“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Follow the Science - Accepting The Temporary During COVID-19
And how do we apply the principle of "the temporary" not only to science but to our daily lives?
On a daily basis, we hear that we should "follow the science" with regard to COVID-19. What does that mean in the context of COVID, exactly? Moreover, based on humanity's lived experience of "following the science" what does that mean in general?
By definition, "science" consists of establishing and testing falsifiable hypotheses. Once tested, a hypothesis becomes established as fact until some new element of the testing environment finds it wanting in some respect.
As a result, scientists - or, more likely, a lonely iconoclastic scientist - test a new hypothesis that refines, or even explodes, the previous hypothesis resulting in a new hypothesis. That new hypothesis becomes the latest established fact and subsequent generations marvel at their benighted ancestors who accepted the previous hypothesis.
In other words, "following the science" means accepting the temporary positions of constantly evolving human knowledge. Such knowledge has been historically disproven when more refined measurement, better information, or a genius insight comes along. Given the shortening interval required to double the total sum of human knowledge, these positions become ever more temporary.
In terms of the development of geocentric astronomy, consider the millennium that passed from the ancients to Ptolemy. A mere 500 years passed before Copernicus revolutionized the field with heliocentrism. Only 200 years elapsed before Newton elucidated the laws of motion and gravitation.
True, it was the same 200-year interval that lapsed before Einstein's quantum leap to his theory of relativity. But less than 30 years later Fr. Lemaitre posited the Big Bang theory. Since then our knowledge of physics has evolved at such a dizzying pace that every few years there are groundbreaking discoveries that change our conception (or at least scientists' conceptions) of the universe.
Here's the point: when we "follow the science" we are correct for increasingly short intervals of time. This is because we are continually learning that fundamental elements of our understanding are wrong, or woefully incomplete.
Systems we use to describe the world have gaping holes that render a system such as geo-centrism obsolete with the introduction of heliocentrism. It was inevitable that heliocentrism would be usurped by the concept of an infinite ever-expanding universe - revealing our previous understanding to be at a preschool level compared to a doctoral program.
Following the science has long been the refuge of totalitarians. How did White Supremacists in the antebellum South justify their critical race theory? With science - carefully reasoned studies and tracts that they claimed to demonstrate the genetic inferiority of Blacks.
How did the Nazi party justify its version of critical race theory? With science - carefully controlled experiments on supposed genetic deficient populations carried out by the likes of Mengele.
How did the 20th-century Marxists justify wiping out millions in the Ukraine, the Cultural Revolution, or the Killing Fields - just to name a few? With science - as they touted the revealed truth of Social Science that requires the inevitability of class struggle.
Even the Catholic Church - a supposed "enemy of science" - actually suppressed Galileo in the name of science. The real charge against him was not disagreement with his theories, but that he presented the theories as fact in the face of established science at the time.
Pick your bugaboo authoritarian regime at random and you'll find that each and every one bases its authority on "science".
So, let's bring this back to COVID.
The very same authorities have told us to "follow the science" all along. Not surprisingly, that science is constantly changing. COVID seemed nothing more than a nuisance until it turned into an existential threat to humanity that required shutting down our economy.
That shutdown was supposed to be two weeks so that we could flatten the curve. But then it turned into the oxymoron of eradicating an unstoppable, communicable virus.
Wearing masks was unnecessary until it turned out to be necessary. The virus wasn't transmitted person-to-person until we realized it was transmitted person-to-person.
The Swedish approach to minimizing economic lockdown was a grossly negligent mistake that put lives at risk. But then we realized that lockdowns themselves caused more human harm and suffering than the actual virus. This goes on and on, with breathless anxiety-inducing instructions as to what we should do as responsible citizens.
If we give this a charitable reading, we can assume people are acting in good faith who realize that their "science" changes rapidly as human knowledge of COVID expands. If true, then we should take their revealed science with a healthy dose of salt and wait for it to change in short order.
If we give it a less than charitable reading, then we can assume that this is an agenda propagated by authoritarians seeking power. In an election year during which so much power is at stake, this notion isn't at all far-fetched.
As for me, I go back to simple scientific discussions about diet. During my lifetime I've seen amusing swings in scientific opinion in this regard.
Are eggs good or bad for you? Sometimes eggs have been viewed as a death sentence by cholesterol consumption - guaranteed to give you a heart attack. At other times, eggs have been touted as an essential part of your diet that promotes brain health.
Is red meat good or bad for you? Sometimes red meat lurks as a killer. At other times red meat leads the way to weight loss and energy.
As it happens, I like both eggs and red meat. Indeed, I find myself to be more energetic, happier, and more productive when I include both in my diet. Others may disagree based on a different lived experience. Fine by me, but I suspect a scientist won't convince either one of us one way or the other. After all, we have our actual experience.
So, when people tell you to "follow the science" my recommendation would be to study this rapidly changing and evolving body of knowledge and get to understand what science actually means.
Further, I'd suggest that you question the agenda of anyone who presents "science" as a settled matter that only supports their own conclusions.
Finally, I'd suggest that the practicality of your own lived experience counts for much more than esoteric theory. After all, whether explained by Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, or Einstein, we find our feet firmly on the ground.
Margaret Caliente is a professional athlete turned internet entrepreneur and Manhattan-based journalist.
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