If Louis Farrakhan has done a grave and lasting harm to any one group in particular, it is the African-Americans, and he has done so especially through what are called his positive contributions. A feeling of ethnic pride, after all, which is said to be Farrakhan’s gift to black America, can only be derived from a solid and proper appreciation of the past. But Farrakhan is not a man of solid and proper appreciations. Generations of historians, beginning in the 1930s and proceeding into the present, have labored mightily to bring to an end the reign of racist mythology about slavery and the history of the African-Americans. Lucidity has been their goal. But obscurity is his own goal. To perpetuate mythology’s reign forever is entirely his purpose—not the ancient, loathsome, racist mythology of the old-time American bigots, which he despises, but the ancient, loathsome, racist mythology of the old-time European bigots, which he has creatively adapted to America.
Farrakhan’s mythology of the African-American past has enjoyed a degree of popular success, too, and this ought not to surprise us. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are generous in their lies, which allows them to thrive. The conspiracy theories reassure. They console. In real life, extreme and massive social oppressions depend on the support of large classes of people, and draw on the most widely shared of doctrines and theologies, and are imposed by the strongest of institutions—all of which can be dismaying to contemplate. But conspiracy theories offer a cheering alternative. The conspiracy theories affirm that extreme and massive social oppressions depend chiefly on the malign actions of a tiny class of people, who are the Jews, instead of on the general population; and draw on a theology, Jewish, that is condemned by the truly powerful Christian and Muslim theologies; and are imposed by an institution, the international Jewish conspiracy, that is so flimsy and widely hated that its only hope is to cower in secrecy. The adepts of an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory can conclude that, under these circumstances, the defeat and overthrow of the tiny oppressor class may well be foreordained and imminent. The news is cheering—even if, until the overthrow takes place, everything is desperate and grim. And so it is with Farrakhan’s doctrine, as expounded in the Nation of Islam’s tract, under his direction, The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews, which is now in various volumes.
A follower of Louis Farrakhan gazing at the centuries of American oppression has every reason to feel discouraged and enraged by the scale of the American consensus that used to abide slavery, and used to abide lynchings and Jim Crow, and still abides a division of wealth overwhelmingly tilted against the descendants of the slaves. But Farrakhan, who fulminates against the white race as a whole, offers, within his larger fulmination, a reassuring consolation. He tells his audiences, in effect, that ultimately the white race, however devilish it may be, is not the center of the problem. Nor is America the center of the problem, not really. Nor is the majority religion in America the center of the problem. The center of the problem is minuscule.
I quote a presentation of The Secret Relationship by Farrakhan’s NOI (or Nation of Islam) Research Group. The Jews, we are told, stood “at the very center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade as merchants, financiers, shippers, and insurers and among the leading international marketers of the products of African slave labor.” It was the Jews who provided the doctrinal basis for slavery; who subsidized and supported the Ku Klux Klan; who sold the sheets and the guns to the Klan; who assumed the leadership of the American labor movement in order to choke off possibilities for black workers; who were the leaders of anti-Asian racism, too; who reveled in the usury that is forbidden to Christians; who promoted Freemasonry, which is sinister all by itself; who were lynching’s champions; who were the champions of white supremacy. All of which, if you tease out the implications, can only mean that, in regard to the history of slavery and the centuries of oppression, America is off the hook, pretty much. American Christianity is off the hook. The American majority population is off the hook. The plain implication is that, if only the Jews can be defeated, the African-Americans will have solved their principal problem. And why shouldn’t the Jews be defeated? There are so few of them. And everybody hates them. In his latest oration, Farrakhan has pointed out that even Billy Graham hated the Jews.
I am not the first to point out that, in reality, the Jewish role in the slave trade was tiny; the Jewish slave-masters were few in number; Judaism is not the origin of racism; Jews in America have far more often been the enemies of American racism than its proponents; white supremacism is an anti-Semitic doctrine; Jews were victims and enemies of the Ku Klux Klan; the Jewish role in the historic labor movement was far more positive than negative. And so forth. But Farrakhan, the spellbinder, is a master of dispensing with mere realities, and, once they have been swept away, his theory of the past and present offers obvious satisfactions. It empowers. It confers upon its adepts a feeling of intellectual mastery. Conventional and sophisticated accounts of extreme oppression are bound to be complicated. But conspiracy theories offer the delights of simplicity. A conventionally sophisticated analyst of social oppression can only sigh at the difficulty of explaining an oppressive situation. But a conspiracy theorist can orate like a machine gun, sending one identical bullet after another at the same identical tiny target.
It is true that, generally speaking, where Farrakhan has trod, grass has failed to grow. His successes are purely negative. He does not build up; he damages. He was Malcolm X’s rival in the Black Muslim movement, and his invective appears to have led to Malcolm X’s assassination. He was Jesse Jackson’s most vigorous supporter during Jackson’s historic campaign in 1984 for the Democratic party nomination for president, and his threats of violence against the Jews caused a devastating setback to Jackson’s political career. He assembled the largest protest ever to occur in African-American history, the Million Man March in 1995, and, having gotten the entire universe to pay attention to him, he delivered a numerological oration about the mystical attributes of the number 19, which was broadcast to the nation, as if black America had nothing more urgent to say.
Just now he has cast a shadow over the Women’s March by making the people who have emerged as its leaders appear to be animated by a bigotry of the extreme and racist right. And he has damaged the political prospects of Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chair of the Democratic National Committee, his one-time follower, who has explained that long ago he turned against Farrakhan, and was, in any case, his follower for only a brief period; but appears to have been his follower for a much longer period; and has said he has no relation with Farrakhan, and has not seen him recently; except that Farrakhan himself has proclaimed just now to a mass gathering of his followers that, on the contrary, Ellison conferred with him as recently as 2015. All of which means either that Ellison has damaged himself by being Farrakhan’s follower, and by lying about it; or that Farrakhan has damaged Ellison by lying about a Farrakhan-Ellison connection that ended long ago.
Farrakhan’s supporters can perhaps take comfort in the fact that, when all is said and done, he has wreaked a certain amount of damage on the American Jews, as well—not on the Satanic elders who control the world, but on the Jewish schoolteachers and social workers and other mere mortals who came under attack, during the 1980s and ’90s, from Farrakhan’s admirers and fellow-thinkers in a variety of cities. Jews who worked in black communities in those years sometimes found it necessary to give up their jobs and flee—chased away by a wave of mad accusations about Jewish plots to destroy black children. Then again, wasn’t this one more misfortune for black America, and not just for the fleeing schoolteachers? And all the while, Farrakhan has kept up his principal work, which is to fill the heads of the unlucky souls who fall under his influence with debilitating doctrines that will sooner or later damage their own prospects and hopes to do a bit of good for the world. And here is Stephanie Mills, beloved star of The Wiz on Broadway many years ago, standing up at Farrakhan’s rally just now to serenade the man and his aura—in testimony to the miserable truth that even Stephanie Mills has fallen under the spell of the Wizard of Oz.
It does seem odd that no one ever seems to learn the lesson about Farrakhan. Is it naiveté that keeps his followers in a state of addled confusion? That is Keith Ellison’s explanation for his own period as an adept: He was not aware of Farrakhan’s doctrines. Or is it hatred? The man’s continued prominence is puzzling, either way. It is infuriating. It is pitiable. It is a little frightening. But it is not astonishing. Ours is the age of screwball Americana.
Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.