Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mao-Maoing the Beck watchers

My apologies to Tom Wolfe.

By now you’ve no doubt heard of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn’s jaw-dropping paean to mass-murdering communist dictator Mao Zedong, first reported on Glenn Beck’s show. You might find the official “explanations” convincing. I don’t.

So what’s the deal? Is Dunn really a Maoist, or at least soft on Maoism?

There’s at least one alternative explanation. This incident reminded me of a bizarre student paper I read many years ago. The student had expressed an interest in writing something on the Marquis de Sade, and showed me some article about de Sade the student had been reading which was written from a pro-life point of view. I said it would be OK as long as the student could guarantee that the paper would be critical and argument-oriented – that is to say, that it would be an objective philosophical analysis of actual arguments and ideas, not a mere history lesson or political harangue.

After it was turned in and I started reading it, I could barely believe my eyes. It was, for one thing, little more than a recounting of the usual shocking facts about de Sade – his sexual perversions, physical abuse of women, rhapsodic descriptions of rape and torture, etc. But that wasn’t the beauty part. What was bizarre was how it was all summarized in a banal, matter-of-fact World Book Encyclopedia fashion – and then concluded with some commencement-speech style bromides about how de Sade “thought for himself” and “stood up for what he believed in” despite opposition from the political and religious authorities of his time. There was no acknowledgment whatsoever that de Sade’s views and actions, or the paper’s own “conclusions,” might be thought just a tad controversial (yes, even today!). No acknowledgement, much less any attempt to answer, the critical remarks about de Sade made in the pro-life oriented article which, as it turned out, had been the student’s only source material. Nor was there any hint whatsoever that the paper was the expression of some weird half-baked sexual nihilist philosophy arrived at, in standard college student fashion, via late-night, half-assed readings of Nietzsche and Anaïs Nin. Nor was it remotely well-written enough plausibly to reflect a clever attempt at satire. No, at bottom it had all the passion, grace, cliché-riddenness and general intellectual value of something acquired from a term paper mill.

So what was going on? Well, as near as I could figure, basically this: The student had to write on something and grabbed whatever was at hand as a topic, which for whatever reason happened to be this pro-life article on de Sade. The paper was then “written” by summarizing the facts cribbed from the article and then tossing in the usual “be yourself” clichés the student had picked up from the surrounding culture as a conclusion. Print it out, turn it in, and on to the next class. It was, I think, really that innocent – and therefore that awful.

The student’s name was not Anita Dunn, but – as you know if you’ve heard Dunn’s preposterous speech and noted what an exercise in the “banality of evil” it was – the similarities are otherwise striking. And it may be that Dunn’s mind has simply been so thoroughly rotted out by the surrounding liberal individualist culture and its endless celebration of “doing your own thing,” “being yourself,” “standing out from the crowd,” “thinking differently,” etc. etc. ad nauseam that as she prepared her speech, the first thing she thought of when she came across the Mao story she recounts is not “But this guy killed 65 million people!” but rather “Wow, he really believed in himself – this would make an inspiring anecdote for the kiddies!”

So, maybe Dunn is just a complete dimwit.

And then again, maybe she is a commie scumbag.


  1. Without having read Dunn's comments (who has the time?), I still dare to wonder if the only two real possibilities are those represented by your “maybe Dunn is just a complete dimwit” and “maybe she is a commie scumbag.”

    Though hardly one who would ask what Jesus would do, I do ask whether or not Aristotle or Thomas would have left things framed as you did. (There is, I concede that remark about David of Dinant.) I so ask as a new reader who appreciated your recent postings on the varieties of Thomism.

  2. Hello Richard,

    Well, I advise you to read or listen to them first, then, before judging that I have been too harsh. And re: the tone, I think Christ's references to the Pharisees as whitened sepulchres and a brood of vipers, his taking the whip to the moneychangers, etc. was at least as harsh as anything I've said.

    But if my language is too indelicate for your tastes, substitute "gravely lacking in moral and political wisdom" for "dimwit," and "beholden to ideas which are gravely evil" for "commie scumbag." Then listen for yourself to her remarks and see whether you think there's a plausible third possibility.

    And when considering your answer, ask yourself what you'd think if she had instead used, for her example of inspiring perseverance, Hitler's rise to power. Ask yourself whether it would be relevant to the question of her wisdom and/or true political leanings to note that it was just the "struggle," and not the ideology, that she meant to put forward as an example. Surely to use Hitler as an example for the young would have been obscene. Using Mao is no less so. And sometimes using harsh, impolite, unacademic language is the only way accurately to convey the magnittude of such obscenities.

  3. Isn't amazing how persons of the religion of "Nice-ianity" strongly object (frequently, intemperately so) to blunt statements, and then almost always try to use Jesus Christ, of all people, as the hammer to with which to pound down the nails of others’ “rudeness” in speaking plainly?

    Also, isn’t it amusing that the same thing, said verbosely, or indirectly, doesn’t seem to rile them as much?

