“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.
Why Politics Feel Personal in 2020
Politics is the ongoing debate over who and what gets to thrive and survive, and it is always personal.
Abortion. Gun control. Immigration. Police violence. The MeToo movement.
A dozen political issues, a dozen debates that we seem trapped in, condemned to repeat. It's been four decades since Roe v. Wade, and women's access to abortion seems as fragile as ever. Since the Sandy Hook massacre, there have been 2,402 mass shootings in the United States, and yet we don't feel any closer to passing common sense gun legislation than we were eight years ago. The American federal government has come to a complete standstill, but the poison runs deeper than that; at every level of human existence—political, cultural, artistic—we have lost the ability to meaningfully alter the status quo. We have the same arguments that we did eight years ago, we listen to the same types of music, and all the movies are sequels or franchises or reboots. We are a stopped culture.
It's a concept cultural theorist Mark Fisher referred to as the "slow cancellation of the future," part of his broader theory of Capitalist Realism—the notion that, as neoliberal hegemony continues, the people living under it will increasingly lose the ability to imagine a future different from the present. A mood has settled over America, a sense that things simply are the way they are. Massacres are common, police brutality happens regularly, abortion is difficult and precarious, healthcare costs are insane, and the government has no power (or will) to stop any of it from happening. The whole world is telling us, consciously or not, that nothing can be done. So what does all this have to do with the modern phenomenon recognized as "grievance politics?"
Simple. When we feel our politics have lost the ability to affect our lives, the only issues that seem to matter are personal ones.
If society is stuck, if we lack the power to change it and make it the way we want it to be, the only thing we can do is own each other—on Twitter, on stage, or in the voting booth. No politician can actually pass any legislation, but if the right ones win then the people on the other side will get upset. In turn, you might feel good for a little while, and maybe even convince yourself that your interests are being represented even though they're not. In modern mainstream political discourse every issue is disguised by one question: Who is "triggering" who? The whole world is telling you that nothing will be done about mass shootings or police violence or rape culture, but you can own the "Bernie Bros," and feel like you're owning all of the people in your life that you don't like.
That's how we got Trump. Whether or not they'll admit it, very few people really believed, in the logical parts of their minds, that Trump was ever gonna build his stupid wall. How could he? That would involve something happening, and nothing ever happens. The MAGA crowd, in a real sense, have as little power to bring about their ideal world as we do (thank god), because they can't stop us from agitating about inequality or gun control or kneeling for the national anthem. But when Donald Trump wins, college kids cry. And triggering the libs is as close as they can get to a victory.
If there's one good thing about the COVID-19 pandemic that is gripping the nation, it's this: We can no longer deny that our politics have a very real, very material impact on our lives. However, and this is important to stress: Politics is the ongoing debate over who and what gets to thrive and survive, and it is always personal. The pandemic has brought it home to the most privileged and insulated among us, but if you are vulnerable, if you are poor, if you are a racial or sexual minority, if you are a victim of gun violence or assault or our rapacious healthcare system, you have felt the effect of our politics in your life every single day. It's more important than the feeling it gives you, and it's more important than who's triggering who, and that's going to become more and more clear as we continue to suffer the consequences of a civil infrastructure that has spent the past forty years being ransacked.
Mainstream politics has always operated under the delusion that nothing was ever going to really happen. It would threaten to happen, it would almost happen, but it never actually would. Well, something has happened. Maybe now something can be done about it.
Probably not, though.
The Coronavirus Reveals How Fragile American Society Has Become
Look on our works, ye mighty, and despair!
There is a saying that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
Entrenched systems of power have established bulwarks against the kind of institutional reform that younger Americans have recently been pushing for. By controlling the political conversation through lobbying, control of mass media, regulatory capture, and authoring of legislation, the ultra-wealthy maintain the status quo in a way that makes changing it seem impossible. The problem is that change is desperately needed if we are going to maintain any semblance of civilization.
While political dynamics have become so rigid that the boundaries of what we can achieve begin to feel impenetrable, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that the vital structures of our society—a society that is superficially so robust—have been so weakened that a collapse in one form or another is inevitable. We are the world's superpower, yet faced with a slightly more contagious, slightly more lethal virus than the flu, we are powerless. How did it get to be this bad? How were we so blind to it?
