“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.
Contextless Nostalgia and the Neo-Fascist Urge
In the wake of the Tree of Life shooting we're left wondering: how did we get here?
Is Robert Bowers a Fascist?
If Umberto Eco is to be taken at face value when he describes his Ur-fascist as "impatient for death,"¹ the question we're left with in the wake of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting is this: Why now, in 21st century America, has this distinctly 20th century urge, this death drive, suddenly rematerialized? The other questions–ones concerning motive, logistics, and cultural response–while meaningful in their own right, only explain the symptoms, not the disease.
Fascism in its truest sense is a type of suicide, one committed not by an individual but by an entire society. Still, the important conversation (as with an individual suicide) doesn't concern method. When a man takes his own life, the why is a far more incisive question than the how. If we're to extrapolate this metaphor, to argue about gun control, anti-semitism, and President Trump's brusque response to this tragedy is tantamount to debating the meaning of using rope over a straight razor. In the interest of being thorough, however, let's briefly explore these symptoms:
Immediately following the attack, Robert Bowers' social media posts went loud, his comments regarding Jewish conspiracies sitting somewhere between Alex Jones' InfoWars and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. "Jews are the children of satan," he shouted into the Internet void. What the public was given were echoes, reverberations after the fact. The shooter's motive was never in question.
The issue then splintered, its fragments taking familiar trajectories. Pragmatists argued for tighter gun control, in this case perhaps an antihistamine, but one that could at least theoretically prevent another maniac from gunning down a room full of unarmed civilians. Others blamed the increasingly volatile rhetoric of the Trump regime for galvanizing a new generation of angry white men. When looking at the recent rise of extremist provocateurs,² this second point can feel the more crucial (though it goes without saying that these views are far from mutually exclusive), but in reality, it's closer to a half truth. Barack Obama's assessment of Trump (and by extension his rhetoric and the hate it inspires) as the "symptom not cause" of our present spiritual crisis mirrors this opinion, whether he meant it to or not. Still, we're left wondering: if Trump, Bowers, Cesar Sayoc, Richard Spencer, the alt-right, et al. are symptoms, what's the cause?
It's been stated time and time again that we're becoming increasingly obsessed with nostalgia, cripplingly so. Whether or not it's true, again, is not so important. The why, however, remains.
Nostalgia, in the classic sense, is a wistful remembrance, a pained recalling of a time where things were better. It's a belief, however erroneous, that the past contains more happiness than the present. A fitting example of nostalgic art is Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, a film so nostalgic it feels documental, produced for the former rebels/present yuppies of Gen X as a glimmering look at their past, a reassurance that they were indeed once cool. Saccharine or not (depends on who you ask), the film certainly comports to this traditional definition.
Today's televisual/cinematic nostalgia, if one can really call it that, has a distinctly different flavor. Instead of being a monument to the past, a shared generational experience, nostalgia has been co-opted as an aesthetic, a mood. Stranger Things, a show decidedly millennial in both content and attitude, is a perfect example of this. The outfits, the lingo, the references, and the sets all feel nostalgic, but a look at the show's viewership demographics quickly reveal this feeling doesn't fit nostalgia's true definition. 18-39 year-olds aren't old enough to have memories from the early 80s.
The television producer's argument that Stranger Things and other period dramas give a younger audience access to the past (which is new to them) while also capturing an older demographic who experienced the events on the show first hand doesn't hold water, especially when you consider that the Duffer Brothers are only 34-years-old. The nostalgia they're capturing isn't genuine. It's a fractal cobbling of present day ideals and past aesthetics–not nostalgia, but mutation, a rehashing and reliving of history with no frame of reference. It's time travel to a non-existent past.
One look around–bell bottom jeans, Mad Men, 90s-inspired music videos, Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin songs playing on truck commercials–and it's impossible not to see this frantic pawing as the defining mark of our culture. It's not the end of history; it's a fraught and dizzying attempt to reimagine it and a cultural impetus to live in the mangled architecture of this imagined past.
