“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.
Time's Up, one of the largest organizations fighting against sexual assault, says they can't help the alleged victim.
Content warning: the following article contains a brief depiction of sexual assault.
For the entirety of his run in the 2020 presidential race (and much of his decades-long career), Joe Biden hasn't had the best track record regarding his treatment of women.
The former vice president, who's earned a shocking lead in the Democratic primaries thus far, has racked up multiple accusations from women who say he was inappropriate towards them. Many of these recounts involve a disregard for personal space, improper comments about appearance, and even some condescending finger-wagging, but none of them explicitly depicted a sexual assault. Until now.
Tara Reade didn't initially go public with her sexual assault story about Joe Biden when it allegedly occurred in 1993. A staff assistant of Biden's at the time, Reade told her brother and close friend but otherwise kept her story silent. But, in an episode recently aired of Katie Halper's podcast, Reade has finally let her story out in the world.
Reade says that she was called to bring a gym bag to Biden, who was Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, near the Capitol. Nobody else was around. "We were alone, and it was the strangest thing," Reade said. "There was no exchange, really. He just had me up against the wall." In what seemed like one swift motion, she added, Biden had his hands under her clothes and then began penetrating her digitally. "I pulled back, and he said, 'Come on, man, I heard you liked me'...It's like he implied that I had done this."
Reade tried to come forward with her story in April 2019, but she was halted after her claims of sexual harassment got her doxxed and smeared as a Russian agent. In January of this year, Reade tried again telling her story to Time's Up, the organization that rose as Hollywood's initial #MeToo movement unfolded. However, as Ryan Grim reports in The Intercept, Time's Up couldn't provide assistance "because Biden was a candidate for federal office, and assisting a case against him, Time's Up said, could jeopardize the organization's nonprofit status."
Reade told Grim she was conflicted about coming forward with her sexual assault allegation as the 2020 election carried on because she feared she'd be "help[ing] Trump" win over Biden. But, if our two presidential front-runners are both men accused of sexual assault, and one of the largest organizations intended to help survivors can't help at all, there's a much larger issue than simply defeating Trump: It's how we handle assault at the hands of the world's most powerful men.
This incident reportedly took place during Kavanaugh's Freshman year at Yale University.
Brett Kavanaugh and The White House have publicly denied a second woman's claims of sexual misconduct by the Supreme Court nominee. This allegation comes in the wake of negotiators reaching a decision to hold a hearing to investigate the claims of Kavanaugh's first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. In light of the new accusation, the top Democrat on the senate judiciary committee, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, called for immediate postponement of Kavanaugh's confirmation process. In a letter to Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley., Sen. Feinstein asked that the matter be referred to the FBI for investigation.
The new allegation dates back to the 1983-84 school year, when Kavanaugh was a freshman at Yale University. Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh's classmate at Yale at the time, was contacted by The New Yorker after the allegation was relayed to Democratic senators by a civil-rights lawyer. She was originally reluctant to share the story, in part because she had been drinking at the party in question and felt she had some gaps in her memory of the night. After several days of assessing her recollection with her attorney, she said she felt certain enough of the memory to describe it in an interview with The New Yorker.
The New Yorker reports, "Kavanaugh had exposed himself at a drunken dormitory party, thrust his penis in her face, and caused her to touch it without her consent as she pushed him away."
Ramirez recalled being shaken by the event. "I wasn't going to touch a penis until I was married," she said. "I was embarrassed and ashamed and humiliated." The New Yorker reported that Ramirez "...remembers Kavanaugh standing to her right and laughing, pulling up his pants. 'Brett was laughing.' she said. 'I can still see his face, and his hips coming forward, like when you pull up your pants.'" She also stated that another student "yelled down the hall, 'Brett Kavanaugh just put his penis in Debbie's face.'" She remarked, "It was his full name. I don't think it was just 'Brett.' And I remember hearing and being mortified that this was out there."
Regarding the incident, Ramirez said, "I would think an FBI investigation would be warranted."
Brett Kavanaugh in the Yale Yearbookwhitehouse.gov
In response to Ramirez's allegation, the White House spokesperson Kerri Kupec stated, "This 35-year-old, uncorroborated claim is the latest in a coordinated smear campaign by the Democrats designed to tear down a good man. This claim is denied by all who were said to be present and is wholly inconsistent with what many women and men who knew Judge Kavanaugh at the time in college say. The White House stands firmly behind Judge Kavanaugh."
