Yesterday I was dragged to attend the 10th anniversary of Democracy Now, the independent radio show, which featured an evening with Harry Belafonte. I was dragged because, as a pragmatic liberal, I'm skeptical of radicals. I'm not enamored of their passion for idealism and their sloganeering irritates me.
I was aware that Mr. Belafonte was a civil rights activist and I knew he had been a huge star in the fifties, famous for the Banana Boat Song. Mr. Belafonte has said very many controversial things and he has been accused of being a bigot for intimating that Colin Powell "served his masters well", a comment that unleashed a shitstorm of controversy.
I have always been skeptical of saints, and it must not be easy to be a person whom many admire for their political commitment, but I take my hat off to Mr. Belafonte for being of such an outspoken and independent mind and for speaking truth to power in a way that many wouldn't dare. Somehow, coming from him, given his experience and his history, it seems just. I was not prepared to hear such an amazing orator speak. I was completely seduced by his incredible lucidity and his eloquence. He spoke beautifully. He held the audience in thrall and he said a couple of things that made an impression on me.
One: he joined the army in WWII in order to fight against fascism. He said that at 17 he was seduced by the adventure of war. He came back home, a black soldier, to utter ungratefulness and indifference, and worse, to have to deal with in America what he was supposed to be fighting against in Europe. It's something we don't really think about: not only about the minorities who served in the Army but the country they came back to, a place that allowed the most unspeakable racism and humiliation of an entire people, Americans all, as a way of life. Thankfully, he converted the bitterness he may have rightly felt into action for the cause of the civil rights movement.
Two, he basically told us that we have done nothing to stop the Bush administration. That nobody is going to do it for us. That we are responsible for putting that man there and for keeping him there, and he is right.
One can feel how palpable and deep the sense of impotence is, not only among hippie radicals, who were clapping and oohing and aahing in despair and outrage every two seconds (myself included, I confess), but among many decent people in this country who have all but thrown their hands up in the air while business goes on as usual and keeps getting worse and worse. And as Mr. Belafonte said, it's not about staging a march, (which we won't even do). It's about many marches, a movement with a sense of purpose, with a focus on one thing, like the civil rights movement was. We seem aimless, leaderless, rudderless, apathetic, defanged, cynical and lazy. We all bitch and moan but few take a stand, few do anything. I guess that in a rich, wealthy, powerful society such as ours, one gets, as Pink Floyd would say, "comfortably numb".
We have been lobotomized by our own complacency.
Belafonte spoke admiringly of Hugo Chavez for a good while. Hugo Chavez offered oil to the Bronx in the winter months and tons of relief to Katrina's victims. Belafonte said he was arrogantly rebuffed by the US government, but forgot that when Venezuela had catastrophic floods and the US sent two ships with aid, Chavez turned them away, in a classic move of who is mas macho. Hugo Chavez irritates the Bush Administration for sport every day and he is seriously trying to change the dynamics of the region; he seriously thinks that the economic and political game can be played without the US setting all the rules. It remains to be seen whether he is truly a leader of the people with Venezuela's best interests at heart or a despotic maniac with a cult of personality like his friend and mentor, the perverse Fidel Castro.
I was relieved to hear Belafonte say that he is not that naive and he doesn't yet know how Chavez is going to turn out. It would have been disappointing that such a clear-headed man would suffer from political naivete.
Still, hearing Belafonte yesterday night was a painful reminder of how pathetic we are.
I wonder why he was not chosen to lead the movement after MLK died. He certainly seems more intelligent, charismatic and with a real natural quality of leadership than Jesse Jackson, for instance. Perhaps they feared no one would take the Day-O singer seriously. Yet in an age where we had Reagan as President and Jesse Ventura and the Governator, I don't see why Belafonte couldn't have played a more central role in continuing the leadership of Dr. King. Perhaps he didn't want it. Listening to him yesterday I felt today we have no one like him. Maybe not always right, but fierce and committed and articulate and inspiring.
It's very sad.