Silence of the lambs

It’s proving harder than I expected to shake off the image of White House Communications Director Anita Dunn praising Mao Zedong at a commencement speech in June.

The videotape of her evoking one of her “favorite political philosophers” before an audience of graduating teenagers and their parents has a blandly sinister quality that’s all the more gripping for its echoing, tinny sound — a consequence of the soaring architecture of the National Cathedral, where Dunn gave the speech.

The discovery that a member of the Obama administration expressed admiration for the thinking of a collectivist tyrant is, while disappointing, not so surprising. Dunn is hardly the first acolyte of the president to publicly esteem foreigners with extremely bad ideas (see: Ayers, William).

It’s also true that we can all agree with Hitler and Stalin that two plus two equals four. We might even agree with Mao and Dunn that each man should fight his own war, if only in the lightest, most metaphorical way.

No, what’s so disconcerting is the thought of all those upturned faces, row upon row, in the cathedral’s great interior that day — all those impressionable young people, hearing an avatar of the Obama administration talk sympathetically about how, in 1947, Mao was being challenged from within his own party about his plan to take over China. (I know, right? What odds! What a guy!)

All those parents, listening to the speaker evoke one of the past century’s most accomplished mass murderers. The whole earnest, hopeful audience, tittering when Dunn infelicitously used the word “coupled” in juxtaposing Chairman Mao with one of her other favorite political philosophers, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 

One burst of nervous mirth, then quiescence. That’s what I can’t shake: The silence of all those people, trapped in the glare of the moment and unable if only from sheer politeness to express any discomfiture at the deeply unpleasant choices made by the woman brought in to mark their child’s great milestone.

Imagine if you are there. Your child is graduating and some dame from the Obama White House has turned up to give the main speech. It’s exciting! And you’re nodding and beaming proudly and glancing toward the young person for whom you’d leap in front of a train for, for whom you have groaned under the weight of private school tuition (that’s the audience Dunn was addressing), when suddenly the speaker’s voice starts talking about Chairman Mao.

Chairman Mao, you think? The 70-million-dead Mao? Re-education camp Mao? Totalitarian, one-child policy, political-power-grows-out-of-the-barrel-of-a-gun Mao?

And what can you do? Hiss? Turn to the person next to you and complain loudly? Of course you don’t, because it would be rude. And in any case, you’re done — the kid is graduating and there’s no point stirring things up, or identifying yourself as one of Those Parents who cause a fuss, who draw looks and careful questioning at the reception afterward, whose wheel is altogether too squeaky.

We live, so our children tell us, in a free country. You would not know it from observing many, many school events. You would think that, when the librarian uses a Thanksgiving read-aloud as an excuse to promote vegetarianism, a parent would speak out right away. She won’t.

You would think that when the music class performs a ballad to Obama, some parent will object loudly. Unlikely. You would think when elementary school students are given Shepard Fairey portraits of the president to color, some parent will complain. Nope.

This week, one parent talked about how it felt to be addressed by Mao-admiring Dunn. 

“My heart kind of sunk is really what it was,” the man told Fox News’ Glenn Beck. “And it was mixed emotions of, you know, being really proud of my son who is getting out of high school and moving on to bigger and better things, and just wanting to enjoy that day to the max, you know, with family and friends, all of that, and then — but having this sunken heart feeling of, you know, why did she go there?”

The father who so bravely “spoke out” on Fox did so only after the network agreed to disguise his voice and shield his face. His son has graduated. He isn’t saying anything very dramatic or critical. Yet, he’s still afraid. In the Age of Obama, that ought to haunt everyone.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.

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