Using Sports for Propaganda

I caught part of Purdue’s drubbing of Rutgers in basketball on Martin Luther King Day on the Big Ten Network. One of the “traditional” practices of MLK Day sports events is the patronizing exercise of reciting uplifting hagiographies of famous black people during breaks.

It may have been Kevin Kugler that was calling the game when the play-by-play man went into the story of Paul Robeson, a Rutgers alum. Not surprisingly he listed Robeson’s extraordinary talents — athlete, scholar, actor, singer and activist.

Then he went into a sugar-coating of Robeson’s political activities, described simply as “taking an interest in civil rights” that was brutally curtailed by blacklisting in the “McCarthy era.”

It’s a little bit more complicated than that. Robeson had mental problems, which manifested themselves later in life. That he had been treated occasionally badly early in life was not questionable but Robeson took everything very personally and was incapable of overcoming confrontations or slights. Combining a hefty personal arrogance and inability to compromise Robeson ping-ponged around intellectually and geographically for years, eventually developing a hatred for the United States and naive love for Marxism. The Soviet Union and its minions (notably East Germany) used him like a mason uses a trowel. He didn’t resist and became marginalized and insignificant, even to many left-leaning Americans. It was a sad waste of great talents.

Robeson’s life is too complicated to be condensed into a 60-second squib written by a PR flack at an American university. It’s sad that viewers were treated to disinformation, with the predictable attack on the “McCarthy era” and hagiographic treatment of someone who was no angel.

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