“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.
The revolution will not be Tweeted, but its agenda can be.
Can a tweet save the world? No. Is it a public record of your intolerance of unjust systems in the world? Sure, if anybody reads it among the white noise of Twitter rage. Protest movements in the digital age are tricky; hacktivism, or hashtag activism, has been critiqued as an ineffective and tokenizing way to virtue signal in the name of social justice while actually being armchair activists. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests like marches, boycotts, and strikes are critiqued for being too passive to ever enact real change. On the other end of the spectrum are volatile reactionaries who want to tear down the system and begin from scratch–even if they have no actionable plans to create a viable replacement.
So what are we supposed to do? More to the point, what are we supposed to believe? A patient and open-minded look at both sides of any issue is guaranteed to point out one commonality: Everybody has the wrong idea about the opposing side. When it comes to social movements that create a better future, there are some basic, prevailing myths that only distract people from the real problems at hand. Ask activists, historians, and political science analysts, and they agree that you shouldn't fall for the following misconceptions when fighting for a better world:
1. Myth: Nonviolence Is Ineffective
Historically speaking, this simply isn't true. When two researchers from the United States Institute of Peace conducted a study of nearly 330 major violent and nonviolent campaigns "targeting incumbent regimes and foreign military occupations," they concluded that "nonviolent efforts were twice as likely to achieve their goals." They wrote, "The majority succeeded against authoritarian governments, when even peaceful protests could have fatal consequences. The ousters of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Yahya Jammeh in Gambia, Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria are only a handful of cases in which mass nonviolent force stripped power from despots." Furthermore, another study in 2011 looked at 323 civil resistance campaigns around the world between 1900 and 2006, concluding that nonviolent campaigns were successful in 53% of cases, compared to violent ones' success rate of 26%. Additionally, only 4% of violent revolutions ended up in a "functioning democracy," compared to 42% of non-violent regime changes.
So radical violent action, whether that be in the form of paramilitary groups or self-appointed vigilantes who want to burn down the Establishment, is statistically not as likely to produce change as collective nonviolent protest.
2. Social Media Makes Protests More Effective
With that being said, there is a degree of truth to the allegation that social media creates lazy activists. More specifically, however, social media encourages engagement in social issues (i.e. sharing an article, liking a tweet, and maybe hurling insults at the opposing side), which is different from collective action. While Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram allow people to express their displeasure at existing policies, the most social media can do is mobilize people to agree on a unified agenda and a set of actions.
The problem, of course, is that many online participants don't end up following through with in-person plans, thus there's no unity where it counts: on the ground, at the march, or holding up signs. Furthermore, analysts Maria J. Stephan and Adam Gallagheremphasize the importance of "durable organizations" and "long-term planning," and in the fast-paced, immediate gratification of social media platforms like Twitter, responses can often be reactionary and short-term, which doesn't even begin the work of effective protest.
3. Myth: You Need to Have a Massive Amount of People
This is half-true, but it's mostly misunderstood. Effective nonviolent protests gain traction and grow into massive movements when their tactics get them noticed–even if that doesn't involve a large amount of people. As evidenced by the progression of the Egyptian occupation of Tahrir Square and the Serbian student protest group, Otpor (translated as "Resistance!"), a large following of people don't mark the beginning of a movement but rather it's a sign that a movement's worked. Srdja Popovic, leader of Otpor, reflected on the overthrow of war criminal Slobodan Milošević, "All successful movements come with a very low entry bar. You need to offer people the chance to do something meaningful, and – crucially – to get away with it. In Chile, against Pinochet, they drove at half speed: not illegal, very low risk, pretty funny, nothing the cops can do. It's about doing something neat, and living to tell everyone." He added, "We had to go out and listen. Get the real people, rural people, not so clever-clever people, behind us. Build a movement. We did, but it took us five years." Resistance from within a system is more effective to create change than external opposition.
4. Myth: It's a Business
Popovic coins one of their best tactics "laughtivism." Making people laugh not only gets attention, but it alleviates tension from living within fraught social realities. From graffitiing pictures of the corrupt men in charge to spreading the movement's message through public pranks, nonviolent movements have gained global traction through being human and showing a sense of humor.
