Richard Cohen: On Celebrating Dictators Like Mao

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Cohen, in the WSJ (7-13-05):

Thumbing through a decorating magazine recently, I came across a bedroom nicely appointed with, among other things, two silk screens by Andy Warhol. One was of flowers and the other was of Mao Zedong, the Chinese dictator who died in 1976 and has since been proclaimed the No. 1 mass murderer of modern times. As a decorating touch, Mao is about as appropriate as Pol Pot or, if you will, John Wayne Gacy -- not easy, after a glance, to turn off the bedside lamp. Nighty-night.

Warhol's Mao silk screens, similar to his more famous ones of Marilyn Monroe, passed the $100,000 mark at the New York auction houses some years ago. They're bright and cheery, but they present a version of the former Chinese dictator that's a bit at odds with historical reality. Recent research holds Mao accountable for 30 million deaths, besting both Hitler and Stalin in that department, and leaving them in the dust when it comes to kinky, disgusting personal habits. Among other things, Mao did not bathe or brush his teeth and satisfied his enormous sexual appetite with an abundant supply of young women chosen for their looks and ideological purity. It's nice to talk dialecticism afterward.

For some time I've wondered what would have happened if Warhol had taken Hitler as his subject -- or perhaps Franco, Pinochet or some other thug of the political right. It wouldn't have worked and he might have been denounced for it. But leftist thugs are a different matter. For instance, Carlos Santana proudly wore a Che Guevara T-shirt to this year's Oscars. What was he celebrating? Firing squads?

I, for one, could not have a Mao portrait in my bedroom lest I wake in the night, screaming from a nightmare about his atrocities. I would think the same about Castro, another hero to some even though, by dint of hard work, he's managed to keep little Cuba on every human rights organization's list of repressive governments. No matter. He talks a good game. A little English lit and a bit of Yanqui bashing go a long way with some.

What's true for Castro is even truer for Che, his one-time compadre in the Sierra Maestra. Che's image is nearly everywhere -- on T-shirts and posters and probably on serving plates. But as Alvaro Vargas Llosa points out in a recent New Republic essay, Che was one of those revolutionaries who cared a lot for the people but not at all for persons. He authorized executions in the hundreds -- some of guilty people, some of innocent people, but what's the distinction anyway when none of them were accorded true due process?...

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