To clarify, depending on the part of the country you live in, it could seem like I'm exaggerating. It may not seem "so bad," or like we're on the verge of collapse. Not long ago the president and many of his loyalists on Fox News and AM radio were still calling dire forecasts around the coronavirus a hoax. At the time it seemed reckless but not unhinged from current events—which were still largely unaffected. In much of the country there is little cause for alarm, so few people are doing much to change their behavior. That's about to change, and the areas hit worst will soon be making the dire choices that Italian hospitals were recently faced with—which patients are we going to hook up to ventilators, and which are we going to allow to die. We are already started on a path that leads to overflowing hospitals in every major city.
A makeshift testing facility in Seattle, Washington Getty Images
The problem is that our entire economy is set up around the same kind of short-term thinking that drive publicly traded corporations. The mentality that "government should be run like a business," leads to cost-cutting measures that only look to the current budget, with minimal consideration given to the kind of intermittent crises that we are bound to face—like a viral pandemic. If it's not particularly likely to happen before the next election cycle, it's better not to even worry about it. This is the kind of thinking that led Donald Trump's administration to push for cuts to the CDC and to disband their global health security team in 2018.
But the systemic issues go much deeper than that and started long before Trump took office. Trump and his ilk can't be blamed for the fact that the US has two hospital beds for every 1,000 citizens. Nor are they responsible for the fact that almost every aspect of America's critical infrastructure receives a near-failing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers. This includes airport congestion—which has already become an issue with the current pandemic—and important shipping routes that we will rely on to maintain the movement of necessary goods as conditions around the country worsen.
Add to those issues the fact that we have a massive population of prisoners sharing tight quarters with poor sanitation, a substantial homeless population with no way to quarantine, a dearth of worker protections like paid sick leave, and it becomes hard to imagine how we'll get through this unscathed. And, of course, this is still ignoring the elephant in the room—a for-profit healthcare system that discourages millions of uninsured and underinsured Americans from seeking medical advice or treatment until it's too late.
Meanwhile, the economic hardships imposed by the necessity of social distancing are being exacerbated by an economy that is heavily reliant on the whims of financial speculators who create an echo chamber of divestment that heightens every crisis. The stock market, in other words, is going crazy in the worst possible way. It's too soon to say how thoroughly the weaknesses in our system will be tested by the developing pandemic, but even in the best case scenario they are going to be strained to a terrifying extent.
Fortunately, there are efforts underway to shore up some of the most obvious breaking points so we can avoid complete societal collapse. They may turn out to be too little too late, but even if they get us through this current disaster, how long will it be before the next one hits? The best models of climate change predict that we are nearing an era that will be ruled by powerful natural disasters and refugee crises that will threaten economic stability and critical infrastructure and may heighten the threat of infectious diseases. Temporary, reactive measures cannot save us if the next crisis hits a little harder or when multiple crises overlap.
A strong social safety net like the one the US tried to develop under FDR would serve to mitigate the damage from this kind of crisis. But modern American politics has worked for decades—in an effort that became an object of worship under Ronald Reagan—to whittle the welfare state of the New Deal and the Great Society down to a fragile bare minimum.
We need to take seriously the voices of politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have called for the kind of broad, sweeping legislation that stands a chance of upending the rigid political dynamics that maintain the status quo. The Green New Deal would be a good start. The alternative, one way or another, is the end of our civilization and the world as we know it.
I Was Exposed to the Coronavirus and Have All the Symptoms: Here's What It's Really Like
A personal essay.
I've lived in New York City for the past year. About a week ago I moved to London to be with my long term partner. You may be thinking that international travel was a bold decision given the rapid global spread of COVID-19. Truthfully, it barely crossed my mind.
I bought my plane ticket to London about a month ago, when the novel coronavirus was still just a headline, not a reality in my life. I'm 23-years-old, don't have any health problems besides a history of Lyme's disease, and I have access to healthcare. I'm not in the demographic that needs to worry over every flu and cold for fear that it could be fatal; and besides, I've been nowhere near the places where the disease is most rampant.
