The Revolt of the Nobodies

Kevin Williamson is the best journalist writing today, anywhere. He is as good as Christopher Hitchens was—possibly even better. Just as we got the Quotable Hitchens, in time we will get the Quotable Kevin. And quotable he sure is. The Smallest Minority teems with juicily-phrased word bombardments. He slices, skewers, demolishes and mocks with aplomb. Yet he might exceed even the delicious talent of Hitchens because he has a sociological and psychological insight that Hitchens lacked. Hitchens was the atheist who admired the prose style of the King James Bible. Williamson is the Christian who admires Milton’s Lucifer. These are interesting characters.

Rearing up repeatedly through The Smallest Minority are dazzling counter-intuitive observations about the mind-set of the present age, its social drivers and historical antecedents. This is intellectual journalism at its finest. Ironically it comes at the moment when know-nothing opinion bombast has reached a crescendo of incandescent silliness. Williamson sets out to explain why this has happened and to offer a one-person (that is, the smallest minority’s) riposte to the collective mania that has grown over the last decade, noisily and absurdly. This has occurred most visibly in the tantrum-studded dummy-spitting domain of social media—which Williamson dissects devastatingly limb by limb. But it applies to all media and all opinion.

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The 2010s was the decade of hot air. Moral panics, identity politics, the hounding of public speakers, hysterical media shrieking, moronic political chest-beating and digital mob behaviour were among the many expressions of a raging infantilism that consumed one of the least interesting decades on record. What was achieved in these ten years beyond a lot of griping, whining and bleating? Not much. Imagine having to admit in later life that you spent your twenties as a young adult coming of age in the Twitter decade. What caused the decade’s spiralling descent into a morass of livid rants and impotent outrage? The brilliance of Kevin Williamson’s book—and it is a brilliant book—is that he digs deep to answer this question. He provides two basic answers: status anxiety and militant democracy. He also understands that the era’s mix of seething status angst and culture war democracy has deep historical roots.

Social media, or more specifically its boutique-like political menagerie, is a roiling over-heated slurry of bumptious opinion. The protagonists on political Twitter prosecute their views with a mix of foot-stamping, venom, anger and rage. It is notable how little the average opinion droog on Twitter knows about anything and yet how certain they seem to be about the opinions they hold. Appearances though can be misleading. The self-certainty of social media posts disguises deep uncertainties. The deepest uncertainties concern the larger social world. That world is opaque and difficult to read, not least because it constantly repeats misleading messages. It promises individuals, especially those in the lower reaches of the upper middle class, recognition and importance. But it cannot deliver on such promises. So persons riddled with anxiety about how they are socially rated and the security of their social position begin to bluster and chest-beat, demanding reassurance that they are “right”.

Crowds provide reassurance, of sorts. Uncertainties are momentarily abated by mob behaviour. To feel that one’s opinion is “shared” by others, by the crowd, is temporarily empowering. It inflates miserable egos who spend their time twitchily watching the world for any sign of significance that it might impart. The uncertain of the world unite in a miasma of false certainty. But, like a drug, this ego boost quickly wears off. Uncertainty returns, crushingly. A new mob, a new outrage, a new vehicle for expressing angst-ridden paper-thin self-certainty must be found. Williamson argues, rightly if counter-intuitively, that the views expressed in the course of this, loud though they might be, hardly matter at all. They are shrapnel used in a war for social standing. They are noise, dust and heat generated by individuals and social strata insisting that they are “important” when they are not. They are raw material in a much larger and deeper and patently furious struggle for social status.

Williamson should know. He got his five minutes of unwanted national news fame as the target of a mad internet mob. A long-time writer for National Review, a journal of sober, intelligent and broad-based conservative opinion in America, Williamson was offered and accepted a position as a contributor to the long-established liberal magazine the Atlantic. Then began the pillory. His work was ransacked by the Twitter mob searching for any scabrous opinions they could indict him with. They become very agitated about his abolitionist views on abortion. After three days of this, the editor of the Atlantic caved. He terminated Williamson’s appointment. Not that the unflappable Williamson was upset. Almost immediately he was offered a column with the mass-circulation New York Post. As one door closes, another opens. His new-minted credentials for infamy served him well. He thanks the Twitter mob for its leg-up.

