The Rev. Louis Farrakhan recently moderated his rhetoric as he attempted to sneak into the mainstream. For a while it worked. Major civil-rights organizations included him in their meetings, and he attracted favorable coverage. But then—oops!
Time quoted Farrakhan explaining the political economy of Jewish merchants in the black community, 1920-1960, as follows: "What is a bloodsucker? When they land on your skin, they suck the life from you to sustain their life….So if they made profit from us, then from our life they drew life and came to strength. Then they turned it over to the Arabs, the Koreans, and others, who are there now…sucking the lifeblood out of our own community."
Farrakhan's public-relations rehab program hit a snag. He is being condemned again, and the scramble to disassociate is more frantic than when Rush Limbaugh pops up at a NOW cocktail party. But there are multiple ironies in the stampede to quarantine Farrakhan's racism.
Farrakhan's basic offense is that in each of his endeavors, including his impressive efforts to shape up troubled black youth, he operates as a "racialist" (Leon Wieseltier's term). Jews are an issue today because of what Jewish slave owners are reported to have done in the 1800s and what Jewish shopkeepers allegedly charged in the 1950s. Blacks are important today because their ancestors formed the first great civilization(s). Whites are contemptible as a class because their race has historically oppressed others of color. Even if Farrakhan's fantastic assertions were correct, his methodology would stink. Race is not an interesting rubric under which to lump individuals when crafting a political ethic, particularly for those of us who are less than 200 years old.
But Farrakhan's crude analytical model shares much with pontification across the dial. Take Bill Clinton's rationale for raising taxes in the 1993 budget deal: The government was simply going after those super-rich who made out like bandits in the '80s. While the increase was retroactive to January 1, 1993, Clinton's cover story was retroactive a decade. Those who scammed the system in the '80s probably will be hurt very little by the tax increase (and, at any rate, far less than by the special prosecutor looking into Whitewatergate).
Likewise, the right. What is so ugly about some Christian fundamentalists is not that they enjoy whooping it up in tongues or that they observe superstitions last respectable in the paleolithic era. Indeed, our fascination with primitive cultures in foreign lands often appreciates and admires the virtues of belief, piety, and innocence. What is so annoying about the fundamentalists is their bitter determination to libel all who differ, to condemn irregular sizes as guilty of sin. We are mightily offended when they do not consider the worthiness of our souls on a case-by-case basis but instead lump all Others in with the devil.
A similar tendency can be observed on the left. Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a Jewish monthly emphasizing the "politics of meaning," says he is not so concerned about Farrakhan's venom as long as whites condemn welfare policy. The latter is an immoral act of greed and malice, Lerner teaches. Yet Farrakhan is himself a critic of welfare policy, which he alertly characterizes as a "subsidizing single women to have babies." Perhaps this act of political immorality will finally lead Lerner to roundly condemn Farrakhan as a money-grubbing supply-sider. This would represent one of the few palpable successes of our welfare policy.
It was, of course, unreasonable of Jewish leaders to expect every black activist in America to jump up in protest when Farrakhan and his henchmen spewed some bile. Why not every white person-or every gentile? I have yet to apologize for the Rev. Jim Jones, a white brother who killed hundreds of black people. Can you blame the Black Congressional Caucus for being miffed?
What I blame the caucus for is playing this color game with gusto, only to stomp out at half time. The premise of the Congressional Black Caucus is that skin color and politics have a unique intersection and that the interests of African Americans are advanced by the caucus's agenda. (Corollary: Those who oppose the caucus's policy suggestions oppose black Americans.) I believe that the interests of African Americans are in sync only at the most fundamental, constitutional level—the level at which every American has a keen interest in the Bill of Rights and equal protection under law—and from there go in 20 million different directions. But the professionals of the civil rights movement (or its rusty remnant) march to the rhythm of a single drummer, which they claim is the heartbeat of black America.
The wrath of Farrakhan is only the most fiery spark of this volcanic danger to the American way of life. I applaud the minister's openness: He not only believes we should be judged by the color of our skin but is willing to draw the logical illiberal inferences. Sadly, the racialism of Farrakhan's hate rhetoric is not controversial among those who castigate whole classes of Americans. Only its honesty.
Contributing Editor Thomas W. Hazlett teaches economics and public policy at the University of California, Davis.