The only work of Chinese fiction I have ever been given is Feng Menglong’s Stories Old and New. In choosing the name of his compilation, Menglong almost certainly sought to indicate to the prospective reader that the stories were not of one chronological space, but instead a broad retrospective of his vast writings. Still, when reading, I liked to pretend he meant the title to apply to each story individually; that each word read was in that moment somehow both absolutely contemporary and absolutely antique. On first thought the states of being fresh and old might seem mutually exclusive- in fact, they are not. We need only look at trends in generational style, and even contemporary politics, to realise temporality is almost always ambiguous.
Nowhere is the complexity of freshness demonstrated more clearly than in the longstanding cultural fascination with local nostalgia. Each western generation tends to glorify the stocks and styles of those previous after they have become superficially outdated. This phenomenon differs from the appreciation of antique furniture or fine art, instead dealing with the curious re-entry of vintage items into cultural currency after only a few decades of their original ‘newness.’ Technologies and outfits from the recent past take on heightened and ironical social value, and so the most fresh objects become those that are not fresh at all. Current articles of this sort include calculator watches, flip phones, crop tops, moustaches, physical letters, toto, film cameras, tie pins, and champagne coupes. Most emblematic of all is the renaissance of the record player, which marks the convoluted interplay between time and style: something new cannot only be at the same time old, but new by way of its oldness.
This duality of freshness is current too in the political sphere, as personified by socialist prophet and hopeful democratic Presidential nominee Bernie Sanders. Senator Sanders, of Burlington Vermont, is nothing if not fresh. He and his team have taken an unprecedented approach to the funding structure of the election by effectively crowd-funding their campaign in order to avoid the influence of corporate financiers. As a result, Bernie has broken the record for most individual contributions to any American campaign historically. In addition to his innovative spirit, he puts clear emphasis on effective and honest communication. His fiercely progressive words on marriage equality and class structure are delivered with a youthful earnestness not found in any of his competitors. His speeches are no-nonsense, eschewing all dusty political rhetoric. The phrase “let’s be very clear about this” can be heard several times in any given appearance, delivered in his resounding Brooklyn tones. He markets extensively through social media, and has unsurprisingly promising polls amongst politically minded, fresh-faced students.
And yet, for all his vigour, Sanders is the oldest person ever to have contested for a Presidential nomination. Today’s left wing political forces, traditionally associated with the young, find their greatest orchestrator in a 76-year-old man. Like Menglong’s stories, Bernie is both old and new. His dynamic approach to campaigning is informed by his experiences in politics since the 1960s, so that he is able to exist as a candidate both within and without the past. His followers look to something that was incepted in 1941 for the most lucid and forward-thinking political dialogue currently available- as with the vinyl record, he is an outdated source of superior sound quality.
Worlds revolve, and on the opposite pole of the US political spectrum sits Donald Trump. Where does he factor in the conversation between old and new? Trump is younger than Sanders, yet we might hesitate to call his campaign any synonym of fresh. Salon’s Heather Parton described Trump’s presence in politics as a ‘fresh fascism,’ yet there is issue in branding his antagonism original. Like everything, hate has an ancestry, and Trump stands in a line of spiteful demagogues stretching in books through the past. Identifying his individual knot of roots is not difficult. Take for example his plan to erect a wall between Mexico and the United States to prevent the unlawful immigration of Mexican citizens. Direct influence can be seen in Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and his erection of a fence on the Indo-Bangladesh border in the late 1980s to impede the flow of illegal workers. Before him we can look to Erich Honecker, central in the construction of the Berlin wall and surrounding controversies of immigration between East and West Germany in the 1960s. Drawing back more broadly still we can go so far as Qin Shi Huangd, king of Tsin, who built the Great Wall of China in 200BCE so as to defend his land from Mongolian tribes.
Lines between these men quickly begin to draw themselves, reaching through the considerable gaps in historical space to offer common themes that evidence precisely the un-freshness of antagonism. Huangd, as well as building the Great Wall, ordered mass executions and the torching of libraries, in an event now referred to by Chinese historians as ‘the burning of books and burying of scholars.’ The East Germans carried out similar executions in conflicts surrounding the Berlin wall, and in the same city only a few years earlier the Nazis extensively burnt literature. In 1995, Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh was burned by Rajiv Gandhi’s party for its caricature of Bal Thackeray, and for portraying a stuffed dog on wheels named Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister)- fifteen years later, a Human Rights Watch investigation found that the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) killed over 1000 Bangladeshis in the first decade of the 21st century alone.
Such historical patterns, and their clear prognosticative value, give cause for serious concern in regards to Trump. It is important to consider the ugly past as a perpetual possibility, by recognising how easily it can be made fresh again. The various infamous examples of Trump’s hateful politics- his characterisation of all Mexicans as rapists, his misogynistic comments on the menstruation of a reporter, his infantile appeal for increased firearms after the Paris attacks- might seem insignificant when compared to greater historical atrocities, yet evil must start somewhere. Trump has found rabid support in a disgruntled section of America with whom he knows he can play the politics of rage. Nowhere is the danger of a Trump presidency more clear than in his ferocious denunciation of Muslims, which mirrors Hitler’s pursuit of the Jews even before he was elected. Vicious words, if given an audience, have previously evolved to materialise in walls, book burnings, and executions.
Bernie Sanders, for all his freshness, is not without precedent. He frequently calls upon the words of MLK, FDR, Eugene Debs, Frederick Douglas, Obama and many others. Yet with Sanders, preceding ideologies are a base from which to take influence, and further progress the system of American society. Trump, conversely, follows a vicious formula of attempting forceful social division, showing no sign of creativity or invention. He is only ‘fresh’ in the sense that he is the most contemporary iteration of viral tyranny, which is itself an ancient concept. Where Bernie uses the past to his advantage, Trump’s balance of fresh and old results in a sort of political poison. In good faith, he will never get the chance to build his wall, but you can’t be too careful; if he does, we should begin hiding both books and people.
Words by Harry Peter Sanderson