The Farrakhan Distraction

Election '08
Monday began with President Clinton firmly denouncing Mr. Farrakhan and ended with Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich both following suit and attacking Mr. Clinton for not denouncing Mr. Farrakhan by name. Perhaps tomorrow Phil Gramm will accompany his attack on Mr. Farrakhan with an attack on Mr. Dole for not attacking Mr. Farrakhan at greater length. The game can be played indefinitely with short-term political profit, since no white candidate is ever going to lose by decrying the Nation of Islam. But what exactly is being accomplished? Yes, Mr. Farrakhan is a menace and must be watched vigilantly. Still, white America makes a fetish of him at its own peril.

The passage above was written by New York Times columnist Frank Rich on Oct. 18, 1995, two days after the Million Man March. Just weeks after the impassioned O.J. Simpson trial, millions around the country watched the televised rally, hearts beating with trepidation, vicarious adrenalin flowing, as hundreds of thousands of black men led by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan convened on the Capitol. The march was a major success for Farrakhan. Participation was high, and in the months following the march, grass-roots efforts to increase black male voter registration and community involvement paid off. But Farrakhan himself wasn't able to claim the national spotlight again for almost 13 years. Not until his name was bandied about before a national television audience during Tuesday's MSNBC Democratic primary debate.

Watching the debate, it appeared that Sen. Hillary Clinton had learned from her husband's rhetorical mistakes after the Million Man March. She was now the one denouncing her rival for failing to denounce Farrakhan strenuously enough. But her rival, a man who has spent his life challenging social divides, is running a campaign for the presidency that threatens to undermine many of our nation's divisions, and in the process, hate speech itself, whether it emanates from Farrakhan or from someone else. Which is why all of the attempts to torpedo Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign are of serious concern.

Denouncements and their opposite, endorsements, serve as ideological cues for voters deciding among political candidates. They're a way to transmit information about a candidate's ideological leanings, not only within an organization but also to other voters in the general electorate. In the presidential nominating contests, an endorsement by an important labor union would presumably compel a large swath of liberal voters to support a particular candidate. In contrast, an endorsement by Louis Farrakhan, a known anti-Semite, would likely encourage only a small subset of voters while repelling, or at least provoking uncertainty in, the vast majority of others. With this same logic, one would think that a denouncement of Farrakhan would have mass appeal. It might alienate the thousands scattered across the country who respect Farrakhan, but a strong enough condemnation would resonate with the millions who detest him and garner support from the politicians, media and other opinion leaders who blithely force the Farrakhan litmus test year after year.

People watching the Democratic primary debate on Tuesday may not have heard about Farrakhan's speech two days earlier at the annual Nation of Islam convention and his strong words of praise for Obama, and few would have considered its impact. But co-moderator and NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert spelled it out quite clearly. Russert's repeated questioning of Obama on the endorsement and his relationship to Farrakhan was felt by many to constitute the debate's most cringe-worthy moment. If Russert had moved on after his initial question about Obama's relationship with Farrakhan, that would have been standard fare. But he didn't.

Since Obama answered Russert's initial question in unequivocal terms -- strongly denouncing Farrakhan's support -- Russert's repeated attempts to establish a linkage between the two men should be seen as baiting. Any association at all between Obama and the vilified Nation of Islam leader is certain to tar Obama's reputation. And since references to Louis Farrakhan play into larger cultural stereotypes about race and religion, Russert's grilling of Obama about his relationship to Farrakhan raised the specter of electability yet again. When you add in Clinton's labeling of the Obama camp as a cult, Russert's invocation of Louis Farrakhan -- considered by many to be nothing more than a bigoted black leader of a separatist cult -- serves to further link the two men in viewers' minds, reinforcing the negative whisper campaigns surrounding Obama for the last year. Considering that Obama himself is nothing if not inclusive, it was all the more disheartening to see the repeated attempts to link him with Farrakhan, one of our nation's most divisive figures.

Yet the racial and religious lines that divide America, and the bigotry that exists, are hardly the sole work of Louis Farrakhan and other Nation of Islam members. While Russert was hectoring Obama about his relationship with Farrakhan, he was -- whatever his intentions -- carrying forward a smear campaign that has been waged against Obama since the beginning of his run for the Democratic nomination. The irony, of course, is that this campaign against Obama -- conducted in part through chain emails and the dissemination of false background reports and misleading photographs -- is itself based on religious hatred -- against Muslims. But it is clear that Russert has no interest in the anti-Muslim bigotry that has been on display this primary season.

In the United States, a country historically determined to classify and condemn those deemed to be fringe elements, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam provoke enormous opposition. Founded in 1931, the Nation of Islam should be seen in the long tradition of African-American resistance, similar to other movements and leaders from the NAACP to the Black Panthers, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Malcolm X. Always contentious, the Nation of Islam has inscribed itself on the American mind. Unlike more mainstream African-American groups, however, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam are often used by politicians and the media to buttress the current social system through the rhetorical establishment of clear ideological boundaries between Farrakhan and other such racial "bigots" and the larger "racial democracy" of America. An unintended consequence of the widespread criticism is that Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam use their demonization to further build their movement and repudiate the broader culture.