Climate despair is becoming so widespread that some people are losing their will to live. Is this the new normal?
If you're reading this, you probably know that the earth is not doing well. A 2018 UN report declared that we have 12 years to keep the global climate from rising more than 1.5 degrees, or we'll face catastrophic warming levels. Even knowing this, our worldwide carbon emissions have only continued to rise, with atmospheric CO2 reaching a record high at 417.4 ppm in May 2019.
In essence, we know the world is ending, we know why, and yet we have done nothing to stop it. In fact, things are getting worse.
Image via blog.derby.ac.uk
The Argument for Despair
Faced with this truth, it's all too easy to slip into despair, and this is what's happening to people all over the world. A recent VICE article explored the mental health crises that many people are experiencing because of climate change. Known as "climate despair," sometimes called "eco-nihilism" or "human futilitarianism," chronic feelings of hopelessness about climate change are becoming all too common among those who have allowed themselves to fully comprehend the extent of the crisis.
For people who suffer from these feelings, it doesn't help that life appears to be continuing on as normal, while only a few of us seem to care that the world is burning down. This creates a sense of duality that can be even more painful than consciously accepting the reality of climate change, as it involves a deep suppression of pain and fear, which is then left to fester in the psyche. Living this "double life," according to Joanna Macy's essay "Working Through Environmental Despair," can be detrimental. "Awesome and unprecedented in the history of humanity, the awareness lurks there, with an anguish beyond naming," she writes.
This awareness can manifest in many ways; and often it has lead to depression or suicidal thoughts. Even therapists are having trouble knowing how to handle the looming specter of climate despair. Several people quoted in the VICE article described how their therapists attempted to trace their terror of climate change back to personal traumas, instead of acknowledging the validity of these fears.
Image via Its Nice That
Children are just as vulnerable to these feelings as adults. As they watch governments refuse to act, kids are growing up in the world with little faith in the government or the adults around them, and with the knowledge that they've been born into a disaster they never asked for but have to deal with.
Greta Thunberg was one of these kids. She's spoken extensively about the feelings of despair that nearly paralyzed her as she became more and more aware of the climate crisis. "Before I started school striking, I was … so depressed and I didn't want to do anything," she once said.
But when she began to speak, as many of us know, she became one of the most outspoken and well-known climate activists in the world. According to Thunberg, this was not a choice. "I feel like dying inside if I don't protest," she said. For those suffering from climate despair, that feeling of dying inside is a familiar one. But Greta's inspiring actions contain seeds of hope, perhaps the best hope against climate despair.
The truth is that things are only hopeless if we don't take action. Conveniently, taking action might also be one of the best things we can possibly do to work through climate despair.
Image via Handelszeitung
Our Best Shot at Hope
Although they might be realistic responses to the threat of climate change, feelings of despair—when they aren't turned into action, or are suffered through in solitude— present a terminal danger to the climate movement, as they promote stagnation when what is truly needed is unity and protest.
This doesn't mean that we should deny the gravity of the situation. Action begins with admitting the problem, not stuffing it away under layers of performative normalcy. "Until we find ways of acknowledging and integrating that level of anguished awareness," continues Joanna Macy, "we repress it; and with that repression we are drained of the energy we need for action and clear thinking."
Still, the answer is also not necessarily to let oneself fall down a hole of hopelessness. Often, the doomsday-esque reports that are inundating the Internet and certain academic circles can be the opposite of productive. Sometimes, these reports are inaccurate, overly dramatized and apocalyptic. These alarmist articles that proclaim that we are all doomed often have the opposite effect, shaking people into complicity when the truth is that though things are really bad, there is definitely hope.
There is hope.
Though we won't be able to reverse climate change, it is possible to salvage so much of the world and to prevent the worst consequences of ecological decline. Human beings have mobilized massively before—we've split atoms and spread cell phones across the globe in less than a decade—and we can do it again. We have the technology, the money, and the capability: All we need to avert immediate crisis is the will and the public support to elect people into office who will take action.