Nostalgia for Stakes
To return to Eco for a moment, the Ur-Fascist is also marked by the fact that he's "deprived of a clear social identity." Eco goes on to say that fascism takes this lack of identity and fills the void with nationalism. While this is certainly true, from average Trump supporters all the way down to Cesar Sayoc and Robert Bowers, Eco never identifies the cause of this deprivation.³ The contextless nostalgia of our present offers an entrée into diagnosis–Bowers and others like him, while certainly insane, aren't so far removed from society as to be immune to its mores.
This new form of nostalgia, this amalgam of distorted realities, functions as both an escape hatch from our present existential void–a void of unmeaning, a loss of stakes–and one of its root causes. This new, fundamentally false, cultural memory is a product of our present zeitgeist. It's born of an influx of information and static confusion, one created by a society so materially comfortable that it's primarily concerned with artistic and aesthetic trends, with manufacturing meaning. The loss of stakes, however, can be traced back to the 1970s.
Following the Vietnam War and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), the U.S. found itself in a peculiar position. After nearly 40 years of perpetual war, we lacked an enemy to align ourselves against. A malaise set in, one that would typify the 1970s. Then, in 1983, Ronald Reagan offered the American people a respite from having to define themselves by anything other than what they are not. He declared the Soviet Union an "evil empire," rekindling Cold War rhetoric which had long since burnt out. Announcing this a few years after signing a non-proliferation treaty with the Soviets probably felt strange to anyone paying attention, but it didn't matter. We had an enemy again.
But was the Soviet Union truly our enemy or one recreated by spiritual necessity? Manufactured animosity and organic threats converged at a single point. For Reagan's part, all he did was stir up past resentments, but his demagoguery wasn't feeding some Weimar-esque yearning for a return to greatness, but a nostalgia for dire consequences. Because the method and end result are similar—a monolith enemy is created onto which a society can project its fears—this distinction can feel unimportant. But, this marked a significant change.
America's enemies were no longer an existential threat. They were created as convenient scapegoats for economic and political turmoil. The recession of 1973, the OPEC oil embargo, and the 1979 energy crisis, while not unserious, paled in comparison to the socio-economic climates that spawned the original iterations of fascism. The U.S. economy was down, sure, but there was no question as to where the seat of global power resided. Still, at the quotidian level, lines at the pump and the rapid decrease in factory jobs were panic-inducing. If we take this moment to be the birth of American fascism, the moment in which we became "constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of [our enemies],"⁴ then it represents a reversal of what happened in the Weimar Republic. Instead of a fascism born out of economic powerlessness and spiritual fervor, ours is the result of a spiritual drought created by material excess.
On an individual level, it's hard to even differentiate Robert Bowers from the likes of Steven Paddock. Sure, Bowers is racist and anti-Semitic, but this is just a variation on the theme of the deranged lone gunman. If one steps back and looks at the furor in the stands at Donald Trump's rallies or at the violence in Charlottesville last year, however, it becomes impossible to miss this creeping trend, conservatism fading in the rearview as our society pushes ever rightward. But why?
If an individual suicide is an escape from life, an assertion that death is preferable to the anguish of everyday existence, then fascism, the societal suicide, must be an escape of the same order. At this point, it's clear that our sprint towards authoritarianism comes from our society's collective yearning for stakes, for meaning. There's no great existential threat, so we look to our leaders to manufacture one. But fascism is European. Its great figures have been dead for nearly a century. It's foreign, an anachronism. It doesn't make sense until one considers our present infatuation with nostalgia. Not nostalgia as feeling but as concept, as aesthetic. American neo-fascism is the point at which nostalgia for stakes and loss of context converge. Today's fascist is one who rifles through an ephemeral past, one he never really experienced, searching for an enemy that he's not only ill-equipped to assess, but that doesn't exist in any meaningful sense.
