Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?
Bill de Blasio doesn’t know the correct answer to Groucho Marx’s question, but whoever it is he’s surely a no-good racist worthy of disinterment and exile to Hart Island’s potter’s field. Such is the fanatical mentality underlying the push to imitate the Taliban, the Vandals, and other historical villains who sought to erase history and public art.
The mayor established a commission to recommend the removal of statues and public honors to those deemed unworthy. “We have to look at everything here,” the mayor insisted on Wednesday. Since people living in the past largely lived as creatures marinated in their times, the crusade considers Grant, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, and figures of massive import in shaping the United States of America. But several other figures, who sought to tear down the United States of America instead of building it, appear as better candidates for removal.
“Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands,” singer-athlete-actor-activist Paul Robeson eulogized his hero. Before the tyrant’s death, the Soviet Union awarded a Stalin Peace Prize to Robeson. After the singer-athlete-actor-activist’s death, New York City put Robeson’s name on several schools in Brooklyn.
P.S. 191 Paul Robeson seems like what de Blasio referred to when he announced a committee to rid the city of offensive memorials. But don’t expect the mayor to jettison the honor for the crank-communist who called the Moscow Show Trials “justice.” In fact, an earlier purge of dead, white males — students used to call a Brooklyn high school named for the Stalinist “Alexander Hamilton” — put Robeson’s name on a Brooklyn high school before its failure to educate resulted in another name change (kind of like how Communists now call themselves “progressives” after self-inflicted damage on their brand).
Eight years ago, New York named a Manhattan avenue after W.E.B. Du Bois. Like Robeson, Du Bois called Stalin a “great” and “courageous” man. He also issued kind words for Nazi Germany when he traveled there in 1936, writing an article called “The German Case Against Jews” that repeated justifications of Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The NAACP twice kicked Du Bois out of the organization he once founded, initially during the Great Depression for advocating segregation and finally during the immediate postwar years for his ties to the Communist Party, an organization he ultimately joined before renouncing his U.S. citizenship. In Communist China, which once celebrated a national holiday in honor of a Du Bois visit, and the old Soviet Union, which awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize (by renaming the peace prize, the USSR, unlike Du Bois and Robeson, cut ties with Stalin), The Souls of Black Folk author seems like a fit for tribute. But in the United States the same arguments for taking down monuments to people who rebelled against the United States apply to him.
New Yorkers elected Samuel Dickstein to represent them in Congress. Instead, he represented Moscow. More than four decades after his death, researchers confirmed in the Soviet archives his work as an agent for Stalin. New York City strangely honors the man that his more perceptive Russian handlers dishonored with the code name “Crook” with a Samuel Dickstein Plaza on the Lower East Side.
Strangely, these and other figures (Vito Marcantonio, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey) officially lionized by the city, do not come up when the mayor speaks of ripping down memorials. Instead, radicals decry monuments to the explorer who discovered America and the father of the republic.
Like invading Grant’s tomb, beating up the dead emits a ghoulish stench. The living fixated on denigrating the departed can’t expect posterity to honor them. And perhaps that’s what underlies all this. Men of meager accomplishment seek to distract the public through demagoguery by tearing down monuments to greatness. The great need fear the mediocre far more than the mediocre need fear the great.
When did the city of Midnight Cowboy and Studio 54 and Times Square peep shows and Andy Warhol’s Factory become Boston, a parochial, prudish, puritan peninsula known for banning everything? Perhaps when the guy wearing a red “B” on a blue cap became mayor.