“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.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Reemergence of American Socialism
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the new Democratic candidate for New York's 14th congressional district.
On June 26th, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated longtime incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for New York's 14th congressional district. Crowley raised millions from his corporate donors. Ocasio-Cortez ran a grassroots campaign; her average donation was just $22. This wasn't supposed to happen. Crowley was a shoe in. He'd ran unopposed for over a decade. More shocking than her victory however, were the platforms on which Ocasio-Cortez ran her campaign. A vocal supporter of democratic socialism, she's determined to raise the minimum wage to $15/hr, ensure free higher education for all, and to secure medicare for all citizens. Predictably, Republicans have responded to the "Socialist threat" Ocasio-Cortez represents by spewing vitriol, but what's more interesting is the way the entrenched powers within the Democratic Party have responded to her.
There's a growing feeling on the left, particularly in younger circles, that many longtime Democratic senators and congressmen are Republican in everything but name. Corporate donors fund Democratic campaigns. The DNC has lost touch with the working class, which is supposed to be their core constituency. And, Democrats hide behind their socially liberal views, never addressing the underlying economic realities of the minority groups they claim to support. Considering the torrent of political sound bites we've heard over the past two and a half years, it's easy to forget this one, in which Nancy Pelosi (minority leader in the House of Representatives) responds to a question about the Democratic Party potentially shifting left on economic issues with "sorry, but we're capitalists." I think it's one of the most politically revealing clips CNN has ever published, the implication being that Democrats aren't even open to hearing an argument that doesn't comport with their worldview.
Sorry, we're capitalist.
The problem for the Democrats is, Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign breathed new life into the Socialist movement, and Ocasio-Cortez, while this years' most notable winner, is far from the only Socialist running for public office. Julia Salazar is running for the New York State Senate, Sara Innamorato is running for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and there are plenty of other candidates aiming to move the Democratic party leftwards. Interestingly, the fledgling Democratic Socialist movement has taken a strategy out of the Republican playbook and is hyper-focused on local and state elections. While it's easy to be cynical and assume the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) is only doing this because they don't have the juice to participate on the national stage, it's worth pointing out that Democrats tend to get clobbered in state elections, and that the DSA's strategy is a welcomed change of pace.
But will these progressives be able to work within the Democratic party, or will they split it in two? If the prevailing media sentiments are to be believed, then the answer is the latter. In the wake of Ocasio-Cortez's victory, there's been a wave of think pieces by many a prominent essayist asserting that if the Democratic Party veers too far left, it risks losing to Trump again in 2020. After Ocasio-Cortez's win, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth said "I think that you can't win the White House without the Midwest, and I don't think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest," adding that the Democrats' 2020 presidential candidate has to speak to the "industrial Midwest." Ocasio-Cortez fired back with some snark–like many 28-year-olds she's very good on Twitter– but to focus on the acrimonious exchange between the two politicians, risks overlooking Duckworth's original point. Why shouldn't the "industrial Midwest" want universal healthcare or a higher minimum wage? Bernie Sanders won large chunks of the midwest when he was campaigning against Hillary on the exact same platforms. Duckworth's ill-conceived attack on Ocasio-Cortez echoes an uncomfortable belief that's been fermenting just beneath the surface of the Democratic party for some time. That is, that working class voters are too stupid to act in their own self interest.
Ocasio-Cortez's victory could very well create a schism within the Democratic party. Her views, and the views of those like her aren't particularly compatible with those of establishment Democrats. That said, when Bernie lost in the primary, he endorsed Hillary Clinton. Most of the hand wringing about the Democrats not having a unified front for 2020 is nonsense. It assumes two things, both erroneous. One, that diversity of ideas is a negative within a political party. Two, that Socialist supporters lack the capacity to choose between the lesser of two evils. You'd be hard pressed to find a Democratic Socialist who if forced to choose between a Democratic mainstay like Joe Biden or another four years of Trump wouldn't pick the former every time.
While the American political class has been reeling from the shock of Trump's election, Socialists have managed to carve out a niche for themselves. It remains to be seen whether or not they can get anything done within the Democratic party, but any move leftward will be a welcomed change of pace. For the first time in since 2016, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in American politics.
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