It has been confirmed that four Democratic senators have received information about Ramirez's allegation, and at least two are investigating the matter further. Ramirez will not be appearing at Kavanaugh's hearing on Thursday.
Amidst the chaos of confirmation, the real force behind right-wing policy is going unnoticed
When a storm hits, it can be difficult to remember everything that came before. After the revelations of the past week regarding allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh, the relative calm that was the previous months of the confirmation process seem like hazy half-memories. Yet, in light of where the political gaze of the nation now finds itself directed, perhaps it's time to ask, in the spirit of The Talking Heads, "How did we get here?" How did a man accused of sexual assault end up receiving a lifetime nomination to one of the most powerful institutions in America? Answering that question will require traversing the interconnected and exclusive ranges of the right-wing political machinery, where dark money and faceless groups lay their hands on the scales of our civic life. Yet, in the end, the question of how we got here is one with a relatively simple answer and one that strikes at the heart of a vast range of the illnesses that seem to be ravaging the body politic. We are here, and we are here with Brett Kavanaugh because a small group of wealthy people wanted us to be.
On July 9th in the East Room of the White House, Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit was officially unveiled as President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court. It was a sedated Trump who showed up to emcee the big reveal that day –– the incarnation of the 45th President who is shuffled out to read a script at grand occasions of state such as this, lest his free-wheeling, ad-libbing alter-ego debase the few civic rituals that have survived his first year in office. Trump dutifully sang Kavanaugh's praises: "Judge Kavanaugh has impeccable credentials, unsurpassed qualifications and a proven commitment to equal justice under the law," he assured the American people, squinting into the light of the teleprompter. His detachment seemed palpable, but not in the way that repeating the kind of boilerplate political language that comes so unnaturally to him usually appears. This was the detachment of a man uninvested in the grand spectacle of tension, power, and pomp that surrounded him, and, in a simpler previous life, would have been his to conduct. This was Donald Trump, trapped hosting a reality show he wasn't controlling, put on by producers he despises; a show where the contestants were pre-selected and the winner decided in advance.
Prior to the upending effect of the public disclosure of the sexual assault allegations levied at Judge Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford (the consequences of which, at time of writing, are yet to be fully borne out), the confirmation hearings had been mostly marked by the kind of aesthetic grandstanding that has come to form the majority of our contemporary political discourse. This was particularly true of the contribution of the Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, who struggled to form a single substantive counter-argument against what had appeared to be a confirmation secured on the strength of a brute mathematical reality. Despite bouts of laser-sharp questioning from Kamala Harris on women's rights and Mazie Hirono on the judge's view on Native Americans, as well as slightly less laser-sharp bouts of Cory Booker tweeting links to his Dropbox account, asserting, in the guise of a liberal Alex Jones, that he "has the documents", the broad Democratic counter-argument during the confirmation hearings was a simple one. Brett Kavanaugh is Donald Trump's justice, and, as Donald Trump is bad, he should be denied confirmation on account of being bad.
Yet, looking at the breadth of the Democrats' campaign against Kavanaugh's nomination, one can't help but think that the bulk of their strategy would not have changed regardless of who won this season of The Judicial Apprentice, as though there were already a hymn sheet prepared for everyone to sing from with a space to write the name of whoever was eventually nominated. The plan until the recent revelations appears to have been to attack Kavanaugh as an extension of Trump personally, rather than as someone who poses a specific and pressing threat to certain ideals. That one-size-fits-all communications strategy was made a little too publicly apparent immediately after the East Room unveiling when, in the proud Democratic tradition of reliable competence, the DNC tweeted out a rousing call to #StopKavanaugh that made one small error: the picture of the judge they used was of Thomas Hardiman (another rumored candidate for the seat). Yet, perhaps the Democrats can be forgiven for approaching Kavanaugh as a factory-made, hard-right jurist because, in fact, that's exactly what he is.
In early 2016 –– a time that now seems to belong to another political epoch –– then-candidate Donald Trump took the unusual step of publishing a list of his potential Supreme Court picks. The list, which, at the time, appeared unlikely to ever actually become relevant, was designed by then-campaign lawyer Don McGahn to assure the right-wing establishment that his ideologically erratic candidate could be relied upon to deliver them a justice who would swing the court in their preferred direction for generations. After the election, the list made the seamless transition from speculative fiction to official White House policy, as Neil Gorsuch jumped from paper to robe under the careful guidance of now White House counsel McGahn and became the newest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. The rest of the names on the list; which included DNC-canon justice Hardiman, evangelical Catholic cult aficionado Amy Coney Barrett, William Pryor –– a man who thinks that decriminalizing homosexuality was made a bit too hastily, as well as Kavanaugh, could not have been more palatable to the conservative donor base if they'd written it themselves. This is probably because, essentially, they did.
The Federalist Society, founded in 1982 at the height of the Reagan-era conservative fever dream, is a network of lawyers and jurists who work to combat the perceived 'liberal' tendencies of America's judicial system. They advocate the so-called 'originalist' and 'textualist' approaches to jurisprudence most famously espoused by former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, the product of an ill-fated crossover between the Scarlet Letter and The Sopranos whose most famous contributions to the judicial corpus involved compromising the ability of states to regulate firearms and enshrining the rights of corporations to spend unlimited, unaccountable sums of money to influence elections. The group is backed by the kind of people one would expect would be interested in enshrining a judicial philosophy that can essentially be boiled down to 'Mad Max, but the NFL is still on'; the Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Google, and the Knights of Columbus are all donors. It should come as no surprise then that the Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo was the co-author of Trump's Supreme Court list, and that the shadowy organization has been one of the strongest lobbyists in Congress for both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh's confirmations.
In many ways, the establishment of the Republican party has gotten away with their role in enabling the Trump Presidency –– whether it be the donors like Islamophobic blob-fish Sheldon Adelson, who so quickly moved to pour resources into his campaign after condemning his lack of support for Israel; or the #NeverTrumpers like Jeff Flake, who has made himself a CNN-ebrity by shouting "how dare you, sir!" at the President on the floor of the Senate before sitting down and voting 83% of the time for his policies. For these people, the litany of horrors unleashed by the Trump administration is either their stated policy goals or acceptable casualties. Their primary objections to Trump are largely aesthetic –– they worry that the President's propensity for free-association bigotry is saying the quiet part of their ideology loud in a way that might attract undue attention and resistance. Yet they endure it and will continue to endure it for however long the President remains in office because he has signed up to give a life appointment to those who whistle at a much less audible pitch.
Brett Kavanaugh is the apotheosis of the right-wing, corporatist establishment's vision of a justice. In his confirmation hearings, he gave answers to direct questions that were so evasive they were practically quantum. He replied that he "could not provide his views" 53 times to written questions, providing a rationale of response that seemed to be limitless only in defining what he was not, not what he is. This is all that The Federalist Society and their boosters in Congress and the business world desired. Trump could morph into a cloud of sarin and visit a playground so long as their ideological aim of pushing the Supreme Court to the right is achieved, and so they have instituted a system that has ensured they have complete control over the trajectory of that process. This is the mechanism that resulted in such an inanimate Trump appearing in the East Room that day, a mechanism with one singular focus –– to place in the President's hand a cue card with "Brett Kavanaugh" written in big bold type. Considering the subsequent trajectory of the confirmation process, perhaps Donald Trump is glad he didn't take that producer's credit.
Seamus McGuigan is a writer and academic studying Critical Theory and Comparative Literature at NYU. Find him on Twitter: @seamusmcguigan.
Volunteers look to change the world but the agency's practices have been debated for decades
In February 2013, 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Nick Castle died in a hospital at West China Hospital of Sichuan University of a gastrointestinal illness. He had fallen into a coma after feeling sick for months, losing weight and, finally, collapsing in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province. Carrie Hessler-Radelet, the director of the Peace Corps in 2013, told the New York Times that the agency had been examining and revising its entire practice since the death of another volunteer in Morocco in 2009.
Deaths in the Peace Corps are not frequent, but they rightly call into question the program's training processes, medical resources, and the security of volunteers.
The physician who treated Castle, Dr. Jin Gao, became the center of a report by the Corps' inspector general about miscommunication and delayed reactions in the agency's healthcare system that might have led to the volunteer's death. Though the report didn't blame the Peace Corps for the man's death, it revealed inefficiencies and errors made by the doctor and others (including the ambulance getting lost on the way to pick up Castle) that added to concerns about volunteer welfare.
Many testimonies—positive and negative—reached reporters following the death. Chance Dorland, a volunteer in Columbia, said, "I was forced to leave my site . . . early because I was made sick by the inadequate and unprofessional medical care the Peace Corps offered its volunteers." Nancy Tongue, founder and director of Health Justice for Peace Corps Volunteers, wrote that a sick volunteer carries the "burden of proof." She expects volunteers who maintain a successful claim to be left "living slightly above poverty level regardless of prior earnings," waiting months or years for proper treatment or attention.
The Peace Corps has also been criticized for failing to keep its volunteers safe. In 2007, Juan Duntugan, a Filipino woodcarver, confessed to killing Julia Campbell because she had bumped into him while he was enraged by a fight with a neighbor. The organization cannot possibly guarantee the safety of its thousands of volunteers in hundreds of countries around the world but it can better prepare them and be more transparent about the dangers they might face.
It can also offer better mental health services. During the application process, the Peace Corps might require, from a person who has a mental illness, letters from mental health professionals, clearance from a psychologist, and participation in a sort of exam. "Transition can often be one of the biggest triggers for mental health issues," writes Ross Szabo, a former volunteer. Even in people not diagnosed with a specific mental illness, adjusting to life among strangers in another country can be massively stressful. And the pressure to succeed can make a difficult situation unmanageable. Another former volunteer, Emily Best, ended her stay in Senegal in 2012 after a year of frustration. She writes, "The onus of success seemed to be placed solely on the volunteer. If the volunteer struggles, it's because she isn't trying hard enough to adapt."
Some volunteers have struggled with a lack of education after being handed a project in an unfamiliar field or with too little training. Kelli Donley returned home from her agricultural posting after only five months because, she realized, "the audacity of my arrogance in assuming that this time abroad would do Cameroon any good was apparent on Day 1." Benjamin Clark was sent to Senegal as a 23-year-old with a graduate school degree. "I taught them a little about accounting and some basic math," he writes, "but my real value was being one extra person to hold a shovel." He thinks of the Peace Corps as a cultural exchange program more than an international aid group.
The loudest controversy for the Peace Corps in recent years has been their alleged mishandling of rape and sexual assault. On average, twenty-two female volunteers reported being raped or being victims of attempts between 2000 and 2009. In 2016, the percentage of women who said they've been sexually assaulted rose to 38%.
Danae Smith was attacked in the Dominican Republic and reported it to the Peace Corps in 2015. The Corps responded by blaming her for not doing enough to prevent it from happening. They sent her home immediately afterward. The U.S. Office of Special Counsel wants better training for host families and other in-country workers, including fellow teachers and priests, who represent a significant percentage of the attackers.
The agency is also being asked to provide much better access to victim care, including medical treatment and counseling.
The Peace Corps has drawn criticism since its inception in 1961 for its actions and intentions as an international development organization. Some think that its goal is mainly to create a positive image of the U.S. despite the country's imperialistic military engagements. Others think of the Peace Corps, itself, as an imperialistic strategy, developing Western culture and planting American influence in impoverished regions around the world. Hayley White, a volunteer in Uganda, wrote that the Corps should work more closely with in-country social entrepreneurs than with nongovernmental organizations that are "often too indoctrinated in Western ideas of how things must be done."
It is difficult to separate imperialism from a foreign aid program such as the Peace Corps or WorldTeach. After all, how can a U.S. citizen, perhaps only recently graduated from college, and maybe on their first trip outside of the country, provide meaningful help to a foreign community based on any other system than the American one in which they grew up? Instead of ending the imperialism argument outright, this is a question that is worth answering as a step toward a solution.
This article has focused on the controversies that surround the Peace Corps not to debase the organization's mission, but because without the constant discussion of weaknesses and the incessant push to do better, these dangers will remain. Many volunteers who write about their unsatisfactory experiences maintain that the organization needs revision to do its work better, not to cease working altogether. The mission of the Peace Corps is important; therefore, it is important to ensure that its mission is carried out correctly and with care.