Is Pol Pot under-appreciated? The former Cambodian tyrant is half-forgotten in the long list of 20th-century villains and is definitely absent from the list of that century’s visionaries.
Pot is indeed responsible for the deaths of more than 1.5 million Cambodians in what is now referred to as the Cambodian Genocide. Through revolutionary zeal inspired by assiduous learning of both Marxism and the French Revolution, Pot and his Khmer Rouge acolytes were bent on reshaping, re-engineering, and purifying Cambodian society. They had a particular dislike for the bespectacled variety, and for the speakers of foreign languages.
The result of such frenzy, as it always is, was mass death.
Pol’s signature policy was the pursuit of an agrarian utopia, which meant the forcing of millions to march off into the countryside and find employment (for which they had no skill) in collective farms. Mass starvation ensued.
This agrarian policy, however, requires, I believe, a little bit of re-assessment. No, the writer of these lines does not support starvation, the forced marching of anybody into the countryside, or mass death. But isn’t there a true sentiment, a spirit of something noble, in the veneration of the countryside? Isn’t it true that salvation can indeed come from the fields and the hills, from honest work, from early dawns and well-deserved sunsets?
It’s an old and perennial sentiment. Shakespeare’s As You Like It rings with admiration for the seclusion of the woods: “And this our life, exempt from public haunt, finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything. I would not change it!”
This duet by Purcell echoes a similar sentiment: “Come, let us leave the town! And in some lonely place where crowds and noise were never known, resolve to spend our days.”
The entire Zionist movement was based on a similar sentiment. The pale and squinty-eyed Jew of the shtetl was to be transformed into a bronzed farmer-soldier. The gurus of the Zionist Labor Movement, Tolstoyan figures such as A. D. Gordon, believed with all their restless hearts that farming, the labor of the countryside, was how the Jew shall be transformed and be redeemed.
In the Zionist case, I would dare say it worked.
Should we give Pol Pot a second hearing then? How delightful it would be to spectate upon our useless class of HR ladies, management consultants, and new media coordinators, all marching off into the countryside, to be reborn or gone forever! Our blighted urban centers emptied out into the woods, our soul-less cubicle farms shipped off to real farms of grain and dark earth, our compliance officers and civil “rights” attorneys… But I get carried away!
Another, more civilized way, is to enroll your kids in the Boy Scouts. The Scouting movement is based on a similar idea. It is, if you will, like so many sensible things, the Anglo-Saxon version of the countryside salvation sentiment. Founded in the early 20th century, The Scouting movement was an attempt to inculcate the youth, adapted to the comforts of urban living, in the rough enchantments of the great outdoors. And you can do it too!
And since you are unlikely to perish, as was the fate of Pol Pot’s unhappy victims, you will very likely find your own tongues in trees and sermons in stone.
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