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 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 dialectics 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 when none of them was accorded true due process?
Whatever it is that explains how thugs on the left remain heroes long after their thuggery has been exposed has now attached itself in a way to Saddam Hussein. I don't think he is quite ready for T-shirts or coffee mugs, but when the war in Iraq is denounced, Hussein is often not mentioned at all. Michael Moore managed to leave him on the cutting room floor in his cartoon of a documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," and he gets similar (non)treatment in the upcoming documentary "Why We Fight." From these and other sources you would think that the nature of Hussein and his regime had nothing to do with the decision to go to war. But Hussein figured prominently, even paramountly, in why some of us originally supported the war and why some people still do. The man is a beast.
It's hard, in a mere column, to account for why parts of the left have such a selective concern for human rights -- in one place but not another. (The right does, too, but that's a different column.) Certainly it has to do with rhetoric, the stirring appeal to revolution and equality that rightists so lack. Maybe it has to do with enemies. Since Castro or Che, for instance, are loathed by the right, the left adopts them. But if elements of the left are reactive, so are others. In the months before the Iraq war, some of the antiwar arguments were so repugnantly simplistic they brought out the hawk in me. People, get real.
It is odd. Back in 1972, when Warhol made his Mao silk-screens, I might have bought them. But in subsequent years, so much has been revealed about Mao that I cannot look at the silk-screens without thinking of a fetid old man, indifferent to human life, whose portrait, then and now, says more about us than it ever did about him. Life does not have to imitate art. Sometimes, it can rebuke it.