Monday, January 19, 2004

U.S. Postal Service honors Stalinist 

The United States Postal Service is issuing a stamp commemorating Paul Robeson, a local icon in Princeton. The Trenton Times describes Robeson as "sometimes controversial," and sides with those who view him as a precursor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Robeson, an All-American football player who graduated from Rutgers College and Columbia Law School, subsequently gained international renown as a singer and actor during the 1920s.

The youngest of five children born to a minister who escaped slavery at age 15, Robeson parlayed his stage and screen fame into social activism, championing racial equality and workers' rights.

But his outspoken political beliefs, association with the Communist Party and admiration for the Soviet Union drew scorn from the U.S. government.

The Times further reports that Robeson was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and that he had his passport revoked during the height of the Cold War. The article contains no explanation as to why this might have happened, leaving the impression that Robeson was just another show business type victimized by Joe McCarthy. No wonder people are thrilled to put him on a stamp.

There is another side to this story. I am far from an expert on Paul Robeson (although I drive down Princeton's Paul Robeson Place a couple of times a week, which should count for something), but you don't have to do much work (try Googling "Paul Robeson") to figure out that he revered Stalin. Read his tribute to Stalin, "To you beloved Comrade," on the occasion of Stalin's death in 1953. For all his artistic achievements and his manifest political courage, he was an American Stalinist. Robeson honored the second or third most murderous political leader of the 20th Century (I've always been a little unclear on the whole Hitler, Stalin, and Mao bodycount thing, and don't really care to sort it out -- once your list of victims gets into the tens of millions you're really murdering at an industrial scale, which puts you in a very select club).

So are we putting Paul Robeson on a stamp (and naming streets after him) because decades of public support for Stalin is just a detail? Was Robeson's courage in the expression of his political beliefs so redeeming that it trumps the substance of his political beliefs? That is a strange thought, since courage per se would not seem to me a basis for redemption. There were many courageous Nazis, many courageous Japanese, and there are apparently a great many courageous Arabs.

There may be all kinds of ways to explain away the substance of Robeson's reverence for Stalin, and it might be that if I knew more about Robeson I would be all for the stamp and the street and such. But why would the Trenton Times, which is actually a decent paper, completely ignore this side of Robeson? Perhaps we should call Ann Coulter and ask her point of view!


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