Image via Flickr
We have the resources to fight climate change. Many countries are instituting programs to reduce their carbon emissions. Small nations like Denmark and Belgium have successfully slashed their carbon emissions, and plans like the Paris Agreement are promising attempts at global change. What we need to do is fight, to spread awareness, to elect people into office who will take action, and to make it clear that we as a human race won't go down at the hands of an elite cult of carbon-worshipers determined to ruin all of our futures for the sake of their own fortunes.
Climate activism doesn't solely have to be a fight against something, though: it can be a fight for a better world. Though climate change is often painted as an entirely doom-and-gloom issue, some of the things that fighting it will combat it could actually benefit our whole society, healing some of the deep wounds that have caused our modern epidemic of mental illness, addiction, and loneliness.
According to Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, this impasse at the brink between oblivion and climate disaster presents an unprecedented opportunity for positive change. This crisis can be a beginning, not an ending, she argues: the beginning of a movement towards a more interconnected and compassionate world.
"Climate change—if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to those rising flood waters—could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well," she writes. "The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just surviving or enduring climate change...It is a vision in which we collectively use the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right now."
This kind of future would require a paradigm shift, a complete departure from our current free-market model that glorifies isolated successes and prizes maximum consumption above all else. It would require that, among other things, we sacrifice our own desires for the good of everyone else.
We need to sacrifice the concept that the goal of life is to be able to pursue one's individual fortune to the highest level: And we have to acknowledge that we operate in an interconnected network, and must lift each other and our planet up, if we wish to continue to live on this earth.
The shift is already beginning. Organizations like Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion have emerged at the forefront of the fight against climate change; and artists are starting to wake up, too. But even if you don't have a massive platform or aren't going to protests, even just talking about the ecological crisis with others can ignite powerful chain reactions. Overall, probably the most meaningful thing you can do is work to elect officials who will make good on their promises to cut emissions and create a better world while doing it.
Image via Ethics and International Affairs
Where We Go From Here
Still, considering the amount of mobilization and effort that these changes require—and considering how determined major, extremely wealthy fossil fuel companies are to squander these efforts—it's extremely difficult to be hopeful all the time when it comes to the climate crisis. Plus we've already damaged some things beyond repair, and we've lost many people to the wildfires and hurricanes rooted in climate change; to name a few, the 79 people lost in California's Camp Fire, and the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in Hurricane Maria.
And so, as the VICE article proposes, to comprehend the full extent of the climate crisis, first we need to let ourselves grieve. We need to allow ourselves to grieve as we would in the face of any other tragedy—to comprehend the harm that we've done to our planet and to recognize and honor our feelings about it.
Once we recognize these feelings, we can begin to deal with them. As Macy continues, "To experience pain as we register what is happening to our world is a measure of our evolution as open systems. This is true not only from the perspective of systems science but from that of religion as well. How many mystics in their spiritual journey have spoken of the 'dark night of the soul'? Brave enough to let go of accustomed assurances, they let their old convictions and conformities dissolve into nothingness, and stood naked to the terror of the unknown. They let processes, which their minds could not encompass, work through them. It is in that darkness that birth takes place."
While it's important to embrace one's despair and grief regarding climate, it's equally important to view these feelings as starting points for a spiritual and political revolution, instead of hindrances that need to be suppressed. If we view climate as a consequence of evils we've always been peripherally cognizant of—like selfishness, greed, and the hypocrisy that plagues human society—then we can view the climate crisis as an opportunity to at the very least connect with other people who understand that we, collectively, cannot continue this way.
Through this lens, climate despair is far from an end point. Rather, it connects us to the world around us, and to other people who care enough to want to see a better future for everyone and everything. "As our pain for the world is rooted in our interconnectedness with all life, so surely is our power," writes Macy.
So if you're pained by climate change, good. That pain means you love something. That love means you're alive.
Image via Occidental Arts and Ecology Center
What would Democratic Socialism mean for the economy?
Democratic Socialism, a subset of the democrat party, has been thrust into the spotlight recently with the shocking victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over a 10-term incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez often referred to in the media as AOC, is a self identified Democratic Socialist, as was 2016 presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Despite this newfound prominence, the political affiliation is still widely misunderstood, often confused with communism or European style socialism. So what exactly is Democratic Socialism? And how would a Democratic Socialist platform affect your life?