What makes Williamson’s account of social media so interesting is that, as he argues, this affair really had nothing to do with his views or the mob’s views. Views are just the wrapping for a much deeper impulse. Here Williamson dips his toes into some revealing history and social psychology. The real driver of mob drubbings is the struggle of the mob crusaders for recognition and status. This phenomenon generates some extreme and very unhealthy effects in modern societies. It is social anxiety disguised as public opinion. This is not new. To understand it we have to backtrack to the 1500s—the Renaissance. For it was then that “the smallest minority”—the individual—first appears. Williamson gives a good summary account of this remarkable phenomenon.

What happened to a handful of societies during the 1500s was the decline of the perennial status-based way of structuring society. Older societies were typically organised around fixed status hierarchies. Most people were born into a social status which also meant a specific occupation and way of life. Most stayed in that position all their life. The rank gave them security and certainty. But for everything we pay a price. These societies had high levels of violence and low levels of prosperity. The Renaissance exhibited the first inklings of modern capitalism. Violence began to be sublimated into peaceful competition. The functional building blocks of modern prosperity started to appear. Degrees of personal freedom, autonomy and mobility grew.

It takes until the middle of the 1800s for this to be deeply entrenched in a number of societies. A pattern solidifies: big cities, technological industries, free markets, reading publics and upwardly-mobile households. This is underpinned by the resilient “individual”, a patient stoical character who has an impressive degree of self-regulation and who is prudent, adaptable and good at navigating the intricate byways of a modern society. By historical standards this produces an astonishing degree of peace and prosperity. It also produces a surprising number of people who hate this peace and prosperity and who yearn for a new status society. Many of these people rail against “class” and “privilege”, all the while ravenous for status and recognition. What they despise, they want.

Modern societies are caught in a double-bind. They eliminate traditional hierarchies. Then they create new status hierarchies, some of which blend functionalism and rank together. The classic example is the rise in the twentieth century of the organisation. First came the corporation, followed soon after by the ubiquitous public-sector organisation. The organisation offered people rank through promotion and promised security of tenure and a status derived from the prestige of the organisation. “I work for Google, I work for the Atlantic.” So someone who is a “nobody” can pretend to be a “somebody”. But the illusion of status is difficult to maintain. An old feudal society made status a rare thing. A very tiny “privileged” few possessed it—status proper exists only if this is true. There is no such thing as democratic status, even if numerous people in democratic societies hunger for it. Modern societies are functional societies. They reward people with peace and prosperity—and a lot of it.

Take the thought experiment devised by the Café Hayek blog: would you choose to time travel back to 1916 if you could become John D. Rockefeller?[1] The answer is no. Nobody would choose to put up with short life-spans, no air-conditioning, useless medicine, and achingly slow continental transport by train even if it happened to be in Mr Rockefeller’s deluxe carriage. Functional societies (also known as capitalism) mean that middle-class people today have the material advantages John D. Rockefeller had 100 years ago. But not the status. A good chunk of our fellows can’t stand this. So they revolt—even if their means of doing so today is no longer the street riot or the guillotine but social media. The medium for revolt is much less important than the social psychology that drives it. Likewise the views of those up-in-arms are almost irrelevant to what they want. They want to be noticed. They want recognition. They leap onto a moral high-horse—from obstreperous “anti-elitism” to rampageous “anti-racism”. It hardly matters what it is. The point is to claim moral superiority to one’s fellows. This superiority is a self-attributed imaginary status. “I am morally better than you—you horrible person.”

A third of our compatriots think that security symbolised by status trumps prosperity delivered by freedom. That’s Williamson’s estimate. I’ve come to the same conclusion. As he says: people today have never had it so good. Yet the masses are miserable. Or rather some of them are. A large minority of them are miserable because they are anxious. Modern liberal societies offer possibilities or opportunities, which attract some people. Others find them terrifying. They live in fear of the ominous “maybe”. Their corporation or university offers them status and security. Yet their industry or city is on the wane. Its glamour is fading. Things are not looking so good. “Possibly” bad things will happen. Who knows for certain? Anxiety is a fear not of the known but the unknown. Medieval persons were rightly fearful of rampant everyday violence. They feared marauding armies when the state was almost solely an instrument of war and conquest. Now we are fearful of the ghosts of contingency—not of what is happening but what “might” happen to us. Well, not all of us. Some modern personalities are adventurous, some are stoic. Many are happy, not anxious. Yet some live in terror of what they imagine “may” happen. For them every little recession is another great depression. They imagine “emergencies” around every corner. Many of these have medieval millenarian overtones (such as “climate change”). Emergencies justify authoritarian solutions, Williamson notes. Demagogues in antiquity traded on fear. Modern demagogues trade on anxiety.

