I passionately believe in free speech. But there should be private standards that allow one to publicly shun unapologetic, intolerant nutters on both the right and the left.
So where was the judgment of New York’s newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, when he selected the activist singer Harry Belafonte — a peddler of hatred, an apologist for totalitarian regimes, and someone who has compared the U.S. government to the 9/11 hijackers — to give the keynote speech at his inauguration last week?
Even the New York Times zinged Belafonte and the other inaugural speakers for “marring the event with backward-looking speeches both graceless and smug.” The Times smacked Belafonte in particular for his “utterly bogus claim” that the city’s prison population was growing and that the criminal-justice system was “deeply Dickensian.”
When reporters asked de Blasio about Belafonte’s speech and other divisive remarks delivered from his inaugural podium, the mayor was unapologetic: “I am very comfortable with everyone’s remarks yesterday. . . . I’m very comfortable with all that was done.”
But Belafonte was an inappropriate speaker for the inauguration regardless of his actual remarks. During a speech on Martin Luther King Day at Duke University in January 2006, Belafonte compared President Bush and the U.S. government to the men who carried out the 9/11 attacks in 2001, saying, “What is the difference between that terrorist and other terrorists?”
A few days earlier, he had gone to Venezuela to support Hugo Chávez and proclaim to him:
No matter what the greatest tyrant in the world, the greatest terrorist in the world, George W. Bush, says, we’re here to tell you: Not hundreds, not thousands, but millions of the American people — millions — support your revolution, support your ideas, and yes, are expressing our solidarity with you.
After those remarks, respectable liberals shunned Belafonte. The New York Daily News reported that Hillary Clinton gave him the cold shoulder at a Children’s Defense Fund lunch later that month: “When the 58-year-old Clinton swept into the room mid-meal, she didn’t do the usual thing and stop by Belafonte’s table for a quick hello. She didn’t even acknowledge his presence. She simply pretended he wasn’t there. She strode onstage to deliver 10 minutes of remarks, sat through somebody else’s speech, then bolted out the door — moments before Belafonte’s turn at the mic — without taking reporters’ questions.”
But that was then. Last Wednesday, a Hillary Clinton eager to make peace with progressive Democrats before the 2016 election appeared on the same stage with Belafonte at de Blasio’s inauguration.
Martin Luther King’s descendants had their own reaction to Belafonte’s 2006 ravings. Belafonte himself admitted they had withdrawn an invitation for him to give the eulogy at Coretta Scott King’s funeral in January 2006.
One King scholar tells me that Belafonte’s references to Colin Powell as a “house slave” and Condi Rice as “a terrorist” also didn’t endear him to the family.
I was working across the street from the World Trade Center on 9/11 and witnessed the events of that day at close hand. I am offended that Belafonte was allowed to speak last week at such an important civic event, given his remarks about 9/11. Several family members of people who died that day say they can’t understand his presence, either. Belafonte’s views “are completely disconnected from reality — what everyone knows happened that day,” said Debra Burlingame, a member of the 9/11 Memorial Foundation and the sister of an American Airlines pilot who perished on 9/11.“He diminishes the real message and lesson of that day.”
But that’s not the only time Belafonte has disdained reality.This is a man who told Fidel Castro’s propaganda ministry in 2003: “If you believe in justice, if you believe in democracy, if you believe in people’s rights, if you believe in the harmony of all humankind — then you have no choice but to back Fidel Castro as long as it takes.” In his 2012 autobiography, Belafonte stated: “To me, Fidel Castro was still the brave revolutionary who’d overthrown a corrupt regime and was trying to create a socialist utopia.” That same year, he told journalist Roland Martin about the collapse of Communism: “I don’t think Communism, in and of itself, is what went wrong.”
Belafonte is also a reckless character assassin, and last week was not the first time de Blasio had enabled him. Last November, Belafonte introduced de Blasio at a Harlem church by comparing the free-market Koch brothers to the Ku Klux Klan, branding them “men of evil” and “white supremacists.”As the New York Post reported:
Not only did de Blasio stand by without saying anything about this unjustified slander, when he rose to speak he praised Belafonte as “the voice of wisdom” and “a treasure to our nation.” Only later, when pressed by reporters, would de Blasio offer up the mildest of critiques — and then went on to add his own criticism of the Koch brothers.
And if tolerance is supposed to be a part of progressive politics, Harry Belafonte flunks that test. When MSNBC’s Al Sharpton asked him in December 2012 what he thought of President Obama’s critics, he suggested they should be jailed: “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.” Sounds like Belafonte picked up interesting lessons in how to treat political opponents while he was visiting Cuba and Venezuela.
Look, I have a soft spot in my heart for radical idealists of any persuasion. In a political era dominated by poll-tested remarks and blow-dried hair, at least they are passionate believers in something. In 2012, I wrote an obituary celebrating the life of the “mellowed” Marxist writer Alexander Cockburn.
But couldn’t we have done better than Harry Belafonte as the keynote speaker at Mayor de Blasio’s inauguration? De Blasio really is a hard-left true believer. He wasn’t kidding when he told business leaders after his election, “Everything you heard about me is true. . . . I am not a free marketer. . . . I believe in the heavy hand of government.”
But how heavy? Well, last September the New York Times ran a story on de Blasio’s political roots, and found that he had returned from a 1988 visit to the Marxist Sandinista regime of Nicaragua “with a vision of the possibilities of an unfettered leftist government.” This was long after the Sandinistas had been exposed as human-rights violators on a grand scale and purveyors of anti-Semitic slurs. In 1990, the year Nicaraguans voted the Sandinistas out of office, de Blasio was asked at a retreat of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network what his vision of society was. “Democratic socialism,” he replied. The Times also noted that in 1994, when de Blasio was 32, he even honeymooned in Cuba, violating the U.S. ban on travel to that country.
When pressed during the mayoral campaign about his quote that he advocates “democratic socialism,” de Blasio blustered and claimed, “That’s not a quote from me, that’s someone’s notes.” The Times contradicted him, though, reporting: “The notes were, in fact, written by him; a copy is kept at the New York University archives and was reviewed by the Times.”)
We have it on Bill de Blasio’s own authority that his views haven’t changed. “But it doesn’t matter,” he said in explaining the notes. “The bottom line is the values that I have put forward I think have been consistent over the last quarter-century or more.”
That’s exactly what I and other New Yorkers are afraid of as we look toward the future and guess what Mayor de Blasio’s plans for the city will be over the next four years.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.