Reed on LF

Doug Henwood dhenwood at panix.com
Sun Oct 22 10:20:26 MDT 1995


Here are excerpts from Adolph Reed's two-part article from the Nation
(January 1991). Apologies for the length of this, but Adolph says it all
with his usual brilliance.


Doug

--

Doug Henwood
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Title:       The rise of Louis Farrakhan.
Authors:     Reed, Adolph Jr.
Citation:    The Nation, Jan 21, 1991 v252 n2 p37(6)


[Reed's summary of the classic NOI theology, susepended under the rule of
W.D. Muhammad, which was restored under Farrakhan's leadership - DH]:

The Messenger's core teachings include claims that blacks were the
world's "original" race, from which all others derived; that black
Americans are descended from an ancient, "lost" Asian tribe; that the
white race originated from a demonic laboratory experiment and that
Elijah Muhammad was divinely inspired. Following nationalist convention,
the Muslims advocate the subordination of women, drawing on a rhetoric
of domesticity, moral purity and male responsibility; predictably, they
denounce feminism and gay rights as white decadence and as strategies to
undermine black unity and moral fiber.

The Nation's secular program has always focused on "nation building"'
which in practice has meant business development and the creation of
separate schools and other institutions. Those activities have been
harnessed to the ultimate goal of political separation and the formation
of an independent state. Under Muhammad that goal remained inchoate,
appearing mainly as a millenarian dream, but for Farrakhan it figures
more directly into programmatic rhetoric. Discussion of the proposed
state's citizenry characteristically elides the distinction between the
membership of the Nation of Islam and black Americans in general, but
Farrakhan recently has indicated that one possible model entails putting
the former in charge of the latter. The nation-building agenda also
reinforces the organization's natalist ideology and longstanding
opposition to abortion, which both Muhammad and Farrakhan have denounced
as genocidal as well as immoral.

[...]

In the race for the 1984 Democratic presidential nomination, however,
Farrakhan demonstrated the new Nation of Islam's political departure
from the old. Unlike Elijah Muhammad, Farrakhan did not remain publicly
aloof from electoral politics. He openly supported Jackson's candidacy
and even provided him with a Fruit of Islam security force. Because of
Farrakhan's and the Nation's long association with anti-Semitic
rhetoric, his closeness to Jackson was thrown into relief in the wake of
the "Hymietown" controversy.

Milton Coleman, the Washington Post reporter who disclosed Jackson's
remarks, was condemned widely as a race traitor, but Farrakhan raised
the ante: "We're going to make an example of Milton Coleman. One day
soon, we will punish you by death, because you are interfering with the
future of our babies-for white people and against the good of yourself
and your own people. This is a fitting punishment for such dogs."
Farrakhan has always' denied he made these remarks.)

That inflamed rhetoric, along with Farrakhan's reference to Judaism as a
"gutter religion"' prodded a temporizing Jackson to distance himself
publicly from Farrakhan, and the incident made sensationalistic copy
throughout the information industry. For those with longer memories
Farrakhan's attack on Coleman was a chilling reminder of the thuggish
currents of the past. Indeed, his theretofore most notoriously
threatening pronouncement-against Malcolm X-had set a frightening
precedent. In December 1964 he wrote in Muhammad Speaks:

Only those who wish to be led to hell, or to their doom, will follow
Malcolm. The die is set and Malcolm shall not escape, especially after
such foolish talk about his benefactor in trying to rob him of the
divine glory which Allah has bestowed upon him. Such a man as Malcolm is
worthy of death-and would have met with death if it had not been for
Muhammad's confidence in Allah for victory over the enemies.

Two months later Malcolm was assassinated.

[...]

Louis Farrakhan's emergence as a national political figure
is largely the story of his efforts to replace Jackson as central
embodiment and broker of the black race-nationalist political persona.
Those efforts began, at least symbolically, with Jackson's grudging
acquiescence to white pressure to criticize Farrakhan after the
"Hymietown" incident.

The notoriety acquired in that incident fueled Farrakhan's rise in two
ways. First, it simply increased his name recognition, especially among
a younger generation with no recollection of the old Nation of Islam and
his role therein. Second, the heavy barrage of sensationalistic coverage
and the sanctimonious white response to the affair afforded an image of
Farrakhan and Jackson joined in racial martyrdom. Repudiation of
Farrakhan has become a litmus test imposed by white opinion makers for
black participation in mainstream politics, and many blacks perceive the
test as a humiliating power play. Farrakhan's messianic pretensions,
moreover, give him a style something like a counterpunching boxer, and
he deftly turned the assault on him into evidence of his authenticity as
a race leader. Whites and their agents, the argument goes, expend so
much energy on discrediting him because he is a genuine advocate of
black interests and thus a threat to white racial domination. In that
view, the more he is attacked, the greater his authenticity and the more
emphatically he must be defended.

