On March 2nd, CNN’s Jake Tapper began to incredulously tweet that Tamika Mallory, co-founder of the Women’s March and self-described “freedom fighter,” was defending her choice to attend a speech by Louis Farrakhan. As is typical for the controversial Nation of Islam leader, the speech was laced with bigoted invectives, including references to the devil as “that Satanic Jew,” and the unsubtle proclamation that “the powerful Jews are my enemy.”
Tapper followed up his tweets with a news segment in which he and several panelists questioned why some on the left, including Women’s March co-chairs Bob Bland, Linda Sarsour, and Carmen Perez, have declined to rebuke Farrakhan’s statements. Black Lives Matter advocate Shaun King, and the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, have also voiced support for Mallory, characterizing her as an opponent to all forms of bigotry, including anti-Semitism, though they have largely declined to comment on her choice to support an openly anti-Semitic and homophobic leader.
Media scrutiny has revealed that this was no isolated incident: Mallory has tweeted in support of Farrakhan in the past, and has attended several of his speeches since childhood. Last year, she tweeted happy birthday to the then 84-year-old, calling him the “GOAT (greatest of all time),” and writing: “Thank God this man is still alive and doing well.” Mallory has also declined to directly rebuke Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, though she issued a statement explaining the role NOI played in her life following her husband’s death, and, on Twitter, alluded to the “complex” role Farrakhan has played within the black community. Mallory has also tweeted that she is “in deep friendships with Muslims, Latinx, LBGTQ folks, Jews & others,” that she is, and always has “been against all forms of racism,” and that she is “committed” to fighting anti-Semitism, along with other forms of bigotry.
Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is not new. A distrust of Jewish people has been a theme of NOI rhetoric since the organization’s inception. Among other anti-Sematic statements, NOI has denied the holocaust, argued that Jews “control” both the government and the levers of entertainment, and claimed that Jews use their alleged power to oppress black Americans and degrade our public image.
As a result, many commentators remain mystified as to why progressives who have committed their lives to equality would be mum on this seemingly clear-cut issue. Jesse Singal of New York Magazine reasonably puzzled over this question in a recent article titled “Why Won’t Women’s March Leaders Denounce Louis Farrakhan’s Anti-Semitism?” Conservative websites, perhaps eager to dilute the power of the right’s own increasing connections to overt anti-Semitism, most clearly on display in Charlottesville last year, have highlighted the hypocrisy of Democrats who typically promote a no-tolerance view of bigotry.
On the other hand, the call for Mallory to rebuke Farrakhan, led by Tapper, has frustrated many black Americans who feel uniquely called upon to repudiate black bad actors while the same is rarely asked of white Americans. Just last month, for example, Billy Graham’s death was met with sympathy tweets from the likes of Jimmy Carter, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan – despite Graham’s long and public history of homophobia and anti-Semitism. Barack Obama tweeted a doting eulogy, describing Graham as “a humble servant who prayed for so many – and who, with wisdom and grace, gave hope and guidance to generations of Americans.” Some liberals objected, but no public outcry accompanied Obama’s praise of a man who once asserted (and later retracted) the belief that AIDS is “a judgment of God,” and that the Jews’ “stranglehold has got to be broken.”
While the double standard is galling, there is no ethical defense of Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic remarks. Mallory’s refusal to specifically disclaim Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is a stain on her work and advocacy. But the argument that Mallory’s interest in Farrakhan is not rooted in anti-Semitism – that she could support Farrakhan’s advocacy for black equality despite his bigoted blind spots – is a more plausible and, frankly, common posture than most of the media is willing to recognize.
Farrakhan, after all, does not preach anti-Semitism in a vacuum, but as part of a narrative intended to name the cause of black oppression. Unlike other forms of ethnic prejudice, Farrakhan’s rhetoric is rooted less in a belief in Jewish inferiority, but in a conviction that they are responsible for black suffering – a conviction that is systemically false, but which is informed by a complicated history in which the two communities, forced into close proximity by anti-Jewish and anti-black prejudice, at times found themselves in cycles of exploitation and resentment. This is how Farrakhan could claim: “I have never hated Jews. I am critical of aspects of Jewish behavior in relationship to black people,” while also characterizing them as “devils.” Thus, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, while inexcusable, can be seen by some as merely a supplement to the project of black liberation – a project which many blacks understandably prioritize.
In the sixties and seventies, the NOI fed and educated black children, protected communities from violence with armed patrols, and aggressively agitated for black interests in a way the American government, it seemed, would not. (In a controversial move, Farrakhan once even attempted to accept money from Muammar Gaddafi to support black Muslims, though he was thwarted by the US government). The NOI has a much narrower reach today, but it still engages in both substantive and symbolic work for the black community. It runs about a dozen schools for black youths in Chicago, the seat of the organization’s power, organized the 1995 Million Man March, and has been known to sporadically provide protection to black activists, as it did for Patrice Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, when she faced racist protesters and death threats prior to speaking at Duke University.
