Earlier this week, former All-Pro basketball star Dennis Rodman made headlines around the world for a highly unusual visit to North Korea. "I come in peace," he said on Twitter. "I love the people of North Korea." He also seemed to hit it off with the country's young leader Kim Jong Un, to whom he referred as a "friend for life," taking in an exhibition basketball game featuring the Harlem Globetrotters and posing for smiling photos.
Rodman's comments raised a few eyebrows. The North Korean regime is ranked by Freedom House as the world's most repressive dictatorship, and for good reason: The people of North Korea have suffered for more than 60 years under the family of Rodman's new friend, whose members have allowed millions to starve while building up a mammoth military machine.
Rodman will likely emerge relatively unscathed from the affair, the butt of jokes rather than a target of contempt due to his history of quirky and often inane public utterances. But his antics stand as a vivid reminder of the dumbing down of the phenomenon known as the political pilgrim. The phrase originally described eminent intellectuals, primarily from Great Britain and Europe, who became converts to communism after visits to the Soviet Union. (Vladimir Lenin less charitably referred to them as "useful idiots.") George Bernard Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, André Gide -- all figures familiar in intellectual circles during the 1930s -- returned from visits to Soviet factories, collective farms, and new industrial cities convinced that, as the saying went, they had seen the future, and it worked. They were impressed by the youth, optimism, and ingenuity that predominated under the rule of Joseph Stalin, which they contrasted with the bourgeois decadence of their own, capitalist societies.
The problem, of course, is that the values that had enabled these writers and artists to become famous -- freedom of expression and thought most prominently -- were rejected absolutely under the Stalinist system. When pressed on the absence of freedoms in the vanguard state of world revolution, the original political pilgrims would either deny that artistic repression was suppressed or, in more than a few cases, would justify political control of the arts as a temporary but necessary step in the construction of a genuinely socialist culture.
Eventually, of course, apologetics for Stalin became intellectually untenable and the reputations of the political pilgrims duly suffered. George Bernard Shaw may principally be remembered as one of the greatest playwrights in the English language, but in that chapter of his biography where his political convictions are assessed, he comes across as both too naïve about the propaganda he was being fed by Soviet authorities and too cynical about the importance of intellectual and artistic freedom.
With the onset of the Cold War and, especially, the revelation of Stalin's crimes, the political pilgrim phenomenon underwent something of an evolution. First, Third World revolutions supplanted the Soviet Union as the destination of choice for those seeking alternatives to capitalist democracies. Second, the intellectual level of the pilgrims notably declined. Instead of distinguished novelists visiting Russia, we saw actors, popular musicians, and political activists taking the tour in Vietnam, Cuba, and later Nicaragua under the Sandinistas.