According to the biggest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), "Democratic socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically—to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. To achieve a more just society, many structures of our government and economy must be radically transformed through greater economic and social democracy so that ordinary Americans can participate in the many decisions that affect our lives." This polished and condensed definition sounds good, but it's difficult to grasp what it actually means in practice. To help you understand, we've broken down the four pillars of Democratic Socialism to explore how their implementation in the American government could affect your life.
Workers Control Means of Production/The Importance of Unions
Perhaps most central to Democratic Socialism is the belief that American industry should be controlled by the workers who run it and the consumers who gain from it. Generally, they believe in a decentralized economy, though they think some indispensable portions of industry, like energy and steel, should be government controlled. As the DSA puts it, "We believe that social and economic decisions should be made by those whom they most affect."
In practice, this decentralization would likely mean the fruition of things like workers cooperatives and publicly owned ventures. Essentially, this economic model would mean that it would be much more difficult for a few people to get obscenely wealthy while those on the bottom of the economic ladder remain impoverished. Instead, everyone would have fairly equal opportunity to profit off the success of a business, creating a more widespread sense of ownership over the success of the economy, therefore stabilizing it. Unions are an important part of this pillar, as Democratic Socialists believe unions are essential in order to hold companies accountable to their workers and to empower workers to challenge capitalism as a concept.
Capitalism Promotes Greed and Must be Regulated
Democratic Socialists believe that capitalism has the inherent tendency to keep the rich rich and the poor poor and that capitalist corporations will always act in the interest of maximum profit at the expense of all else. Therefore, private corporations must be regulated by the government in order to ensure that they look out for the wellbeing of workers and lower rung employees. With this kind of philosophy implemented, there would likely be a strengthening of labor laws, a higher minimum wage, expanded parental leave, the prevention of foreign outsourcing to low wage countries, and the prevention of environmentally harmful activities.
A Minimum Quality of Life for All Citizens
This is perhaps the simplest pillar of Democratic Socialism though likely would prove to be the most difficult to fulfill. Essentially, Democratic Socialists believe that all human beings have the right to sustenance, housing, clean water, healthcare, education, and child care, and that the government should ensure these things are accessible to all US citizens. This would likely mean significantly more spending on social welfare programs and expansion of government housing, which would inevitably require higher taxes. Of course, with the implementation of the other pillars of Democratic Socialism, more people would have a better chance of reaching this minimum quality of life even without an expansion of welfare programs.
Importantly, healthcare is an essential part of this equation in the eyes of Democratic Socialists. They don't merely believe in "medicare for all" health care system, but also that medical facilities should be publicly run and doctors publicly employed.
Grass Roots Means of Achieving Power
As mentioned before, the welfare of the community is important to Democratic Socialists, meaning that the election of the individual is also seen as having the tendency to play into the patterns of the centralization of power. A traditional Democratic Socialist would likely reject the concept of election altogether, instead opting for grass roots organization and mass mobilization. But as shown by AOC and all the other Democratic Socialist candidates elected this year, most who ascribe to these beliefs recognize that it's necessary to participate in the democracy in order to insight change, but still maintain that true change and empowerment comes from the mass mobilization of the people.
The sounds of the summer don't have to just be the cries of your enemies...
There was a time when, if a leader of a nation wanted to speak to their people, they could just hop on the radio and instantly be transported into every living room. Nowadays, politicians –– democrat and demagogue alike –– have to fight to be heard above the unending noise of social media, where the inane musings of a citizen's friend is given equal time as whatever pronouncement they (the politicians) wish to make. Increasingly, this has led to attention-starved politicians engaging in some previously unimaginable behavior, in a seeming attempt to not just compete with your online friends, but become one of them.
The current U.S. President has eschewed the official White House statement in favor of stream-of-consciousness tweeting that resembles some kind of fridge poetry for Tea Party uncles. His predecessor, CoolDadPresident™ Barack Obama, realizing that Roosevelt's fireside chat shtick wouldn't work with the kids, did something different. Realizing that music is both a Thing That Humans Generally Like and a excellent signifier of cultural literacy, the White House published a series of summer playlists curated by the President that combined tracks from some up-and-coming artists (Courtney Barnett's, "Elevator Operator" made an appearance) with undeniable classics like Miles Davis' "Flamenco Sketches".
