You must always check the date on news stories popping up on Facebook. It’s embarrassing to register shock — James Garner dead? Oh no! — only to be informed that he passed away in 2014.
So a week ago, when I noticed a CNN report headlined “Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan delivers anti-Semitic speech,” the first thing I did was see whether he delivered the speech in 2012 or 2002. I mean, talk about an evergreen headline, right?
Feb. 25, 2018. Nation of Islam Saviours’ Day. In Chicago. Prompting me to then wonder if the local papers covered it. Nope. Which makes sense. A big city, this, statewide elections looming, plus the continual drip-drip-drip of corrosive national news, like acid leaking out of a car battery. Where on the list of priorities would you put an 84-year-old cult leader saying what he always says?
Not that any reporter worth his salt wouldn’t leap to attend a Farrakhan rally. I highly recommend the experience, having drawn that short straw years ago. I’m glad I did. Louis Farrakhan is a powerful speaker, in the classic Fidel Castro model: carrying on for hours and hours, puffing and preening. He holds his audience rapt, with occasional trips to the sales tables to fortify themselves with bean cakes.
It’s quite a show. You can say a lot in three hours, and Farrakhan does: about dignity and self-reliance and power, heavily spiced with a farrago of conspiracy theories. Eventually, he reaches for the Jews like a man scratching a rash. The latest instance classic third-person Farrakhan:
“Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off of that Satanic Jew.”
He blamed Jews for apartheid, for Hollywood sleaze, for running the world, for … well, you get the picture. Farrakhan gets flack for once praising Hitler, but the truth is worse: he compulsively parrots him.
I was so busy focusing on what Farrakhan said, I almost overlooked that Tamika Mallory, national co-chair of the Women’s March, attended the rally. Her presence drew faux outrage from right wingers demanding she denounce him, pronouncing the cause undermined otherwise.
That’s ridiculous. If one leader of a worthwhile effort is caught on video kicking a puppy, or stealing an Amazon package or attending a Saviours’ Day Rally, that doesn’t indict the greater effort. The march still brings hope to the long Trump night.
This political kabuki should evoke a twitch of muscle memory in Chicagoans, because we’ve been through this before. In 1985, after attacks on Jews by Farrakhan — he compared himself to Jesus Christ, both being religious leaders “hated by the Jews” — the Chicago City Council, then in the midst of Council Wars and controlled by a bloc of white aldermen, passed a resolution demanding that Mayor Harold Washington condemn Farrakhan.
Was this done out of a sudden sensitivity toward Jews by our aldermanic hackocracy? Or gee, maybe they relished putting Washington in a trap: denounce Farrakhan and alienate a segment of his own constituency, or refuse to do so and anger Jewish supporters.
Washington didn’t bite and condemned the ploy, saying it would “live in infamy in history.” It didn’t, obviously.
Maybe familiarity has bred indifference toward Farrakhan — I don’t hate him, I pity him. To me, he’s crazy old Uncle Lou. For all his bad-boy blather, Farrakhan has a weird vulnerability, almost a sweetness. Historian Marshall Frady wrote that Farrakhan “represented both a casualty of and a judgment on America’s racist history, its own tormented creation.”
That sounds right. A strange guy in funny glasses who longs to be significant but blows every chance he gets. Farrakhan’s great moment of near-acceptance, the 1995 Million Man March, ended with him rolling at the feet of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. Farrakhan is like a drug addict who tries to hold a job but just can’t keep himself clean. There’s only one way for this attention junkie to get the high he craves, and that’s with a dose of anti-Semitism. He’s ignored otherwise.
So it becomes a vicious circle. Farrakhan says horrible things about Jews, the media notices, Jewish leaders calmly observe that maybe a stone hater shouldn’t be admitted into the circle of decent society, and Farrakhan seizes on their objections as more proof he’s the target of Jewish animus. It’s the rare conspiracy theory of his that has a faint echo in reality.
Imagine what Farrakhan might have accomplished if he didn’t feel the need to periodically shoot himself in the foot with his anti-Semitism habit. It’s a tragedy, really.