Nationalism of Fools

Farrakhan Brings It All Back Home

But screwed-up priorities are nothing new to black politics, nor, unfortunately, are anti-Semitic attacks loosely using that most dangerous article of speech: "the." Those three letters fan conspiracy theories and push us back to the 1960s, when LeRoi Jones brought a grotesque refinement to antiwhite sentiment by reading poetry that baited Jews on college campus after college campus, to the cheers of black students. Such tours probably had had more than a little to do with intensifying the Zionist fervor of many Jews who had been told to get out of civil rights organizations.

The failure of Jones, Karenga, and other black nationalists to realize their separatist dreams made for a jealousy that floats to the surface in the speeches of Louis Farrakhan, their heir. When Farrakhan makes references to Reagan "punking out" to the Jews or the Zionist lobby having "a stranglehold on the government of the United States," he is projecting the kind of power he wants onto the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, commonly called the Zionist lobby. In his version, however, Farrakhan feels free to make threats on the lives of black reporters, politicians, and anyone else who criticizes him.

The envy of AIPAC's influence reflects a nostalgia for the days when so much of the national dialogue was given over to the racial question and the quality of black life in the country was an issue at the front of the political bus. During those years, desegregation and racial double standards were the primary concerns. There was little room for anti-Jewish or anti-Zionist feeling, regardless of how deep they might have run in black nationalist circles. Now the judas goat of Jewish conspiracy is trotted out again as an explanation for the loss of concentrated attention on black problems.

Yet it would make more sense to emulate the efforts of activist Jews that have made AIPAC, as Paul Findley's They Dare To Speak Out documents, such a force on Capitol Hill. Obviously, black leaders have failed to create a comparable force to lobby for the interests of Negro Americans. The nationalist rhetoric backfired and made black problems seem more those of a group in a self-segregated world than central to the country at large. As one black woman, infuriated by Farrakhan, said, "We should be putting our feet in the pants of these politicians. Get this dope out of here. Get these schools working. Clean up these neighborhoods. Do what we need done." The Jews who work in Israel's interest know the secret: hard work, fund-raising, monitoring voting patterns, petitioning, telephoning, writing to elected officials. It's difficult and laborious work, but it can get results. As that angered black woman concluded, "We can get all this up off our backs if we want to do something besides listen to some fool who hates ham talk like he's bad enough to exterminate somebody."

But for all his muddled convolutions, Farrakhan's vision isn't small. He wants it all. The world. Who else would feel free to promise that he would tell the Muslims of the Middle East how they had distorted Islam? Who else would claim to be single-handedly raising a people from the death of ignorance and self-hatred?

Though Farrakhan's address was supposed to reveal his economic program, his ideas about black-produced mouthwash, toothpaste, and sanitary napkins took up only 10 or 15 minute montage of misconceptions. They were cheered now and again, as was almost everything he said. I doubt, however, that the black people there rising to their feet, screaming themselves hoarse, roaring as though he was scoring baskets as he bounced his ideas off their heads, followed his content. What clarity there was had little connection to a black American point of view. Though his look and his podium, style owe much to the black church, his ideas were dominated by a bent Islamic fundamentalism that might get him more money from Arabs. But whatever the underlying goals, Farrakhan's cosmology has little chance of overthrowing the strong tradition of Negro culture, custom, and thought improvised in the "wilderness of North America," as Elijah Muhammad might say. Few black people will ever believe that Farrakhan is so divinely significant that if the Jews try to touch him Allah will bring down the blood of the righteous on American and they will all be killed outright. As a guy sitting near my row pointed out, "Anybody who uses the first person pronoun as much as he does can't be saying anything. If they were, they would just say it, not keep telling you how great the one who is about to say it is."

But Farrakhan isn't just your Garden-variety megalomaniac. "Louis Farrakhan," said one woman editor who lives in Harlem, "is a creep. He is a fascist and has nothing to say. Whenever people try to defend him by saying he's speaking out, I always wonder what the hell they mean. He has nothing to offer but half-truths, he tries to intimidate the black press into a cheering squad or a bunch of silent lampposts. His exterior is clean and neat, but his insides are dirty and his talk is pure sloppiness. How can educated people like him? It's just laziness. All they want is to anger some white people, or pretend he's angering them in any way serious enough to warrant the attention he's getting. Nowadays if you try to bring up a serious topic in a lot of middle-class black circles, people want to change the subject and treat you like you're causing trouble. This kind of thing is crazy."

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