For those who feel disenfranchised by the end of history (or late capitalism or neoliberalism, whichever buzzword one assigns it), the options are limited. For reasonable people, it's a choice between participating in society or being forced to its margins. The neo-fascist avoids both options entirely, shirking nihilism and resignation. Instead, he dives head first into the shallow pool of contextless nostalgia, attempting to plumb the depths of history without realizing he's splashing around in a puddle. It's a frenetic and palsied search for a transgressive idea with which to define his world and by extension, himself. Robert Bowers is insane, yes. But the massacre he committed is simply a fringe response to a mainstream problem.
Donald Trump and the Fascist Urge
If Robert Bowers is a fascist, then what do we make of Donald Trump, whose rallies and policies embolden Bowers and those like him? This question has been on the tip of the media's tongue for three years, a veritable op-ed monsoon raging on both sides of the political aisle. It's here where Jean Baudrillard's idea of media as Möbius strip⁵ becomes relevant. Is Donald Trump a fascist? In this age of constant transmission, of signs and symbols ad infinitum, the answer and question morph into one. The answer is yes because we're asking. The harder pill to swallow is that we're asking because we want it to be true.
If a contextless nostalgia for stakes is the spiritual issue of our time, then it's preposterous to assume that it only affects the 42% of Americans who support Donald Trump. The other 58%, (liberals, socialists, some civility-obsessed conservatives) just manifest their yearning in a different way. The media frenzy surrounding Trump's campaign–the comparisons to Hitler, the endless, dizzying video coverage of his rallies and speeches–serves this latent desire. The mainstream media's posturing against Trump, their denouncing him as fascist, served only to legitimize him as such.
The #Resistance, the anti-fascists, the op-eds from supposed Trump staffers quietly opposing him from inside the White House, all work in service of the neo-fascistic lunge. The liberal outrage at Trump simply fulfills the desire for stakes in reverse. Instead of supporting Trump and accepting a manufactured enemy (immigrants, Jews, whomever), the anti-fascist (even linguistically the term anti-fascist, by virtue of its existence, seeks to build Trump into that enemy) wills him into being that thing by virtue of the anti-fascist's constitutional need for something to define himself against. Thus, simultaneity is achieved. Trump is a fascist not because of his racism or demonstrative hand gestures, but because both his supporters and detractors alike have willed him into the role.
Unfortunately, we're rapidly approaching a time in which the hows and whys lose their importance. Acts of terror, like Robert Bowers' attack, cut through the mediated blur and give us an honest glimpse at the stakes we're clamoring for, that we claim, by virtue of our actions, to need. In those moments the romance of crisis fades. With the rise of a Neo-American Bund, the regularity of racist and xenophobic sentiments and policy decisions, and the attempted suppression of the press, this once contextless urge is transformed into a frightening reality. Still, considering the The Tree of Life massacre already feels old, tired, like a relic of the past, it seems unlikely that this, or any one moment, will be enough to snap us from our nostalgic impulse and back into the present. It feels as though we're stuck in circumlocution, doomed to grasp for stakes until we conjure them in some perverse alchemical procedure.
1. While a more accurate representation of Eco's point would include in it the idea of "heroic death," it feels safe to call this a death drive nonetheless. Suicidal ideation, however sublimated, is still suicidal ideation.
2. One that immediately comes to mind is Gavin McInnes, the leader of the Proud Boys, a far right group that was recently videotaped mercilessly beating protesters on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
3. He also never attempts to. His piece on Ur fascism was written in 1995 and would have had to have been incredibly prescient to stay entirely relevant today.
4. Ur-Fascism, Umberto Eco, 1995
5. The Möbius strip, while constantly turning over itself, only has one side. In Baudrillard's view it's a perfect metaphor for binary or dichotomy (of ideals, information what have you), of which he believes(ed) no longer exist in modern society. It's a means of illustrating how information is constantly conflated.
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. He currently serves as Lead Editor for Gramercy Media. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff