From control to demagoguery

Kalkidan Yibeltal

In Mao’s China, children were instructed in the “Great Leader’s” teachings from a very humble age.  Not only that pictures of Mao were on the jackets of each text book, the contents of the subjects were intended to deepen the students’ comprehension of Mao’s acumens. As Anchee Mee relates to us in FROM MAO TO AMERICA: A WRITER’S REMARKABLE JOURNEY (2004), a typical question in first grade math would be: “During the battle to break an encirclement in a mid-mountain area, fifty of Mao’s Red Army soldiers defeated ten times their number. How many enemy soldiers were there when the battle started?”

The English-Chinese dictionary, which in its preface unashamedly conceded that its purpose was “to serve to win our war with the Imperialists” and that it offered criticism while translating to help readers identify “unacceptable parts that English holds as a language,” defined love as:  “affection, admiration; we have ardent love for our great leader chairman Mao.”Meanwhile the definition for the word last reads: “the only one that’s left; fight the enemy to the last drop of one’s blood.”

Reciting fluently Mao’s important writings, essays, poems and his Little Red Book in its entirety had paid off as Mee was honorably selected by her school to be a youth leader at the age of twelve. She was sent to Shanghai Garrison to be trained in combating skills. Upon her return, she was expected to teach others. And every day all she could dream of was “tying grenades to my body and hurling myself into a group of American soldiers.” She was reenacting, in her head, a scene from a propaganda movie she saw at the Garrison. The hero of the movie lit the explosives, shouting his last words through his radio headphones to his commander, “In my direction fire the cannons! For Mao good bye Comrades!”


However Mee’s patriotic zeal for Mao and Communist China as well as her profound hatred for America started evaporating once she laid her eyes on a television set. A neighbor received the set as a gift from relatives in Hong Kong in the cold winter of 1979. Fearing that he might be accused of indulging himself with a TV, the neighbor offered to share it with everyone in the lane for a couple of days. The public cafeteria wherein he placed the TV was instantly crowded creating “a party that was grander than the New Year’s Eve. Old people came with their canes and the young in their mother’s arms.”

The program had undoubtedly gone through state censorship. For all its intent to elucidate the plights of laid-off American workers who were picketing around Chicago City Hall, it managed to achieve the opposite, at least in Mee’s mind. The workers were not skeletons in rags as they had been portrayed by state propaganda apparatus. And as the camera panned over the background, images of impressive buildings, fancy shops and people eating in neon-sign-decorated restaurants glided. She was left awestruck.  The Universe that had engulfed her all along might actually be built on deception. She could already feel the cracks opening threatening to shatter that Universe. But the ultimate blow came from the subsequent years. As the government loosened its grip and smuggled books and music became commonplace, Mee realized that she was at odds with the official narrative.

Our country, like many others which had to go through Imperial and military regimes, is not a stranger to futile attempts to fully control information, knowledge and narratives with an iron grip. Regrettably, the current government, which boasts of sending the old ways of censorship to grave, does not seem to have effectively shaken off the obsessive, compulsive impulse all the previous regimes manifested; the impulse to control when it comes to information and knowledge. Still petty state propaganda is the norm of the day. Still the education of children is hyper-politicized.


The futility of an authoritarian clutch on knowledge is even more accentuated in the era of ours in which information is, so to say, democratized. However, sadly, the aftermath of this democratization is very much characterized by yet another nemesis of democracy: demagoguery.

As the American conservative economist/pundit Walter E. Williams argues, the greatest tool in the arsenal of the demagogue is ignorance on the part of the audience. The abundance of information doesn’t necessarily predicate wisdom. Thus, quite a number of politicians work vigorously to impair the rational faculty of their audience by appealing to long buried prejudices. They blind whoever cares to listen to them by tapping his/her worst fears and/or grandiose ambitions.



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