The indefensible Farrakhan invitation

June 15, 1994|By A.M. Rosenthal

THE offense of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. was not simply to invite Minister Louis Farrakhan to a conference of black leaders in Baltimore but to treat Americans as total fools.

Every important argument he makes to defend the invitation, to justify the damage he did to the NAACP, is grounded in obvious intellectual, political and moral distortion or demagogy.

Since the NAACP affects black-white relations -- particularly among Americans who want to better them -- nonmembers as well as members should pay close attention.

The demagogy is painfully easy to spot.

A white man in an audience asks Mr. Chavis why he invited Louis Farrakhan. Ben Chavis is prepared. He says he has denounced bigotry. But about the invitation he cries: "The NAACP will not be dictated to."

Ben Chavis knows better. He knows that peaceful protest or questioning are not dictation but the very right on which the NAACP was founded.

Charging that protest is dictation is the lie that Mr. Farrakhan himself, and his hand-trained bigots, trot out when anybody denounces their hate-mongering. This phony bravery brought applause and amens from the audience; it always does. It is a terribly old trick -- used by every demagogue to squash opposition.

These are three other of Mr. Chavis' major arguments, repeated endlessly in the press:

1. Inviting Mr. Farrakhan is not endorsing him.

Maybe not, but it is a plain mark of respect and respectability that will increase the standing of Mr. Farrakhan and his clones -- and there fore increase their influence.

2. Mr. Farrakhan attracts more and more young blacks -- exactly the kind of active people the NAACP wants.

There is a phrase for this kind of thing: sickening opportunism.

If Mr. Chavis and the NAACP have any moral status or political value to the United States, it would be to fight the attraction of Mr. Farrakhan by talking straight to young blacks about the danger of black bigotry to them and their future -- not by endowing the Farrakhans with respectability.

The argument Mr. Chavis uses -- the popularity of the bigot-in-chief -- is the very reason not to invite him. It was the argument used by the German elite when they saw Adolf Hitler's popularity, cowered before it and tried to profit from it.

3. The civil rights movement should be redefined to embrace self-help and economic improvement, and Mr. Farrakhan leads the Nation of Islam in that direction.

Once again, it is an old argument used to move toward bigots -- Mussolini's trains running on time, Hitler's rosy-cheeked Nazi youth, the glories of Stalinist production lines. That argument was a statement of the inadequacy of tolerance and democracy -- and respect for leaders who use physical or intellectual brutality for their "achievements."

The invitation did damage inside and outside the NAACP. Inside are members who oppose Mr. Chavis and his philosophy and are under heavy pressure for it.

Also, around the country are politicians, intellectuals and other prominent African-Americans who have spoken out against Mr. Farrakhan without counting the consequence, because they detest what he stands for. Inviting him is a slap at the political and racial decency that these men and women represent.

When Mr. Chavis extended that invitation to Mr. Farrakhan, his guest brought his baggage with him -- including his suitcase full of threats. He has already pulled out economic holy war -- "in the name of Almighty God," a boycott of American companies that dare reduce or end contributions to the NAACP.

But Ben Chavis gambled the reputation of the NAACP and its political and economic support when he invited Louis Farrakhan. He knew what he was doing. He lost -- for himself and the NAACP.

Now the threats of his guest can deepen the damage but not repair it. That will take the stamina and courage of NAACP members who are fighting both the guest and the director who brought him to the table.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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