Anxiety (lack of certainty) often produces superciliousness (false self-certainty). Williamson observes this in American political journalists. They mix neediness with arrogance. A similar profile applies to posters on political Twitter. Prominent among the latter are what Friedrich Hayek called “the second-hand dealers in ideas”. These are Williamson’s “journalists, mid-level academics, political operatives, leaders of civic groups, and the like”. They float on the margins of power, trying to ride some wave of influence, usually vainly, in both senses of that word. More numerous still are the third-hand dealers in ideas. On Twitter, they repost the articles of the second-hand dealers, and preface them with angry and snide comments.

Today’s third-hand dealers in ideas are mostly mid-tier staff in organisations. One of the big stories of the twentieth century, Williamson notes, was the replacement of self-employment with corporate and government employment. Interest in freedom and autonomy declined as the independent proprietor was replaced by the salaried employee. The game then changed. It was no longer about the autonomous exercise of judgment. What mattered instead was applying pressure on the handful of real decision-makers. The latest phase of this story is internal and external lobbying of departments, companies and universities to adopt PC slogans and policies. Much of this pressure is applied by obscure persons who work in the nether regions of publishing outfits, bureaucracies and interest groups. These people are opinionated but clueless. They are the products of the mass post-industrial university. They are also nervous. For the white-collar and professional work that they qualified for is being automated.[2] This group is riddled with status anxiety. It is angst central.

The third-hand dealing in ideas occurs within a tiny social bubble. Twenty-two per cent of American adults use Twitter. Ten per cent of those produce 80 per cent of tweets. Eight per cent say that what they post is related to politics.[3] In short the class of third-hand dealers is 2 per cent of the adult population. The rest of the people on Twitter and other social media follow celebrities and repost cat videos.[4] Little more than 1.5 per cent of adults comment on politics. Outwardly that tiny figure is almost unchanged from the first stirrings of democracy in the nineteenth century. Then 2 per cent of the population defined the reading public. These were persons with a high degree of literacy who read books. A century ago that group substantially overlapped with the opinion class.

The Public Education Acts of the nineteenth century had the rationale of making the whole population literate and numerate. This justified the expansion of the democratic franchise. The reading of newspapers and then books did expand through to the 1940s. Then began a steady decline.[5] We still have 2 per cent of dedicated readers today. But the project of expanding serious reading not just to the entire population but even to the 15 per cent of persons who make up today’s professional-managerial and technical-administrative classes has died. As this occurred, a gulf opened up between the opinion class and the reading class. The opinion class no longer reads. It emotes. Williamson calls this the wondrous interaction of rage and stupidity.

The opinion class today in large part is made up of persons who combine a cringing desire to be “liked” with vast overconfidence in their own knowledge and contempt for anyone who disagrees with them. From this they readily draw the conclusion that intolerance is a virtue and that their opponents should either be hounded and humiliated or censored and deplatformed. This is because, although they might know nothing, they know what is right. “If only” they were in charge, things would work well. Except, as Williamson points out, most have no understanding of how key institutions, for instance hedge funds, actually work. They do though have an infinite capacity to criticise them.

That’s the formula of mass higher education. You are not obliged to know anything in detail but you are obliged to criticise it in Pavlovian-dog fashion. Mass higher education was never about knowledge. It was about signalling. A qualification is a way of getting others to notice you. But as millions have streamed into the universities, the signal has been drowned out by white noise. This has created a class of disappointed souls who sit glumly in the bowels of large organisations. “If only” they were noticed for their talents then they could be the “somebody” that they imagine they already are. It is so “unjust”—the organisational status system treats them as a “nobody” even though the HR department repeatedly tells them that their contribution is incredibly important and world-transforming. How much “disrespect” (a medieval chivalric concept) can any person bear? How much more “dishonour” (ditto the 900s) can be tolerated? A lot of people don’t feel this way. Yet lots of the third-hand dealers in ideas do.