So I set off from Dulles International Airport in Washington D.C. to Heathrow Airport in London on March 3rd with only the vaguest fears about COVID-19. If anything, I was admittedly pleased to find my flight unexpectedly empty thanks to people's fear of the virus keeping them from traveling. As always, I wiped down my seat with antibacterial wipes as soon as I boarded, used hand sanitizer throughout the uneventful journey, and made sure to wash my hands frequently.
Upon landing at Heathrow, I was met with a bizarrely sparse customs line, something I was also exceedingly grateful for. There were no temperature checks or other indications that the virus had reached London. I got my luggage from the carousel and stacked my bags on a luggage trolley, waiting for my partner to arrive at the airport.
Flash forward a couple of days, and I find myself repeating for the second time that day that I might be coming down with a cold.
I take my temperature to find that it's about 100.5 Fahrenheit. I take nighttime cold medicine and go to bed. The next morning I find the fever has persisted, and with it has come a hacking, wet cough. Assuming it's the flu, my partner calls a doctor and lists my symptoms. They ask about international travel, and upon learning that I passed through Heathrow, they inform us that two baggage handlers at that airport have just been confirmed to have COVID-19.This means that, technically, I've been exposed to the virus. We're told to remain in the house for two weeks at the very least but certainly as long as symptoms persist, and if my illness progresses such that I need medical attention we are to call an ambulance and inform them about my exposure status, so I can be transported safely. Both my partner and I immediately start taking my symptoms a lot more seriously.
For the first several days, I had a fever on-and-off (pretty effectively suppressed with day time cold medicine and ibuprofen), a sore throat, plugged ears, nasal congestion, and a hacking cough that caused me to feel breathless if stood upright too long. From Friday, March 6th to today, March 9th, I slept essentially 24-hours-a-day, only waking up to eat (my appetite was not as impacted as I would have thought). Today, I woke up without a fever and feeling stronger than I have since arriving in London. My cough persists, but now I just feel like I have a bad cold or a mild case of bronchitis.
Whether or not I have COVID-19 is still unclear, as I have not been definitively tested, but my symptoms fit perfectly with those described on the NHS website, and I know I've been in an infected airport. For the most part, my illness has felt like the flu with a particularly bad cough. Most of all, my illness has caused me to wonder how many people have mild cases like mine and were told, when they contacted a doctor, to recover at home.
How many cases are governments across the world keeping under wraps because they're discouraging people from seeking medical help? How many people across the world are staying home from work but still going to the grocery store, waiting out what they think is a bad cough? If I am infected with COVID-19, I'm lucky that I seem to be on the path to a relatively swift recovery. I'm also lucky in that I was economically able to take the time to rest and recover. But how many people will feel the relatively common and mild symptoms I felt and still go into work out of economic necessity? How many immunocompromised people will be infected because a doctor wouldn't test some other person because their symptoms were comparatively mild? How many elderly people will die because Trump's strategy to keep American COVID-19 case numbers low is to simply not test?
If I am infected, then I can tell you that COVID-19, for me, felt very similar to the flu or any other run-of-the-mill upper respiratory infection. I can also tell you it absolutely flattened me for several days, and I'm a healthy young adult. I can't imagine how badly I would have felt if I were elderly and immunocompromised. Our governments have to come up with a better strategy for testing, even mild cases, and they have to do it soon. Because, if my experience is any indicator, it's already far more widespread than we think.
What's Going On with the Uighurs in China?
And what can be done about it?
A recent document leaked by the Chinese government has proven something that many of China's detained Uighur population and the global human rights community have known for a long time: China's central government is detaining groups of people on the basis of their religion and culture.
The new data leak contains comprehensive information on over 2,000 detainees being kept in China's detention camps, which have locked away almost a million members of ethnic minority groups, mostly Muslims, since 2014. Once again, the database proves that China's authoritarian government has been locking away people not only for religious extremism, but for activities as simple as going to a mosque.
The Chinese Communist Party has vehemently denied accusations that it's imprisoning people as a method of religious persecution, but by now it's clear that's what they're doing. What's less clear is what might be done about it—and what will happen to the nation's prisoners now that the coronavirus poses a serious threat.
Who Are the Uighurs?
