Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Josef Stalin Was a Great Man

I routinely read the Christian Century, both as it arrives in my church in box and online.  It's reflective and "thought provoking," which is a Presbyterian way of saying, "super sexy."  It's why I'm happy to be part of their blog network.

I was reading through a thought piece, part of a recent series on #BlackLivesMatter, when something struck me hard.

It was an essay about the tension between black identity and American identity from the perspective of W.E.B. Du Bois.  It dealt, specifically, with the real challenge of Confederate monuments in the American South.  It was interesting, in a reflective way, up to a key moment.

The authors, in a passing mention about how American racism had radicalized Du Bois, noted that he had written a eulogy for Josef Stalin.  Which, they asserted, was completely understandable.

And then the article moved blithely on presenting Du Bois and his perspective.  As if this was something one just says.  As if this is a perfectly normal thing to encounter.  But my reading of the article came to a grinding halt, the way one stops eating when one encounters a mouse head in your next bite of vegetarian lasagna.

The author provided a link to the eulogy, so I read it.  Read it.  Seriously.  Read it.

Stalin, according to Du Bois, was a great man.  Perhaps the greatest leader of the 20th Century, a man of vision and strength.  A man who got things done.  Sure, there are those who have belittled him.  But they are "jackals" and "ill-bred" and "distempered."

It stirred me to read more about Du Bois, who had some interesting beliefs.  He has some remarkably sharp insights into America's demons of racism, on the on one hand.  On the other, this flirtation with Stalin wasn't just a random thing.  He was a lifelong proponent of socialism...and not the Scandinavian/Canadian model...but the Soviet model.  There are some lovely pictures of him sharing a good laugh with Chairman Mao.  I don't know.  Maybe Du Bois just liked being associated with megadeaths.

And here lies a conundrum for the earnest liberal.  We are presented with an unparsed and unqualified statement praising one of the most quantifiably brutal tyrants of the 20th century.  At a minimum, Stalin's regime executed nearly 1,000,000 human beings.  Millions more died in gulags, and still millions more of starvation through forced and punitive collectivization.  The Soviet Union's own record keeping affirms that.  Stalin was a monster, a deep enemy of all that is good and creative and joyous and human.

Are we to gloss over a statement praising Stalin because the speaker is #black?  We can understand it, sure.  American racism gives it context, and oppression radicalizes.  Are we to "check our privilege," and just nod and listen attentively?

No.  Not if we are to remain both human and grounded in a Christian morality.

I am not obligated, as a human being, to affirm either that statement or that sentiment.   Neither am I willing to treat a thinker like Du Bois as if he is not a moral agent.  If I reduce him to context, attributing his actions to extrinsic systems and social dynamics, I rob him of his humanity.  That would depersonalize him, would render him less than the child of God that he was.

The article reminded me of the selective blindness induced by binary thinking and Othering.  It stirred me to muse about the inherent foolishness of the radical and the ideologue, and the meaninglessness of modern era racial dynamics as a moral category.

It stirred me to think about how complex the human soul can be, and about the deep flaws of human social systems.  It reminded me of the dangers of academic abstraction, which tends to be so focused on concepts and semiotics that it overlooks little things like "evil" and "mass murder."

Good, thought provoking stuff, in other words.  Which is why I read the Christian Century.