Modern societies are functional societies. They deliver a vast array of wonderful goods to persons who for the most part are anonymous. Anyone can shop on Amazon. John D. Rockefeller would envy their options. Williamson illustrates the consequences of this with one of his characteristically telling examples. Of Google’s 86,000 employees he estimates 200 are indispensable. That’s 0.2 per cent. Something similar applies in the universities.[6] Two per cent of academics have a serious career-spanning research career. A hundred years later, 2 per cent of that 2 per cent will survive as indispensable—that is, of 86,000 academics, thirty-five will last the distance. Those are not good odds.

As a fraction of the larger society the top rank of the modern institutional pecking order is about the same size as in a medieval society. Except that today the spot at the top is defined in functional, not hereditary terms. True, DNA studies suggest that many key traits are inherited. But in a modern society such endowments have to be directed at least partly to functional ends. Even so, modern heraldic ends (prestige signals) are never far away. Consequently a lot of talent in organisations directs itself to status climbing. The status game triggers envy and resentment, and a clamour to be noticed. Google, Williamson points out, is a good example of this. Google’s employees from time to time revolt. They don’t like Google doing Defense Department work or they don’t like the realism of a colleague who points out the unyielding ratio of males to females employed in the IT industry. These dislikes are expressed militantly and en masse. These employees have worked out something about the backbone of a lot of the people who run big organisations—they don’t have one. They are easily cowed. They quickly submit to the mob. This is a case of “nemoarchy”—the rule of nobodies.

So mob politics sort of works, even though it doesn’t. For the members of a mob cannot really achieve their underlying aim. They can impose a speech code on an organisation. They can force everyone to speak publicly in clichés. Everyone must become a Bouvard or a Pécuchet.[7] Everyone must be for “diversity, equality and intersectionality” or whatever the militant platitude of the time happens to be. The particular platitude doesn’t really matter. For views as such, Williamson astutely observes, are not important. Few of the moaners can ever cogently explain the views that they aggressively tender. What matters is being noticed. The point is to draw attention to oneself as a heroic knight of truth. Yet an anonymous mob in revolt against being an anonymous “nobody” is self-defeating. It is true that if the third-hand dealers go onto Twitter and scream and revile in a sufficiently manic, disdainful and caustic manner they will get likes and followers. This is a kind of placebo recognition. But it does little to soothe the inner raging disappointed beast. Its allure inevitably declines. For keeping up the outrage is difficult. Militancy is exhausting. It burns itself out—and after it does, one is still a “nobody” craving to be a “somebody”.

Social media, Williamson observes, is an economy of attention giving and attention seeking. The problem of this economy, like any, is scarcity. It doesn’t matter whether a society is hereditary or functional, securing attention is rare. In a democratic society, it is super-rare. The gap between the average recording band and the Beatles is even greater than the status gap between a peasant and a duke. Modern fame is a kind of hyper-status. Williamson mocks the delusion of “followers” who think they can achieve intimacy with celebrities online. A contemporary person can rise from obscurity to celebrity. But fame is always much more unequally distributed than wealth is. So much so that some pathetic souls opt instead for infamy.

A vicious circle is in play. Industries rise and fall, as do markets and cities. This generates anxieties that generate compensatory fantasies. “If only” we could do what the Islamic invaders did when they conquered the ancient Roman Mediterranean—shut down world trade. “If only” high-status blue-collar manufacturing jobs would return to our country. The jobs were dirty and dangerous. Living standards in real terms are markedly better today. No matter, the jobs had a high-status mythology attached to them. Our standard of living might be higher today. But service industries don’t make us seem important. They are not heroic. Our popular culture is overflowing with compensatory super-hero and Disney fantasies. On Twitter the fantasy contingencies proliferate. “If only” sun power and wind power could replace the demon of coal that is creating the millenarian armageddon.

People sit in air-conditioned high-tech offices thinking: we are on the edge of a cataclysm, we have twelve years left before extinction occurs. This is absurd. Yet a non-trivial minority of people believe this neo-medieval claptrap. Others want a daddy state that will “protect jobs” and “protect us” from competition. Yet, notably, a century of nanny-state regulation and the creation of large welfare states has been accompanied not by decreasing but rather increasing levels of anxiety and depression. Some people turn to drugs to blank out the anxieties. For a very tiny number, a cocktail of mental disturbance, drug-taking and the desire to be taken notice of ends in mass shootings.