The term "Uighur" has a complex history, and its definition is largely contingent on who is defining it. In general, the term refers to a group of Muslims who are indigenous to Central and East Asian nations, according to BBC. They are usually thought of as having descended from the 8th and 9th century Turkish Khaganate empire, but many migrated from present-day Mongolia to present-day Xinjiang, where they joined with an ancient indigenous population and eventually converted to Islam en masse.
According to loose consensus, the term resurfaced in the 20th century when the group—with help from the Soviet Union—declared independence from colonial China in the first half of the 20th century. They were brought under Chinese control in 1949, when the Communist party took hold and ended the Uighur's experiments with independence. Today, like Tibet, Xinjiang is considered an autonomous nation but remains under China's authoritarian control.
According to many activists and spokespeople, Beijing authorities have persecuted the Uighur population for decades, restricting their cultural and religious activities. On the other hand, according to China's central government and its diplomats, the Uighurs are waging a violent campaign for an independent state, and by detaining them, China is acting out of necessity.
What's Happening to the Uighurs?
Today, the worldwide consensus is that the Uighurs are the subject of tremendous persecution in China, a persecution that was fastidiously hidden by the Chinese government for decades.
In November of 2019, The New York Times leaked 400 pages of documents that exposed China's efforts to detain Muslims en masse in the Xinjiang region. "Even as the government presented its efforts in Xinjiang to the public as benevolent and unexceptional, it discussed and organized a ruthless and extraordinary campaign in these internal communications," wrote Austin Ramsey and Chris Buckley for The Times. "Senior party leaders are recorded ordering drastic and urgent action against extremist violence, including the mass detentions, and discussing the consequences with cool detachment. Children saw their parents taken away, students wondered who would pay their tuition and crops could not be planted or harvested for lack of manpower, the reports noted. Yet officials were directed to tell people who complained to be grateful."
In essence, Uighur peoples were taken in massive numbers from their homes and detained in concentration camps, and the story was kept out of the global press for years. Rumors of the existence of China's Uighur prisons began to emerge in global media when Google Earth satellite software captured pictures of massive prisons in the deserts of Xinjiang in 2018. Interviewers and investigators who pressed the matter were told by Chinese diplomats that the camps were "re-education centers," and as news of the camps grew, the Chinese government began to release propaganda about its education initiatives.
Eventually, it became clear that Uighur detainees are subject to highly illegal abuses. They are forced to praise China's ruling party, to learn Mandarin, and to renounce their sins—which might include going to a mosque. People living in the camps have said they were forced to exercise and beaten when they could not follow the proper laws and regulations set by authority officials. "There was a special room to punish those who didn't run fast enough," said 29-year-old Ablet Turson Toti, who was detained in a camp in Hotan, in the south of Xinjiang. "There were two men there, one to beat with a belt, the other just to kick."
Uighur communities have been destroyed by Beijing's imprisonment and conversion initiative. "Every household, every family had three or four people taken away," said Omer Kanat, executive committee chairman of the World Uyghur Congress. "In some villages, you can't see men on the streets anymore—only women and children—all the men have been sent to the camps."
The non-detained also face persecution, forced to surrender passports to CCP government officials and prohibited from practicing Islam and wearing headscarves and subjected to "anti-extremism laws." Subsequently, many Uighurs have fled the country, living as refugees in Turkey and other nations, forced to lose contact with family members.
Why Is This Happening?
Ostensibly, the ethnic cleansing of the Uighurs is an effort on China's part to unify China, and to transform and deradicalize Muslims.
"Penetration of everyday life is almost really total now...You have ethnic identity, Uighur identity in particular, being singled out as this kind of pathology," said Michael Clarke, an Australian National University professor and expert on Xinjiang.
On another level, it's all about political power. In part, a rise in Islam may have led to the CCP's fears that the Xinjiang peoples could unify and rebel against the Communist government, as they had done in the first half of the 20th century."Why are Uyghur persecuted?" writes Massimo Introvigne for the World Uyghur Congress. "Although fears of 'separatism' may play a role, basically the answer is that they are persecuted because the strong revival of Islam among them scared the regime. The CCP was, and is, afraid that the Muslim revival may expand to other non-Uyghur Muslim groups in China, and join forces with a revival of religion in general that may one day overcome the CCP's rule. The logical conclusion is that, although no persecution is ever purely religious, the Uyghurs are indeed victims of a religious persecution."