  4. My guess is that Dunn talks this way about Mao because its a fashion statement, given the people she hangs out with. She's either so out of it, or so overconfident, that she thinks she can talk this way to the public at larget Her speech was a look through an empty head into a culture. Heaven help us.

  5. And 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, 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 are no one else’s.

    These are the words of an intellectual lightweight. I understand from the NYT, (likely providing cover for the White House), that the speaker now claims her words were intended as irony, "simply" as a way to introduce a "larger point" (as if irony, especially to high school students, ever is simple...) Then, she laughs as if the entire episode is merely a joke no one "gets." Her comments were made to a captive high school audience.

    At best she is both intellectually and historically moronic. Likewise, the woman exhibits extremely poor judgment. If she were not the Obama administration's communication director, none of this would make any sense. But, as she is, who can be surprised, at all?

  6. Hi, Edward.

    Perhaps Jesus himself should have asked "What would Jesus do?"

    At any rate, I enjoyed your nicely spirited response. Given, however, that concern with time I have, I will concede your points and save my energies for the opportunities for some more fruitful, in the long run, philosophical exchanges that I anticipate seeing arise in the future.


  7. One more comment, if I may. It is interesting she chose Mao as her reference. Obviously any historical ruler faced "challenges" similar to those the speaker cited. But, if we limit ourselves to brutal contemporary dictators, why was Mao instead of, say, Stalin, Hitler, or any of the lesser examples (Pol Pot, Che/Castro, the various Eastern block Soviet strongmen, Saddam, et al) discussed?

    Many have commented that those committed to Obama share the same or similar psychology exhibited by the average followers of Mao--i.e., an embrace of the cult of personality. I say average followers, because it is certainly not clear that those closely associated with Mao were anything but cynical opportunists, using the cult as a way to further their own situations. At the same time, to their credit, a few finally had enough (for instance, Lui Shao-chi and Lin Baio, although it appears that others, such as Jiang Qing, were both true believers and opportunists to the end).

    I suspect that the communications director, in addition to being, from a practical political standpoint, distinctly unqualified for her job (she was caught red handed, not the mark of someone either politically savvy or well versed in communication skills) is, nevertheless, a true believer, accepting Obama's higher mandate. Because of this, her naivete in public speaking is also likely coupled with a certain hubris, knowing that, on a "higher" level, she is on the right side of history.

    Now, as a person the director would at least be interesting if she showed some insight in to her behavior, and showed at least a basic foundational knowledge anent her ostensible topic: political philosophy. But her words betray a very superficial intellectual ground, and her later "ironic" explanation (she stated her use of Theresa and Mao were ironical because they were not philosophers) begs the question, "Who are the political philosophers she esteems?" Unfortunately, the MSM will probably not ask this question, although it is certainly an appropriate one. My guess is that her answer might consist in a blank look. On the other hand, if honest she might cite someone like Alinksy, or worse.

  8. Edward,

    I had not blogged about this incident because I couldn't think of anything more interesting to say about it that "Wow, what an idiot!" So now you've said the thing I should have come up with, but didn't. Good post!

    PS. I've been reading your book on Nozick while writing on ASU myself, and I think it is excellent.

  9. The example was so inapt and the moral was so pedestrian that it reminded me of Alice in Wonderland: "And the moral of that is...oh, 'tis love, 'tis love that makes the world go around!".

    I'm surprised there wasn't a bigger controversy about this, though. Imagine someone in public office expressing admiration for Mother Teresa! Haven't they read the Missionary Position by Christopher Hitchens?

  10. "I'm surprised there wasn't a bigger controversy about this, though. Imagine someone in public office expressing admiration for Mother Teresa!"

    That's a good (and amusing) point.

  11. "...some weird half-baked sexual nihilist philosophy arrived at, in standard college student fashion, via late-night, half-assed readings of Nietzsche and Anaïs Nin."

    Wow, that describes one of my old housemates to a T. He was also real big into Sartre. Except that he'd been out of college for 10 years. Didn't know it was a common enough outlook to be cliched; he certainly thought of himself as a having a rather keen and highly cultivated intellect.

  12. Hello all, thanks for all the responses -- recovering from a cold and all the usual busy-ness, so I've been remiss in responding, sorry.


    No prob, thanks. And I enjoyed your variation on WWJD.


    Thank you! And sorry about all the italics in On Nozick. That's one time a copy editor _should_ have given me hell (and one of the reviewers of the book did give me hell over it!)


    I knew a few people like that back in the day. They always seemed to dress in black...

  13. Hi folks! Mao has a lot to say on resistance, imperialism and compradors and so on and so forth, which is completely separate from his actual policies. Your reaction is like if one person said, "I am inspired by many of the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church" and the other reacted with feigned horror saying, "The Church? But burning heretics and witches and scientists! The castrati, child abuse and the Spanish and the Goan inquisitions!!!"