“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.
Japanese internment camps pale in comparison to not being able breath your germs on a crowd of strangers in a bar.
On Wednesday, speaking at a Washington D.C. event celebrating Constitution Day, Attorney General and Donald Trump's lapdog William Barr noted that slavery—but only slavery—was worse than the pandemic lockdown.
Alongside accusations that the Black Lives Matter movement improperly uses Black people slain by the police as "props" for achieving "a much broader political agenda," Barr shared his thoughts on what he apparently thinks of as a much more serious injustice: "You know, putting a national lockdown, stay-at-home orders, is like house arrest. Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history,"
Leaving aside the familiar galactic scale of the understatement in the phrase "a different kind of restraint," it's worth noting that (thanks to his boss) there never were any national stay-at-home orders—though that approach could have saved tens of thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and months of this confusing stasis.
More importantly, we can now take a stroll through history and look at all the horrible things America has done that apparently pale in comparison to telling people not to spread a deadly virus. As it turns out, when you signed up for HelloFresh this spring—because meal kits weren't already convenient enough without the looming threat of death—you weren't just avoiding the modern horror of the grocery store, you were giving into crushing tyranny.
Attorney General William Barr brings up slavery when referring to quarantining during the pandemicwww.youtube.com
How bad is it? Well, you've probably heard about the Jim Crow era of American history—when Black Americans were legally refused service, housing, and employment, and deprived of access to adequate education, and even their voting rights. According to Bill Barr, this is worse—at least back then some people were allowed to eat in restaurants.
And you know how, during World War II, tens of thousands of Japanese Americans were taken from their homes and held in awful conditions in internment camps on the basis that they might be spies? Well at least they weren't asked to wear masks on the basis that they might be asymptomatic carriers of a highly contagious pathogen that has already killed nearly 200,000 Americans.
Oh, and about the systematic theft of land and resources from Native Americans, coupled with the destruction of their cultures and languages, deliberate exposure to deadly infections, forced sterilization, and just plain mass murder: It's true that the United States used violent, overwhelming force and numerous insidious measures to erase their heritage and move them onto smaller and smaller "reservations" of undesirable land. On the other hand, you try getting a "reservation" these days—in some places you can only get takeout.
As awful as it is to make light of these historic tragedies, it's important to call out the fact that the head of the Justice Department is speaking so flippantly about both American history and the vital ongoing efforts to prevent further deaths.
This is exactly the kind of inflammatory rhetoric that encourages people to storm government buildings armed with assault rifles. It's the logic that says we "have to get back to normal life" when that's just not possible.
Look at Sturgis, South Dakota where, each year, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings hundreds of thousands of visitors, and hundreds of millions of dollars. Surely the state has no choice but to "get back to normal" by welcoming that kind of important economic stimulus for the region... except that it became a super-spreader event, rippling out from South Dakota to cause new COVID outbreaks around the country, creating a public health crisis that estimates say will end up costing over $12 billion.
Unless we're planning to let a million more Americans die off—in their homes, because it would take to much to hospitalize them—we have no choice but to treat this pandemic as the emergency it is, and to "intrude" on people's civil liberties.
Barr's comments, at an event hosted by conservative Hillsdale College, came specifically in response to a question about the freedom of religion in the context of the lockdown—the idea being that it may not be constitutional to disallow church services. Obviously if specific denominations or religious practices were being targeted for discriminatory restrictions, that would be a serious concern.
But that's not happening. In states where they aren't being given special leniency to risk their parishioners lives, churches are subject to the same restriction on public gatherings as any other organization. And while people should be free to worship as they choose, their choices must fall within a certain realm of reason and decency—no one has the freedom to perform human sacrifices. Well, maybe one person does...
On Sunday Donald Trump—the man whom Bill Barr's justice department is inexplicably defending in a defamation suit involving rape accusations—defied city orders by holding a rally in Henderson, Nevada. His first indoor rally since the June event in Tulsa that likely led to the death of Herman Cain, this rally has been characterized as "negligent homicide," almost certainly spreading the novel coronavirus, in addition to spreading the kind of insanity that treats mail-in voting as a threat to democracy, and masks as a threat to liberty.
And thanks to the nature of the Trump administration, the Attorney General's job is no longer to impartially enforce the law, it's to cosign the president's favorite conspiracies, encourage violent hysteria, and compare bare minimum public health efforts to the worst crimes in American History.