Audacity of Propaganda,
Natalia J. Garland
How much do high school graduates really remember from their world
history classes? When they hear the name of Mao Tsu-Tung, what
images come to their mind? What kind of information is retrieved?
How many pages or paragraphs were devoted to Mao Tsu-Tung in their
history textbooks? In what fashion did their teachers present Mao?
Was he portrayed as a role model in some ways? Was he acknowledged
to have been a failure and killer? Or was his political status
somewhat neutralized, presented as a mere mark on the long
continuum of Chinese history?
Earlier this year,
Anita Dunn was a guest speaker for the high school graduation
commencement at St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Maryland. The
commencement ceremony took place at the Washington National
Cathedral in June, 2009. Dunn has a son who attends St. Andrew's.
Dunn is currently the interim Communications Director of the White
House, and has just announced she will resign by the end of this
month (she was scheduled to resign at the end of this year). It
was Dunn who was largely responsible for the White House ban on FOX
News. She was also an important figure in the Obama presidential
and the commencement setting are significant because one would not
expect Mao, a Communist leader, to be given praise by a White
House representative and in a religious environment and to American
high school graduates. Below is a quotation from Dunn's speech.
It might not be transcribed totally accurately, but it is accurate
enough to study Dunn's message.
ANITA DUNN'S SPEECH
A lot of you have a great deal of ability. A lot of you work hard.
Put them together and that answers the why not question. There is
usually not a good reason. And then the third lesson and tip
actually come from two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao
Tse-Tung and Mother Teresa, not often coupled with each other, but
the two people that I turn to most to basically deliver a simple
point which is you're going to make choices, you're going to
challenge, you're going to say, "Why not?" You're going
to figure out how to do things that have never been done before.
But here's the deal: these are your choices, they're no one else's.
In 1947, when Mao Tse-Tung was being challenged within his own
party, on his plan to basically take China over, Chiang Kai-Shek
and the nationalist Chinese held the cities. They had the army,
they had the air force, they had everything on their side. And
people said, "How can you win? How can you do this? How can
you do this against all odds against you?" And Mao Tse-Tung
said, "You fight your war and I'll fight mine."
Think about that for
a second. You don't have to accept the definition of how to do
things and you don't have to follow other people's choices and
paths [or, in the past?]. Okay. It is about your choices and
your paths. You fight your own war. You lay out your own path. You
figure out what is right for you. You don't let external definition
define how good you are internally. You fight your own war. You let
them fight their's. Everybody has their own path.
Some people have
defended Dunn's coupling of Mao and Mother Teresa, saying it was a
joke to pair them together and to refer to them as political
philosophers. Dunn herself has referred to it as an unsuccessful
attempt at irony. These defenses, however, do not hold up. Dunn
went on in her speech--beyond any levity--to explain why she
considered Mao and Mother Teresa to be worthy examples regarding
definitions, choices, winning, finding your own path, and figuring
out what is right for you. There are many other historical figures
from which Dunn could have drawn her examples. But, she chose to
couple a villain and a saint together as though there were some
sort of equality or balance between the two. That's my personal
hearing of her words.
The focus of today's
essay, therefore, will be on Dunn's choice of Mao, although I will
bring back Mother Teresa later in order to show that Dunn's choice
of these two could appear more political than artistic. This essay
contains my personal reaction to the excerpt from Dunn's speech and
is not intended to judge Dunn's moral character (or to judge the
intelligence of high school graduates). Nonetheless, Dunn said
what she said, it has been documented, and her words have had an
impact on others--including myself. Citizens have a right to
question their leaders' political tendencies and to search for
So, Mao made some
choices. He fought his own war. But, did he really win? What did
his policies and tactics, his definition of how to do things,
contribute to the Chinese people? Since Dunn spoke to high school
graduates, let's look at what high school students learn about Mao.
When discussing Mao, it is also necessary to have some knowledge of
Chiang Kai-Shek. Below is a quotation from a world history
textbook used in some of America's high schools: the Glencoe World
History textbook. In this book, Mao Tse-Tung is written as
GLENCOE WORLD HISTORY TEXTBOOK
Some party members fled to the mountainous Jiangxi Province south
of the Chiang Jiang. They were led by the young Communist
organizer Mao Zedong. Unlike most other leading members of the
Communist Party, Mao was convinced that a Chinese revolution would
be driven by the poverty-stricken peasants in the countryside
rather than by the urban working class.
Chiang Kai-Shek now tried to root the Communists out of their
urban base in Shanghai and their rural base in Jiangxi Province.
