A short digression on Minister Louis Farrakhan

When the white press decides to have a One Minute of Hate regarding Minister Farrakhan, it usually can be presumed to carry deeply problematic dimensions...

Louis Farrakhan circa 1997, Photo by John Matthew Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0

A few days ago, for reasons related to the public spectacle of the Michelle Obama book tour, Comrade Commandant Ken Silverstein posted an old column from the late Christopher Hitchens, circa 2008, about Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan.

Here is one of those moments where I have to disagree with the Great Helmsman of the Good Ship Babylon (and not just on the superficial point, that anything written by Hitchens post-9/11 is pretty ghastly for being composed while he was licking the boots of neocon war criminal Paul Wolfowitz).

In my view, I find the public flogging of Farrakhan by the white press (and particularly someone like Hitchens) to be abhorrent, tone-deaf self-righteous racism. It is a paternalistic public masturbation that craps on poor Black people.

White writers get a little orgasmic joy by saying some self-evident things about a man who has a truly problematic history while disregarding the positive impact he has on the African American community and in particular those who are confined within the various staged regions of the prison-industrial gulag — what Michelle Alexander calls “the new Jim Crow.”

The subliminal message of these floggings is pretty straightforward logic: “If Louis Farrakhan is a/n (insert: anti-Semite, homo/transphobe, sexist, co-conspirator in the murder of Malcolm X), therefore all his followers are either dupes or tainted by his shortcomings.”

Here are the reasons that I think merit taking a second look at Minister Farrakhan. At the outset, it does bear mentioning that I find some of his views simply unpalatable. I’m not interested in arguing against the record as much as contextualizing why people remain loyal to him.

  • Farrakhan has built in the past several decades a nationwide network of mutual aid and support groups, based out of the Nation of Islam temples, that provide African Americans a location and safe haven for engagement in practices that help them survive in a society that criminalizes their existence. People living in the sort of dire circumstances created by American white supremacy need somewhere to safely strengthen and fortify their own communities.
  • The Nation of Islam continues to help rebuild families. They reach out to incarcerated people and their families and tell them that they have an inherent dignity and value that few other organizations in America are willing or able to do. The number of men and women who have been restored to a position where they are told that they matter because of the Nation of Islam is a truly noteworthy accomplishment.
  • The Nation plays an important role in helping negotiate gang ceasefires and ending feuds within the Black community. Ministers of various urban Temples are seen as neutral arbitrators who can adjudicate and give closure to beefs that might otherwise see body counts climb into the 20s or 30s. This is a particularly painful lesson that was learned as a result of the grisly and totally unwarranted East Coast-West Coast Rap Wars of the 1990s that claimed the lives of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls.
  • There is no secular organization, and certainly none of a Caucasian persuasion, that offers either of those to Blacks in such a significant fashion. The fact that Farrakhan fills such a vacuum bespeaks the failure of a viable secular Left-wing movement that can take on American white supremacy and racism while simultaneously strengthening the most vulnerable targets of that systemic violence.
  • Indeed, this is a wider issue that goes across the board. In the past ten years, it has been progressive religious denominations, such as Quakers, Catholic Workers, Unitarian Universalists, Reverend William Barber II’s Moral Monday formations, and, yes, the Nation of Islam, that have been reliably opposed to things like war and austerity. Meanwhile, secular outfits like the Green Party and various flavor-of-the-month Trotskyist groupings (Socialist Alternative, International Socialist Organization, Socialist Equality Party, et al.) have been altogether ineffective. This absolute failure is what makes white liberal journalism denouncing Farrakhan particularly hypocritical — the fact that it has absolutely nothing to offer to Farrakhan’s followers. At this point in history, what is there to be said about Farrakhan that has not already been said a million times before in liberal outlets? Bringing his old baggage up (some of it being over 50 years old) is like re-treading the Jessie Jackson “Hymie Town” episode. Much more competent, mature, and systematic analysis has been offered previously, often by under-represented Black journalists, about these issues.
  • When white journalists trot this stuff out, they do so in a predictably shallow fashion. In the case of Christopher Hitchens, we read a particularly hollow version. By his account, one would be inclined to believe that Farrakhan himself was responsible for the death of Malcolm X. The reality, however, is complex: By the time that Malcolm had become El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, he had begun to seriously frighten the power structure of the American empire.
  • In his final year, he had made connections with various African and Asian leaders who wanted to bring charges of human rights violations regarding African Americans before the United Nations. Such a publicity coup would have caused a seismic rupture and upset the balance of power within the post-colonial world and the wider Cold War. As such, he needed to be neutralized immediately to prevent such an occurrence.
  • To accomplish this, the FBI ramped up the COINTELPRO operation that manipulated the Nation and senior members like Farrakhan, turning them into unwitting proxies who thought they were settling the score in an internal feud rather than doing the bidding of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and the CIA. (Of course, perhaps the reason Hitchens neglected that part was because he was brown-nosing the son of a former CIA Director whose presidency had a pretty disgusting set of policies towards the Muslim world.)
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