Life's Little Lessons

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To
get the answers to any doubts or questions during the Great Cultural
Revolution, what a good Chinese citizen was supposed to do was carry
around a copy of “The Quotes of Chairman Mao,” popularly known as
“The Little Red Book.” Failure to produce a copy upon being asked
could bring on a beating by the Red Guards. It was the Communist
equivalent of “Don’t leave home without it.”

On
the question of war, for instance, Mao explained that massive killing
was OK as long as it was about something progressive, like knocking
off the bosses and landlords or slaughtering the peasants who grew
the tallest wheat and made everyone else feel inadequate: “We Communists
oppose all unjust wars that impede progress, but we do not oppose
progressive, just wars. Not only do we Communists not oppose just
wars, we actively participate in them.”

On
women, Mao advised that the classless utopia wouldn’t arrive until
there were an equal number of men and women bending down and pulling
beets out of the collectivized dirt: “Our fundamental task is to
adjust the use of labor power in an organized way and to encourage
women to do farm work.”

In
another witticism, Mao warned about the dangers of sweet talk: “There
may be some Communists who are not conquered by enemies with guns
and are worthy of the name of heroes for standing up to these enemies,
but who cannot withstand sugarcoated bullets.”

And
if one was feeling a little too independent of the group, a little
too unique or individualistic to be absorbed into the collective,
Mao offered this prescription for those who weren’t exactly sure
of the meaning of life: “Proceed in all cases from the interests
of the people and not from one’s self-interest. The part must give
way to the whole.”

FROM
MAO TO RUMSFELD

Here
at home, Donald Rumsfeld, never one to hide his light under a bushel,
delivered his own mini-version of Mao’s quotes-from-a-great-leader
epistle in “Rumsfeld’s Rules: Advice on Government, Business and
Life,” published in The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 29, 2001,
nine days after he was sworn in as secretary of defense.

Pointing
with no humbleness to his 40 years of top-level experience, Rumsfeld
wrote that many of his “rules, reflections and quotations” came
from “my role as chairman of the ‘transition team’ for President
Ford and my service as White House chief of staff” and “from experiences
as a U.S. naval aviator, a member of Congress, ambassador to the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization, secretary of defense, presidential
Middle East envoy, business executive, chairman of the US Ballistic
Missile Threat Commission, and other experiences.”

And
so, with all that, Secretary Rumsfeld provided us with one of his
key rules for living: “Don’t divide the world into ‘them’ and ‘us.’”
That was, of course, eight months before Mohammed Atta and his team
crashed the passenger jets into the World Trade Center, eight months
before we saw a jovial Osama bin Laden on videotape telling of the
happiness he felt when he saw that his plan to destroy the World
Trade Center had been successful and that nearly 3,000 people had
died, eight months before President George W. Bush declared that
America was determined to “rid the world of evildoers,” and a year
or so before Secretary Rumsfeld began to speak regularly about the
“thugs” and “dead-enders” in Falluja and Baghdad.

In
another of Rumsfeld’s key rules, he offered words of caution to
those of us who might be a bit too impulsive and reckless: “It is
easier to get into something than get out of it.” And that, of course,
was written well before the spread of the insurgency in Iraq, before
the casualties mounted, before the beheadings, before we learned
that the US armed forces were overstretched, and before we were
told that we had a good shot at turning Iraq into a pro-American
model for Arab democracy.

That
last proposition, about turning Iraq into an Arab Massachusetts,
probably best relates to another of Secretary Rumsfeld’s fundamental
rules: “Beware when an idea is promoted primarily because it is
‘bold, exciting, innovative and new.’ There are many ideas that
are ‘bold, exciting, innovative and new,’ but also foolish.”

The
lesson? Perhaps it’s this, from David T. Wolf: “Idealism is what
precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.”

September
30, 2004

Ralph
R. Reiland [send him mail]
is a
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist and the B. Kenneth Simon
Professor of Free Enterprise at Robert Morris University.

Ralph
R. Reiland Archives

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