Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mother Teresa and Chairman Mao: The Oddest Couple

No wonder the White House has declared war on Fox News. Recently, its most radioactive host, Glenn Beck, broadcast a video where Communications Director Anita Dunn was seen praising Chairman Mao.

Four months ago Dunn was speaking to a group of high school students. She told them that her two favorite political philosophers were Mother Teresa and Chairman Mao. When she is having difficulty,she said, she turns to them for guidance.

Well, gag me with a spoon. You may or may not object to the inclusion of Mother Teresa, and you may or may not object to coupling Mother Teresa with Mao Tse-tung. But how can anyone today, no less a high official in the American government, praise one of history's greatest mass murderers?

Nowadays no one with an ounce of sense still praises Mao Tse-tung. Way back when, in the old days of the Vietnam protest movement, there was something of a cult to Mao among academics, French intellectuals, and other idealistic sorts.

But that was before the world became aware of the tens of millions of people who had died as a result of his policies. And no one knew very much about it until Chairman Mao had died.

Interestingly enough, the reason no one knew what was going on in China at that time was that Mao exercised total control over the flow of information.

Now we are faced with a White House Communications Director, someone who is assuredly not a closet Maoist, expressing admiration for Mao Tse-tung on one hand, and, on the other, bragging about how well her team controlled the flow of information during the presidential campaign.

Doubtless the comparison is somewhat strained, but you have to wonder how a communications director can be so morally obtuse.

Some of Dunn's supporters seem to believe that it is possible to praise Mao's thought without having to deal with the inconvenient fact that tens of millions people perished when his ideas became policy. That would be like taking a few lines out of "Mein Kampf" to praise Hitler as a political philosopher... on the assumption that no one will ever examine what happened when his philosophy was put into action.

But which of Mao's thought did Dunn praise? She was most impressed by his military strategy. Outnumbered and outgunned in 1947, Mao was asked how he was going to defeat the armies of Chiang Kai-shek. He responded that they could fight their war; he was going to fight his.

For Dunn this was an assertion of individualism. It is not. Dunn has completely misinterpreted the political philosophy of someone she admires.

In fact, Mao was saying something very simple and easy to understand. He was saying that he was not going to win by force of arms, but that he was going to mount a guerrilla insurgency, using hit and run tactics, terror, and intimidation.

Is this the kind of strategy that is now admired at the highest levels of the American government? If so, then the administration should explain itself.

For now I would ask a slightly different question: What do we know about Mao's practice of political communication? That would seem to be a relevant question.

Here I can make two observations.

When Mao took power he became one of the world's great practitioners of brainwashing. His work has been extensively chronicled in Robert Lifton's great book: "Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: Brainwashing in China."

Mao did not merely stifle dissent. He wanted to use tactics of threats, intimidation, and isolation to reprogram human minds to think exactly as he wanted them to think.

Second, during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, an event that inspired students around the world, Mao attempted to purge the culture of counterrevolutionary forces, be they people, cultural artifacts, art objects, books, what have you.

In place of the great tradition of Chinese culture, workers in Mao's Worker's Paradise were only allowed to read or to possess one single book, the little red book containing the thoughts of Chairman Mao.

Study groups, study sessions, raucous debate... all of them were convened to work on a single, rather slim, book. Thereby the lessons of thought reform were applied to the society as a whole.

If anything is more antithetical to American politics, be it liberal or conservative, than the theory and practice of Chairman Mao, I don't know what it is. The notion that Chairman Mao can inspire the Communications Director of the White House suggests that someone, somewhere is not paying attention.

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