Especially in this era of #MeToo, most understand the discomfort of realizing a political or artistic hero is the villain of their personal milieu. It is becoming increasingly clear that the world births few true idols, and the balance between demanding accountability from these figures and acknowledging their positive cultural impact is one that is still being negotiated. Must the work of a disgraced artist be condemned as the fruit of the poisonous tree? Can we enjoy fictions that parallel the authors’ real life traumas? Is a politician really only as good as his or her worst moment? And can we draw a line between a politician’s work and their personal indiscretions without simply excusing bad behavior?
That last question is especially difficult: a political figure has the power to substantively and positively effect broad change for the public good – even as they wreak havoc in their personal lives. As a result, punishing an erring political figure can feel like punishing the community they represent; like sacrificing the needs of the many for the good of the few. To some black Americans, Farrakhan’s contributions to the struggle for black self-determination matter more than his anti-Semitism. Similarly, the case of Al Franken disturbed many on the left because, while his abuse of Leeann Tweeden should not be brushed away as a boyish indiscretion, his advocacy for women seemed, to many, to outweigh the magnitude of his violations. And recall that more than six in ten Americans approved of Bill Clinton’s job performance in the midst of the 1998 scandal that revealed his gross abuse of power with respect to a White House intern only seven years older than his daughter. Gloria Steinem, perhaps the most visible feminist activist since the start of the women’s movement, absolved Clinton in a New York Times piece she stands by to this day – on the grounds that protecting Clinton meant protecting the sexual harassment laws he supported.
Of course, this reasoning parallels that of many Trump voters, those who claim to have voted for our president despite, rather than because of, his bigotry. An imperfect vessel, perhaps, Trump still adequately claimed to represent the small government, pro-life, anti-regulation ethos at the core of conservatism. Like Gloria Steinem did in the 90s, and many defenders of Farrakhan or Franken do to this day, Trump supporters ranked their priorities and weighted them accordingly. The logic is familiar: Trump may be a bigot, but his Supreme Court appointments will last longer than his stain on the office of the President. To be clear: Some Trump voters were undoubtedly attracted to Trump because of his bigotry, just as there are black Americans who support Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. But a large number – I suspect a majority – simply ranked their electoral priorities and put the Republican Party line first.
So what can be learned from this pattern of lesser evilism? How can we break the cycle?
While I personally have no respect for prioritizing tax cuts for the rich over the substantive civil liberties of women, people of color, and members of the LGBTI community – not to mention access to healthcare, environmental protections, and national security interests – I’m wary of the emphasis on Trump voters as uniquely pathological. Shaming has little effect on changing outcomes. The reality is that it is unbelievably human to treat our priorities as universal and to justify them in the face of clear evidence that they come at an unjustifiable cost. Umbrage at those whose values differ from our own is easy. But there’s a reason why parables warn of glass houses and the hubris of sinners casting stones.
In some ways, it seems like the real enemy is all-or-nothing thinking – the kind that causes Mallory to defensively refuse to repudiate indefensible statements, or conversely, which drives the media to demand the total repudiation of a man who cannot be accurately defined solely by his most despicable acts. This all-or-nothing mentality even has some insisting that Marvel’s latest villain, Erik Kilmonger, a sympathetic character who articulates a compelling argument for radical black liberation before slipping into an unprincipled, vengeance-driven sociopathy, is a hero. (As though his name, Killmonger, isn’t enough of an indication that he is, in fact, problematic, despite some good ideas).
All-or-nothing thinking is also politically dangerous. Translated into a first-past-the-post voting system, it brought us Trump, who would not have secured the Republican nomination under a system that took into account the ranked priorities of voters. (Ted Cruz would have won if Ranked Choice Voting had been implemented). In the general election, the choice between Trump and Clinton, two candidates with historically low favorability ratings, not only motivated Republicans to excuse Trump’s bigotry, but it also drove Democrats to defend Clinton’s visceral opposition to progressive universal social programs – programs which now enjoy the support of a majority of Americans, and which are increasingly likely to come to fruition.
Treating popular figures as though they can be fully understood by the worst of their constituent parts obscures both the appeal of those figures and the root of their supporters’ motives. It transforms individuals attracted to those figures into unrecognizable monsters beyond reason, when they have simply prioritized differently than we have, and might be persuaded to see things another way. (The question of whether Democrats should talk to Trump voters, as though they are categorically beyond political appeal, strikes me as a particularly perverse extension of this logic). All-or-nothing thinking also creates a world in which the icons we choose are not those who have done the most right, but those who have been the least objectionable. (Perhaps this is why the Democrats have been plagued by a spate of uninspiring candidates, and why the party was so confused when someone as flawed as Trump bested someone like Clinton). None of this should be construed as a defense of bad acts, but as a way to better understand bad actors and their supporters. Only by recognizing that the choices of those with whom we disagree aren’t always rooted in evil can we speak to those values which we share, and find resolution in a place that’s a little less black and white.