“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 super-rich are hoping inequality is here to stay, even after the apocalypse.
With the Atlantic hurricane season already underway, tens of millions of people are preparing grab bags and emergency kits and hoping that the next storm isn't the one that will take away their lives, their homes, or their resources. Yet, in spite of researchers' warnings suggesting that global climate change is increasing the likelihood that the next big storm, or the one after that, will wreak unavoidable devastation on those same millions, a much smaller group have no such anxieties. These people are not members of a doomsday cult, climate change 'skeptic' Super-PAC, or owners of exceptionally-developed spleens. They are a part of a far more elite class of mammals –– the super-rich –– and, as the storms rage ever harder on the rest of us, they've prepared emergency kits that have far more than a flashlight and a radio in them.
In 1888, the British industrialist and fervent imperialist Cecil Rhodes gained a charter for exclusive mineral rights in lands that are now part of the nation of Zimbabwe. What set this particular acquisition apart from the earlier expansions of British control, however, was the fact that Southern Rhodesia (named, in customarily humble fashion, after its 'founder') was not a colony founded under the usual auspices of the desire of British expansionism, but as a result of the singular desire of a wealthy man to exert his control over territories that he believed were his to rule. The explicitly apartheid state of Rhodesia –– which would rule the nation from 1965 to 1979 without international recognition –– was the symbolic successor to this ideology, and its legacy of colonial plunder haunts Zimbabwe (once the great breadbasket of Africa) to this day. Eccentric Victorian industrialists' dreams of vainglorious expansion may seem like a far-flung relic; something to be exiled to a colonial past, rather than alive in our interconnected present.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Yet, a world where sea levels are rising and storms are strengthening has given impetus to a new generation of businessmen dedicated to the prospect of forging a different future for their own ends. Unlike Rhodes, the unimaginably wealthy of our time are not motivated by the pride and riches of a national empire, but by the base desire to survive in an apocalyptic future where others of lesser means cannot.
The Seasteading Institute, established in 2008 by prominent techno-libertarians such as venture capitalist and Facebook investor Peter Thiel, seeks to develop:
"...a model wherein a single company comprising several stakeholders will oversee construction and management of a highly autonomous floating city, leaving residents and entrepreneurs free to operate their own lives and businesses."
While this may sound like the vanity project of a few multi-millionaires, the institute is far from a folly. In 2017 they gained the rights to develop their first 'autonomous community' off the coast of French Polynesia –– a settlement that is explicitly designed to be immune to the rising sea-levels that are an existential threat to the Pacific island nation; which is also, in a sort of tragic irony, a relic of French imperial power. That the endeavor seems to be simply interested in offering a tax-free refuge for the rich rather than mitigating the threat of global climate change to its prospective hosts is indicative of a world where the future of a tiny percentage of the population possesses the means to forge a future for themselves that is widely divergent from that of the rest of the planet –– a sort of survivalist colonialism that derives its power from capital, rather than nation states.
Concept design for the 'Floating Island Project'Photo: The Seasteading Institute
The sea-steader mindset is not, like their imperialist forebearers, constricted by the bonds of the globe, or confined to the lands of the so called 'Global South' –– its ambitions stretch as far as outer space, while also touching the homey plains of Kansas. Inspired by writers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard (who famously rejected the women's rights and civil rights movements as "contemptuous and hostile"), these new self-styled 'anarcho-capitalists' seem willing to forge a future which protects their property and status at any cost, including the lives of their fellow human beings. Elon Musk, Twitter's favorite tech-billionaire, appears dedicated to using his fortune (which currently stands at 20 billion dollars) on a Martian colonization project which is unlikely to be in the price range of most regular apocalypse-fleeing humans. While Musk's space-faring future continues to be the preserve of engineering-defying ambition, his reaction to real-world climate catastrophes has been ambivalent at best. When Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico's power grid, Musk's press-friendly offer to rebuild with Tesla technology turned out to be a veiled attempt at privatization –– a brazen con by a man bound for life on Mars, seeking to profit off of those left drowning behind. On a smaller scale, the increasing number of tech entrepreneurs hoarding ammunition and building shelters in disused Kansas missile silos represents a similar desire for the wealthy to ensure that the vast wealth inequality already present in America continues after the end of days.That is not to say that the rest of us in the 'developed' world are immune from blame. While the extravagant fantasies of a few individuals makes for intriguing (and often darkly hilarious) copy, the nature of global wealth disparity has led to a reality in which the measures taken by even the most middle-class citizens to survive in a warming world are actively contributing to its demise. Experts warn that, as temperatures rise, the increasing use of air conditioning by Americans seeking shelter from record-setting heat waves could contribute to a surge in air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. It is becoming increasingly clear that the threat posed to communities by climate change, from Floridian retirees to Mongolian subsistence farmers, is the result of an unsustainable and unequal distribution of resource-use that implicates all of us. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that, just as Cecil Rhodes once lashed out on his own at the limits of a waning colonial power, the elite of our time are now blazing a destructive trail of survival in the wake of a system on the verge of collapse.