they exposed the door, and when they entered the antechamber, it was clear that something was probably going to be found here. Eventually, they made their way to discovering an inner chamber which was visible through only a slit of a few inches wide. What Howard Carter saw was absolutely astounding, including the gold objects, which include the face mask and the sarcophagus of the Pharaoh known as Tutankhamun.
Now, Tutankhamun was understood to have been a boy pharaoh, and by the way, he had a short life because of all kinds of physical problems, and he was known also to have skeletal impediments which probably had to do with the fact that the Royal House basically produced children from within itself. That in both moral and medical terms is a big problem. Tutankhamun's reign was during the 14th century BC, and thus when Howard Carter gained that view inside the inner chamber or one of the inner chambers of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, what he saw was simply a dazzling array of what was intended to be the objectification, the putting together of all the objects that would go with the dead boy pharaoh into the next life, that according to the official Egyptian religion of the time.
Now, this leads to all kinds of questions of history. Why was this tomb intact? Well, it turns out that about 150 years after King Tut died, there had to be excavations to build the tomb of another pharaoh who had died 150 years later, and they put all the debris from the new tomb on top of the old tomb, and thus it was preserved until 1922 when it was discovered. The gleaming gold face mask of the young boy king is one of the most famous material objects in all of world history. It is founded just about every history of the world. It is found illuminated in terms of reproductions. It led to an entire Orientalism in terms of Western societies when it came to interior decoration and even architecture. There is so much to be learned about the ancient funeral practices, and even more importantly, the ancient pagan religion of the Egyptians, and much of it was made very clear just in the objects that were intended to go with the dead boy king into the afterlife.
All this, by the way, should humble us. As we think of modern people living in the 21st century, we think we know so much, but even the existence of King Tutankhamun and the existence of that grave and all the objects in it, it's been known only for about 100 years, reminding us that when it comes to many of the great mysteries of human civilizations, what we do not know is probably far greater than what we do know. In biblical terms, by the way, all of this is also a reminder of the fact that every single human history will pass away. All human kingdoms will pass away. Eventually, every single civilization, if the Lord tarries, will be a spot in the dust or the sand somewhere.
But all this also tells us that as human beings, we have an insatiable desire to know the human story, as much of the human story as we can learn, the human story in all of its bizarreness, the human history in all of its oddity, the human history in all of its occasional grandeur, human history in its hope, and human history in its tragedy. At least a part of why we have such an interest in history is explained in the Book of Ecclesiastes by the fact that God has put eternity in our hearts. He has made us aware of history, and as such, we cannot help but think of past, present, and future.
This is where the biblical worldview reminds us that the only absolutely true knowledge of the past, the present, and the future we have is that given us by God in holy scripture. And by the way, when it comes to the greatest truths human beings can know, they're never going to be discovered under the sands of ancient Egypt or anywhere else. They're going to be found in the unchanging, eternal Word of God.
But we as human beings are also driven by a sense of intellectual adventure, and that's why we can't help being fascinated by such events as the discovery of King Tut's tomb 100 years ago right now.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.