Among the lower strata of the upper middle class it is not drugs that placate status anxieties. It’s the chance to be a keyboard warrior. Capitalism produces few hero models. Entrepreneurial and innovation heroes are the main ones. But, as Williamson observes, few people have ideas. Fewer people still have the drive to implement them. So what do the more agitated members of the functionally dispensable white-collar class do? They fantasise that they are saving the planet by riding their bikes to work. In their fantasies they are redemptive heroes—the saviours of those whom ironically enough they despise and ridicule. In the 2000s the Silicon Valley founders were heroes. A decade later they are demons. How fickle the tastes of the opinion class are. In part the anxieties of the rapidly declining newspaper industry have fuelled this. In part the growth of multiple mid-level bureaucratic jobs for keyboard warriors is responsible. Warriordom is militant. It can’t lionise the John Galts. It must attack, attack, attack. Williamson’s inspired term for this is “militant democracy”.

The Google employee mob and the Twitter mob are rivulets in a larger stream of modern militant democracy. Militancy is a recurring pathology of modern democracies, in fact all modern societies, democratic or not. Militancy is an expression of pre-modern warrior societies. The word comes from the Medieval Latin word militans meaning soldier. The contemporary social justice warrior is living out a pre-modern fantasy. Today’s militant pacifist is the descendant of the knight militant. Militant moods repeatedly rise and fall in the modern era. The long and painful history of modern revolutions from the French Revolution onwards is a good seismic indicator of these ups and downs. J.L. Talmon talked about totalitarian democracies. In retrospect that cluster proved to be a subset of a larger set of militant societies and eras.

One of Williamson’s examples is China’s Cultural Revolution. This revolt was triggered in May 1966 by Nie Yuanzi, a perennially disgruntled Beijing University philosophy academic (who never completed high school) and a minor party apparatchik with connections.[8] A classic third-hand dealer in ideas and discontented “nobody”, Nie posted a handwritten notice on a Beijing billboard (a curiously contemporary act). The Maoists publicised the poster in China’s national media (just as today’s newspapers republish tweets pretending that they are “public opinion”).[9] This sparked an uprising by middle school, elementary school and college students who turned on university professors, school teachers and administrators, and parents.[10] What happened made Lord of the Flies look like a genteel picnic. Large numbers of men and women, usually the most high-achieving ones, were taunted, viciously tortured and publicly condemned. Heads were shaved; bodies were beaten. Williamson recounts the lines of Beijing No. 8 middle school teenage girls assaulting writers with swords, belts and bamboo sticks. One wonders, Williamson muses, what those little girls were “thinking” while they were doing this? Most likely, he supposes, they were thinking nothing at all. They were venting rage.

China’s infantine revolt spread like wildfire. This didn’t require digital media to happen. The upheaval was manipulated by Mao. But its impetus came from students who were well-off by the standards of their time and place—well-off yet profoundly unsettled. The traditional Confucian status system was being dismantled.[11] Yet the exact nature of the despotic party alternative was uncertain. Did it pivot on academic tests or “redness”, technology or political careers, ability or background, credentials or activism?[12] Did blood line define high status or the despicable status of a “snake-demon”—or strangely both? The intense anxiety generated by these double-binds was channelled into revolutionary sloganeering that none of the baying teenagers and few of their university brethren could possibly have understood. How much they remind me of the average venomous Twitter poster.

It is notable that two years later, in 1968, a wave of student rebellions occurred in Western countries. In that case the anxieties focused on the first wave of post-industrialisation. Would the late-1960s growth of university places turn into jobs? Would the new bogey-man of computers eviscerate jobs? Revolutionary piffle of course masked the anxieties. I remember during these years the Maoists regularly turning up at the gates of my high school to give away Mao’s Little Red Book. These infernal agitators later on went to marketing careers or joined government bureaucracies. Today they never mention their Maoism. How typical that political lunacy leads to expedient amnesia. Nonetheless this generation rejigged their crude militancy into a long-term institutional “culture war”. Eventually some of their opponents on the political Right who couldn’t beat them decided instead to join them. They devised their own militant posturing “isms” including rambunctious populism and daddy-state nationalism.

