Censure, not censor

February 08, 1994|By Jonathan Alter

AT FIRST glance, the latest eye-gouging over Louis Farrakhan and his moronic aide looks terrible for race relations. With all the crushing problems out there, it's a detour into double-standard city.

Why was it so easy to denounce Khalid Abdul Muhammad yet so hard to denounce Mr. Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitism was obvious in last week's press conference?

Why did senators pass a resolution attacking Mr. Muhammad for calling Jews "bloodsuckers" (and the pope a "no-good cracker") in a November speech at New Jersey's Kean College, but avoid criticizing one of their colleagues, Sen. Ernest Hollings, for making a joke about African diplomats who like "eating each other"?

Even the questions are polarizing. The only winners in this brawl are the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Nation of Islam, whose fund-raising coffers will both burst because of all the publicity. And of course Mr. Muhammad, who is taking his rant on the road.

But beneath the bitterness lies a new and helpful clarity. It may now be easier to confront both Mr. Farrakhan and the larger issue of offensive speech, particularly on campus.

The potential of this story to end well depends on whether you trust people -- all people -- to make better decisions when they have additional information.

In the months ahead, college students will learn more about the 10,000-member Nation of Islam, and they will hear more hate speech. But they will also hear more from people like Rep. Major Owens, who along with a few other black members of Congress found the courage to denounce the Farrakhan bigotry.

Jesse Jackson says he favors a White House conference on intolerance.

That sounds like a circus. But a series of campus teach-ins might help turn this whole painful episode into something productive.

The first thing made clear last week is that the "New Farrakhan" is a hoax. In 1993 we read (in sources including Newsweek) that Mr. Farrakhan was moving away from anti-Semitism. As a conciliatory gesture, he played music by the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn on the violin.

Last September the Congressional Black Caucus, headed by Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Maryland, established a formal relationship with the Nation of Islam. The caucus even managed to obtain federal funding for a Nation of Islam AIDS-education program.

But even as he fired Mr. Muhammad and called his words "mean-spirited," there was Minister Farrakhan on CNN last week saying that 75 percent of slaves in the American South were owned by Jews.

This is a lie. (The truth is more like 2 percent.)

He apparently misread his own Nation of Islam book, "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," a pseudoscholarly anti-Semitic tract that claims 75 percent of urban Southern Jews owned slaves, which -- even if true -- is quite a different point.

So why did Mr. Jackson, Mr. Mfume and the NAACP all ignore LTC Mr. Farrakhan's latest slurs against Jews? They're angry at the ADL and Jewish columnists for picking at this scab when the black community is in crisis.

After repudiating Mr. Muhammad, they're understandably tired of the pressure to repudiate all the time. (Were blacks always pressuring the head of the ADL to repudiate the late Jewish racist Meir Kahane?)

And they desperately want to change the subject. But it's truly shortsighted for black leaders to argue that Mr. Farrakhan's often-hyped success at instilling discipline in young black males somehow outweighs the poison of his message.

This argument undermines their moral authority in fighting racism. And it's not as if they privately approve of Mr. Farrakhan. After all, it was members of the Nation of Islam who killed Malcolm X.

This fact is still almost unknown among younger African-Americans. (Spike Lee's gloss didn't help). Perhaps the publicity about Mr. Farrakhan will help black students see the absurdity of, say, listening to Mr. Muhammad participate in "Salute to Malcolm X" ceremonies.

At two recent rallies, Mr. Farrakhan brought Muhammad Abdul Aziz to the stage. Aziz spent 20 years in jail for his part in killing Malcolm X; several black eyewitnesses that day in 1965 in the Audubon Ballroom identified him as one of the gunmen.

But Mr. Farrakhan claimed Aziz was innocent, and the crowd roared its approval. Malcolm X's family is appalled at Mr. Farrakhan's popularity.

With any luck, all the current attention may help finally drive home the truth.

It may also yield a better understanding of how to handle hatemongers like Mr. Muhammad on campus. The old, mindless approach is typified by a dean at the University of Florida who invoked the First Amendment and said he didn't want to "prejudge" Mr. Muhammad's speech.

The new approach is reflected by Trenton State College, which is allowing Mr. Muhammad to appear but also criticizing his earlier remarks and inviting Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. to speak a couple of days later.

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