The point, of course, is not to defend Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam but to look at the discourse surrounding the group and its leader in order to investigate exactly what is being debated and what is absent from the debate, and to begin to understand how violently prejudicial language -- toward blacks, Jews, Muslims and a host of other historically oppressed groups -- becomes normalized in our society and used for political ends. Literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., writing about Louis Farrakhan in The New Yorker (April and May, 1996), explains:
Farrakhan believes all this [Jewish] conspiracy stuff, and thinks he's just telling it like it is. He must realize that such talk goes down well with inner-city audiences hungry for secret histories that explain how things went wrong. He turns mainstream criticism to his advantage, winning ovations by representing himself as the persecuted truth teller. But turnabout isn't always fair play, and the fact that Farrakhan is a black American only makes his deafness to historical context all the more dismaying. Within his own lifetime, one of every three Jews on the face of the earth died at the hands of a regime suffused by the same language about nefarious Jewish influence ... Farrakhan is a man of unhealthy fixations, but the reciprocal fixation on Farrakhan that you find in the so-called mainstream is a sign of our own impoverished political culture.
Russert's persistent questioning of Obama during the debate Tuesday night lends credence to Gates' critique of American political culture, as do the facile representations of Farrakhan in the media. In the New York Times, Farrakhan is often compared to Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Sadaam Hussein -- and Newt Gingrich. More generally, he is characterized as a demagogue, racist, firebrand, hater, bigot, hatemonger, separatist and extremist, and as anti-Semitic, anti-white, anti-Catholic, sexist, homophobic, hypocritical, callous, twisted, pathological, misguided, fiery, incendiary, reactionary, faithless, evil, malicious, malevolent, divisive, dangerous, unscrupulous, selfish, self-promoting and self-serving. He is often rumored to be the murderer of Malcolm X. Farrakhan's rhetoric is described as vile, chilling, fascist, booming, rambling, arcane, sulfurous, abstruse, convoluted, meaningless, frightening and, quoting Rich, prone to "lunatic digressions into crypto-mysticism and self-deification" (Oct. 17, 1995).

In turn, the Nation of Islam -- including Farrakhan, Malcolm X, founder Elijah Muhammad, and hundreds of other voices heard in the group's newspaper The Final Call -- refers to white society as racist, colonialist, imperialist, unjust, hypocritical, rotten, deceptive and wicked, and as consisting of white devils, demons, bigots, haters, enslavers and murderers. Farrakhan has also referred to Jews (most often) as well as Arabs, Koreans, Vietnamese and any group that has profited in black neighborhoods and failed to reinvest as "bloodsuckers." A pronounced animus toward Jews underlies much of Louis Farrakhan's rhetoric. The "bloodsucker" reference is common. In a speech aired on C-Span in February 1996, Farrakhan addressed Jews directly: "You are sucking the blood of Americans. You are ruling the government." Farrakhan's most notorious claim may be that Judaism is a "gutter religion."

All of this explains why Obama and others are called on to condemn Farrakhan in an unequivocal way. The history of Jewish persecution, the Holocaust and the words of other demagogues who were not condemned strongly enough strongly influence how Farrakhan is seen by most Americans.

In a New York Review of Books essay published the month after the Million Man March, writer Daryl Pinckney examines such rhetoric:
A key to unity these days is a group's perception of itself as being disliked and surrounded. Fear is a part of the fund-raising for Jewish groups and Jewish charities. Exploiting that fear has been a part of Farrakhan's career. It was clear, for instance, that the Anti-Defamation League would not let his baiting remarks over the years go unchallenged, but had Farrakhan gone on about white people in general all this time, he would not have gotten half the attention. He wanted a way to inject himself into public consciousness. He could then advertise the reactions as part of his dynamism.
Religious groups are not the only sectors of society to feel embattled and to organize around perceived threat. In the post-Sept. 11 political culture, many see the world in divisive terms. The real threat to these people may be an inclusive president, and it's clear that Obama represents a generation that wants to be inclusive.

Russert's doubts about Obama's efforts to distance himself from Farrakhan's divisiveness and his insistence that Obama use the word "reject" rather than "denounce" was seen by many (on television, radio and in the blogosphere) as unjustifiably divisive and ultimately proved futile since Obama, ever inclusive, conceded. But aside from forcing Obama in a rhetorical corner, Russert's approach was also divisive, because it forced Obama to distance himself from those in the black community who accept Farrakhan, and because Russert neglected to address any issues of concern for this community, further marginalizing its role in the public debate. Frank Rich's writing on the political establishment's reaction to the Million Man March describes the same dynamic:
By continuing to fixate on Farrakhan rather than the legitimate concerns of the 400,000 marchers, white politicians only give their nemesis more credibility and power. It is the failure of the entire political establishment to heed the spiraling crisis of the black underclass in the first place that gave the extremist Mr. Farrakhan his opening to seize a resonant mainstream issue as his own.
Although Louis Farrakhan signifies very different things in different communities of interpretation, no presidential candidate can prevail if seen by the majority as having any association with the Nation of Islam leader. Rich sums this up by saying, "At a time when white Americans can't agree among ourselves on anything, here at last is one opinion that unites us all, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, rich and poor: Louis Farrakhan is a hate-filled demagogue with a divisive, separatist ideology and an appalling record of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia."

But Rich goes on to ask, "Now that we've all said that as loud as we can, where do we go next?"

Do we continue facilitating the use of Farrakhan to torpedo important concerns and historic campaigns?

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