The thing about “culture wars” is that they have little or no substance. As Williamson puts it, they are not about policy but identity. “Left” and “Right” barely matter in this. Contemporary neo-socialism and neo-mercantilism have more in common than not. Neither are discursive. Rarely if ever do they rise to the level of ideas—even bad ideas. They are attitudes. Attitudes are emotive, not cognitive. As they spiral up, cool description gives way to hot exhortation and vehement exclamation. Sceptical stoic intellects like Williamson just roll their eyes. They watch as demands for purity replace irony, and anger replaces humour. You can’t argue with fulmination. It’s like a torrent. The torrential mob feeds off the dopamine hits that the online gift economy of approval and disapproval generates.

Emotivist eras recur periodically. They rise spectacularly but fall suddenly. They are refractory, truculent and clamorous until they run out of nervous energy. Then, shame-facedly, no one admits to having ridden the waves of obloquy and calumny. Eras of vituperation boil down to a politics of talking points that are rich in lambaste and derogation, and little else. Most of the people who excitedly repeat ad nauseam the memes—the “revolutionary slogans”—of the day can tell you little about them. But that’s the point. As Williamson stresses, these are not discursive things. They’re lines from a manic ritual chant. They are not meant to be explained, defended or argued about. They are titbits of a paper-thin third-rate secular faith unencumbered by reason or common sense.

The memes allow anxious souls to “identify” with an idol. This idolatry, Williamson observes, exists for purposes of abasement. Abnegating themselves in front of their barely-understood idol is a perverse kind of reassurance that they are a “somebody”. They belittle themselves in order to denigrate others so they can prove to themselves that, in congress with their mob, they possess some kind of secular pseudo-religious redemptive power. In cartoon style, like Superman, the mob will save the world and finally they will be noticed. That these pathetic status games now reach such a hysterical pitch is because they are played out in a world where Amazon cares not one jot about your status.

The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in the Age of Mob Politics
by Kevin D. Williamson

Regnery Gateway, 2019, 256 pages, $26.09

Peter Murphy’s most recent book is Limited Government: The Public Sector in the Auto-Industrial Age (Routledge). His new book, The Political Economy of Prosperity: Successful Societies and Productive Cultures, will be published by Routledge later this year.



[1]              Don Boudreaux, “Most Ordinary Americans in 2016 Are Richer Than Was John D. Rockefeller in 1916”, Café Hayek blog, February 20, 2016. https://cafehayek.com/2016/02/40405.html

[2]              P. Murphy, Auto-Industrialism, London, Sage, 2017.

[3]              Stefan Wojcik and Adam Hughes, “Sizing Up Twitter Users”, Pew Research Center, April 24, 2019; Maeve Duggan and Aaron Smith, “The Political Environment on Social Media”, Pew Research Center, October 25, 2016.

[4]              As of August 2019, the list of the top ten Twitter accounts with the most followers included one political figure only (Obama). The rest were entertainers, a footballer and Youtube.

[5]              I tell this sorry story in P. Murphy, Limited Government, Abington, Routledge, 2019, pp. 160-177.

[6]              P. Murphy, Universities and Innovation Economies, Abington, Routledge, 2016, pp. 57-58, footnote 97.

[7]              Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) was a satirical novel left unfinished by Gustave Flaubert at the time of his death. It is the story of two “nobodies” (clerks) who, with the benefit of an inheritance, begin an epic picaresque journey through all manner of fields of human knowledge and endeavor. They either fail or succeed for the wrong reasons at each turn—quarter-digesting and misapplying the knowledge that their “research” finds. Accompanying the novel is a Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, an arduously assembled spoof compendium of the contemporary clichés of the French upper middle class which are eerily like those of our political Twitter class e.g. “CELEBRITY: Concern yourself with the slightest detail of celebrities’ private lives, then denigrate them.” “FEUDALISM [today CAPITALISM]: No need to have one single precise notion about it: thunder against.”

[8]              Andrew G. Walder, “Factional Conflict at Beijing University, 1966-1968”, The China Quarterly, 188, December 2006, pp. 1023-1047.

[9]              Revolutions devour their instigators. In Nie Yuanzi’s case, she ended up being sent to a Chinese labour camp, factory and prison.

[10]             Youqin Wang, “Student Attacks Against Teachers: The Revolution of 1966”, Issues and Studies 37:2, March/April 2001.