[...]


Title:       All for one and none for all
Authors:     Reed, Adolph Jr.
Citation:    The Nation, Jan 28, 1991 v252 n3 p86(6)


[...]

If mass conversion to the Nation of islam is the measure of success,
then Farrakhan does not seem to have got very far. Nor is it likely that
he will. The organization's strict dietary code and other behavioral
disciplines-not to mention its bizarre and non-Christian
theology-greatly limit his membership pool, as they did Elijah
Muhammad's. There is, however, an intermediate zone between adhering to
the Nation's doctrines and pro forma support, and I suspect that is the
terrain on which Farrakhan has staked his aspirations.

[...]

Embracing Farrakhan's image-like wearing an Africa medallion-is an act
of vicarious empowerment. More clearly on the campuses but probably
outside student life as well, it is a totemic act of the sort
distinctive to mass-consumption culture: highly salient but without
clear meaning, effortlessly accessible but somehow bestowing in-group
status. For college students, inviting Farrakhan forges identity with a
power that counterattacks racism and isolation and soothes the anxieties
around upward mobility or class maintenance. For non-students, invoking
his name forges identity with a power that consoles fleetingly in the
face of a marginalized life showing little hope for improvement.

[...]

For many the act of consuming the event is the principal gratification.
In that sense going to a Farrakhan speech is identical to going to an
M.C. Hammer concert; it is the happening place to be at the moment.
Farrakhan is a masterful performer and spellbinding orator. He offers
his audience a safely contained catharsis: visceral rebellion without
dangerous consequences, an instant, painless inversion of power and
status relations. As a talented demagogue, Farrakhan mingles banalities,
half-truths, distortions and falsehoods to buttress simplistic and wacky
theories. The result is a narrative in which he takes on the role of
racial conscience and, in Malcolm's old phrase, "tells it like it is."
He cajoles, berates, exhorts, instructs and consoles-all reassuringly,
without upsetting the framework of conservative petit-bourgeois
convention.

Indeed, Farrakhan has reproduced the contradiction within the old Nation
of Islam, the tension between militant posture and conservative program.
But that contradiction fits the ambivalent position of the student
audience. Their racial militancy often rests atop basically
conventional, if not conservative, aspirations: for example, the desire
to penetrate-or create black-controlled alternatives to-the "glass
ceiling" barring access to the upper reaches of corporate wealth and
power. Radical rhetoric is attractive when it speaks to their
frustrations as members of a minority, as long as it does not conflict
with their hopes for corporate success and belief in their own
superiority to a benighted black "underclass."

The combination of cathartic, feel-good militancy and conservative
substance is the source as well of whatever comparable following
Farrakhan may have generated among the older population. It is also what
makes him a dangerous force in American life-quite apart from what he
thinks of whites in general or Jews in particular. He weds a radical,
oppositional style to a program that proposes private and individual
responses to social problems; he endorses moral repressiveness; he
asserts racial essentialism; he affirms male authority; and he lauds
bootstrap capitalism. In defining his and the Nation's role as bringing
the holy word to a homogeneous but defective population, moreover, he
has little truck for cultivation of democratic debate among
Afro-Americans, and he is quick to castigate black critics with the
threatening language of race treason.

[...]

Farrakhan romanticizes the segregation era as a time of black business
success and laments that "throughout the South the economic advancement
that we gained under Jim Crow is literally dead." He suggested in Emerge
that civil rights legislation has done black citizens general harm
because "women, gays, lesbians and Jews have taken advantage of civil
rights laws, antidiscrimination laws, housing laws, and they have
marched on to a better life while the people who made it happen are
going farther and farther behind economically." He proposed the "real
solution" in a very sympathetic July 23, 1990, interview in The
Spotlight, organ of the ultra-reactionary Liberty Lobby:

If I am sick and I'm a member of your household and I have a
communicable disease, what you do (so that the disease does not affect
the whole family) you remove me from the house and you put me in a place
which is separate to allow me to come back to health. Then I can return
to my family. Here, when people have been under oppression for 400
years, it produces an ill effect.... You have ... millions of [Black]
people who are out of it in terms of our ability to take advantage of
even the laws that are on the books right now. We are not creating jobs
for ourselves. We are sitting in a dependent posture waiting for white
people to create a job for us. And if you don't create a job for us we
threaten to picket or wait on welfare to come.

