ADOLPH REED: Farrakhan's Apologists
A year ago I published an essay that criticized a group of black public intellectuals currently enjoying the spotlight in both left and mainstream media. I focused on Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and Robin Kelley to note two troubling aspects of the posture they assume in black American intellectual life. First, I likened their position to Marx's quip about his French anarchist contemporary Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Marx said that Proudhon presented himself in Germany, where they didn't know much political economy, as a political economist and in France, where they didn't know much about philosophy, as a philosopher. Most of the black public intellectuals, I argued, claim recognition in the university as conduits to the mind of the "black community" (Gates is the lone, principled exception to this claim) and outside the academy as world-class academics. The consequence is to avoid the requirements of both careful scholarship and committed political practice. The move is always to be from and on the way to the other place. Insofar as they enact any politics at all, it is safely within existing conventions. Gates is honest and unapologetic about his political centrism; West, with his moralistic pieties and prattle about rampant "nihilism" in black inner cities, classically embodies the old slogan "left in form, right in essence"; and I'll buy two rounds of drinks for anyone who can show me where Dyson's inanities land politically. Second, although Gates and Kelley have produced respectable scholarship, in their public intellectual roles, the group of Superfriends, as I called them (noting that they maintain no critical dialogue among themselves but function as a mutual promotion society), blur counterproductively the different warrants of engaged black intellectual activity. They confuse explaining and defending black Americans to whites with investigation of the intricacies and nuances of black life. As a result, their work tends to be longer on form than substance, and the same applies to their politics. They substitute explaining the heart of darkness to whites, with the stylized trappings of militant activism, for political action and serious intellectual inquiry. And I suggested that they function as a collective, latter-day version of Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Machine that enforced a conservative antidemocratic, antiparticipatory model of elite brokerage in black politics. The article has produced considerable reaction. The main criticisms I've encountered have to do with motive rather than substance, typically either reactions to the sharpness of my tone, some version of the "you're just jealous" refrain, or more ostensibly high-minded objections to my having published it in a "white" publication (the Village Voice). A variation is the complaint, as Manning Marable put it, that I was "irresponsible" in criticizing a bunch of tenured professors at elite universities, because they are under attack from the right wing's effort to "delegitimate the liberal black intelligentsia." Since the essay appeared, Gates has recruited sociologist William Julius Wilson to join his Harvard "Dream Team," having wooed the Democratic centrists' favorite theorist of the urban poor as a pathological underclass, at a dinner at Vice President Gore's house. (West and Wilson also sup with Clinton at the White House; all this dining with the nation's executive recalls Teddy Roosevelt's famous meal with Washington.) West and Dyson have come out as earnest running dogs for Louis Farrakhan, promoting and preening across the stage at his Million Man March, apologetically skimming over his obnoxious politics to sanitize him as a legitimate Racial Voice. Six months after the march, its only definite outcome is that no accounting has been made--at least not outside the Nation of Islam--of the scads of money raised, and Farrakhan's gopher Ben Chavis (isn't he exactly the guy you'd want watching the cash register?) has sent out a fundraising appeal alleging that the march committee is in the hole for over $150,000 in "expenses." Farrakhan, for his part, after months of invisibility, embarked on a Global Dictatorship Tour, defending the Abacha regime in Nigeria, the brutal theocracy in the Sudan, and Mobutu's rule in Zaire. This should dispel any doubts about his political vision. Since his return, his defenses of his defenses have only further underscored his ugly politics. He has explicitly championed dictatorship as a natural, necessary, and effective form of government in what he characterizes as an inherently fractious, multicultural African setting. Farrakhan's line on the Sudan should make his black nationalist boosters squirm, even though they aren't much troubled by dictatorship. It's a complex situation, he explained in his Saviour's Day address; there are two distinct peoples in the Sudan. In the North live a people who are Muslim and brown-skinned, who "look like you and me." In the South are people who are animists and Christians and who are "very, very, very, very, very dark" (practically a different species?). A good demagogue, Farrakhan avoids connecting the dots, but his implication is clear: These putative differences at least mitigate the regime's suppression and enslavement of its dark-skinned Others. Farrakhan's speech was riddled with the usual anti-Semitism, but to my knowledge, this is the first time that he has extended his noisome intolerance to condone internal caste oppression among blacks. Farrakhan's activities and the Million Man March are useful reference points because they're concrete phenomena, not the glittering platitudes on which the blkpubints usually trade. I've heard true believers retail anecdotes about the perspectives of individual marchers to insist that the MMM was other than it appeared to be, that it captured and animated a somehow tacitly insurgent politics. I've even heard it characterized as a "one-day general strike," a formulation that seems to me both to fly in the face of the march's stated intent--a public gesture of "atonement" by black men for failing to be responsible patriarchs--and to trivialize the idea of general strikes. Like so much of the Potemkin politics that leftists of all stripes succumb to nowadays, such formulations reflect the frightened, ostrich-like demoralization of the times by demanding faith in things unseen (for example, hope, energy, enthusiasm, vague "potential") and confusing taxonomy with strategy-oriented analysis--switching labels as an alternative to trying to figure out how the world works in order to change it. The publicly knowable facts of the March's impact to date remain as I've described them here, and Farrakhan's antics are utterly beyond dispute. To their credit, Kelley and hooks have publicly dissented from the march's amen chorus. But where are West and Dyson, who urged us to accentuate the positive in assessing Farrakhan's politics? Or Marable, who also finds it "irresponsible" (to whom, by the way?) to call that politics by its name--fascism--because doing so precludes "dialogue" with the fascist? Does being a black public intellectual mean that you're not accountable for the positions you take? That, like the sportswriters who predicted that Georgetown would eat U Mass alive (final score U Mass 86, Hoyas 62), you just get to turn blithely away and go on to the next batch of bombastic utterances? I don't expect the apologists and true believers to recant or reconsider; at most, I suspect, this assessment will stimulate another round of sophistries. Neither blind faith nor opportunism is easily dislodged. So, let me take my minimal satisfaction: See, I told you so.