"Why are You Reading that Little Red Book?"

Just when you think it can’t get crazier, it gets crazier. Aaron Nicodemus, a journalist with the southern Massachusetts newspaper The Standard-Times, reports that in October of this year a senior at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth was visited by federal agents and questioned about a book he had ordered through inter-library loan. Apparently U Mass librarians are cooperating with the USA-Patriot Act. You know, the one that’s all about Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism. The book was for a research paper he was doing for a course on fascism and totalitarianism taught by Professor Robert Pontbriand, a specialist in European intellectual and cultural history. The agents visited the student after he ordered a book that is, they informed him, on a “watch list.”

The book being watched? No, not some Islamist tome, al-Qaeda training manual or technical work on explosives, but a well-known book the whole text of which you can find online or order from amazon.com. It’s Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung, also known as the “Little Red Book,” a book once rivaling the Bible in circulation. To really monitor its readership would involve watching all internet access to the text, purchases of the book, and library loans of it. A formidable task and insane waste of FBI time, surely. But these are mad times.

The book is available in various western editions, but Prof. Pontbriand apparently suggested to the student that he use the edition published in Beijing, and since that wasn’t available in the university library, he ordered it from another institution. Again, you can buy this attractive little volume in its durable red plastic cover any time you want. I have a copy in my office. Plus a copy in the original Mandarin, and another in Japanese, both published in Beijing and gifts from friends. It’s all legal, I believe. But this student, having ordered the library book, and thereby fallen under the investigative gaze of the feds, got a knock on his door at his parents’ house in New Bedford, Massachusetts, my state, the most liberal state in the union. Its Senator Kennedy was saying of President Bush’s illegal surveillance practices, just as this story was coming out: “This is Big Brother run amok.”

According to the Standard-Times article, only the imported Chinese edition of the book is on the watch list. (I believe the book has been republished in India too, by Maoists, and so that version might be watched as well.) The fact that the youth acquired it, and had also had “spent significant time abroad” caused the feds sufficient concern to grill him about what he was up to. The student’s name is being withheld “because he fears repercussions should his name become public.” Imagine that, a college year old kid having to be afraid for ordering a book at his prof’s recommendation over inter-library loan. The course doesn’t to me sound remotely pro-communist, to say nothing of pro-terrorist, but having taken it and tried to do the work he gets this intimidating call. He’ll probably think twice about ordering or reading books by Mao in the future.

One of the student’s history professors, Brian Glyn Williams (a specialist in Islamic history), told Nicodemus “he had been planning to offer a course on terrorism next semester, but is reconsidering, because it might put his students at risk.” Maybe that’s the point. Scare the “reality-mode” scholars from teaching about sensitive topics or assigning controversial works. I think of David Horowitz’s “Campus Watch” operation, and Lynn Cheney’s “American Council of Trustees and Alumni,” both designed to discourage dissent in academe. But the focus of those wishing to intimidate has generally been on dissent from Middle East policy, rather than academic interest in Mao, and I can’t see the feds really interviewing everybody who checks out Mao’s works published in Beijing or anywhere from the library. They might keep some record, but surely they have other priorities.

One way this story might start to make a little bit of sense (from the agents’ point of view) is if the student’s “significant time abroad” was spent in a country with a significant Maoist insurgency, like Nepal, the Philippines, or India. The U.S. government has expressed deep fear that Nepal may be on the brink of a Maoist seizure of power. Nepal isn’t particularly important to Washington, but neighboring India is enormously important and one of the great under-reported stories of 2005 was the strong resurgence of militant Maoism throughout that country. The Maoist movements in India, Nepal and elsewhere in South Asia are aligned with one another. In the Philippines, too, the New People’s Army led by the Communist Party of the Philippines has made advances in recent years. The U.S. State Department lists Maoist parties in all these countries as “terrorist organizations”—an absurd misapplication of the term, intended more than anything to vilify them, conflate them in people’s minds with real terrorists like al-Qaeda, and discourage Americans from supporting them in any way. Perhaps the student was seen as a possible sympathizer and asked, “Why are you reading Mao? Are you a Maoist? Have you had any contacts with this Maoist group that’s on our list?” Pleased that the “Patriot” Act is in trouble and that the administration’s illegal surveillance practices are under fire, I still when imagining such interrogations feel a deep chill. Maybe that’s the point.

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Correction: In my November 27 Counterpunch piece on Nepal, I stated that the pact recently signed between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the seven parliamentary parties to coordinate actions against the king “specifies that ‘after ending autocratic monarchy’ the Maoists as well as the Royal Nepali Army will disarm under UN or other international supervision. So as long as the king is in place, and his army extant, the Maoists will retain their weapons.”

In fact, the pact does not commit the Maoists to disarm but rather to accept international supervision over their armed force during the holding of elections, and appears contingent upon the agreement of the Royal Nepali Army to do the same. The agreement states:http://www.kantipuronline.com/

“an understanding has been reached to keep, during the holding of constituent assembly elections after ending autocratic monarchy, the armed Maoist force and the royal army under the supervision of the United Nations or any other reliable international supervision, to conclude the elections in a free and fair manner and accept the result of the elections.”

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu


Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu