When the communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in April 1975, they declared it “Year Zero.” The French Revolution had a similar turn of phrase: Year One, after the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of King Louis XVI.
These revolutions had something else in common: erasing history. The Khmer Rouge targeted, like many other communist regimes before them, intellectuals and artists. The French changed their “pagan” calendar and threw the Catholic Church out of the country.
Today, we see similar thought patterns in extremist Islam. The Taliban, upon taking control of Afghanistan, blew up fantastically preserved Buddhist statues (pictured). In Timbuktu, Islamic extremists burned 1200-year-old books contained in their ancient library. ISIS brags, in propaganda videos, about destroying “idols” in Palmyra.
These movements are from all over the political spectrum, but the pattern recurs: begin fresh, erase history, and idolize a mythological past. You could apply this same rubric to the fascist movements of the 1930s.
The lesson of history is clear (and ironic): there is no erasing history. The French Revolution descended into chaos, was coopted by Napoleon, and did not result in a functioning democracy for a long time. Cambodia is still recovering. Fascism is a horrifying relic. The communist revolutions have all been spectacular failures.
So why is this Year Zero thinking so common?
You hear it on both sides of the political spectrum today. “Erase the system and start over.” “Smash _______________.” “We need a complete shift in ___________________.” The slogans are stirring and sexy. Unfortunately, change is hard.
The most successful revolutions restore and consolidate the best ideas from the past: look at the American Revolution and the way it drew from the ideas of the enlightenment and Ancient Rome.
How can we make incremental change sexy? Perhaps, at the very least, we can expose Year Zero thinking for what it is: a childish fantasy.
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