Sunday, December 11, 2005

# Posted 7:57 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

BRUNCH WITH MAO: On Sunday mornings in Washington, the place to be is at the gospel brunch put on by the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Local choirs perform live in the Gallery's great hall while guests try to persuade themselves that two visits to the buffet are really enough.

Although most buffets sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity, the Corcoran's doesn't. The food this morning was just about on par with the a la carte items I've had at other top shelf destinations for brunch, such as the Old Ebbitt Grill and the Tabard Inn. But you pay for the privilege; brunch costs $24.95 per person, including hot drinks and one champagne cocktail.

Also included is free admission to the Corcoran Gallery itself. The current exhibitions include Warhol Legacy, an extensive show that draws on the collection of the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The works that provoked the most intense reaction from myself and my girlfriend were the numerous portraits of Mao Zedong, all presented together in a room whose walls were covered with Warhol's own Chairman Mao wallpaper.

In the spirit of the great Josh Chafetz, who considers the rebirth of Cuban and Soviet insignia as teen-scene fashion to be thoroughly offensive, I decided to ask my lovely companion why it is that a prominent museum would put on display multiple portraits of a mass murderer without the slightest hint of embarrassment. After all, no museum anywhere in the world would fill an entire room with portraits of Hitler, no matter how artistically impressive they were.

At first, our discussion covered the usual ground. In contrast to Hitler, Mao remains a nationalist hero. In the 1960s and 1970s, the West remained basically ignorant of Mao's most horrific crimes. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Then we hit upon a road less traveled. The fact remains that Mao had the good sense to commit most of his crimes within his own borders. Hitler, of course, didn't. Stalin tyrannized Eastern Europe. Mao played a role in Korea and Vietnam, but we don't think of him as the primary villain in either situation.

Only after sitting down to write this post did I realized that there is one major flaw with the argument presented above: Pol Pot. There is a firm consensus that he was at least as brutal and depraved as Hitler.

So what gives? My new (but partially old) hypothesis is that Mao is somehow more acceptable because he was never the focus of our hatred. In part, this argument draws on the fact that the West remained conveniently ignorant of Mao's crimes while he was committing them. But Stalin was also the darling of American propaganda during WWII, well after committing his mass murders. Yet during the last years of his life, Stalin was the focus of our hatred.

In contrast, Mao never fully emerged from the Soviet shadow. And then, like Stalin, he became our ally. But once again, what about Pol Pot? The Khmer Rouge were never public enemy #1. But there was an almost unquestioned agreement, while the Khmer Rouge were committing their crimes, that they represented a sort of evil found nowhere else in the world.

I know this explanation is far from perfect. In fact, I think part of the problem is that one shouldn't even look for logically consistent answers to questions of public perception and memory. Although it would be nice if we had a consistent approach to mass murderers, the strange course of history leaves us with memories that are far from consistent.

Perhaps this inconsistency explains why despite our self-righteous declarations of 'Never Again', we did nothing about the genocide in Rwanda and are now almost as complacent about mass murder in Darfur.
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I don't know the Corcoran's motives for showing the Mao paintings. But I always read Warhol as poking fun at him. Hell, he got the same treatment as Elizabeth Taylor, but she was way more fabulous.
Not a bad point bf. I think one of the wall plaques suggested that Warhol saw Mao the same way he saw Campbell's Soup: just another generic product, this time an ideology instead of a food. But I would want to know more about Warhol before saying that.
Oh, I think you're on to something with Mao in that we didn't hate him enough. Especially not when he was being kind enough to anchor several Soviet armored divisions on their eastern flank. The USSR was always the main threat to Europe, and it's easy to forget how very Euro-centric the US's world view was just a few years back, not to mention in the height of the Cold War. A classic case of balancing, being played both by the PRC and the US, each for their own advantages. Remember, China led the non-aligned movement.

As for Pol Pot, he was easy to hate, all the moreso in that he was entirely useless to us. Cost-free moral opprobrium.


"In the 1960s and 1970s, the West remained basically ignorant of Mao's most horrific crimes."

But there were reports of his crimes in the 1950's and 60's and 70's, but "progressive" Western academics and journalists preferred to ignore them or, when necessary, discount them and discredit the refugees who made them. The Western left was and remains extremely reluctant to face the truth. The continuing affection for Castro is only one case in point.
I think that one major difference between a room full of Maos vs. a room full of Stalins or Hitlers is the lack of advocates who would demonstrate outrage.

Many Asian Americans and Asians are unlikely to voice their concerns or are not in a position to do so. I think as Asian American identity begins to solidify in the US, we will see more outrage over such an exhibit. We've already begun to see this, since Japanese war crimes have become more of an issue in the last 20 years.
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