Belafonte’s Left Flank
Ever since Harry Belafonte met Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and called President George W. Bush “the greatest terrorist in the world,” the singer of “Day-O” has become the raspy voice for the more outraged ranks of anti-war protesters. That has unsettled leading Democrats, like Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, both of whom have distanced themselves recently from the calypso crooner turned political activist.
But on Friday evening, when the 78-year-old ambled up to a stage at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, where he had often joined Dr. Martin Luther King to fight for civil rights and protest the Vietnam War, a rapt and rather shaggy audience listened as though they were being addressed by a senior statesman.
“Where, for you, does terrorism end, and where does it begin, and who are the terrorists?” said Mr. Belafonte, dressed in black turtleneck, black pants and charcoal blazer. He asked if those who failed to speak out against the Bush administration “should be charged with patriotic treason.” He quoted Teddy Roosevelt, pondered Paul Revere, floated regime change and expressed his appreciation for “being part of this evening’s tribunal.”
The tribunal was the “International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration of the United States.” The title, many present agreed, could have been a bit catchier, something along the lines of Belafonte hits such as “Will His Love Be Like His Rum?” and “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).”
For a $20 fee, the three-day mock trial offered the disillusioned left a form of wish fulfillment through a pretend prosecution of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. It also gave Mr. Belafonte another chance to speak out about “the murder of young children” in an “illegal war.”
Witnesses were called forth to testify before a “jury of conscience.” They included Scott Ritter, the former U.N. weapons inspector who opposed the invasion of Iraq and wore a military crew cut, and Janis Karpinski, the former commander of Abu Ghraib, who chose shimmering, dangling earrings and a gold scarf printed with stars and stripes to spice up her navy skirt and drab blazer. (Colonel Karpinski, who was relieved of her command and demoted from brigadier general, has accused the Bush administration of making her a scapegoat.) Craig Murray, the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who has published documents on the Internet that he said proved the British obtained information through torture, wore an Irish sweater. He sat in the back row during Mr. Belafonte’s remarks and leafed through a copy of the Communist newspaper Revolution.
Mr. Belafonte’s keynote address, while inspiring repeated calls of “Amen” from the crowd, only echoed the intensity of the comments he made on the sidelines, where he accepted the adulation of fans, adjusted his black baseball cap and fiddled with the hearing aid in his hand.
“Our nation is being taken away from us; we are being usurped. It is our responsibility to sound the alarm and stop this,” said Mr. Belafonte, his voice gravelly and his demeanor grandfatherly. “The Democratic leadership leaves a lot to be desired. But I think the emphasis is on the word that it is desired.”
Later, he picked up on the theme of the shortcomings of the left’s leaders, and argued that Mrs. Clinton should have taken a break from campaigning to participate in the tribunal. “I’d like her to be here and pay witness, so that we could learn what she is learning in the closed halls of the legislature and in the back rooms of the Bush administration,” he said.
But some people in the auditorium didn’t consider Mr. Belafonte’s rhetoric sufficiently spitfire. Steve Ferdman, who wore a wool hat and wire eyeglasses, sat at a table in the back of the room on which he had spread an American flag in which corporate emblems substituted for stars. He displayed DVD’s with titles like The Great Conspiracy, 9/11 Eyewitnesses and Conflict of Interest: Who Loves Ya, Abdullah.
“He has to get a lot of his facts straight, but his heart is in the right place,” said Mr. Ferdman, whom the crowd often hushed for speaking too loudly. “He has the misconception that Islamic terrorists hit the Twin Towers. It wasn’t, and we can prove it to any reasonably minded person. If you have 10 bucks, this DVD will blow your mind.”
A few feet away, Mr. Murray, the former British ambassador, confessed some confusion as to the reason for Mr. Belafonte’s appearance.
“To be frank, I don’t know what he has been doing. I don’t know of him,” said Mr. Murray, whom the British government fired for criticizing the Uzbek government. “I know of him only as a famous entertainer. I don’t really follow American politics.”
On the other hand, the Grandmothers Against the War, one table down from Mr. Ferdman, seemed keenly aware of the lean and tall man walking by their stand. So did the hippie kids selling green “Bush Step Down” T-shirts. One of them told Mr. Belafonte that he had come all the way from San Diego to see what he called one of the country’s “great Americans.”
He wasn’t the only one following Mr. Belafonte around. A small production troupe had been taping nearly all of Mr. Belafonte’s speeches and interactions that night, as they had for much of the last year and a half. They were gathering footage for a feature-length documentary that Mr. Belafonte is making about himself called Get Them to Sing Your Song. A girl with a clipboard asked the people appearing on camera to sign a release form.
The crew’s production manager, Joy Setton, 25, who spent much of Mr. Belafonte’s speech writing a text message on her cell phone, said that his strong political convictions had come to her as something of a surprise, because, growing up in France, she had always thought of him as an entertainer.
“The first tape I ever bought was Harry Belafonte,” she said. “Greatest Hits.”
As the night’s tribunal finally went into session, with witnesses with gripes about global health threatening to send the proceedings into the early hours, Mr. Belafonte slipped out the back door.
“I have my cameras here filming this, so I will have the opportunity to study what is being said,” he explained before stepping into an elevator. “I really think this is the most important frontier.”
My Top 10 Guilty Pleasures
O.K., who’s ready to admit some guilty pleasures? You know, those private lowbrow treats we simply hate to love? For this column, I’m taking off my critic hat and humbly submitting my own Top 10. (Shhhh!)
1. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles
God help me, but something about this musty old warhorse still pulls at the heartstrings. Yes, it’s as tiresome in its neurotic camera work as in its clotted dialogue, but something—maybe the childishly inventive cinematography?— keeps me coming back. Mea culpa.
2. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
I know, I know: a ponderous collection of turgidly developed pre-Freudian themes— Fate! Destiny!—nodding along on prose that’s as tediously ‘‘lyrical’’ as the narrative is overripe. Somehow, all the scientific arcana and historical references still bring a chuckle if I’m in the mood for a maritime yarn. Call it a great beach read.
3. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Isn’t there something to be said for a real soapy, B-grade piece of Elizabethan dramaturgy? Who cares if it’s full of rickety plot turns and contrived scenes? Every so often, I’ll still sneak into one of the complete five-hour renditions—in the back!—and, stifling chuckles, cry my eyes out.
4. Fourth String Quartet, Op. 37, Arnold Schoenberg
True, those tetrachordal and hexachordal interpolations won’t sustain active listening, but don’t you ever find yourself humming the first movement’s reintroduction of horizontal thirds and sixths at the gym? It’s the Rice Krispies Treat of 20th-century composition; I can’t help myself.
5. Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant
The year is 1982, legwarmers are the rage, and your 11-year-old critic is deep in his Kant phase. (Schulbegriff and Weltbegriff rock!) Go ahead and laugh, but don’t pretend you didn’t go through your own “transcendental object” phase, spending lonely afternoons limning the subjective monad. Let’s be grateful we’ve moved on.
6. A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust
Je ne connais que trop bien les éxcess que l’on reproche au pauvre Marcel, en se moquant de lui, quand il essaie de se transformer en ecrivain: Certainement, les phrases interminables, sa manie superficielle dirigé a la société et au snobisme, le coup d’oeil banal sur l’enfer de la jalousie sexuelle, sans omettre la mievre sentimentalité de la madeleine et du thé. Néanmoins, quelque chose de cette recherche inutile, qui interroge la mémoire, attire en moi une faiblesse larmoyante.
7. The Creation of Adam, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo
Gauche, yes—and what a florid exhibition of ‘‘technique’’! I’m almost embarrassed for the old Tuscan sculptor, laboring atop the scaffold for such a quickly dated representational gloss on patriarchal monotheism. Even so, whenever I’m passing through Rome, I’ll still creep into St. Peter’s to feast on this hopelessly overwrought buon fresco. Something about all that pious devotion just kills me.
8. The Grand Canyon
Truly vacuous. The tired old thing has neither the elegance of the Bryce, the depth of the Cotahuasi, nor the geologic variety of the consensus critical fave, Mars’ Valles Marineris. Yet some sentimentalism keeps me coming back to this Arizona tourist trap to ‘‘marvel’’ with the others.
Could they please be just a bit more tacky? Those gaudy reds! The flashy oranges! The way they insist on drawing the whole drama out for a glitzy, predictable climax. So why do I find myself creeping off to some westward promontory now and then to steal a quick, shamefaced look? Heaven only knows.
Petit mort? “Grand bore” is more like it! Yet every once in a blue moon, I still indulge myself in a furtive ‘‘purgatory’s caress.’’ Alone, naturally.
Simon N. Garfunkel
One of the most tormented people I ever met was Simon N. Garfunkel.
“How was my mother to know, when she named me in 1955, that a singing duo with this unlikely appellation would emerge in 1964?” Simon would plaintively ask.
(The first incarnation of Simon and Garfunkel—in which a callous record company executive named them “Tom and Jerry”—actually occurred in 1957. This produced the forgettable minor hit “Hey, Schoolgirl.”)
As Simon N. Garfunkel (his middle name is Norman) grew to maturity in Astoria, Queens, the pop group that nearly shared his name gained stature, culminating in the massive Bridge Over Troubled Water album when Simon was 15. This insured numerous unpleasant jibes from schoolmates and even relatives. “For about a year, everywhere I went, someone would sing, ‘Hello darkness, my old friend …, ’” Simon recalls. “I was the only person I knew who literally considered joining the French Foreign Legion.
“The happiest day of my life was when Simon and Garfunkel broke up, in 1970,” Simon continues. “I thought I would be free of this curse forever.” He cheered as Art Garfunkel made a series of slight solo albums in the 70’s (Angel Clare, Breakaway, Watermark). When Paul Simon, now solo, made the disastrous film One Trick Pony, Simon N. was jubilant.
However, Simon and Garfunkel reunited for a massive concert in Central Park in 1981—which became a successful record—and Simon N. Garfunkel began to suspect that his life would never be easy.
“Now, as the baby boomers age, oldies stations play softer music,” he complains. “You never hear Canned Heat anymore; it’s all Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce and Bread.”
The big question: Does Simon N. Garfunkel enjoy S&G’s singing?
“Personally, I find them highly overrated,” says Simon N. “The only song I slightly like is ‘Keep the Customer Satisfied.’” (Simon works for a mattress company.)
Sparrow is slowly reading the works of Freud, at the rate of two pages a day. (Currently he is in Totem and Taboo.) His new book is America: A Prophecy (www.softskull.com). Sparrow lives in a “pizza valley” of the Catskill Mountains, in a town called Phoenicia, N.Y., with his wife (Violet Snow) and his daughter (Sylvia). A family of shrews is nesting under their stove.