Wednesday, July 11, 2007

If You Go Hanging Pictures of Chairman Mao, You Ain't Gonna Make It with Anyone Anyhow

Ethical question today. A student of mine just returned from a research trip to China. I donated a bunch of books for her to take (English language books, especially logic books apparently, are in short supply and, when given as gifts at universities, are greatly appreciated). To thank me for the books, the student brought back a poster of Chairman Mao for me. This student shares my love of irony and the poster absolutely drips of it. It is super-cheesy. A smiling Mao with red book in one hand and waving with the other in a fashion that looks more like he is greeting the Fuhrer.

Aside from the fact that something so campy was treated as serious propaganda, it isn't even the real deal. It's a cheap reproduction made to sell to Western tourists. Yes, Mao's image is now an iconic commodity used by enterprising Chinese capitalists. Irony can be so ironic.

The further thought of going to a local craft store and getting a cheap Chinese made plastic frame to put it in only makes me want to giggle more.

But I hesitate to put it up for two reasons. First, this is the man who led the cultural revolution during which so many died unnecessarily. Is it disrespectful to treat this piece of propaganda, real or not, as a joke, to revel blithely in its humorous sense given the current context? Does it trivialize the fate of those innocent people who suffered and those who were killed dismissing their plight for the sake of a laugh? Or could it be that by mocking such cults of personality, I would be making a statement against dictatorship? Would I be honoring their deaths by standing against tyranny or is that just rationalization?

Secondly, yeah, it'll give conservative students something to titter about. "He's got a Mao poster hanging in his office. The guy's a complete Commie." While I write this blog and my political views are quite public, still there is the real likelihood that the poster will be misinterpreted as admiration or endorsement of his deeds and methods. Are we responsible for misunderstandings that we know will occur? If one is, say, an artist, and your work will be widely misunderstood, say the biting satire of racism you present is so hip and subtle that you foresee its being lauded by the bigots thinking you are really supporting their cause, are you responsible for the results? If you know your work will be misinterpreted and you produce it anyway, does that knowledge then saddle you with the thing you didn't say?

What do you think? Should the poster hang in my office or not?