Farrakhan and Buckley

Posted by Melvin Bray on March 4th, 2008 filed in Useful Perhaps

“If we think about [our] conversation happening not just here and now but in that larger communion of [all those who have come before us], we are opening up conversational space for people who once killed each other. That is very gentle [work], and you can’t just say, ‘That [distress, grief, pain or harm] never happened!'”
-Diana Butler Bass

What I am about to say may prove difficult for many of my white and Jewish friends to hear, process and respond to justly. For it not to be difficult would require persons with the power of privilege to imagine a world in which that privilege does not exist—a just world. Not a world in which one’s greatest fears have come true and power has been taken from one group and given to another with an ax to grind, but rather one in which equity is not an ideal, but a reality.

In that world my comments could be considered without fear of my assumed agenda. But that world does not exist. We are left with this one, in which the power dynamics are what they are, and have persisted that way for so long that many have confused their homeostasis (acceptance and even contentment) with the way things are with a legitimate equilibrium (justice and fair play) in our society. I am about to disturb that homeostasis by pointing out that equilibrium is a myth and does not exist; this will disorient and unsettle many severely. The knee-jerk reaction in a situation like this is to lash out, but I beg you to consider.

I was upset by Tim Russert’s insistent questioning of Senator Barak Obama’s ties to Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam in the mist of the last primary-season debate between Democratic candidates Obama and Clinton. Even after the question had been asked and answered more than once, Russert persisted trying to establish for the record a link between Obama and Farrakhan through the person of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a world-renown and widely respect minister, senior pastor (emeritus) of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Obama and his family are members. In 1984, Wright had traveled with Farrakhan to Lybia and returned to refer to Farrakhan as a “great man”. In a post-911 world, any other Christian-Muslim pilgrimage resulting in such interfaith appreciation of one another would be applauded. But not this time, for upon his return 24 June 1984, Min. Louis Farrakhan gave this assessment of the West’s policy in the Middle East:

“…America and England and the nations backed Israel’s existence. Therefore when you aid and abet someone in a criminal conspiracy, you are a part of that criminal conspiracy. So America and England and the nations are criminals in the sight of almighty God. Now that nation called Israel, never has had any peace in forty years and she will never have any peace because there can never be any peace structured on injustice, thievery, lying and deceit and using the name of God to shield your dirty religion under His holy and righteous name.”

This is the speech from which the infamous account of Farrakhan referring to Judaism as a ‘gutter religion’ is surmised. However, as we can read, that’s not actually what Farrakhan says; rather in language steeped in religious allusion and metaphor, he takes issue with what he believes to be the unjust actions of Israel against Muslim people, namely Palestinians. Farrakhan seeks to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people, the majority of whom are fellow Muslims.

I do not mean to suggest in any way that what he does say is not hostile, even malicious: it indeed is. Notwithstanding, as an African-American, I’ve been asked repeatedly and have had to come to grips with the fact that every hostile comment made against me is not automatically racial. I’m not saying this is one of those instances: frankly, I do not know. Being as intimately acquainted as I am with the socio-religious rhetorical patterns of those from African decent, it is honestly a toss up. “Dirty religion” in this context could just as honestly be interpreted ‘dirty religious practices’ as it relates to the common Christian and Jewish religious justifications for how the Palestinians are treated (in which case the Hebrew and Christian Bibles have harsher things to say). I will say, however, that we seem to suspend the need even to try to make such a determination whenever anyone has anything critical to say about Israel. Bishop Desmond Tutu and former-President Jimmy Carter years later were both maligned for suggesting that Palestinians have virtually been asked by the West to agree to a form of apartheid in relationship to Israel. Whether one agrees with their assessment or not, we should be certain that neither man harbors anti-Semitic feelings.

This conflagration of thought had consumed my attention when I heard that William F. Buckley has passed, and I was immediately filled with ambivalence. On the one hand, I felt the sorrow I always feel anytime I hear of a death. On the other hand, Buckley was the champion of a self-interestedness that I believe can only harm, no matter how civil. Then I remembered a quote I once read from an article Buckley had written:

“The central question that emerges…is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.”
—National Review, 24 August 1957

At that point I became resentful, for I knew that I would soon begin to hear all manner of tribute to this man from the same persons who would spend the remainder of the week trying to “clarify” Obama’s relationship to Farrakhan.

