Thursday, November 04, 2010

Anti-American Art: I Am The Manchurian Candidate

It's the armed peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America rising up against American imperialism again, in super-saturated colors and, well, some pretty imaginative "native dress." It's a Chinese cultural revolution poster from the 1960s, and I actually once owned this poster; I bought it as a young teen in the early 1970s, though my poster ended up ripped and ragged and didn't survive my youth.

We lived for a few years in Evanston, the first suburb just north of Chicago. The transition from Chicago to Evanston isn't really noticeable; the visual shift to suburb starts to happen part way through Evanston towards Skokie. It was not ranch houses and perfect lawns. Anyway the first actual house we lived in was right by Northwestern University, and in a row of shops nearby was the Peking Book House. It was a Chinese government propaganda outlet; I'm not sure how it operated since this was right before the post-Nixon normalization of relations and the lifting of the trade embargoes. In the days when any Chinese immigrant was presumed to be a refugee from Communism, Mr. Chen and his shop clearly bucked that trend. He had a huge selection of Chinese posters, pamphlets and books, plus Mao buttons and a whole rack of blue or green Mao jackets with matching caps. He had a wall of Little Red Books --the Quotations of Mao Zedong -- in shiny vinyl sleeves in dozens and dozens of languages. I imagine his intended audience was the very international student body of Northwestern and the associated student radical milieu (the Vietnam war was most definitely still on, remember). Though I don't actually recall seeing anyone else in his shop on my frequent visits. (Crazily a google search reveals that the shop and Mr. Chen are still around thirty-odd years later).

You may ask what kind of teenage boy spends his allowance on Mao buttons and revolutionary anti-American posters. Well, the kind who grows up to write a blog like this one! I bought 10-inch LP recordings of Revolutionary Peking Operas -- Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy now replaced by CDs is something I still enjoy listening to. I bought a couple little red books, and frankly the English version is mostly as indecipherable as the Lao version I used to own.

So put this idealized, racially questionable, boldly illustrated poster into the column of highly effective propaganda vehicles. Here I am some latter-day Manchurian candidate, reactivated by the hidden clues first exposed to my tender young brain.

But enough about me. Look at this poster....keep looking. Go ahead, click on it and see it larger. Pay attention to the sound of my voice.... See the pretty bright colors. See yourself in the poster... Feel the righteous wrath of the people around you... You are getting sleepy... you're drifting off into the poster. When I snap my fingers you will awaken and you will be resolutely determined to smash U.S. imperialism...



  1. So how did you avoid turning into a cynical Stalinist? Seriously? As a kid, I was fascinated by those masses of waving red flags, shiny buttons and little books. In high school, I went through a period where I carried around, not only a copy of Quotations From Chariman Mao, but also a copy of Long Live The Victory Of People's War by the subsequently disgraced Marshall Lin Piao. Somehow, I managed to figure out that China was very poor and politically isolated and that all of that "revolutionary" posing really didn't amount to much. There were plenty of Maoist kids around who didn't get that. This was all around 1970 when there were actually a number of groups fighting for Beijing's official approval. In some circles all it took was a couple of red flags, some buttons and a portrait of the people's glorious leader to, if not exactly invoke the spirit of revolution, lay a bad jolt on the squares.

  2. Well, I suppose I must give credit where credit is due. When I got to college right before meeting you, I was walking around in my frayed blue Mao jacket and ran into the Sparts before the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade. I think I would have figured out that Maoism was bullshit pretty soon--Mao died that very year--since I was smart and well informed and round about then the Chinese started supporting CIA-backed counterrevolutionaries against Soviet backed revolutionaries in various African countries. And Trotskyism had a lot more intellectual depth than Maoism.

    The Sparts actually tried to get me to spy on the Maoists when I first met them. A fairly embarrassing brief story I should blog about.

    I have a copy of Long Live the People's War too! You know mid-1970s when Lin Piao became a nonperson everybody in China had to tear the epigraph he had written for the Little Red Book out and rip out any photos of him. I have a few Chinese LRB's with ripped page stubs. It's very "1984".

    A lot of water under that bridge.

  3. PS, a little googling reveals that Lin Piao, was waving the red flag and invoking the revolution by way of proposing a very conservative approach to the US presence in VietNam.
    Further googling turns up this Tea Party discussion group wherein an independent researcher, calling herself "Mama Grizzly", reveals that Long LIve The Victory of People's War is the blueprint for Obama's takeover of the America.
    He has state power. He's the commander of the military. Would he please start rounding these people up and throwing them in the camps they're always going on about.
    Word Verification is "psycno"

  4. Actually, one of my deepest resentments concerning the sparts was all of the creepy times they sent me out to spy on some adversary. I was such a wholesome whitebread looking kid that they set me up repeatedly to hang around some group and act naive. I wanted to be trained as one of their labor leaders but despite the fact that I had an industrial history and I had taken the time to learn a trade, they continued to keep me hanging around university campuses or spying on other groups. Meanwhile they would find the dorkiest former English Lit grad students and send them into industry with the vow that soon they would be leading a section of the class.
    I remember being told that I should not seek work in the metal trades and that one of the comrades could probably get me on as a bus boy in a restaurant. This was after I had gotten myself a union job at a factory that built railcars.
    It's pretty early. I'm still working on my coffee. I'll get over it.