But why should elected leaders be the only ones who get to cut a mixtape? What about the outcasts of the global order; the ones who everyone avoids at UN meetings? Don't dictators love to dance too? According to The Guardian, the answer is yes, at least in the case of Bashar Al-Assad, whose iTunes purchase history reveals that even the Syrian autocrat is not immune to the charms of LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It". Years of brutal civil war has left Al-Assad's image somewhat tarnished (war crimes will do that), so perhaps he should find some time in-between barrel-bombing sessions to reveal the softer side of himself; the Bashar who, like any regular loving husband, sends Blake Shelton songs to his wife. Yes, he may have given the order to shell Homs into glass that same day, but it's a start.
So, in the spirit of the humble profession of providing PR advice to despots, I have compiled what I think is a perfect summer playlist fit for any established or prospective authoritarian; one that is sure to give them a much-needed image boost, as well as providing a few helpful tips along the way:
Track 1: "Who Wants the World" by The Stranglers
Before you can even begin to throw that tyrannical power around, you've got to have the ambition to take it. The Stranglers' 1980 new wave classic should get you pumped up for some putsch-ing. "Who waaaants the world?" You do.
Track 2: "Cruel" by St. Vincent
Any dictator worth their salt knows that, even with ambition, seizing and maintaining their positions can't be done with a clean pair of hands. That's okay though, the lilting melodies of Annie Clark should be cool enough to help you drown out the screams you hear in your head.
Track 3: "SHAME" by Young Fathers
So you've taken power, but something feels off, right? People really seem to not like you. Sure, you might've "disappeared" half their family, but your "dodgy dealings just got deadly", it's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, they should be the ones who are ashamed. Sing it with me: "What a shame on you/Where's your gall when it's a shame on you?"...
Track 4: "Illicit Fields" by Ka
Being a dictator can be tough, but it can have its perks, even if they might be a little blood-stained. Mixing sweeping melodies and punchy samples, Ka's Honor Killed the Samurai depicts the grey moral territory of life on the margins, where there is very little time for sweeping generalizations like 'good' and 'evil'. It's a seismic work, and sure to provide lots of cool credibility when you invite some influencers over to one of your six places to listen to it on vinyl. Just don't sound too into it when you're singing the hook: "Hate's well known/It's that love I'm unfamiliar with".
Track 5: "Rasputin" by Boney M
With all of this good publicity, you're probably going to be so tied up giving interviews and re-tweeting praise fromNew York Times op-ed columnists that you'll need a reliable henchman to run the affairs of state in your stead. Just make sure that he's at least somewhat qualified. Oh... he's a womanizing cult leader who may or may not be sleeping with your wife? Eh, I'm sure everything will be fine. Plus, his song is so catchy.
Track 6: "The Partisan" by Leonard Cohen
The henchman thing didn't work out, there's rebellion in the air. It'll be okay though; just study this legendary Résistance hymn and you'll get to know your enemy. A bit of Cohen should also help you court some hipsters to your side, and he once published a book of poems entitled Flowers for Hitler, which sounds like a dictator-y thing to bring to a meeting with Hitler. There is something eerily sleep-inducing about the way that Cohen strums through a song that is so saturated with sadness and death; it's enough to make you ignore the wind that's blowing...
Track 7: "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone
There's really nothing that dictators obsess about more than the pursuit of immortality. Obtaining a permanent place in history, whether it be through building palaces, empires, or body counts, is kind of the dictator thing. But, as Simone herself once noted, "time is the dictator of us all," and there's a certain justice that, in the end, everyone fears. This winding, ten-minute symphony of a song is probably Simone's greatest work, and her engine-like piano playing and rhythmic vocals are the perfect accompaniment to some vigorous exercise; the kind of exercise that you'd get from say, running away from an angry mob. Turn it up, tyrants –– time to figure out "where you're gonna run to"...