“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.
They need to put their differences aside if either of them hopes to win
In a recent interview with New York Magazine Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez commented that "in any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America we are."
With consistent cries for party unity since before presidential candidates even began announcing their campaigns, it would be tempting to attack Ocasio-Cortez as splitting the party, but she is absolutely right. There is only a unified party to split on paper. America's winner-take-all style of voting forces disparate political interests to share a title and to pool donors—unless they have the ability, like AOC, to source their own funding.
The GOP has used this to their advantage, emphasizing social wedge issues like abortion and immigration to pull working-class white voters away from their economic interests on the left—convincing them to cheer on tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy. For the Democrats, however, the powerful faction of the party that represents professional-class interests—the private-public partnership, means-testing, social-program-cutting wing—has represented a barrier to participation for truly progressive candidates and voters.
That's why it has been heartening, prior to this week, to see Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren avoiding the temptation to attack one another. While many of Bernie's supporters online have adopted toxic attitudes toward anyone other than their preferred candidate, and many Warren supporters have questioned Bernie's feminist bona fides (particularly in light of that toxicity from many "Bernie Bros"), the candidates and their campaigns seemed largely cordial and supportive of one another. It's important, as the marginalized left-wing of the party, to focus on commonalities and mutual aid if there is going to be any hope of overcoming the powerful centrist forces that have ruled the party and served moneyed interests with only moderately less zeal than the Republican party.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
That shared effort began to fall apart on Saturday night whenPolitico ran a story under the headline "Bernie Campaign Slams Warren as Candidate of the Elite." The story included excerpts from a document purported to be circulated within the Sanders campaign, with scripts instructing volunteers how to attack rivals in the Democratic primaries. While criticisms of Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are hardly surprising, the attacks on Warren—noting that her supporters are predominantly educated, affluent voters who "who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what"—came as a surprise in the context of the candidates' established alliance.
Skepticism in these cases is usually warranted, but the article contained little to suggest that the content was anything less than official and approved by Bernie Sanders himself. By the time Sanders came forward to repudiate the document and deny its official status, the damage was done. The rift was already beginning to widen.
@michelleinbklyn This campaign would NEVER attack supporters. The script, which was not directed by the campaign, p… https://t.co/smcZ6ssrU7— Briahna Joy Gray (@Briahna Joy Gray) 1578977594.0
Warren responded that she was "disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me," and she sent out a fundraising email that asked both for donations and for supporters to share personal stories and perspectives to contradict the framing of her base as elitist. If that had been all, then it might have been easy to move on and return to a mutually supportive stance within a few days. But the real damage was done when people close to Warren, perhaps in an effort to retaliate, spoke to CNN about a private conversation the two had in 2018.
Back then, the thought of actual voters making actual choices seemed distant and abstract, and the candidates sat down to discuss strategies against Trump and to establish the general truce that has held until now. Everyone involved seems to agree on those points, but differing reports emerge when it comes to the topic of gender.As CNN reported, Warren laid out her strengths as a candidate: "She could make a robust argument about the economy and earn broad support from female voters." Bernie was not on the same page.
The Bernie cult has been attacking @ewarren for way too long. They’ve minimized her achievements, called her a copy… https://t.co/9zLobcSgBv— Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈 (@Joshua Manuel Bonet 🏳️🌈) 1578984471.0
According to anonymous members of Warren's team, Bernie didn't think a woman could win. Bernie shot back with his own version of events, saying, "It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn't win... What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016." When Warren herself was finally convinced to weigh in directly, she urged people to move on, claiming that she was more interested in what she and Sanders agree on… But she also confirmed the more inflammatory version of events: "Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed."
While there is certainly a conversation to be had about to what extent America remains too sexist to support a female candidate, it seems like a stretch to accept the idea that, in 2018, Bernie would hold such a categorical view against the possibility of a woman being elected president. What makes it particularly questionable is the existence of footage from a C-SPAN appearance three decades earlier, in which Bernie says, "In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States. The real issue is whose side are you on? Are you on the side of workers and poor people, or are you on the side of big money and the corporations?"
The suggestion that Bernie's views have become more regressive since 1988 seems far-fetched. The inclusive, forward-thinking persona he has consistently presented to the public for 40+ years doesn't line up with this supposed private view. Then again, the idea that Warren would simply lie about Sanders' comments seems equally unlikely. Who you believe seems to depend largely on who you prefer, and the two camps seem to be moving further from each other as the Iowa Caucuses close in. On one side, Bernie Sanders is a sexist; on the other, Elizabeth Warren is a liar.
Without a recording or a transcript of the conversation, it doesn't seem quite justified to land in either of those camps. Without third-party witnesses, the basic facts of who did and who said what can quickly dissolve. The message that was intended and the message that was received crystallize in each person's mind to the point that they become irreconcilable. Perhaps Bernie did think that a progressive man was better poised than a progressive woman to counter Donald Trump's brand of populism in the 2020 election. Maybe his way of saying so was so clumsy that Warren took it as a broad statement about the viability (or lack of viability) of female candidates, and she recounted it as such to people close to her. Short of calling either of them a liar or worse, that is the best I can muster—a version of events that I prefer to believe in order to maintain my respect for both of these candidates.
