Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Is Mao "Hipster Cool"?

Riding to work this morning, I saw a girl on the subway holding a shoulder bag emblazoned with the image of Mao Zedong. I doubt anyone else on the train thought much of it. Walking around parts of New York City, it's not unusual to see chic references to Communist heroes like Mao, Che Guevara or (somewhat less precisely "Communist") Hugo Chavez, particularly among the ultra-cool hipster crowd. And there are plenty of these products available for purchase.

What should we make of this? Of all the historical figures one could idolize, Mao is low down on the list. His "Great Leap Forward" (which collectivized agricultural production), decimated Chinese agricultural production, leading to the largest famine in human history and the starvation of tens of millions of people. And his "Cultural Revolution" caused further economic ruin, and ushered a frightening period of repression that still grips the country. He's not exactly Gandhi.

Economist Bryan Caplan has been particularly outspoken about the strange idealization of Communism by parts of the Western left-wing. According to Caplan there is a "double standard" that treats Communism more kindly than Fascism:
In my judgment, the main reason for the double standard is that, even today, people believe that the Communists had better intentions than the Nazis...

Perhaps the parallel is hard to see precisely because, even in the West, anti-capitalist propaganda has successfully dehumanized the bourgeoisie, landlords, money-lenders, and "the rich." So when we hear Communists chant "Death to the bourgeoisie," we don't feel the same way we do when we hear Nazis chant "Death to the Jews."
Caplan certainly presents the strongest version of this argument. People who sport such apparel aren't doing so in support of totalitarian rule or purges of enemies of the state. Rather, almost 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, Soviet and Communist imagery has decomposed into an amorphous alternative to capitalism. Images of Mao or the Soviet hammer and sickle symbolize a desire for an economy based on grassroots, commonly owned resources, and away from private property and other institutions that are viewed as leading to inequality in society. Whether or not you agree with their messages, it is quite unlikely that these references are meant to promote all of the horrors of Communist rule in the 20th century.

Then again, what if someone justified wearing a swastika on their arm by saying they were merely advocating a society where the trains run on time?

Any thoughts?

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