Harry Belafonte Understood Persuasion

Plus: Where to look for self-respect

Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, A. Philip Randolph, and Sidney Poitier pictured circa 1960.
Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Belafonte, A. Philip Randolph, and Sidney Poitier pictured circa 1960. (Universal History Archive / Getty)

Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

I’m still making my way through your many emails about trans issues; I expect the roundup to go out next week. Meanwhile, feel free to keep correspondence on that subject coming.

Send your responses to conor@theatlantic.com.

Conversations of Note

The singer, actor, and activist hero Harry Belafonte died yesterday in New York City at age 96. Rising to fame in the 1950s, the charismatic performer of Caribbean folk music marshaled his celebrity and wealth in service of the civil-rights movement. Obituaries and other remembrances that detail his contributions will doubtless abound; those many achievements aren’t the bailiwick of this newsletter. Our lodestar is, instead, the proposition that civil, substantive engagement across seemingly intractable differences can improve the world.

Belafonte made a powerful case for that theory in a 2002 interview with the journalist Anthony Lewis that doubles as a window into the struggle Black people of his generation faced. An excerpt:

Having been victimized by McCarthyism and having shared the anguish and the pain of so many others who were victimized by McCarthyism, my introduction to Bobby Kennedy was on the dark side. His relationship to that committee and what it did to so many American lives tainted our sense of him. When he became Attorney General, it was with some sense of anxiety, to say the least, that we looked upon this appointment, because we knew that our movement depended so heavily on the federal government … Dr. King asked some of us to discuss what this meant or would mean to us, and after many aired their feelings about Bobby Kennedy and their great doubts about him coming to our assistance in some meaningful way, Dr. King made the observation that regardless of what his history had been up to that moment, we had to view him in a new context: a man whose hand was on the throttle of justice and who was going to have to be dealt with on the issues that we were facing. And that although there was much for us to bemoan about what his history had presented, it was to be our task to find his moral center, find if there was a greater truth in who he was and to work on that and to win him to our cause. And a lot of us looked at that moment with some sense of bewilderment and frustration, but we were given our direction and our directives, and we did just that.

We decided to approach Bobby Kennedy based upon the truth of our struggle and the honor of our mission and to test his knowledge of us and his knowledge of poverty, his knowledge of racism, his knowledge of pain and see the extent to which we could grade him and know how much work we would have to do in order to get him to see our vision and to embrace our cause. Let me just say that as much doubt as all of us entered into this relationship with the Attorney General, it was to the same extent that we embraced him in the end.

The transformation of Bobby Kennedy for us was very, very significant. It was a great victory for human behavior, a great victory for that which could be done that appeared undoable. White, Irish-Catholic, anticommunist, wealthy — all of these were, for us, obstacles. And as we greeted each obstacle and dealt with Bobby Kennedy, he found his humanity, he found his sense of caring. It was not without its difficult moments. We had clashes, and we had differences of opinion. A lot has been written about meetings that we had — one in particular, when he called for a meeting with James Baldwin and Lena Horne and Dr. Kenneth Clark and others. Things took a fierce moment, he was quite upset and quite angry and quite frustrated, and we were of the sense that we would lose him.

But to the contrary, what that evening did was awakened a lot in him. I think it made him go back into life, into his own life, and begin to measure how he would do things, or would like to do things. And slowly but surely, he became much more involved, he because more hands-on, he became more directly exposed to the environment in which we were all living, and identified himself with much that we were trying to achieve. And in the end, of course, we all know that he turned out to be this remarkable human being.

Belafonte meant to praise Kennedy, but it seems to me that King, Belafonte, and others who sought to convince Kennedy of the justice of their cause, despite all of the understandable doubts that they had about him, are the wise and courageous heroes of the story.

The State of American Capitalism

David Brooks argues that it is strong:

The Economist magazine published a report on American economic performance over the last three decades. Using an avalanche of evidence and data, the main thrust of the article is that far from declining, American capitalism is dominant and accelerating.

Back in 1990, for example, America’s gross domestic product per capita was nearly neck and neck with that of Europe and Japan. But by 2022 the U.S. had raced ahead. In 1990, the U.S. economy accounted for 40 percent of the nominal G.D.P. of the G7 nations. By 2022 the U.S. accounted for 58 percent. In 1990, American income per person was 24 percent higher than the income per person in Western Europe. Today, it is about 30 percent higher.