[...]

Jackson's strategy exploited longstanding and hegemonic presumptions in
American society that black people naturally speak with a single voice
as a racial group, that the "leaders" who express the collective racial
interest emerge organically from the population and that the objectives
and interests of those organic leaders are identical with those of the
general racial constituency. Those presumptions eliminate the need to
attend to potentially troublesome issues of accountability, legitimacy
and democratic process among Afro-Americans, and they give whites easy,
uncomplicated access to a version of black thinking by condensing the
entire race into a few designated spokespersons. They also simplify the
management of racial subordination by allowing white elites to pick and
choose among pretenders to race leadership and, at their own discretion,
to confer  authenticity." Thus Jackson generated the dynamic of
personalistic legitimation that created his national status almost as
self-fulfilling prophecy, without regard to the specific character of
his popular support. Jackson has shown that it is possible to penetrate
the innermost circles of the national race-relations management elite
without coming from a clearly denominated organizational, electoral or
institutional base. Farrakhan could follow that same path, though he
might be constrained as well as aided by the fact that he does have an
organizational base, and by that base's particular nature.

[...]

His suggestion that some 600,000 incarcerated blacks be released to his
authority in Africa is more than a publicity stunt. It expresses a
belief that in the best-case scenario he should be put in charge of
black Americans. His request in the Washington Post interview to be
"allowed the freedom to teach black people unhindered" sounds mild
enough, but only because it leaves ambiguous what he considers improper
hindrances. Opposition of any sort falls into that category, and his
1984 threat to Milton Coleman for race treason in the "Hymietown" affair
reveals the place of dissent in the society he would make. Of the model
of racial authority he would assert, he makes a revealing comparison in
the Emerge interview: "I am to black people as the Pope is to white
people." That enlarged self-image can approach a lunatic megalomania. He
alleges in Emerge that the revival of interest in Malcolm X is the work
of a conspiracy aimed at undermining his mission; to The Washington Post
he traced the spread of crack in inner cities to a similar conspiracy
against him, and he claimed to have been transported in 1985 into a
spaceship where Elijah Muhammad gave him general instructions and
prophesied Reagan's attack on Libya.

How can it be that Farrakhan's actual vision of and for black America
has been so noncontroversial? Why have the civil rights establishment
and other liberal black opinion leaders not publicly expressed more
vocal concern about its protofascist nature and substance? Some of the
reticence may derive from fear of being attacked for race disloyalty,
but the black petit-bourgeois chorus of praise for the Nation's rhetoric
of self-help and moral rearmament reveals a deeper reason for the
absence of criticism. The same repugnant, essentially Victorian view of
the inner-city black poor as incompetent and morally defective that
undergirds Farrakhan's agenda suffuses the political discourse of the
black petite bourgeoisie. That view informs the common sense, moreover,
even of many of those identified with the left. Of course, not many
would admit to the level of contempt that Farrakhan has expressed
publicly:

Not one of you [Spotlight editorial staff] would mind, maybe, my living
next door to you, because I'm a man of a degree of intelligence, of
moral character. I'm not a wild, partying fellow. I'm not a noisemaker.
I keep my home very clean and my lawn very nice.... With some of us who
have learned how to act at home and abroad, you might not have
problems.... Drive through the ghettoes, and see our people. See how we
live. Tell me that you want your son or daughter to marry one of these.
No, you won't.

[...]

This often lurid imagery of pathology naturally points toward a need for
behavioral modification, moral regeneration and special tutelage by
black betters, and black middle-class paternalism is as shameless and
self-serving now as at the turn of the century. Patterson, Norton,
Wilson and Wilkins announce the middle class's special role in making
certain that the poor are fit into properly two-parent, male-headed
families. Proctor, presumably giving up on adults, wants to use military
discipline to insure that children have "breakfasts with others at a
table:' West would send them into churches for moral rehabilitation. And
the Committee on Policy for Racial Justice of the Joint Center for
Political Studies (whose members include Norton, Wilkins and Wilson)
lauds self-help in its manifesto, Black Initiative and Governmental
Responsibility, and calls on black "religious institutions, civic and
social organizations, media, entertainers, educators, athletes, public
officials, and other community leaders" to "emphasize ... values." It
was a master stroke of Reagan's second-term spin doctors to sugarcoat
the offensive on the black poor with claptrap about special black
middle-class responsibility for "their" poor and the challenge of
self-help. The black leadership elite fell right into line and quickly
institutionalized a cooing patter of noblesse oblige.

