I just learned that Dartmouth has invited Harry Belafonte to be the Keynote speaker for its Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration next month. Belafonte is the legendary performer cum radical speaker of such classic performances as "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," "Mama Look a Boo-boo," and "Jump in the Line."
Belafonte's more recent ditties have been in a different style, however: "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..." (memorably performed on Larry King Live) and "Hitler had a lot of Jews high up in the hierarchy of the Third Reich. Color does not necessarily denote quality, content or value...." In his Martin Luther King address last year at Duke he compared President Bush to al Quaeda and has called President Bush the world's worst terrorist.
The indispensable Joe Malchow describes the whole sorry affair, including his eloquent take on the matter. He also has video of one of Belafonte's recent live speaking performances and other of Belafonte's comments.
Encomiums and praise for Belafonte are sure to precede his visit to campus. As one who is now associated in a formal way with Dartmouth as a Trustee of the College, I want to speak as an individual to express my dissent from that praise. I do not want to be silent and have that silence interpreted as my acquiescence or implicit approval of this invitation to Belafonte. Given Belafonte's repeated utterances, I believe that it is exceedingly inappropriate for Dartmouth to provide him with this honor and speaking platform. I disagree with this invitation and the honor that it implies. I had nothing to do with inviting Belafonte and did not learn about it until after the fact.
Let me be clear--Harry Belafonte has the same right to express his bizarre, ignorant, and hateful opinions as any other showbiz crackpot. And student organizations or political groups should be permitted to invite him to speak on campus if they so desire. But there is a vast gulf between that and providing him with the honor of the Keynote speaker of Dartmouth's MLK celebration and a major platform to spew his opinions. Is he really the best person, and are these the best sentiments, to honor King's memory?
An irony is that this announcement comes just weeks after Dartmouth held a campus-wide rally against hate and for "civil discourse" (indeed, one such sign persists on the web site of The Dartmouth today). Whatever that means, it is hard to see how this is the sort of discourse is consistent with it.
In my opinion Belafonte's comments have placed him beyond the pale of thoughtful intellectual society. He demonstrated at Duke last year that he has no appreciation of the solemnity and propriety of what words are appropriate for particular occasions and particular audiences. As the Director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies has commented, "Hitler and his regime murdered six million Jews and launched a world war that caused more than forty million deaths. How can that be compared to current U.S. government policy?"
In fact, it turns out that one of the members of the Wyman Institute's Advisory Committee is Elie Wiesel, who gave a moving and inspirational Commencement address at Dartmouth this past June. From the sublime to the ridiculous.
Belafonte has kind-of sort-of apologized for saying that there were Jews "high up" in the Third Reich hierarchy, when he really meant to just say that they "ha[d] a role ... in the the demise and brutal treatment of the Jewish people." His claim seems to be based on a misreading of one particular book, Hitler's Jewish Soldiers by Bryan Mark Rigg. Rigg commented on Belafonte's "clarification":
But the book's author, Bryan Mark Rigg, repudiated Belafonte's attempt to use his book as the basis for his controversial statements.
"Belafonte continues to distort history. My book shows that a number of people of partial Jewish ancestry served in the German military, but they did not even consider themselves Jews," Rigg said in a statement released through the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.
"Moreover, the vast majority of them were drafted - they were forced to serve Hitler just as other Jews were forced to become slave laborers in Auschwitz and elsewhere," Rigg said.
"In fact, many of them were later dismissed from the German military and sent to forced labor camps, where they themselves were persecuted, and some were murdered. Belafonte should take the trouble to read the books he cites before claiming they support him. My book doesn't support him," Rigg added.
As far as I can tell, Belafonte has never apologized for comparing Rice and Powell to "house slaves," his comparisons between President Bush and Hitler's Third Reich, or for suggesting that President Bush is a terrorist and comparing him to al Quaeda. When given the opportunity he has instead reiterated them.
In my opinion, Belafonte has proven himself an intolerant fool better suited to speak on a street corner soapbox than the largest auditorium at an institution of higher learning. I can see no reason why he deserves to be honored at an institution dedicated to the life of the mind. I wanted to make clear for the record that I had nothing to do with it, had no knowledge of it, and do not endorse it.
The views expressed here are my personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of the Dartmouth Board of Trustees.