The sources of this strength are many. I was especially struck by how much America invests in its own people. America spends roughly 37 percent more per student on schooling than the average for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a collection of mostly rich peer nations. ChatGPT and mRNA vaccines are not the only signs of American technical prowess. The United States accounts for 22 percent of the patents in force abroad, up from 19 percent in 2004. That’s more than any other nation. The level of education is one reason American labor productivity increased by 67 percent between 1990 and 2022, compared with a 55 percent increase in Europe and 51 percent in Japan.

American companies continue to generate amazing value. If in 1990 you had invested $100 in the S&P 500, an index of American companies, you would have about $2,300 today, according to The Economist. If you had invested that $100 in an index of non-American rich-world stocks, you would have about $510 today.

The Myth of Broke Millennials

In The Atlantic, Jean Twenge writes:

Millennials, as a group, are not broke—they are, in fact, thriving economically. That wasn’t true a decade ago, and prosperity within the generation today is not evenly shared. But since the mid-2010s, Millennials on the whole have made a breathtaking financial comeback.

This is terrific news. And yet it’s not all good news, because the belief that Millennials have been excluded from the implicit promises that America makes to its people—a house for most, middle-class security, a better life than your parents had—remains predominant in society and, to go by surveys and the tenor of social media, among Millennials themselves. That prompts a question with implications for the cultural and political future of the United States, a country premised, to a large extent, on the idea of material progress: What if the American dream is still alive, but no one believes it to be?

In fact, she continues, Millennials are doing better than prior generations did:

By 2019, households headed by Millennials were making considerably more money than those headed by the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, and Generation X at the same age, after adjusting for inflation.

That year, according to the Current Population Survey, administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, income for the median Millennial household was about $9,000 higher than that of the median Gen X household at the same age, and about $10,000 more than the median Boomer household, in 2019 dollars. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t meaningfully change this story: Household incomes of 25-to-44-year-olds were at historic highs in 2021 … Median incomes for these households have generally risen since 1967, albeit with some significant dips and plateaus. And like each generation that came before, Millennials have benefited from that upward trend.

It’s always good to see people getting a leg (or an invisible hand) up.

Poland’s Remarkable Rise

Anna Gromada describes it in The Guardian:

My country has changed beyond recognition. Poland has experienced uninterrupted growth over three decades, the longest in European history. Its GDP has increased tenfold nominally, sixfold when corrected for the cost of living. It has a record low unemployment rate of 3%, lower infant mortality than Canada, higher female life expectancy than the US and less violent crime than the UK.

Gromada goes on to argue that, as a consequence of its growing prosperity and changing economy, Germany is treating Poland as a direct competitor rather than just a source of cheap labor, and that the “China-US rivalry may soon be echoed in regional (and friendlier) miniatures, such as a Polish-German divide. As eastern Europe grows in power, it is questioning its role in the pecking order.”

Provocation of the Week

In How Democracy Ends, the University of Cambridge professor David Runciman writes:

The kind of respect provided by representative democracy may prove insufficient for twenty-first century citizens. The premium democracy places on personal dignity has traditionally been expressed through extensions to the franchise. Giving people the vote is the best way to let them know that they count. But when almost all adults are able to vote, we inevitably look for new ways to secure greater respect. The rise of identity politics is an indication that taking part in elections is not enough any more. Individuals are seeking the dignity that comes with being recognized for who they are. They don't just want to be listened to. They want to be heard. Social networks have provided a forum through which these demands can be voiced. Democratic politicians are struggling to know how to meet them.

The politics of recognition is an extension of democracy's appeal rather than a repudiation of it. Authoritarianism is no answer here, regardless of how pragmatic it is — it just results in political leaders who try to drown out demands for recognition with even louder demands of their own. You want respect? the authoritarian says. Then respect me! But representative democracy may not have the answers either. It is too mechanical to be convincing, once the stakes for respect get raised. Elected politicians increasingly tiptoe around the minefield of identity politics, unsure which way to turn, terrified of giving offence. If this continues, then the attraction that has held democracy together for so long will start to fray. Respect plus results is a fearsome combination. One without the other may not be enough.

Regular readers will probably anticipate my reaction: that it’s a bad idea to look to politicians, or strangers of any sort, to secure respect––it gives those who deny you respect more power than they ought to possess while making oneself an easier mark for panderers who are only pretending. Better to maintain self-respect that flows from an accurate sense of one’s intrinsic dignity as a person, bolstered if necessary by family members, friends, clergy, or a good therapist.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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