CONTINUE READING “Farrakhan and Buckley”>>>
Now, you have to understand how duplicitous this automatically seems to any person touched with the feelings of the marginalized in this world. Yet again, I am asked to commemorate the life of a man who by inference unabashedly thought of me as a member of an ‘undeveloped race,’ and at the same time “reject” a man for expressing the same sentiment about white people (never mind the irony). In tribute to Buckley, it has been said that he had a “refined, perspicacious mind”. Furthermore, he is the one, we are told, who “elevated conservatism to the center of American political discourse.” These same tributes can essentially be made regarding Farrakhan vis-a-vis black nationalism (a definite form of conservatism). So what makes it so easy to revere Buckley and demonize Farrakhan in the same breath?

In the time since their articulation of disdain for the Other, the perspectives of both men seem to have evolved. Buckley reportedly renounced racism by the mid-1960s, “in part because his horror at the terrorist tactics used by white supremacists to fight the civil rights movement, in part because of the moral witness of friends like Garry Wills who confronted Buckley with the immorality of his politics.” Many see the fact that some of his friends from the 1950s remained adamant racists—notably Revilo Oliver who moved from National Review to the John Birch Society to the fringes of neo-Nazism—as evidence that Buckley’s conversion “was by no means pre-ordained”. There were several other issues on which Buckley is reported to have moderated his politics. In the 1980s, he reportedly admitted that if he were a South African black he would likely support the ANC, a thought that “shocked fellow conservatives.” Although his evolution in no way involved the radical reorientation of the privilege he benefited from and the power he exercised pre-conversion, it was seen by many as further evidence of his greatness.

There are three things you must understand from the perspective of the historically unprivileged in America. First, at some time Buckley was an unequivocal, unapologetic racist—not because he held bigoted views, but because he exercised his bigotry in a manner that inconvenienced, at times severely, the lives of people of color. This exercise of power against the Other is what makes racism different from simple prejudice. The concepts are not interchangeable. Outside of the ability to negatively impact another’s life, a person not liking another for racial reasons is more of a nusance than anything else. Secondly, it is hard—not impossible, but very difficult—for me as a black man to deeply admire or appreciate a conversion of the sort that Buckley went through that does not appear to have cost much. Not saying that it was not sincere, just that it was not expensive, while his racism cost everyone and particularly those unlike himself. Thirdly, despite the zeitgeist of the age of segregation and Jim Crow in American history, I will be forever ambivalent, hopefully understandably so, toward celebrated public persons who do not have the courage to stand up for justice before it is popular and there is a wealth of incentive (economic and otherwise) to do so. None of these caveats has any reason to naturally factor into one’s thinking unless she is touched with empathy for the marginalize or formerly colonized.

Farrakhan’s evolution has followed a similar trajectory as Buckley’s, though met with a significantly more cynical response. In the past 20 years, he has repeatedly expressed in statement after public statement these sentiments:

As a Muslim, I revere Abraham, Moses, and all the Prophets who Allah (God) sent to the children of Israel. I believe in the scriptures brought by these Prophets and the Laws of Allah (God) as expressed in the Torah. I would never refer to the Revealed Word of Allah (God)—the basis of Jewish Faith—as “dirty” or “gutter” . . . Over the centuries, the evils of Christians, Jews and Muslims have dirtied their respective religions. True Faith in the laws and Teaching of Abraham, Jesus and Muhammad is not dirty, but, practices in the name of these religions can be unclean and can cause people to look upon the misrepresented religion as being unclean.”

Say what you will about his sincerity, but the exact same thing was considered enough to canonize Buckley not among the fringe but in the mainstream of the dominant culture. In the 1990s, Farrakhan reached out to a group of non-Zionist, orthodox Jews to establish conversation and camaraderie. Repeatedly in the Million-Man March and in other public initiatives, he has called for an “end to the cycle of hate.” This may not make him fully chastened, but in as much as is required of others, definitely evolving.