Supporters from both sides will no doubt find this middle-ground unsatisfactory. The rift feels real right now, and it's starting to seem like each side is trying to undermine the chances of the other. But while only one candidate can win the nomination in the end, their support draws too much from the same pool of voters to allow this rift to remain. Already Bernie supporters who also donated to Warren are turning against her with the hashtag #RefundWarren. But the sad truth is that neither can win in the general election without support from the other's ardent fans. And who really stands to benefit from continued fighting? The center and the far-right. It can only help Joe Biden and Donald Trump. And Donald Trump seems to know it...
Bernie Sander’s volunteers are trashing Elizabeth “Pocahontus” Warren. Everybody knows her campaign is dead and wan… https://t.co/XaRdJ6P3W8— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1578929126.0
If Sanders and Warren can't each count on the other's supporters to get behind them as the primaries shake out, then Biden will likely hold onto his narrow lead. And if one of them does manage to get the nomination with this acrimony still hanging in the air between them, no amount of campaigning for one another is going to muster the sort of passion that we can count on to overwhelm Donald Trump in the general. 2016 should have taught us that much.
This feud needs to end now. Warren and Sanders need each other, and our country needs them. They are the only candidates taking America's economic divide seriously, and the only candidates willing to tackle climate change with the resolve and transformative action it requires. If Donald Trump gets reelected, he will continue to make both of these problems far worse, destroying hope for economic justice and a sustainable future. If Joe Biden is our next president, then we will go back to enacting middling, inadequate reforms—one step forward for every two steps back.
Hillary supporters as 2016 election results came inGetty Images
Warren and Sanders, united, represent our only real hope. Of course, they each believe that they are best suited to the job. They wouldn't be running otherwise. But if either of them is going to win, they need to come together, reaffirm progressive unity with one voice—acknowledging the differing accounts of events and decrying sexist limitations. Either of them can win this election, but neither can do it alone.
Because the American people deserve to know
With less than a month left until the Iowa caucuses officially kick off primary season, it seems like we've spent the last decade slowly whittling away at an endless list of candidates.
Many voters have already seen their favorite contenders drop out of the race. Others have yet to figure out which person on a crowded debate stage best represents their interests. Obviously there are a number of axes on which you can compare the candidates, and countless articles that can help you navigate their differing economic policies, their stances on health care, or their various approaches to foreign policy. If those are the factors by which you judge a candidate, you should have no problem finding what you need to make up your mind. People like me are not so lucky.
I have always been a single issue voter—consistently casting my ballot for the best dancer. In 2008 and 2012, I had an easy time of it. Barack Obama's blend of smooth and corny dance moves struck a perfect balance for my sensibilities, easily winning out over Mitt Romney's "Gangnam Style" convulsions, or John McCain's high-intensity robot. 2016 presented a more difficult choice. I nearly didn't vote at all, but ultimately decided that Hillary Clinton's stiff Whip and Nae Nae represented the lesser of two evils when considered against Donald Trump's apocalyptic rendition of "Hotline Bling."
Sadly, some 60 million voters didn't see what I did, and made the wrong call. I won't let that happen again. The American people deserve to see every candidate dance before they go to the polls. Until the DNC finally listens to wisdom and converts one of their debates to a dance off, I've compiled this list so that you can make an informed decision.
Warren dancing at her rally tonight 💃🏼 https://t.co/c2QBzPGsH1— Behind 2020 (@Behind 2020) 1578458031.0
We'll get the top-tier candidates out of the way first. Senator Elizabeth Warren has nothing to hide. She has been the most upfront, transparent candidate when it comes to her big, structural dancing. And while it may not be everyone's first choice in style, you can not fault her fun-aunt-at-a-wedding energy. The latest example of her eclectic blend of fist pumping and hula dancing comes from last night's Brooklyn rally with—recent dropout and competent dancer in his own right—Julian Castro. She probably just needs a couple more glasses of zinfendel from the open bar before she really loosens up.
Bernie Sanders is surprisingly spry. You might not expect a man in his 70s with heart problems to cut a rug, but Bernie is not your average senior citizen. He has the energy of a man half his age, and the timeless consistency of his dancing allows him to keep up with his young supporters.
Former vice president Joe Biden dances exactly as you'd expect—slow, old fashioned, and "sweet" in a way that's uncomfortably intimate.
"Not left. Not right. Forward!" - @AndrewYang #YangGang #Yang2020 https://t.co/7UcY9OG9to— Will🔥🛍️YangGang Pink🧢🔥 (@Will🔥🛍️YangGang Pink🧢🔥) 1565920883.0
Silicon Valley entrepreneur Andrew Yang has more than enough spring in his step to keep up with any roomful of middle-aged women on the dance floor. His universal basic dance moves aim to remind us that we all share one dance floor.
Congressional representative for Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard doesn't exactly dance—she dance-fights. Just as with her approach to debates or to the war on terror, her Capoeira moves may be a bit more aggressive than some voters want.
#BREAKING: Amy Klobuchar performs ancient, centrist war-dance to stoke fear in the hearts of her more radical oppo… https://t.co/EFEoA3JXOE— MSDNC (@MSDNC) 1569102792.0
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is known for her no-nonsense pragmatism. She strives not to make any promises she can't keep, so she will appear to be the adult in the room...but her dancing tells a different story. Klobuchar dances with the energy of a happy toddler who could enter full-blown tantrum mode at any moment.
You may be surprised to find that spiritual guru Marianne Williamson is still in the race, but once you see her dance moves, you'll be surprised she isn't the front runner. She is as one with the music as she is with the vibrations of the universe.