Paul Robeson: A Watched Man by Jordan Goodman

Paul Robeson: A Watched Man, by Jordan GoodmanIf you’ve ever wondered just how far government agencies will go to keep us safe from ideas that they find dangerous, this account of the US government’s sustained attack on the singer Paul Robeson will make fascinating reading.

Robeson never participated in or advocated violence or crime, and yet he was placed under continuous surveillance for years, called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, had his passport confiscated and subjected to arbitrary restrictions that almost killed both his career and his health.

The official State Department justification for depriving Robeson of the right to travel was that:

[The Secretary of State] disapproved of the political ideas previously expressed by [him], and disapproved of [his] association abroad with persons of a similar political bent.

In a country priding itself on the right to freedom of speech, statements like these are astonishing, and yet they occur frequently throughout the book. Jordan Goodman has combed through the archives and created a frightening picture of Cold War paranoia and its effects on one man.

Later on in the same statement we get a glimpse of the real problem. Robeson, it says, had:

been for years extremely active politically on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa … Though this may be a highly laudable aim, the diplomatic embarrassment that could arise from the presence abroad of such a political meddler, traveling under the protection of an American passport, is easily imaginable.

The United States was, at the time, engaged in a fight to the death with a bitter opponent, and so considered infringements on civil and human rights totally justified in a time of war. Sound familiar? Communism changes to terrorism, and the results remain the same. The US government is currently engaged in activities which we would normally consider completely unacceptable, but which we shrug at because they are aimed at ‘terrorists.’ Assassinations, illegal abductions, torture, drone strikes … hey, it’s all fair game, because this is a time of war. It’s reminiscent of the 1950 McCarran Act, used against Robeson, which stated that people involved in the Communist movement “are effectively discounting themselves as Americans.” Again, the usual rules do not apply. At the time, it seemed justified to many people; in hindsight, it seems barbarous. If only we could get to hindsight a little more quickly.

That’s what makes this a timely and important book. At times there’s a bit more detail than is strictly necessary. Robeson’s battles with the State Department and other US government agencies were protracted and complicated, and we don’t really need to hear about every twist and turn of the various hearings and appeals and bureaucratic procedures. Well, the general reader doesn’t anyway, although I can see that the detail would serve a purpose for some readers.

For me, the value of the book lies less in the detail of Robeson’s legal struggles, and more in painting a picture of a time in which a US citizen could lose his right to due process because of his political beliefs, and in which attending a Paul Robeson concert could meaning running a gantlet of patriotic protesters shouting “Lynch the fucking niggers!” and “Hitler was a good man. He should have killed all the Communists and Jews!”

It’s easy, of course, to criticise the U.S. government or its people, particularly when looking back at the 1950s. It’s less easy, but more important, to recognise that similar things can happen in any society at any time. When some people’s beliefs are considered so beyond the pale that they should no longer be protected by the constitution or the law, it’s a very dangerous time. We have to be vigilant in protecting the rights even of those with whom we most strongly disagree. We certainly can’t trust our governments to do it for us.

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