This is where I believe the comments of Diana Butler Bass become particularly instructive. She uttered them while participating in a panel discussion at the last American Academy of Religion conference, the subject of which was the emerging phenomenon in the Christian church. The original context of her comments was the pursuit of friendship (referred to as “convergence”) between post-mainline and post-evangelical Christians, yet when I heard them, they struck me as a way forward in my own internal-external debate that wouldn’t involve vilifying one side or the other. Her thoughts were as follows (emphasis added):

“One of the things that I sort of genuinely wonder about in any kind of convergence—and perhaps this is because I am a mainliner and I’ve seen all of the worst that the ecumenical movement can possibly do—is that there was a really bad part of the ecumenical movement that basically did not allow us to have our identities. And one of the things I hold onto when I’m in rooms of clergy and theologians and working with them and we start talking about post-conservatism and post-liberalism is I always remind them that those “posts-” come out of a very distinctive historical experience. And those historical experiences are always going to remain part of our identity. They don’t just go away because… [we] say we want to be friends. We’re going to be standing in our conversations having coffee[, and] I’ve got Schleiermacher standing with me all the time, not John Stott. If we think about that conversation happening not just here and now but in that larger communion of saints… we are opening up conversational space for people who once killed each other. That is very gentle [work], and you can’t just say, ‘That never happened!’ We’re going to be doing this convergence work, but holding onto the things that we love and the things that make us who we are. So I wouldn’t want us ever to slam into [each other]…. It is a potential, terrible misstep for people who have been schooled in liberal Protestantism to let go of their identity for the sake of one happy big family. We need not to do that. We need to be who we really are. So post-liberal, post-conservative are ‘post-‘ separate streams, but it doesn’t mean we can’t form something new together.”

Change the context by switching the protestant ideological references to racial and socio-cultural ones and the gist of her argument remains credible. While you may stand with George Washington as the great hero of the American Revolution, I stand with Crispus Attucks. While you may have reconciled with John Brown, Emerson and William Lloyd Garrison—of whom I am ever appreciative—I also stand just as proudly with Nat Turner, Geronimo, and Harriet Tubman. I stand with Frederick Douglass, while you may celebrate Robert E. Lee. To any conversation I will also bring Olaudah Equiano, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Paul Robeson, Vernon Johns, MLK, Malcolm X, James Baldwin and many others of varying ideological stripe, and in welcoming me you welcome them as well. As a person of color in America, I have since childhood been constantly asked to honor, even celebrate, white men and women of historical and contemporary note, over and apart from less-than-honorable, glaring, even odious aspects of their public lives. Isn’t it time we all saw fit to afford one another the same grace, instead of holding one another completely hostage—I have no issue with accountability—to our previous short-comings? Can we be that vulnerable with one another?

Even if you totally disagree, please don’t make the ridiculous accusation that I am professing bigotry or racism in any form or in any way aligning myself with Farrakhan theologically, philosophically or politically. However, I must be able to own that I am inextricably bound to him in a common history of what it means to be black in America and that be okay. Perhaps we would not say we are completely ready for this conversation, but it is the one God appears to be sending us from God’s dreams for our future.

In this brave new wiki-world, the privileged must stop making the ahistorical demand that the under-privileged take a moderate, conciliatory, even deferential posture to all past, present and future acts of disrespect, hostility or excess (and vice versa)—if we are to create something more beautiful, conversant with one another. This is, perhaps, the only way we can paddle forward together with so much water under and over the bridge.

*For a practical example of this, learn the story of Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad,
Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers.

2 Responses to “Farrakhan and Buckley”

  1. mhollomon Says:

    Kind of long-winded, but well-stated nonetheless. I agree with your premise but I’m sure you don’t expect to make any converts of your intended (presumably) audience: conservative whites and jews. White men of accomplishment will for a very long time have their political incorrectness overlooked and forgiven (especially if they give any semblance of apology) – there’s an endless list of examples from Thomas Jefferson to George Wallace and William Buckley.

    But that just isn’t the case for people of color. If you’re black and your pro-black pride comes across as even possibly encompassing an anti-white slant, expect to be forever marginalized as a “radical.” Your chair at the table of public discourse will be pulled out from under you and burned. Ah, such is life for the minority in the land of the majority.

  2. Melvin Bray Says:

    thanks for the comment mhollomon (although i do wish you had a profile so we could know who you are).

    your assessment is fair: it is long-winded: i’m awful at self-editing for length.

    my audience, however, is not conservatives. not that i don’t hope for their consideration as well, but sadly, i seldom feel i have a chance in those circles.

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