>From that hegemonic class standpoint there is little room and less
desire to criticize Farrakhan's contemptuous, authoritarian diagnosis
and remedy. As he instructed The Spotlight:

We must be allowed the freedom first to teach our people and put them in
a state of readiness to receive justice.... Blacks in America have to be
concentrated upon, to lift us up in a way that we will become
self-respecting so that the communities of the world will not mind
accepting us as an equal member among the community of family of
nations.... But when we [the Nation of Islam) get finished with these
people, we produce dignified intelligent people. The American system
can't produce that. We can.

In sum, Louis Farrukhan has become prominent in the public eye because
he appeals symbolically both to black frustration and alienation in this
retrograde era and to white racism, disingenuousness and nayvete. He
also responds to the status anxiety, paternalistic class prejudice and
ideological conservatism embedded within black petit-bourgeois race
militancy. His antiwhite or anti-Semitic views are neither the most
important issue surrounding Farrakhan nor the greatest reason for
concern about his prospects for growing influence. After all, he will
never be able to impose his beliefs-no matter how obnoxious or
heinous-on any group of white Americans. More significant, and more
insidious, is the fact that racial units are his essential categories
for defining and comprehending political life. That fact obviously
establishes him on common conceptual ground with all manner of racists.
(The Spotlight was happily curious about whether he and David Duke
actually would disagree on anything in a debate rumored to be in the
works.)

His racial essentialism has an appeal for many blacks in a purely
demagogic way. It also gives him an outlook that seems disarmingly
sensible to whites-at least those who can overlook his fiery pro-black
sentiments and devil theories-because it fits into the hoary "What do
your people want?" framework for discussing black Americans. That
essentialist outlook also underlies his self-help rhetoric, which
appeals to both whites and middle-class blacks. Whites like it because
it implies that blacks should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and
not make demands on government. Middle-class blacks like it because it
legitimizes a "special role" for the black petite bourgeoisie over the
benighted remainder of the race. In both views, :"self-help" with
respect to ordinary black Americans replaces a standard expectation of
democratic citizenship-a direct, unmediated relation to the institutions
and processes of public authority. Self-help ideology is a form of
privatization and therefore implies cession of the principle that
government is responsible for improving the lives of the citizenry and
advancing egalitarian interests; it also rests on a premise that black
Americans cannot effectively make demands on the state directly as
citizens but must go through intermediaries constituted as guardians of
collective racial self-interest. Ironically, "self-help" requires
dissolution of the autonomous civic self of Afro-Americans.

The link between self-help rhetoric and racial custodianship is as old
as Booker T. Washington, the model of organic racial leadership
Farrakhan articulates. The idea that black racial interests can be
embodied in a single individual has always been attractively economical
for white elites. Giving Washington a railroad car for his own use to
avoid Jim Crow was a lot cheaper for white elites and less disruptive
than socioeconomic democratization and preservation of citizenship
rights. Jesse Jackson updated the claim to organic racial leadership and
brokerage by enlisting mass media technology to legitimize it, and
Farrakhan is following in Jackson's steps. Because of his organization
and ideology, however, Farrakhan more than his predecessors throws into
relief the dangerous, fascistic presumptions inscribed at the foundation
of that model. That-underscored by the brownshirt character of the Fruit
of Islam and the history of the old Nation during Farrakhan's ascent-is
what makes him uniquely troubling. But demonizing him misses the point;
it is the idea of organic representation of the racial collectivity that
makes him possible.

It is that idea, whether expressed flamboyantly by Farrakhan or in the
more conventional petit-bourgeois synecdoche that folds all black
interests into a narrow class agenda, that most needs to be repudiated.
Its polluting and demobilizing effects on Afro-American political life
have never been more visible, thanks to promotion by the mass media's
special combination of racist cynicism and gullibility. Cheap hustlers
and charlatans, corrupt and irresponsible public officials and
perpetrators of any sort of fraud can manipulate the generic
defensiveness decreed by a politics of organic racial representation to
support their scams or sidestep their guilt-all too often for offenses
against black constituents. A straight line connects Washington's
Tuskegee Machine, which sought to control access to philanthropic
support for racial agendas, to Jackson's insinuation that "respect" for
him is respect for all black Americans to Farrakhan's death threat
against Milton Coleman to the pathetic specter of the rogues' gallery of
Farrakhan, Illinois Representative Gus Savage, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the
Rev. George Stallings and Tawana Brawley sharing the stage with Marion
Barry at a rally to defend the corrupt Mayor's honor. That image
captures the depth of crisis of political vision that racial organicism
has wrought.





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