A wonderful email from a family of ex-Maoists

August 23, 2021

In Letters To Finkelstein

Dear Prof. Finkelstein, Since you asked about myself, I am from Pakistan and currently live in the Hague the Netherlands, (which is where I believe your good friend Mouin Rabbani lives?) My parents were both leftist journalists. My father (Ahfaz-ur-Rahman: you can click on his name for details) went to China as a young man in 1969 to work in the Foreign languages press in Beijing. This was before he had met my mother. He saw first hand many of the injustices of the cultural revolution and came back disillusioned. But when he came back, despite being renowned for his fiery outspokenness, he could not openly share his misgivings in Pakistani left circles (you know more than me how fanatical and dogmatic the left was in those days) In the late 70s he took part, and led, the journalists movement against the Zia dictatorship. Many years later he wrote a book on it (Freedom of the press: you may click the link) detailing the movement. Being one of the leaders of the movement, after it ended, under Zia’s consolidated rule given the first Afghanistan war, he became blacklisted and unemployed, or to take your word, “unemployable”. Thus, he left for China once again in 1985, this time with his family, including me at 5 years old. So I grew up in Beijing. When we arrived in 1985, China was still in the early phases of its transition. We lived in the Friendship hotel, which was known as the “Western guesthouse” in the 1950s, a place where Russian experts and engineers had stayed till relations soured between the two countries. It might be hard to believe, but when me and my elder sister went out of the guesthouse for a walk we would be thronged by locals crying out “foreigner, foreigner”. Of course, all this changed pretty dramatically, and as early as 1986 we were no longer the exotic creatures that we had been only a few months back. We stayed in China till 1993. I remember an amusing incident from 1989 that relates to the Tian’anmen square protests. I was 9 years old at that time. Me and my Tanzanian friend Hijia made two flags, with the word “Victory” written on each. We did this without telling our parents. We took our flags and went out onto the street, waving them about, professing our support for the protesting students. We had of course no idea what we were doing. Bystanders started cheering us on. Our childish vanity fed on this applause, and we started waving the flags harder. Just then two young looking boys on a motorcycle, university students actually, approached us. They told us that they were going to the main city to join the larger protests and would be very grateful if we could give our flags to them. We obliged and gave them our flags. However, this caused the bystanders, who had been cheering us on, to becomeextremely angry. They surrounded us and the two students on the motorbike.“How dare you take the flags from these two nice children?” they thundered. The students started explaining that they needed them for the protests. “No, you had no right to take it from the children”. The geometry of the scene, as far as I remember, is that me, Hijia and the students on the motorbike found ourselves in the center of a circle of angry people, with no escape route. Being kids we naturally got scared and made a very Chaplinesque escape: literally through the legs of the circling horde of screaming adults! I smile when I remember this episode. However, this was before things escalated. Only a few days later, a Pakistani friend, 12 years old if I recall correctly, was shot in his leg by a soldier, as he idiotically stood on a bridge, or maybe it was one of the (then deserted) ring roads near his home, to get a bird’s eye view of what was happening. After coming back to Pakistan, I discovered Prof Chomsky, you, Howard Zinn and others in late 90s early 2000s as a teenager, mostly on ZNet. At that time, if you may remember, ZNet kind of became a hub for many international leftists. We didn’t have anything else. With all its shortcomings, ZNet did provide a huge service in that it allowed the international left, or at leastbig segments of it, to have a kind of unified voice. But with the advent of social media, ZNet basically faded away, and is now just a shell of its former self. Now most leftists have migrated to Twitter. And this brings me back to my original message to you. The left on Twitter, not just 20 somethings, but even 50 somethings, behave like irascible teenagers. Specifically, I see the following three related problems: First, put simply, is a lack of serious study and reflection that being on social-media/Twitter fosters. The way people on Twitter (everyone, not just 20-somethings) feel the need to react quickly to every recent event without much thought or study is mind-boggling. Second, its what I can only call the emergence of social-media/Twitter Robespierres due to the collapsing order. This group basically, and rightly, is fed up of the Democrats, but in their excessive disgust for the liberals, they have gone overboard. Instead of helping or contributing anything useful to the discussion, they act as bristling, exacerbated vanities whose words and Twitter rants suggest that they actually think that the Democrats are the major obstacle to anything better being done (note, I say their words and rants suggest they think Democrats are the major problem, I don’t know if  they actually believe this). This group includes many good people such as Glenn Greenwald, Jimmy Dore, Briahna Joy Gray (the young woman who you rightly like) and many others. Their angry comments on everything from the lab leak theory, to Biden to AOC fall on a spectrum of needless incendiarism to actual propagation of false news. Coupled with the fact that western civilization is collapsing, such Robespierres find many takers and have many followers. Let’s take Glenn, who I respect for his past wonderful work. He has 1.6 million followers on Twitter. And in a very wild Robespierrian way he keeps coming up with his “takes” on all kinds of issues on which he doesn’t seem to have a strong grasp. Despite being more than 50 years old, he literally behaves like a spoiled teenager on Twitter. Yes, partly it could be due to personal traits, I do not deny, but I think it’s more a result of the toxicity that Twitter engenders. Third–its a lack of humility that being on social-media engenders: This relates to what I wrote to you earlier. Disdain for authority is all well and good but dunking on people such as yourself or Chomsky after seeing one video according to which BDS is totally correct and that the one-state solution (apartheid struggle) is the only way to go, is to put it mildly, bonkers. As I said earlier, do we or do we not take into account the hard work and the thoughts and the guidance of people who have been working on, and thinking about important issues for decades? Apparently not for these modern Twitter Robespierres. As there is no god and no master, so that means hard work, wisdom and moral authority mean nothing. Sorry for my late reply. I wanted to write to you in detail. If you don’t mind, I would like to send you my father’s above-mentioned book. Could you kindly send me your postal address, so I could send it to you? Best, Rameez