“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.
Jeffrey Epstein's Exorbitant Lifestyle: Private Islands, Conspiracy Theories, and Networks of Corruption
Epstein's lifestyle was unimaginably creepy, but it's indicative of a larger problem.
Jeffrey Epstein was found dead in his jail cell on Saturday, having been accused of sexual abuse by nearly 80 women.
He leaves behind a legacy of destructive opulence.
Epstein lived a lifestyle of unchecked consumption. The billionaire possessed a number of extravagant homes. His Manhattan townhouse allegedly cost $77 million and contained disturbing oddities—such as a hall full of fake eyes that were initially created for injured soldiers. It also contained a photorealistic mural that featured Epstein in jail, surrounded by prison guards, as well as a life-sized female mannequin that hung from a chandelier.
His private ranch was even more grandiose. At 10,000 acres, Zorro Ranch is a sprawling stretch of land, to which Epstein allegedly flew young girls, and where he abused them with the help of his supposed madam, Ghislaine Maxwell. The ranch was also a place where he attempted to impregnate hundreds of women in an effort to seed the human race with his DNA. This attempt was inspired by his distorted belief in transhumanism, a theory that the human population can be improved through artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
Image via BBC.com
The townhouse and the ranch paled in comparison to his primary place of residence—his private island. St. James Island is located in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Epstein purchased it in 1998. According to a contractor, Steve Scully, Epstein possessed two private offices on the island, as well as a strange blue-and-white striped temple and a lagoon full of flamingos. The island was, allegedly, the location of a variety of heinous crimes and was casually called the "Island of Sin" and even "Pedophile Island" among some of Epstein's acquaintances.
Epstein had ties to countless businesses and money-making ventures, and he had a particularly fraught relationship with Victoria's Secret, a company that may have funneled models directly to him—and from which he may have embezzled millions. He had a circle of powerful friends that included Donald Trump, Kevin Spacey, Woody Allen, and Bill Clinton. He was also a serial liar, constantly fabricating relationships and insinuating himself into the scientific and political communities, including ingratiating himself with scientists by bankrolling their research. He is an example of the way that money can pave pathways and open doors for people with little to offer other than their purported fortunes and their charisma.
Between the bizarre decor of his homes, his interest in nefarious ideas like eugenics and cryogenics, and the suspicious circumstances of his apparent suicide in a Manhattan jail, Rolling Stone was right when it published the headline, "Conspiracy theories have gone mainstream."
Many of the conspiracy theories currently swirling around the Internet center around Epstein's relationship with Bill Clinton and Donald Trump, with #TrumpBodyCount and #ClintonBodyCount trending on Twitter and Trump himself tweeting about the Clinton conspiracy. Many others believe that Epstein faked the suicide, as the cameras in the jail cell stopped working at the time of his death.
With its tangled web of lies, the Epstein case is "the end of an information ecosystem that at least feints at asking questions before pretending to have the answers," according to Anna Merlan.
Is this the end, or just a step towards chipping away illusions and unearthing the corruption inherent to America's wealthiest class? After all, it's likely that there have been thousands of Epsteins before—billionaires in bed with politicians and scientific communities who abused women without consequence and who've funded false scientific research.
Maybe social media is, in its ugly, distorted way, finally bringing the dark money and covert alliances at the heart of America out into the light. Maybe next, the Internet could come for people like the Koch Brothers, the billionaires who paid millions to shut down climate change research.
Based on the nature of social media, though, it'll be a long time before we arrive at anything like the truth.
Little Saint James Island. Image via The Cut
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