He succeeded in the first task in 1931. Most party leaders in
Shanghai were forced to flee to Mao's base in South China.
Chaing Kai-Shek then turned his forces against Mao's stronghold in
Jiangxi Province. Chiang's forces far outnumbered Mao's, but Mao
made effective use of guerilla tactics, using unexpected maneuvers
like sabotage and subterfuge to fight the enemy. Four slogans
describe his methods: "When the enemy advances, we retreat!
When the enemy halts and camps, we trouble them! When the enemy
tries to avoid battle, we attack! When the enemy retreats, we
[End of quotes.]
The Glencoe textbook
generally presents factual details about people and places without
evaluative comments or conclusions. It does, however, offer one
opinion (or truth) about Communism from Chiang Kai-Shek:
CHIANG KAI-SHEK ON COMMUNISM
"...the Communists are a disease of the
[End of quote.]
Dunn did not mention
any of the negative aspects of Mao's governing policies. Yes, it
is understood that she was trying to encourage graduates to succeed
against odds by choosing their own path, even if no one had ever
taken that path before. In itself, this is not bad advice. The
problem is that Dunn chose a bad example to deliver a simple
point, said that she turns to this bad example often when
delivering this point, and did not mention anything about Mao's
ultimate failure as a leader.
It is this omission
of the negative, while praising a narrow theme drawn from the
overall negative material, that seems to render Dunn's speech as a
form of censorship, indoctrination, or propaganda. What made her
think that high school graduates would be able to relate to Mao?
Was her message not biased and misleading? Was she attempting to
promote, however disguised or insinuated, a political viewpoint
that is contrary to the U.S. Constitution and American values? If
her message was not propaganda, it was certainly confusing and
troubling. There seemed to be a desensitization to the concept of
evil. We can only hope that the Class of 2009 remembered some of
the details from their history textbooks. Let's pursue the Glencoe
GLENCOE WORLD HISTORY TEXTBOOK
The Communist Party, under the leadership of its chairman, Mao
Zedong, now ruled China. In 1955, the Chinese government launched
a program to build a socialist society. To win the support of the
peasants, lands were taken from the wealthy landlords and given to
poor peasants. About two-thirds of the peasant households in
China received land under the new program. Most private farmland
was collectivized, and most industry commerce was nationalized.
Chinese leaders hoped that collective farms would increase food
production, allowing more people to work in industry. Food
production, however, did not grow.
To speed up economic growth, Mao began a more radical program,
know as the Great Leap Forward, in 1958. Existing collective
farms, normally the size of a village, were combined into vast
communes. Each commune contained more than thirty thousand people
who lived and worked together. Mao hoped this program would enable
China to reach the final stage of communism--the classless
society--before the end of the twentieth century. The government
official slogan promised the following: "Hard work for a few
years, happiness for a thousand."
The Great Leap Forward was a disaster. Bad weather and the
peasants' hatred of the new system drove food production down. As
a result, almost fifteen million people died of starvation. In
1960, the government began to break up the communes and return to
collective farms and some private plots.
In 1966, Mao
launched the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. The Chinese
name literally meant "great revolution to create a
proletarian (working-class) culture." A collection of Mao's
thoughts, called the Little Red Book, was hailed as the
most important source of knowledge in all areas.
To further the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards were formed.
These were revolutionary groups composed largely of young people.
Red Guards set out across the nation to eliminate the "Four
Olds"--old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.
The Red Guard destroyed temples, books written by foreigners, and
foreign music. They tore down street signs and replaced them with
ones carrying revolutionary names. The city of Shanghai even
ordered that red (the revolutionary color) traffic lights would
indicate that traffic could move, not stop.
Vicious attacks were made on individuals who had supposedly
deviated from Mao's plan. Intellectuals and artists accused of
being pro-Western were especially open to attack. Key groups,
however, including Communist Party members, urban professionals,
and military officers, did not share Mao's desire for permanent
revolution. People, disgusted by the actions of the Red Guards,
began to turn against the movement.
[End of quotes.]
The Glencoe textbook
states that 15 million people died because of Mao's policies. It
does not, however, emphasize that Mao was inhumane or that he
deliberately aggravated social class distinctions in order to
bring about revolution. Let's now turn to an easily available
source, the Essortment website's "Free Online Articles on
Health, Science, Education." The article copied below states
that 30 million Chinese died, although there are other sources
which estimate 50 to 70 million. These numbers alone should
immediately disqualify Mao as any kind of role model for high
"WHO IS MAO TSE TUNG?"
