Farrakhan's Goals for Black Americans

June 30, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- Unscrambling the torrent of confused messages emanating from the movement led by Louis Farrakhan isn't easy, but in the wake of his visit to Baltimore the effort needs to be made, and some hard distinctions need to be drawn.

Like most charismatic leaders of mass movements, Mr. Farrakhan is a deliberate and intelligent polarizer. He draws his strength from division, not from unity. The fervor of his followers, those within the tent, is reinforced by the hostility displayed toward him by those without. Enemies invigorate his movement, but he has little use for the nonaligned or the merely curious.

Conventional liberal opinion is, generally, shocked by Mr. Farrakhan. He is frequently described as a racist and an %J anti-Semite. He may indeed be these things; certainly he's made some strident public statements that express harsh sentiments about whites in general and Jews in particular. Probably not by accident, this rhetoric produces for many Americans some ominous echoes from half a century ago.

Especially after European fascism had been revealed as the poison it was, apologists for Mussolini were mocked for observing that he had at least made the Italian trains run on time. Today any apologist for Mr. Farrakhan risks similar mockery.

Yet it's unwise to demonize Mr. Farrakhan to the point of ridiculing or condemning whatever he has to say.

To do so is to make the common mistake of confusing legitimate and perhaps vital public objectives with the politics of those who advocate them. This tendency to personalize issues impedes efforts to deal forthrightly with serious problems in soci-iety and contributes to the moral paralysis of our times.

It does not reveal latent fascist tendencies to want the trains to run on time. A safe, punctual and efficient system of public transportation is not a trivial achievement, as New Yorkers who no longer dare ride their subway, or Baltimore suburbanites enraged by the regular muggings on their shiny new light-rail boondoggle, can wistfully testify.

Behind his florid and inflammatory rhetoric, what Louis Farrakhanis advocating for black Americans is more significant than timely trains. He supports self-sufficiency, religious faith, education and the kind of self-respect that is only available to those who form and maintain families.

To the extent that his followers achieve those goals, over the long run most reasonable Americans will come to honor and admire him.

The difficulty is that in order to keep up his considerable momentum, he has to maintain the enthusiasm of those he has converted, and to do that he has evidently decided that it's desirable to terrify everyone else.

From a practical standpoint, this is an understandable tactic; his ability to terrify is the key to his appeal, and if he suddenly became warm and non-threatening he'd instantly lose the attention of the young black men he most needs to educate about the real meaning of manhood.

In that specific regard, there was an interesting juxtaposition of news stories on the local page of Monday's Sun.

In Column One was an account of Farrakhan-inspired ''manhood training'' classes offered by the Nation of Islam on ''how to be a better father, husband and provider, to take financial responsibility, become socially activated and be spiritually reinvigorated.'' If a black businessman, say, had offered such classes, there would have been either silence or mocking snickers, but Minister Farrakhan's name got the proposal the respectful attention it certainly warrants.

Next to that story was a report on a dimwit father who sued -- unsuccessfully, thanks to the Maryland Court of Appeals -- to gain custody of his illegitimate 3-year-old son.

The baby, to whose life, support and welfare the plaintiff had contributed exactly nothing since the moment of ejaculation, had been adopted shortly after birth and is doing fine with his adoptive parents. But Dad, whose greatest life achievement appears to have been getting probation-before-judgment on a cocaine charge, wanted to take the child away and raise him himself. He talked about giving the baby ''his heritage.'' The judges who ruled against him must have wanted to gag.

The two adjacent news stories were so attention-getting because of the contrasting visions they presented of what manhood -- and fatherhood, and husbandhood, and ultimately neighborhood and nationhood too -- involves. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam had it right. A dismayingly large slice of contemporary society, graphically represented by the litigious father of the adopted 3-year-old, has it dead wrong.

Without strong traditional families, meaning those formed by two legally married parents, no society can hope to survive, let alone flourish. His views on other issues may not be exactly mainstream, but right now Louis Farrakhan is making that point better than anyone else around.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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