WASHINGTON -- Nuts is not the same as stupid. Louis Farrakhan is a smart man, and he knows a good deal about the world in which he wishes to play a conspicuous part. He knows that politicians are greedy for any support they can get. He knows that journalists are easy to gull and to bully.
He knows that many white people regard black people with fear and guilt, and will go to great lengths to avoid conflict with them. He knows that many white people also regard black people as their mental inferiors, and are therefore willing to be impressed .. by an intellectual performance from a black person that they would not find impressive from a white person. And he knows that, in an era of resegregation, most whites don't want to be around blacks, and most blacks don't want to be around whites.
Knowing all this, Mr. Farrakhan believes that the moment is arriving at which he will win recognition as the legitimate leader of black America. This would be an extraordinary achievement -- Mr. Farrakhan is about as radical a figure as American politics is capable of producing -- but he is right that the tenor of the times gives him reason for hope.
The values of the left have been so thoroughly internalized and institutionalized in America that Mr. Farrakhan's radicalism is coming to seem quite conventional. With Malcolm X replacing Martin Luther King as the indispensable man among younger blacks, with the NAACP transforming itself from a force for integration to a force for racial Balkanization, with a black intellectual and popular culture that is overwhelmingly and openly hostile to whites, Mr. Farrakhan may convincingly pose as a figure of the mainstream.
The values of the left have been adopted by whites, too, and this also helps him. The once-radical idea of America as a sick society and American government as a corrupt oppressor is now a banality, the informing truism of Hollywood tripe and doctoral theses alike. The man and the times are coming together.
Mr. Farrakhan's Million Man March in October 1995 was the first officially segregated demonstration in Washington, and the first open expression of racialist political power, since the Ku Klux Klan marched on the Capitol in 1925. But, by adopting the minor cover of also stressing themes of economic self-help and spiritual revival (interestingly enough, also themes prominently sounded by speakers at the KKK march), he was able to trick a complacent press into reporting the day's events as uplifting and even encouraging racial news.
In the time since then, the minister has been able to fool some Jews in search of brotherhood, such as Mike Wallace and Edgar Bronfman, into brief flirtations. He has made some progress in attracting Republicans, who are eager for any black votes they can get and attracted by the doctrine of black self-help (not to mention the doctrine of separate but equal).
This week Mr. Farrakhan won a coveted role as, of all things, a racial mediator. Mayor Edward Rendell of Philadelphia, seeking to calm the black anger that arose after a group of white men beat a black woman and two black men in the Irish-Catholic Gray's Ferry neighborhood (in the same neighborhood, shortly thereafter, blacks murdered a 16-year-old white during a robbery, but this was, predictably, deemed to be not racially motivated), invited Mr. Farrakhan to join him Monday at a "racial unity" rally. While 500 blacks marched through Gray's Ferry, some of them yelling "white trash" at the residents, Mr. Farrakhan delivered an 85-minute diatribe on the "half-slave and half-free" nation of America.
All of this is why Sunday's edition of "Meet the Press" was such an important event. In a masterful interview, Tim Russert used Mr. Farrakhan's own words, and the teachings of the Nation of Islam, to lead the minister into the territory he works so hard to avoid: the territory of his beliefs.
Mr. Farrakhan had said a few years ago that the ultimate answer to America's race problems was segregation. Did he still believe that? "It appears that way."
Elijah Mohammed, founder of the Nation of Islam, has written that whites were created by a mad black scientist named Yakub, and that whites will ultimately perish at the hands of a spaceship that will rain death upon them. Mr. Farrakhan? "I subscribe to every word that the Honorable Elijah Mohammed taught us."
Mr. Russert quoted a Nation of Islam essay recently posted on the Internet on the subject of "the Jews' awesome control over American society and government: All presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, 1932, are controlled by Jews." Did Mr. Farrakhan believe that? "I believe that, for the small numbers of Jewish people in the United States, they exercise a tremendous amount of influence in the affairs of government."
Mr. Russert quoted the man to himself: "Who controls black art? Who controls black sports figures? Who controls black intellectuals, black politicians? When I talk to the Jews, I'm talking to a segment of that quorum that holds my people in their grip." Mr. Farrakhan replied: "And that is true. Who controls the movement of the NAACP? The Urban League? Who controls black politicians?" The Jews, he ranted on, "exercise extraordinary control, and black people will never be free in this country until they are free of that kind of control. And I do intend by the help of God to break up that control. . . ."
The ugliest and most revealing moment came when Mr. Russert played a videotape of Mr. Farrakhan speaking, on March 19, 1995, on the subject of the Holocaust.
"German Jews financed Hitler right here in America: Loeb and Kuhn and Jacob Schiff," Mr. Farrakhan yelled, his face contorted with hatred. "International bankers financed Hitler, and poor Jews died while big Jews were at the root of what you call the Holocaust. . . . Little Jews died while big Jews made money. Little Jews being turned into soap while big Jews washed themselves with it. Jews playing violin. Jews playing music while other Jews marching into the gas chambers."
When the clip was over, Mr. Farrakhan smiled a creepy smile of mock beatification. "The question is: Is it truth?" he said. "If it is truth, then it is not anti-Semitic."
It is immoral to deal with Mr. Farrakhan at all, except to fight him. The man is a bigot and a hater. He hates whites and he hates Catholics and he hates Jews. If he were in a position to do serious harm to the people he hates, he would. As it is, he does what harm he can. And so do his willing dupes.
Michael Kelly is a senior editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.
Pub Date: 4/18/97