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Me Want To Go Home

A retired popular singer who in his advancing age had turned to political activism was highly critical of the Bush administration. He eschewed political argument, though, and instead grasped at lower fruit — old equivocations and indecent invocations of race. In fact, he ventured so boldly as to claim that the president and his administration were racist. A reporter, tailing him with a video camera in the bright sunlight, once called him on it. “A lot of people say the Bush administration had Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, a lot of blacks in prominent positions. Does that say anything to the Bush administration’s relations to African Americans?”

“Yes,” the singer replied. “Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy in the Third Reich.” *

* * *

This afternoon, word reached the vasty intelligence hangar that is my inbox that the schedule for Dartmouth College’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Celebration has been finalized. I have learned that the keynote speaker will be Harry Belafonte, the man referenced above. He will headline Dartmouth’s celebration of King’s record — one of peaceful protest, reasoned rhetoric, and tireless advocacy of tolerance and race-blindness. So the theme of this year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? A study in contrasts. Belafonte does no honor to King.

Mr. Belafonte is confirmed to speak at Dartmouth during the College’s thirteen-day celebration of the famed civil rights leader. The celebration, directed by Michelle Meyers’ Office for Institutional Diversity and Equity, lasts from January 14 — just a week and a half after students return to campus to begin the winter academic term — until January 26. Mr. Belafonte will speak on January 15 at seven o’clock in Spaulding Auditorium according to this schedule, published on Dartmouth.edu today. [PDF version here.] Spaulding Auditorium is Dartmouth’s largest venue.

The chairmen of the celebration committee charged with planning the event are history professor Judith Byfield and women’s and gender studies professor Giavanna Munafo. I have e-mails out to both asking for details, but have yet to receive responses.

Harry Belafonte, once the world’s exponent for calypso music, has in recent years earned the averted eyes of most of his original fans by expressing support for enemies of America like Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, the Communist leader. Mr. Belafonte recently reassured Chávez that his Communist revolution, which has thrown Venezuela into an unnecessary plight, has a friend in America. “We’re here to tell you,” Belafonte said to the crowd, “[that] not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people … support your revolution.”

Mr. Belafonte’s most egregious torts have not been against country but against decency. He has been roundly criticized for routinely comparing George W. Bush to Adolph Hitler, and for equating American foreign policy with terrorism — a wild fifth column tactic avoided by the most spun-dry radicals. Perhaps most importantly, he is an outward racist. Mr. Belafonte has publicly referred to erstwhile National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell as “slave[s]” living “in the master’s house.” “There’s an old saying in the days of slavery,” Mr. Belafonte said when CNN’s Larry King questioned his racist tendencies. “There are those slaves who lived on the plantation, and there were those slaves who lived in the house. You got the privilege of living in the house if you served the master. Colin Powell was permitted to come into the house of the master.”

* * *

Mr. Belafonte’s doings are now almost exclusively along the speech circuit, where his clients are either universities or fringe political groups. He spoke at Duke University’s 2006 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day event, again turning the celebration of a historical personage into an opportunity for radically anti-American polemic. “What is the difference between that terrorist,” referring to America, “and other terrorists,” he asked the Duke audience, implying that America’s self-defensive actions in response to September 11 were terroristic in nature.

The video clip below is emblematic of Mr. Belafonte’s modus operandi: He pays mere lip service to Dr. King’s fine legacy for the first quarter of his remarks, and the balance is taken up with artless moral equivalences that generally hold water with no one but their utterer. The example below does not show Mr. Belafonte spouting one of his racist tirades in which, wild-eyed, he slanders all black Americans who disagree with him politically. But narrow-minded racism is indeed an integral part of his politic and of his rhetoric. To many, this makes Harry Belafonte a thoroughly inapt selection as a keynote speaker for Martin Luter King, Jr. day.

Dishonest and bigoted as he is, Mr. Belafonte’s right to speak merits not a whit of protestation. Free speech exists to protect unpopular speech. But here’s something curious. Dartmouth’s activists and perennial offendees recently held a “rally for civil discourse,” at which they decried as unacceptable speech that offends. Mr. Belafonte, with his trashing of the United States — so full of verve and excitement is it — and his support for an economic system that has shattered millions of lives during its bleak reign, offends me. I don’t expect a soul to care. Those activists at Dartmouth have, however, attempted to set a new standard for what is appropriate speech at Dartmouth: civility. Harry Belafonte, the man who called Colin Powell a slave, is flatly incivil. Let us see what happens.

* * *


* Hitler did not, as Belafonte claims, place Jews in positions of power during his reign. He instead killed them.

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