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Audacity of Propaganda,
Part I

Part II
Part III

Natalia J. Garland

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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 campaign.

Dunn's background 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.


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.
[End of quote.]

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 clarity.

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 Mao Zedong.


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 pursue!"
[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:


"...the Communists are a disease of the heart."
[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 textbook further.


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 school graduates.


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 intellectuals.

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 Obama.

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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2009 Natalia J. Garland