On an even deeper and more complex level, what's happened to the Uighur peoples is inextricably connected to capital and lines of profit, which cross oceans and connect major powers like the United States and China—and leave indigenous populations like the Uighurs in the dust. "The mineral wealth—in particular oil and gas—of a region almost five times the size of Germany has brought huge levels of Chinese investment, rapid economic growth and large waves of Han Chinese settlers," writes John Sudworth for BBC.
Despite the U.S.'s recent determination to denounce the Uighur government, no major power is inculpable. "In today's world, authoritarian politics and predatory commerce cooperate to exploit 'cultural differences.' Nowhere is this point clearer than in the symbiosis in recent decades between Western corporations and the Communist elite in China," argues Ai Weiwei in an op-ed for the Times.
That symbiosis reached a head during the post-9/11 era. In recent years, the United States has joined with the United Nations to denounce abuses of the Uighurs, but actually, the United States was instrumental in revving up early anti-Uighur and anti-Muslim sentiments. After 9/11, many members of the Uighur population were painted as potential allies of Al Qaeda, though little corroborative evidence has surfaced regarding these claims. Some 20 members were detained without charge and possibly tortured in Guantanamo Bay. "For years, the United States has been at the forefront of promoting an abusive counterterrorism architecture at the United Nations and has been allied with China on many of these efforts," says Letta Tayler, a Human Rights Watch expert on counterterrorism.
For their part, Muslim nations have also failed to protect the Uighurs. "Many risk looking like hypocrites over their own records of human rights abuses if they confront China—or risk imperiling lucrative partnerships," writes Joseph Zeballos-Roig for The New Republic. He identifies "deepening economic relationships, coziness with authoritarianism and the allure of a "Confucian-Islamic" alliance against the West" as "[outweighing] the political willingness of Muslim governments to act."
What Can Be Done About All This?
What can people around the world do about the ethnic cleansing occurring in China? While it's tempting to fall back on an argument that the United States and major global powers should embroil themselves in China's affairs, this impulse has been a historically unproductive and dangerous habit rooted in a white savior mentality which usually leads to further turmoil. Instead, the United States should use its economic power to pressure China and Middle Eastern allies into changing their ways on the basis of human rights violations.
Already, lawmakers in Washington are pushing the Trump Administration to place sanctions on China, many of which enjoy bipartisan support. This is on the right track, for "the most effective resistance to the treatment of Uighurs is increasing the public-relations costs for Beijing," write Daniel Bessner and Isaac Stone Fish for The Nation. "The State Department should publicize this issue in other Muslim countries, particularly influential American allies like Saudi Arabia, and among China's neighbors, especially Pakistan and Kazakhstan, with the hopes of increasing international pressure to end the ethnic cleansing."
Activist groups, they continue, should "pressure groups like the ABA to publicly criticize China while simultaneously compelling universities to embrace their commitment to free inquiry," and specifically, "the left should encourage civil-society groups to use their connections to politicians to push for programs to resettle Uighurs—and dissent-minded Chinese—who desire to move to the United States. And," they conclude, "it goes without saying that this must be done with the active participation—and indeed, leadership—of Uighurs themselves, who understand the needs and interests of their community better than any outsider."
In 2020, due to the onset of the coronavirus, presses around the world are calling for the Beijing authorities to release prisoners. "These camps, where as many as 3 million people are detained, are at risk of becoming death chambers," writes Abdul Majakbid for USA Today. "The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a public health emergency this month, yet China's government, the WHO and the United Nations are apparently so far silent about the potential danger to the detained Uighurs." In fact, there are rumors that China is sending Uighur citizens to Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. In light of the Uighur population's vulnerability to the virus, there are calls for the United States to levy sanctions against Chinese authorities unless they comply with global calls to inspect Uighur prisons and protect the detained from the virus.
It's important to remember that in spite of China's undeniable human rights violations, the United States is embroiled in its own human rights abuses, specifically on the U.S. border—so it may be hypocritical to fixate on China without first healing some of the crisis in this nation. Plus, much of the critiques that exist about China and coronavirus have xenophobic aspects of their own.
Still, all of these abuses are interconnected, rooted in xenophobia and racism that stems from neoliberal capitalism and a global reliance on oil.