The Communist successes under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung
propelled Mao into legendary status as leader of the Chinese
Communist Party, having proved that under the proper leadership,
his people could march to victory. In the fifties and sixties, Mao
Tse-tung acted as leader of the both the Chinese revolution and the
Chinese Communist Party. Distraught at the present state of his
country, whose fruits of victory were being to sour, he became
determined to launch a second revolution with an objective of a
socialist utopia. Then Mao was suspicious almost to the point of
paranoia, fearing that those who had sworn loyalty to him were
turning against him in droves. He also had an ingrained distrust
for the intellectuals whose interests were slowly turning from the
ideological to the technological. He feared that the increasing
professional bureaucracy he had witnessed taking place in the
Soviet Union was destined to occur in his own country as well.
During this time period, Marxism was fast becoming an intriguing
alternative for many Chinese intellectuals, with Communism
appealing directly to their growing fears of the ongoing dissension
within Chinese society. China's intellectuals realized that they
were no longer standing on high moral ground, and became confused
about what their purpose was in relation to the state. The Chinese
people were also growing weary of Mao's ideologies and were even
beginning to question whether the implementation of those
ideologies had done more harm than good. This was something he
could not tolerate.
This intolerance marked the beginning of what is known to
historians as "The Great Leap Forward," a misguided
program aimed at increasing agricultural production and creating
overnight economic success. The plan was to employ millions of
farmers in the construction of roads, dams, and backyard steel
furnaces, but the only notable result from this plan was a sharp
reduction in the amount of food being produced. Although the
transfer of industries to local control began as the primary agenda
in "The Great Leap Forward," through causing an epidemic
of famine, it wound up killing approximately 30 million people.
"The Great Leap Forward" in reality forced China to take
huge steps backward in its economic and social development. This
breakdown of Chinese society was a direct result of a totalitarian
regime's effort to industrialize too rapidly, and the death count
is reflective of the regime's blatant disregard for humanity.
Chairman Mao also launched "The Socialist Education
Movement" in the early sixties, whose primary purpose was to
restore ideological purity. This movement was designed to stir up
excitement and ardent support for the revolution, while at the same
time intensifying the class struggles which were already prevalent.
The drafting of intellectuals for manual labor was part of the
party's plan to inspire professionals and intellectuals to develop
a higher regard for the party's objectives. Anti-Maoists were
especially annoyed with Mao's relentless efforts to promote his
propaganda, which not only served to reinforce the party's
ideologies, but to slander the priority system and beliefs of the
After the Mao had no choice but to resign himself to the failures
of "The Great Leap Forward" and "The Socialist
Education Movement," he began to become increasingly less
important in Chinese Government, acting almost solely as a
figurehead. The one place where Mao's influence had not yet
diminished, however, was within the People's Liberation Army. Mao
used the influence he had over its governing Defense Committee to
instigate "The Cultural Revolution," which lasted from
1966 to 1976.
[End of quote.]
Perhaps the real
irony of Dunn's speech is that she spoke about a Communist and a
Roman Catholic at an Episcopal graduation that took place in a
church and, apparently, no one was outraged--that is, not until FOX
News recently discovered and exposed the video of Dunn's speech.
Although there seems to be nothing on the St. Andrew's website
that would indicate political radicalism, there is also no
statement of condemnation of Dunn's remarks.
Now, why couple
Mao and Mother Teresa together? To get the audience's attention?
Perhaps. My own reaction is that the inclusion of Mother Teresa
tends to give Mao credibility. (There is even a certain quality
of alliteration with the t and m sounds.) Rather
than ironic, it is confusing. Dunn put two very different people
into the same category--two people to whom she turns most often to
make her point. And, she did this without any rejection of Mao's
policies or acknowledgment of Mao's cruelty. Regarding her point,
at least, Mao Tse-Tung and Mother Teresa are leveled off as equally
great and appropriate for American graduates.
Depending on the
academic excellence and political awareness of the high school
graduates, this sanitized version of Mao could lead to some faulty
conclusions. If Mother Teresa, then Mao. If Mao, then revolution
and socialism. If revolution and socialism, then the means
justifies the end. Therefore, I can follow my own path and
fight my own war--just like Mao--regardless of the consequences.
Why not? Mrs. Dunn said I could and she works for President
Let us hope that
some of the graduates got out their old textbooks and refreshed
their knowledge of Chinese history, or did some research on the
internet, or--listened to FOX News. (Written 11/13/09: bibliography available.)
Until we meet