The other night, the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam and once a ubiquitous presence at Jesse Jackson campaign rallies, came to town. With little advance publicity, he was able to draw anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 persons to the Washington Convention Center to say, in the manner of the late Mr. Hitler, that "Jews know their wickedness."
Farrakhan had other things to say. We are told he mocked the Holocaust. We are told that he said, "Blacks will not be controlled by Jews" and that he declared blacks the chosen people -- "the people of God." We are told these things in a newspaper column by Courtland Milloy in The District Weekly -- not in The Washington Post's news account of the same event. That story did not mention Farrakhan's anti-Semitic remarks at all.
A troubling thing has happened with Farrakhan. The man is no longer controversial, and what he says is no longer considered news. Where once he was dogged by reporters asking him to justify himself, now he can fill a hall in the nation's capital, rant racism and not even have it mentioned in news accounts of the speech. Farrakhan's anti-Semitism has become something like his bow tie -- just another personal and maybe quirky characteristic.
It goes without saying that someone named Cohen is not going to change any minds about Farrakhan. But that hardly means that others are not welcome to try. I refer, in fact, to those black leaders and journalists who have, in their discomfort, ignored what Farrakhan preaches, preferring not to deal with either him or his message, reserving their moral outrage instead for Ronald Reagan and his appointees to the Justice Department. Presumably they think Farrakhan will, like demagogues before him, simply go away. So far, though, he has not. And so far the relative silence of the black leadership (some have condemned him) has neither dampened Farrakhan's popularity nor muted his message.
When it comes to Farrakhan, we are told that we ought to ignore the man and concentrate instead on his audience. They are the poor, the downtrodden, the alienated. True. But demagogues always preach to these people. The Klan is not composed of orthodontists, the lynch mob of the Old South was not usually composed of the town elite and the Germans Hitler preached to were not without their grievances. But when violence is finally committed by people full of hate, it hardly matters that they have other, genuine, grievances. What matters is that the innocent get hurt for no good reason.
The true tragedy of Farrakhan is that he is a digression. He has no program to make life better for ghetto dwellers. They are hardly poor because of something Jews have done, and the crisis in the Middle East has nothing to do with the job situation in the United States. Zionism is hardly "an outgrowth of Jewish transgression," as Farrakhan says, but even if Israel were to disappear tomorrow, Harlem would still be a slum and poor black teen-age girls would still be having babies. The sacrifice of the scapegoat solves nothing.
Anyone who can pull an audience of 10,000 without the benefit of an electric guitar is worthy of some attention. Anyone who preaches hate to that many people ought to be answered. This is particularly the case with Farrakhan because he comes credentialed by his erstwhile affiliation with Jackson. Like a combination Ed McMahon and Al Capone, he both warmed up the audience and supplied the bouncers. For that reason and because of his formidable personality and charisma, the man should not be ignored. That would smack of acquiescence, agreement -- the notion that tolerance and justice are a luxury that's too rich for poor people, especially poor black people. History teaches, though, that it's not wise to patronize a hater.
The news media and the individuals they cover become infatuated with their own sense of importance. They all tend to think that reality exists only on television or the newspapers -- that trees that fall unrecorded by video tape make no noise. But Farrakhan makes plenty of noise. His voice is still heard. Unfortunately, sometimes it's the only voice heard.