Louis Farrakhan’s brief return to the news belies his lack of relevance

A convenient brickbat to wield against the Women's March, the controversial leader distracts from more timely -- and dangerous -- anti-Semites.

Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan is back in the news -- but who is really afraid of him?  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan is back in the news -- but who is really afraid of him? (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Like the proverbial bad penny, Louis Farrakhan turns up in the news with cyclical regularity, typically drawing negative attention to himself and distracting media attention from more glaring and serious national affairs.

At the end of February, Farrakhan once again became the magnet for such controversy. The Nation of Islam leader hasn’t inflamed the national consciousness because of any particular fear that his ideas are relevant, which they most certainly are not. Rather, his rhetoric is being exploited as a bank-shot attack on progressive causes.

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Meanwhile, the very sort of anti-Semitic toxicity that Farrakhan is known for spreading is on the march — but being driven by other, mostly far-right forces that have failed to draw a similar level of condemnation from conservative pundits and political leaders.

Farrakhan’s re-emergence into the news cycle occurred last last month, following his address at the NOI’s Saviors’ Day event — which drew a fresh burst of media indignation. For nearly three-hours in his February 25 speech, Farrakhan wildly ranted against the Jewish community. At one point, he declared “the powerful Jews are my enemy,” adding, “White folks are going down. And Satan is going down. And Farrakhan, by God’s grace, has pulled the cover off that Satanic Jew and I’m here to say your time is up, your world is through.”

Such vile comments are nothing new in Farrakhan’s vocabulary. Since assuming leadership of the NOI in 1977, Farrakhan has performed his kabuki of anti-Semitism and hostility toward whites to rally the allegiance of a relatively small number of black Americans who are frustrated by the nation’s history and perpetuation of racism — and revel in his outspoken defiance.

For Farrakhan, these expressions of melodramatic anti-Semitism have proven to be the best way to command an audience and remain in the public conversation. But, outside of stoking irrational fears among conservative writers, Farrakhan’s frequent fulminations have, in recent years, failed to have much of a substanial impact on public policies or civil discourse. Indeed, at this point in his career, the antagonism generated by his comments remains the one trick he has to keep him nationally relevant. 

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But that doesn’t stop Farrakhan’s critics from linking his comments to other progressives. And once again, with clockwork precision, the calls rained down on progressive political leaders and activists to condemn the NOI leader for his offensive one-liners.

In this case, Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women’s March, drew the media’s harshest glare. She had attended the Saviors’ Day rally and had posted an Instagram video of some of the event, which was enough to shove her under the Farrakhan-driven bus and smear the “National School Walkout” planned for Wednesday to urge congressional leaders to pass tough gun control laws.  The walkout is being organized, with assistance from the Women’s March leadership, by student activists at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a gunman killed 17 students last month.

Instead of focusing on the students’ pleas, some in the media would prefer to make a bigger deal of Farrakhan’s impotent speech than it merits. Indeed, several days after Farrakhan’s speech went largely unnoticed and lacking any social impact, CNN’s Jake Tapper posted quotes from it on his Twitter account and indirectly mentioned Mallory’s attendance.

Of course, this led to new demands for progressives to censure Farrakhan and, more significantly, calls for Mallory to resign from the Women’s March.

Nothing good can come from the Women’s March organizers engaging in a public spat among themselves over allegations of anti-Semitism within its ranks.The Women’s March is a movement that’s not quite two years old and is composed of disparate groups with independent issues, styles and leadership. 

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As Bob Bland, one of the co-chairs of the Women’s March, recently told BuzzFeed News, being forced to respond to right-wing accusations of anti-Semitism from within its ranks is a divide-and-conquer strategy, one that presents only a lose-lose proposition for its leadership.

“Women are not a monolith and a lot of the issues we’re dealing with are longstanding issues between communities that will not get solved today or tomorrow,” Bland said.

In contrast with the nascent Women’s March, Farrakhan is a known and fixed personality, someone who has been roundly and routinely denounced for his bigoted views. Is there a sentient being in the country who doesn’t already have a well-formed opinion of him? Is there anything new or permeable in his philosophy or personality that can leaven the widespread public opprobrium he’s already received through periodic doses of refreshed media scrutiny? Not likely.

The fact of the matter is that Farrakhan was fitted for a lodestone long ago, thanks to his own self-marginalizing rhetoric and actions. Moreover, those relatively few Americans who dare express unqualified support for Farrakhan today aren’t likely to be deterred by a new round of bleatings from angry talking heads, whom Farrakhan’s most die-hard supporters are more apt to renounce than the NOI minister’s most odious statements. 

Much of the attention being paid to Farrakhan right now deserves to be redirected at more timely targets. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization that annually tracks anti-Semitism and hate crimes, anti-Semitic incidents are currently on the rise across the nation. In their latest findings, the group identified 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. during 2017, an increase of 57 percent over the 1,267 incidents it found in the previous year.

This is a development that knowing observers credit mostly to the hatred and incivility let loose during of the Trump campaign in 2016 and its ongoing White House administration — and not to anything that Farrakhan has done or said.

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Recall that Trump slowly and only reluctantly condemned attacks by neo-Nazis and KKK members during a protest rally last year in Charlottesville, Virginia and has frequently drawn full-throated praise from former Klan leader David Duke for administration policies and statements.

Last month, Media Matters noted that writers with a history of anti-Semitic views were “thrilled” when Trump denounced a Jewish reporter at a White House press conference, telling him to be quiet after the reporter asked the president to condemn “an uptick in anti-Semitism.”

As Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah, a nonprofit organization of rabbis representing all streams of Judaism, recently told my ThinkProgress colleague E.A. Crunden, presidential behavior has given license to anti-Semitic and racist acts.

“Through his rhetoric, the President, his advisers, and many of his supporters are fanning the flames of this hatred,” she said in a statement. “Their rhetoric and dog whistles have resulted in neo-Nazis feeling empowered to march in the streets, mosques and synagogues being regularly targeted for vandalism and violent threats, and people who don’t fit the white nationalist and Christian profile being attacked on the streets.”

What’s more, many of those who scream outrage over Farrakhan’s screeds turn deaf and mute when right-wing racists such as Steve Bannon spew vitriol that’s far worse and gets an audience among powerful national and international leaders. Just this week, for example, the Financial Times announced that they would be holding a “Future Of News” conference, bringing Bannon together with two respected figures in the mainstream media, New York Times Editor-in-Chief Dean Baquet and CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker. 

Decades from now, Bannon might end up rightly fitted with the same mantle of shame that Farrakhan’s borne for many years. For now, unlike the NOI leader, Bannon remains a figure that supposedly-respectable society still turns to for his views, and whom the media still lavishes with attention through fawning profiles, quotes and — as in the above instance — new opportunities to offer commentary on their own business practices.

Hypocrisy, you say? For sure, it is.

But rest assured almost any story about Farrakhan has little to zero import on anything that truly matters. Instead, the breathless accounts surrounding his most recent rants are just a blip in the ongoing national narrative, serving only to deflect and distract. The greatest irony in this case, is that Farrakhan’s latest round of anti-Semitic vitriol is actually distracting media attention from the actual racism and anti-Semitism that’s on the rise.