Paul Berman: Farrakhan and the Wizard of Oz

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.

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