[11]             Julia Kwong, Cultural Revolution in China’s Schools: May 1966–April 1969, Stanford, Hoover Institution Press, 1988, especially p. 13.

[12]             Xiaowei Zhen, “Passion, Reflection, and Survival: Political Choices of Red Guards at Qinghua University, June 1966–July 1968” in J. Esherick, P. Pickowicz, A.G. Walder (eds) The Chinese cultural revolution as history, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 29-63.

11 thoughts on “The Revolt of the Nobodies

  • McRoss says:

    Is the staccato style of this article an answer to the “manic ritual chant”? I would have liked to see a clearer, more succinct and less emotive development of the authors’ positions. Then again, it’s easy to find fault with others, isn’t it!

  • bomber49 says:

    Will Greta Thunberg be the pebble in the pond that triggers a mindless global ‘Cultural Revolution’ like China’s

  • whitelaughter says:

    McRoss – the succint sum up is in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aquarium_(Suvorov) talking about why Soviet defectors returned the the USSR, even though they knew that they’d be executed. As close as I can remember it:
    “The West pays defectors well, but the money is useless. A defector becomes a rich ant surrounded by other rich ants. If you drive through Moscow in a Lada all the pretty girls look at you. If you drive through LA in a limousine no one notices.”

  • ChrisPer says:

    Deeply informative, thank you Peter.
    So much obvious application in Leftist politics of today’s West. I am not at all certain that the moment of embarrassed foot-shuffling and pretending they never joined a lynch mob is close… it may be going to get much worse.

  • G Asten says:

    This is a remarkably insightful piece. Justifies my annual online sub in one article.

    Many thanks.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    Only one question: where does Peter Murphy place himself and his hero Kevin Williamson in all this scrum of nobodies trying to win the ball of status, recognition and all that goes with those?
    Surely the above article beats any post on Twitter (never go there myself) for somebody seeking recognition above and beyond the ‘nobody’ level.
    (Alas, publication in Quadrant beyond the comment level has never [sob] come my way. Born to toil, serve, and bask as well as I can in the light of the glory of others, I suppose. [Sob again.])

  • Doubting Thomas says:

    There, there, Ian Mac, never mind, don’t cry! You almost certainly lead Peter Murphy and most other Quadrant-on-Line contributors and commenters in the sheer volume of contentious commentary of spectacular mediocrity that our benign editor sees fit to tolerate.
    That’s recognition if ever there was.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    If you don’t like what I write, use the scroll down button on your (likely foam-flecked) keyboard.
    But what a miserable sort of comfort you offer. You should have been given the lead role in ‘Les Miserables.’
    Spectacular as the sunset on a drought-ravaged landscape maybe? I’ve seen enough of that, and so it seems has David Littleproud (or should that be LittletobeProudof?.)
    But mediocrity?
    You know what Liberace said after a sell-out concert to one of his fiercest critics? “Your cruel words upset me so much, I cried all the way to the bank.”
    In his case, it was to make a hefty deposit. In mine, more likely to ask for a hefty drought loan.
    Mr Littleproud’s comments follow remarks from Mr Frydenberg last week who said the government accepted “the science around climate change.”.
    “’We accept that it is part of what is happening here today. Man is contributing to that. And the science has told us that,” Mr Frydenberg said. ‘
    That comes on top of fierce criticism from within the COALition of Morrison’s do-nothing but deny-with-a-smirk stance on climate and AGW.
    Could it be that the coal shills of this site will make it the last holdout of the Ostrich School of Climatology?

  • Doubting Thomas says:


  • ianl says:


    Mediocrity is too high a bar for the trollster.

    Oh, and Andrew Pitman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Pitman) repeated at a conference in June last that drought is unlinked to any climate change. Australian droughts and flood cycles are initiated by ENSO oscillations.

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    ianl (or whatever your real name is):
    Pitman’s website also says:
    “It is virtually certain that humans are warming the planet and will
    continue to do so.
    “• It is now extremely likely that this warming is causing changes in
    climate, climate extremes and will continue to do so in the future.
    “• We are committed to at least several more decades of warming and
    associated changes in temperature, sea level and other impacts.
    “• Our confidence in these statements has increased since the 3rd
    assessment report.”
    I, as an occasional commenter here you call a ‘trollster’, whatever that never-defined -by-you species is, have never said more.

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