The ongoing and increasingly well-documented enormities being perpetrated in Xinjiang, where the Chinese authorities have subjected the indigenous Uighur and Turkic Muslim populations to mass incarceration, constant surveillance, mosque demolition, forced ingestion of pork and alcohol, forced abortions, and even systematic organ harvesting, constitute a prototypical case of cultural genocide. Ostensibly an effort directed against Uighur separatists, the campaign against the peoples of East Turkestan gradually became democidal and then positively ethnocidal in character. The Chinese official Wang Yongzhi’s exhortation to “wipe them out completely” and “destroy them root and branch” was originally directed at Uighur terrorists, but now seems applicable to the ethnic group as a whole. In a China in which, in Xi Jinping’s words, “Every ethnic group must tightly bind together like the seeds of a pomegranate,” populations that fail this test must be eradicated, if not physically, then certainly culturally.
The Uighurs are particularly vulnerable in this respect, rather like the Tibetans, who have also been victimized by Chinese policies like “population swamping” or “demographic aggression,” abortion and sterilization programs, and other tools of cultural assimilation and suppression. The Uighur “mother tongue movement,” aimed innocently enough at preserving the Turkic language in the face of Han demographic supremacy, has been castigated by the authorities as “a fourth evil force” to go along with terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. The muzzling of the Uighur language has taken a particularly terrible toll. Describing the education of Uighur children, the exiled poet and linguist Abduweli Ayup has lamented, “For me, the words in their mouths are not very stable, just like a raindrop on a rose — when there is a gust of wind it will disappear.”
It was the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, in his brilliant 1978 work The Traitor’s Niche, who best described the inexorable, asphyxiating process of cultural genocide as a “slow massacre, the protracted grief of centuries,” but a relative “cinch compared with the work of experts in ruthlessness, who, for research purposes, spent hours on end by cauldrons in which people boiled, or scaffolds where rebels were skinned.” This “slow massacre” has hardly been confined to the dry grasslands and oases of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region; indeed it proceeds apace all over the globe. Recent years have brought a senseless cavalcade of cultural destruction, most notorious perhaps being the war waged by ISIS against Chaldo-Assyrians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, and others. Other instances have been less publicized, such as the harrowing treatment of Tatars in Russian-held Crimea, the systematic Azerbaijani destruction of Armenian churches, cross-stones, and tombstones, the many threats to the survival of Pakistan’s Kalash people, and more besides.
This phenomenon is hardly confined to our own generation of vipers. The 20th century, replete with acts of physical genocide, was similarly besmirched by cultural ruination. Over the decades the entire cultural geography of the Levant and the Middle East was transformed by the Young Turks and the perpetrators of the anti-Semitic Nakba expulsions. Across Eurasia the devastation that the Soviet Union visited upon the Tatars, Kazakhs, kulaks, Poles, Siberian shamans, Jews, Buddhists, and others was not necessarily intended to result in the physical eradication of those various peoples, but rather their spiritual liquidation. Before the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia, it has been estimated that there were some 380,000 intellectuals and artists in the country; by the time Pol Pot was done with his komtech, his “smashing,” there were as few as 300. This bewildering death toll was not just the result of rampant bloodlust, but also represented the necessary prerequisite to a Four-Year Plan that required first “wiping the slate clean” before then “writing on the slate.”
Mao’s Cultural Revolution was likewise marked by what Maurice Meisner called a “strange negative utopianism” that required the elimination of the “Four Olds” (habits, ideas, customs, and culture). None of this ought have been altogether surprising, given that the second chapter of The Communist Manifesto explicitly envisions the “disappearance of class culture,” by which Marx meant the destruction of “bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c.,” the “abolition of the family,” the eradication of “bourgeois clap-trap about the family and education,” the drive to “abolish countries and nationality,” and “the most radical rupture with traditional property relations,” whether or not this would be “in contradiction to all past historical experience.” It was a program of cultural destruction on the largest conceivable scale, and Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and their ilk did their very best to combine theory with praxis, to the eternal detriment of our collective cultural patrimony.
After a hundred years or so years of this barbarism, from Armenia to Uighuristan, it is little wonder that the term “cultural genocide” has entered common parlance. But the way it has done so, particularly in North America, has become rather noisome. Consider the following examples, illustrative but presented in no particular order. In Arizona, we see protesters opposed to the expansion of snowmaking on Dook’o’ooslííd chanting, “Water is life! Stop supporting genocide! Protect sacred sites! Defend human rights! End the contract!” as well as “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Cultural genocide has got to go!” In Ontario, we see the non-indigenous artist Amanda PL adopting a Woodlands style pioneered by Norval Morrisseau in her own painting, only to have the Chippewa artist Jay Soule respond that “What she’s doing is essentially cultural genocide, because she’s taking his stories and retelling them, which bastardizes it down the road.”
At Maryville University, we find the “Peer Educators” workshop on “Cultural Appropriation & Cultural Appreciation” warning students that cultural appropriation invariably causes “cultural genocide.” Elsewhere we see the actress Jodie Foster describing the box office dominance of Marvel and DC Comics movies as “poison” and “cultural genocide, because the audience is so overexposed to plot and explosions and sh*t that doesn’t mean nothing about the experience of being human.” On Twitter, James Zogby of the Arab American Institute infamously responded to Rachel Ray’s Hanukkah recipes for “stuffed grape leaves, hummus, beet dip, eggplant and sun dried tomato dip, walnut and red pepper dip, and tabouli” with a fascinating diatribe: “Damn it @rachelray. This is cultural #genocide. It’s not #Israeli food. It’s #Arab (#Lebanese, #Palestinian, #Syrian, #Jordanian). First the Israelis take the land & ethnically cleanse it of Arabs. Now they take their food & culture & claim it’s theirs too! #Shame.”
George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” lamented the “contagion” of political rhetoric “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Fatuous references to cultural genocide are being made more and more in the hopes of providing, one suspects, some solidity to the wind emerging from the fundament of our increasingly debased public discourse, to the detriment of those causes célèbres that so clearly warrant such terminology, like, say, the ongoing repression in the People’s Republic of China. I am in turn reminded of the life and fate of Lo Pin-Wang, a Tang-era poet who had the temerity to criticize the Empress Dowager Wu for having “a heart similar to a snake and a lizard, and a disposition similar to a wolf.” Before being executed, Lo produced the masterpiece “A Political Prisoner Listening to a Cicada”:
While the year sinks westward, I hear a cicada
Bid me to be resolute here in my cell,
Yet it needed the song of those black wings
To break a white-haired prisoner’s heart…
His flight is heavy through the fog,
His pure voice drowns in the windy world
Who knows if he be singing still? —
Who listens any more to me?
There are, right now, untold numbers of men and women resolutely facing similar circumstances in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and elsewhere, whose voices all too often seem to be drowning in a windy world. To add more wind of the Orwellian variety to this cacophony would seem to render an ultimate disservice to all those facing the very real “slow massacre” of cultural genocide, and one can hope that our collective lexicon will better reflect this going forward.