Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Holding the Mao


I was watching a golf tournament on a recent weekend when I spied a guy in the gallery wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt.

The image of a Cuban Marxist revolutionary amid a crowd of wealthy people watching even wealthier people at play at a club whose green fees exceed most people's mortgage payment was, well, unusual.

Of course, Che is much more than a romanticized guerilla fighter these days. He's a full-blown pop icon whose image appears on coffee cups and baseball hats, all for sale at a tidy profit. Nothing says "boutique revolutionary" like Che on your chest.

But Guevara is not the only dead Marxist to get the rock star treatment.

The image of Mao Zedong, or Chairman Mao if you will, is the most reproduced in history this side of Jesus Christ, according to some scholars. His likeness adorns restaurants, taxi cabs, tourist trinkets of every size and shape. Books spin Mao's wartime survival tactics into management tips and hip-hop music recordings are made of his trademark theories.

It comes as a bit of surprise, therefore, that the city of Alhambra pulled an artistic Chicken Little act this past week and removed a painting of the former Chinese communist leader from a lunar new year celebration. Someone found the painting an act of "moral perversion" that makes light of a tyrant.

The city, acting in its own tyrannical fashion, decided the sky was falling, yanked the painting, and in the process touched off a loud debate over censorship and the arts. As a result, every artist in the exhibit packed up and left.

The picture in question was no heroic depiction of Mao. This was not the Mao of the Long March. Instead, it was Mao juxtaposed with George Washington, both their faces imposed on piggy banks. It was done in the style of Andy Warhol, whose original Mao portraits made him the darling of the pinot and pop art set some years back.

Adding fuel to this fire was the fact that the debate took place in the San Gabriel Valley, home to America's largest population of Chinese immigrants. Many fled the oppressive yoke of the Communist regime. Others, however, take a longer view, that Mao made China into a global power.

One wonders what kind of civics lessons the immigrant community received from the city of Alhambra.

In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of speech, which has been extended to a generous sense of "expression" - verbal, non-verbal, visual, symbolic.

In China, government censorship, while not total, is pervasive and highly effective, and denies Chinese citizens the freedoms of speech and of the press guaranteed to them in the Chinese Constitution, according to Congressional reports.

If those who are convinced that a fanciful portrait of Mao will somehow result in mass historical amnesia by the Chinese people, here's a suggestion.

Have your own exhibit. Get Mao off the coffee cups and into people's consciousness. Show how his Great Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of much of China's cultural heritage and the imprisonment of a huge number of citizens while creating economic and social chaos. Show how his Great Leap Forward economic reforms resulted in the starvation of millions of peasants.

Use our hard-earned freedom of expression to make your point.

In the meantime, Alhambra city officials should remember this point, made by scholar Sheila Kennedy:

"The government that can determine which ideas are worthy of consideration and which are not is a government with power over the most important of all human functions - the power of the intellect."

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