Sunday, January 20, 2013

Maobama and the Cult of Personality

             All who have studied modern Chinese history – and many who merely have a passing acquaintance with it – are familiar with the extraordinary cult of personality that surrounded Mao Zedong, the leader of China’s communist revolution and the Great Helmsman of the totalitarian Chinese Nation that emerged from it.  With due allowance for deep differences in national culture and history, ominous parallels to the Mao cult have begun to surface in the slavish homage paid to the current American president by the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, and disturbingly large portions of the citizenry.  Fortunately, the intensity of the other portion's complete rejection of this apotheosis should suffice to prevent an American version of the political lunacy that enveloped China during Mao's heyday.

             Although other 20th Century tyrants like Hitler and Stalin exercised similar (and in some respects greater) totalitarian power over their nations, the sheer perversity, the bizarre extremes, and the remarkable persistence of Mao’s personal dominance over the billion-person Chinese nation is unique in many respects.  While Hitler achieved the height of his dark power and popularity only after Nazi Germany had achieved extraordinary industrial and economic expansion and breathtaking military success, the apex of Mao’s personal dominance in China followed in the wake of abject national failures that were largely attributable to Mao’s own mistakes and perversity. 

            Most notable of these failures was the notoriously misnamed Great Leap Forward of 1958-61, Mao’s addle-brained scheme to transform China overnight from a backward agrarian economy to a modern industrial state.  Mao ordered rapid and radical agricultural collectivization and, among other ill-conceived projects, directed that millions of Chinese construct makeshift backyard furnaces in the hopes of rapidly expanding China’s steel production.  The result, instead, was catastrophe.  Rather than a positive transformation of the Chinese economy, the Great Leap Forward resulted in deaths estimated in the range of 18 to 30 or 40 million from famine, mass killings, and other associated disasters.

             Although this dire catastrophe resulted in a temporary setback for Mao and the short-lived rise to power of more pragmatic leaders like Deng Xiaoping, Mao returned to achieve his most radical extremes of cult-like power during the notorious Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that he inspired in 1966 and which lasted for some ten years.  Nearly the entire Chinese nation either went completely berserk in support of Mao's warped notion of continuing radical revolution, or pretended to endorse the madness in a desperate attempt merely to survive the upheaval.  Mao's vanguard in the GPCR were the youthful cadres of Red Guards, who roamed the country at will, spreading political terror and reducing the nation's economic, educational, and cultural institutions to revolutionary rubble.  Failure to adhere to the Thoughts of Chairman Mao in any respect was likely to result in public disgrace or banishment to re-education camps or worse, and woe to any Chinese who failed to carry, study, and obey the maxims of Mao's Little Red Book.  Neither the highest Party apparatchik nor the lowest worker or peasant was safe from the arbitrary attacks of the Red Guards and other GPCR cadres.  Not even revolutionary heroes who had been with Mao throughout the legendary Long March were spared, and pragmatic party leaders like Deng and Liu Shao-chi (who died in a detention camp) were not only removed from power, but forced to march through the streets wearing humiliating dunce caps and signs proclaiming them Running Dogs of Imperialism and Capitalist Roaders.

             Mao died in 1976, but both during and after his reign of arbitrary terror the emblems of his national cult were ubiquitous.  Gigantic portraits of the Great Helmsman, and statuary depicting Mao in various attitudes of revolutionary heroism, loomed over the squares of cities throughout China.  Mao-thought permeated every form of endeavor, from science to art to athletics.  Ridiculous myths were created to embellish Mao's status as a god-like figure, such as the report that in 1966, at the age of 72, he swam 10 miles across the Yangtze River at a barracuda-like pace that would put the fastest Olympic swimmers to shame.  Throughout the madness, such Chinese media as existed (primarily the People's Daily newspaper) were employed as merely another component of the Maoist propaganda juggernaut.
            Circumstances peculiar to mid-20th century China made it a particularly fertile ground for the monolithic cult of personality that arose around Chairman Mao.  The Chinese people had been subjected to oppressive control by successive imperial dynasties for millennia, and had little to no experience of anything approaching freedom or independent political behavior.  And Mao had personally led a successful revolution the sheer scope of which was unmatched in history.  Moreover, there was little ethnic or political diversity in Mao's China.  Roughly 95% of the population at that time was of the Han race.  Most of those of a republican political persuasion had either been eliminated by the Red Army's triumph in 1949 or driven to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek. The national profile was relatively monolithic and homogeneous.  So when Maoism took hold as the dominant ideology in Beijing and other centers of influence, there was little prospect of effective non-conformity, let alone resistance.  Such unique national conditions seem to preclude the prospect that a Mao-like leadership cult could arise in other countries today, let alone in a Western democracy.

            Nonetheless, at a time when an arguably charismatic and inarguably self-absorbed leader has been ensconced in the U.S. Presidency by a docile and subservient majority of the electorate, it is not surprising that ominous parallels are drawn to the cult of personality typified by Maoism.  Indeed, other commentators have already invoked that comparison, with particular reference to Mao, in noting the signs of a "creepy" cult-like elevation of Obama's image that has surfaced in America. .

             Such signs are not hard to find.  The startlingly creepy cover of a current edition of the increasingly absurd Newsweek online magazine lauds the "Second Coming" of Obama, with no apparent misgivings as to the blasphemous implications.  But such blasphemous homage to Obama is hardly novel among the obsequious courtiers in the media and the entertainment industry.  A prominent black actor, whose name does not warrant mention, actually referred to the totalitarian president as "our lord and savior" in a speech at another of those increasingly odious entertainment awards shows that infest the television schedule.  Obama's appearances on TV talk shows, and even in his rare televised press conferences, elicit only fawning servitude rather than the adversarial confrontation that invariably greeted recent Republican Presidents.  As with Mao's Great Leap Forward, Obama's massive policy failures, such as the Health Care Reform fiasco and the wretchedly dysfunctional stimulus package, only seem to reinforce the mindless subservience of his minions in the universities, the unions, the government classes, and the media.

            Indeed, the rock-solid support of a fawning and complicit media presents one of the most striking similarities between Mao's China and Obama's America.  The only sharp distinction is that the government's ownership and control of the People's Daily, and its devotion to the Maoist cause, was explicit, whereas the mainstream American media's subservience and service to the programs of the Obama Administration is unacknowledged.

            Despite the disturbing parallels, however, any closer duplication of a genuine cult of personality in America is prevented by (among other things) the very fortuitous political reality that is relentlessly condemned by the dominant liberal political class.  That reality is the intense partisanship that persists among the electorate, despite the mindless uniformity of the media and its surrounding culture.  Although Obama was re-elected, most of the 47% of the electorate (61 million voters) who voted against him did so with intense and passionate opposition to his policies and programs.  On the very eve of his second inauguration – a time when a President's popularity often peaks – Obama's approval rating is only 48% in the Gallup poll.  Given the relentless and maudlin adulation of Obama that the complicit media imposes daily on the American public, the rejection of Obamaism among nearly half of the population appears to be deeply rooted.  As long as that resistance holds firm, Obama's cult should remain confined to the feckless liberal herd that has blindly followed him from one policy fiasco to another.

             Or, to paraphrase that famous resister Benjamin Franklin, we still have a Republic, if we can keep it.

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