An Attack on All of Us as a Nation

March 20, 1994|By PETER SCHRAG

Sacramento, California. -- The most worrisome thing about the current controversy about Louis Farrakhan is that it's been so narrowly represented as a fight between the Nation of Islam and the Anti-Defamation League, or between Mr. Farrakhan and his aides and Jews. It reflects how far the country, and the communications media particularly, seem to have come from the moral basis on which judgments about racism and discrimination used to be made.

Mr. Farrakhan would certainly like to have it that way. For that would reduce this dispute to little more than a sideshow between minority interest groups -- one black, one white -- and could thus become a rallying cry for black unity on his racially divisive terms, and, if he can work the anti-Semitism right, perhaps a good deal more.

But it is no such thing. The essence of civil rights and social justice in America rests on something altogether different: that a racist attack on any group -- blacks, Jews, Italians, Irish, Poles, Hispanics -- was an attack on the ideals of the nation itself, and thus demanded a response on its behalf. During the 1950s and 1960s, that's precisely what occurred both in the South, and often in Northern cities as well.

The fight against segregation and bigotry was a gift we gave ourselves. Jews tended to be prominent in that fight because they, of all whites in this country, had the most recent and intense experience with discrimination and thus understood better than most that if blacks were not safe, they were not safe either. The reverse, lest anyone forget, is true as well. But it has always been everybody's fight. To the extent it's succeeded, we have all been winners.

To say that the ideals were often ignored does not reduce their validity. It's only by affirming them that the nation can avoid the pointless and ugly bidding war to determine who is the biggest victim (of genocide or racism or whatever) at any given time. And it's the only way to avoid the high price when victim claims are translated into demands for special consideration or, in Mr. Farrakhan's case, tolerance for one's own bigotry. Right-wing extremists in Israel still invoke the Holocaust to justify their own // brutality against Palestinians. We have all seen the result.

In the long run, no one wins such bidding wars: about who was the first victim or is now the biggest victim. They help drive the price of compensation to the point of extortion -- or as we've seen in Bosnia, to retaliatory genocide. In free societies they badly undermine the moral argument that can be the only successful basis of a multicultural civic life.

And to the extent that the claims for compensation reject the Western values on which this nation is based, they repudiate the only working constitutional system and set of traditions that permit the level of dissent, celebrate the tolerance and make possible the multiculturalism of which this country used to boast.

Equally worrisome, to the extent that any message of self-help and self-control is tinged with lies, crackpot history and phony scholarship -- say, about Jewish control of the banks, or about ice people and sun people, or about who did and did not participate in the slave trade -- it will not only fail when it confronts the larger world, but become the excuse for failure. Self-esteem founded on myth, ignorance and hate is a permanent sentence to an insular, confused and fearful existence. Racial separatism, as Robert Hughes has pointed out, is the very opposite of multiculturalism.

None of that excuses the continuing racism of white society. To the extent that the larger community ignores or condones its own racism or abandons the poor of the inner cities, it also abandons the right to preach to those who have not abandoned them. But to the extent that the traditional ideal is rejected with a mirror-image racism or with bigoted rhetoric, so, by definition, are claims to fellowship in, and aid from, the larger community. It was said of Southern segregationist governors such as Ross Barnett, Lester Maddox and George Wallace that they addressed real grievances that were not being addressed by other politicians. But that didn't make their racism any more palatable.

Worse than Mr. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism is the nation's tendency to neglect the lessons of its civic existence and its much-too-casual willingness to patronize bigotry when it's founded on the claims of a victim class. We have gone overboard in identifying ourselves as minorities and special groups, each with special entitlements -- rape victims, molest victims, victims of racism, of anti-Semitism, of ageism, of harassment, of crime. As a consequence, when affronts and threats to the ideals of equal treatment and nondiscrimination are not directed to officially designated victim classes, they are barely recognized. Selective tolerance is barely tolerance at all.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for McClatchy Newspapers.

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