SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - An Ode to the Old and Buried
Before we were The Black Sheep, we were a newsletter named Spiritual Soap. Please enjoy this article from our history!
I enjoy research too much and I’m a shameless critic. Weird & Güd is the conjoining of those misanthropic qualities into something useful: recommendations and fascinations neatly packaged together for you every week, some hermit-ism required after all.
Debate about whether old things warrant the space they take up in society is as old as the battle between the Greek titans and the generation that succeeded them, the Olympians. There’s a natural balance between the Old and the New. Too much of the Old leads to stagnation and a weak chance at the future. Too much of the New is the folly of youth that tosses wisdom aside and charges forward, risking the future just as stagnation does.
Greek titans, vague references to tiresome parables—what do they mean to us in the most modern of modern days? When there’s little we can truly call “old” that remains revered in our youth-centric society, the ancient battle between Old and New is obscured behind a tricky veil called progress.
In the age of SOFTWARE UPDATE: remind me later, the New has sneakily become synonymous with “improved.” Yet, as anyone that’s used an iPhone knows, an update can just as easily create problems as it can solve them.
With less poetry and more harm than Greek myth, Mao’s fight against the Old was the Cultural Revolution, an effort dedicated to destroying the so-called Four Olds: old ideas, old habits, old culture, and old customs. Although these four categories included basically everything, the Four Olds was a catchier slogan than “Destroy Everything.” Ironically, if there’s one thing communism truly rivals capitalism at, it’s branding.
The destruction of everythi—the Four Olds—began in 1966. It’s a simple idea really and it’s one you’ve likely encountered yourself.
If you want to build a different world than the one you have now, the biggest obstacle is that world.
China’s shining communist future hinged on eradicating China’s less-shiny, less-communist past. How can you usher in an era of equality with statues still standing from a time of inequality? (Nope, still talking about Mao’s Cultural Revolution). The past is rife with relics from all the times humans have failed to prioritize progress above their lower instincts. Get rid of the relics of failure, get rid of the failure, right?
Students were the first to the streets on their blessed search-and-destroy mission. Everyone cheered as they passed out leaflets, sang songs of solidarity, put up what I admit are some pretty aesthetically-slamming posters, changed street names, and helped shop owners change their shop names to get with the revolutionary times. Red: Victoria’s Secret, Forever Mao Zedong, and WalReds, or something like that.
Destroy the Old World; Establish the New World, 1967
The problem that the Cultural Revolution set out to solve was the pesky issue of a feeble-minded public. With all those ideas floating around, how would peasants make the right decision to report their class-traitor grandmother for keeping the gold earrings her bourgeois great-grandmother was gifted by their bourgeois great-grandfather?
People cannot be trusted with something as risky as thinking when utopia is on the line.
That’s why Mao encouraged the destruction of everything that wasn’t either overtly correct or simply existed during an incorrect time. Chinese paintings, Chinese literature, and Chinese temples were all pieces of a tainted past. And we haven’t even gotten to Chinese people yet!
Not China, but westernized Hong Kong was where Chinese people could practice their culture freely. Traditions like family altars and general reverence for ancestors were banned in Mao’s China, as those ancestors existed in a tainted past that threatened a utopian future.
The organized destruction of objects is but a natural stepping stone to the organized destruction of humans.
The passionate fervor for a shining future soon led the student paramilitary movement known as the Red Guards to turn their elimination of the Four Olds from objects to people.
We don’t know what this righteous crowd could be saying to the older man they’re publicly humiliating, but it probably sounds something like “Do better!”
Don’t worry! Red Guards only desecrated graves first, attacking dead monks and hanging the stripped corpses of other figures from the tainted past. They warmed up to attacking people later, the first of which were professors and other intellectuals.
You don’t need education when you have re-education.
The Cultural Revolution went on with increasing intensity for about a decade, during which everything old was eradicated, including a lot of old people, who were among the tens of millions brutally murdered (and in some cases eaten, but we’ll get to that).
The battle to destroy every shard of an imperfect past revealed the ancient truth that a balance is required between the old and new.
You cannot eradicate every piece of the past because the new is born of the old.
While some things clearly carry the markers of everything old, like a movie that uses language we’re offended by today, other things carry more subtle markers of the past, like an album of family photos, a book or record your father gave you, or a recipe written in your grandmother’s handwriting.
You aren’t who you are in spite of that ugly, unequal, uncivilized past—you are here as you are today because of it.
There’s no great way to talk about people eating people, but the occurrence of cannibalism during the Cultural Revolution should be talked about—often.
