Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Unpacking Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte hit it big as a singer in 1956 and became known as the King of Calypso. But he was also a political activist from early on.

Harry Belafonte
But here is something to wonder at. Belafonte is often described as a human rights or social justice activist. In 2004 he was even awarded the Domestic Human Rights Award by Global Exchange, an American organisation which is supposedly dedicated to promoting human rights and a living democracy.

That sits oddly with his earlier support for communist causes, given the lack of rights or democracy in such countries. But even more so it sits oddly with his recent comments about political opposition to the policies of Barack Obama.

This is what Belafonte said in an interview:

Interviewer: You've fought for decades for some of the entitlements that the right-wing wants to balance the budget off of...How do you view this?

Belafonte: What's attracted me most to this process is watching the political maturity of the American people, because it was a question during the first election whether Barack would even be elected, and after the turnout so emphatically put him in the presidency, it's interesting to watch the second turnout, when everybody didn't quite know what the game would be. But the American people in their maturity declared themselves fully "We want what Barack Obama is talking about, we want the country to go in that direction". And what fascinates me is that in the midst of millions of Americans expressing their desire, the whole political establishment defining its game, that there should be this lingering infestation of really corrupt people, who sit trying to dismantle the wishes of the people, the mandate that has been given to Barack Obama, and I don't know what more they want, the only thing left for Barack Obama to do, is to work like a Third World dictator and just put all these guys in jail. You're violating the American desire.

The way Belafonte describes it there is an "American desire" which has defined what American politics is to be and only a "lingering infestation of really corrupt people" stand in its way and the only thing left to do is to repress them.

There's a lot to unpack in all of this. I've already pointed out how incongruous it is for Belafonte to win awards from organisations promoting living democracy and domestic human rights and then to hear him talk about jailing "really corrupt people" who dare to be a democratic opposition in America.

But there's more. Belafonte's views in some ways show a danger within democratic politics. One way to understand politics is that it is an effort to order society according to right principles. Democratic politics would be one way of choosing which policies were thought to be most in accord with these right principles.

But this isn't how Belafonte seems to understand democracy. He seems to take seriously the idea that the ultimate standard is not a set of right principles that different parties try to get closest to, but instead it is the "will of the people" itself. The fact that something is desired makes it right.

So if two elections have returned Obama and the Democrats, then the American desire is that of Obama and the Democrats, and that becomes the right by which politics is defined, and then only those who don't accept the right (and who are therefore corrupt) would remain in opposition (i.e. an opposition can't say "Well I think something else is right", as what is right is what is desired and it is Obama and the Democrats that are desired).

In short, there is a danger in making the ultimate standard "the will of the people," particularly when the left senses that it is politically ascendant in the long term.


  1. He seems to take seriously the idea that the ultimate standard is not a set of right principles that different parties try to get closest to, but instead it is the "will of the people" itself

    Seems is the operative word. He doesn't actually believe in such a principle, because he would never say that when the Republican party holds the presidency.

  2. The fact that we're even listening to the asinine political opinions of the banana boat man is absurd. Shut up and go away, nitwit.

    He seems to take seriously the idea that the ultimate standard is not a set of right principles that different parties try to get closest to, but instead it is the "will of the people" itself. The fact that something is desired makes it right.

    Gosh, somehow that wasn't true when slavery and then Jim Crow were the will of the people...

  3. Yes, you're both right that Belafonte urged the opposite when society wasn't the way he liked it. He stressed the idea of activism and change.

    Still, I thought Belafonte's comment interesting as a way of working through the modernist idea of desire as the highest standard - in this case not individual desire but a collective one, an American "desire".

    It goes beyond the usual liberal treatment of politics in which desire is also the standard, but individual desire is focused on - and to avoid conflicts, only desires which can be easily managed within the overall system are permitted.

    Belafonte seems to be taking a 1930s strategy, in which a political leader (or establishment) represents the general will - the will of the people - which then criminalises opposition as saboteurs ("infestation of really corrupt people").

    His comments were like a throwback or re-emergence of a different kind of modernism to the one we are used to. Hopefully that remains as a quirk of Belafonte.

  4. Human Rights groups support him because they're Marxist/Socialist/Communist, like him.

    He supports the will of the American People as long as it's not anti-Communist. If they had voted for an anti-Communist candidate it would be 'false consciousness' or somesuch.

    It's all about power with these guys, so I don't think there is much point analysing their tactics except from an instrumental perspective - what do they want, what are they doing/saying to get it.

  5. Slightly less then 50% of the voting American public actually voted, so really it' a false negative of the way of the people.

  6. Oh look a marxisy communist dressed up as a "human rights" activist. Please spare me the bs propaganda, every single socialistic and communistic will eventually fail and it will seek out the next host society to guilt trip dumb-as-a-pile-of-bricks rich white children into thinking all the problems are caused by rich people and that if it weren't for some "oppression" that they get to define everyone would be rich and autonomous.

    I guess it's hard to be self determining when you can't determine the wealth of the family your born into, so society must make everyone equal(ly poor).

  7. Another tactic of liberals is to claim that their opinions are all "scientific" and their opponents' are "ignorant". This makes it morally right to suppress the latter by any means possible.

    Allegations of academic collusion and swindling aside, this rhetoric must be resisted even as forensic experts are not allowed to override the judgment of a jury.

    - Kevin.