The climate that Mao’s Cultural Revolution created was the kind of climate that leads regular people to eat their boyfriend’s father as a show of solidarity. In just a single county, 421 documented incidents of cannibalism occurred—none due to starvation.
In the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, people and children as young as 11 were killed and eaten solely as a display of loyalty. “Eat the rich” huh? Prove it.
The fatal mistake in all ideologies requiring purity is believing there exists a hard line at which all will refuse to prove their loyalty if it requires atrocity.
Once your revolution draws blood, dissent means death, and eating your enemies—even if they’re just the unlucky 17-year-old daughter of a landowner—is par for the course.
Autonomous zones are bloody teachers for idealists. Sometimes the old structures that feel outdated today are preventing a far more primitive existence than we can even bring our comfortable modern selves to imagine.
While doing research, I was reminded that sometimes the algorithm proves it is yet to understand us entirely.
The worst part of this whole story is that tens of millions of people died brutally for little more than one dude’s old-fashioned power-grab. Social cleansing provided a red smokescreen for Mao to secure his shaky power (mass famine on your resume will do that). He knew stoking rabid class-traitor hunting among the public would thin the ranks of his political opponents and keep the population’s eyes off him and on each other.
If it’s hard to believe China’s decade-long self-destruction was a simple powerplay, just try to look past the book burnings, public executions, and flesh feasts. A single, crucial ingredient to all power games will emerge from the smoke:
When someone asks you to attack your neighbor, you may be doing half the work for them.
One of the few beautiful qualities in the otherwise harsh reality of inescapable death is the same beauty that we enjoy in birth and love—its universality. Not your race, location, politics, class, religion, or personality can keep you from the experience of death.
Few things remind us of our common humanity in our ever-dividing culture today, but death remains one of those few events both serious and common enough to remind us that our lives are more similar than not. The details may differ, but the structure is the same as any story: beginning, middle, and end.
There’s value in remembering to revere death as both bigger than us and beyond our control.
Death comes for every human and reminds us to see that humanity before the individual differences that distract us. When death is not, it’s easy—maybe even attractive—to forget there’s anything bigger, anything beyond ourselves. It’s hard to maintain your perspective on life when that life expands to fill every space, leaving no corner or crack to harbor the knowledge that something bigger and infinitely more powerful than your individual life always lurks.
Without leaving space for something bigger than your life, every detail and issue feels that much bigger. Traffic is torture; tomorrow is always the day you’ll finally call your parents; time wasted scrolling and binging feels endless; arguments about daily news are attractive; every inconvenience seems like a customized curse when your perspective excludes anything beyond you.
Death isn’t just the great equalizer, but the greatest reminder.
Our reverence for death—this one of few universally understood human truths—is waning.
We no longer have the taboos and curses to shame and scare us into viewing death with care. We no longer have the danger in everyday life that once reminded us of death’s ever-present possibility. We no longer have the lack of medicine that once forced death in our faces with regularity. Today, if you’d like to live as though death was an anomaly that happened to tragic strangers or sufficiently old people, modern life will let you get away with it.
If you don’t want to find yourself living like you’ve forgotten death, you’ll have to be more conscious about remembering. And perhaps that’s the real purpose behind FindAGrave.com.
It might seem like a strange use of internet real estate, but Find a Grave is always a better use of my time than Twitter. This website is an online cemetery and “The world’s largest gravestone collection”, as it proudly boasts.
When you get to the homepage, you’ll find nostalgically crude web design along with a piece of dark news in the soft blue On This Day box. Since 1995, Find a Grave has been collecting biographical information and even pictures of tombstones to create the closest thing we may have to a cemetery social network (they’ve incidentally found the one foolproof formula for a peaceful social media experience).
The cemetery site even lets people leave digital flowers at virtual graves.
Find a Grave is no cure for the loss of cultural reverence for death or the individual failure of perspective on life, but for a digital cemetery, there’s something comforting about it.
Being able to see tombstones belonging to George Washington, Bette Davis, and everyday people, and being able to read about the people (and sometimes pet pigs) buried beneath them isn’t as morbid as it sounds. For a culture that’s lost its connection to one of the most universal human conditions, taking time to remember that every person’s time is limited might be the mini-ritual we most need today.
It’s our most deeply human commonalities—like laughing at ourselves, loving our pets, or appreciating a bright moon—that bring out the best in humanity.
Recognizing this final, universal rite of passage might remind us, even if for only a few minutes, that a human life is smaller than it seems, and small things are often fragile.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
I sit alone at a desk biting my nails to bring you every edition of Spiritual Soap. Is it worth it? Don’t tell me, show me; share my work or donate to help keep me going.