my piece on Louis Farrakhan, the last radical conservative

I’m so excited to tell you that my piece on Louis Farrakhan and the future of black political organizing, titled “The Charmer,” has been published in the new issue of Harper’s, which should be on sale now. You should grab a copy. Alternatively, you can read it here, and if you like it, please share it. I actually have been researching on this issue for a couple of years; I have in that time listen to over 80 hours of Farrakhan’s speeches, read two biographies, and worked through several edited collections and a dozen academic articles. It’s so funny to see all of that boiled down to 4000 words, but I wouldn’t change a thing. To write for Harper’s, and in particular a piece that has been a labor of love for me for years, is a dream come true, and the perfect capper to a great year for me.

Why Farrakhan? I’ve had a kind of grim fascination with him for years, which I hope the piece will explain. As I make clear in the piece, there is no getting around the fact that Farrakhan holds monstrous beliefs — terrible anti-Semitism, reactionary sexism, disgust towards homosexuality, and a credulous pan-conspiracism that frequently reaches self-parody. Though frequently thoughtful and capable of great gentleness, Farrakhan can often descend into being downright mean and crude in a deeply off-putting way. Though he speaks for African-Americans and defines the darker people of the world as a unified oppressed class, at times he has spoken about Africa as a backwards and pathetic place, in terms that would seem more befitting a white racist. (Farrakhan is a believer in the theory of the Asiatic black man, the notion that black people actually come from Asia, and that our claims that they originated in Africa are part of an anti-black plot.) Though he claims to be part of the community of Islam writ large, I’ve seen him mock Arabic Muslim prayers on film. In earlier years he would frequently ape “gay behavior,” lisping and prancing in front of his congregants. He’s not a sweet guy. He’s not a good person.

The piece, then, is not an attempt to sell anyone on Farrakhan, to prompt a reappraisal of his reputation, or even to find the good in the bad. Instead, I’m trying to show the many facets of an impossibly complex man, to ask every question other than “is he good or bad,” and to wonder about what might have been.

Why Farrakhan? Because as much as I’m willing to condemn him as a bad person, his story reminds me that such condemnation is boring, trite, easy. American political life, in the 21st century, has collapsed into a juvenile moral dualism. The left is an army of Manichees, picking endlessly through the human world, sorting goodies from baddies like children poking through a bag of Halloween candy. This is, as I’ve long argued, a profound political mistake. But as a consumer of writing, it’s an even deeper disaster. As a reader, the two most useless, least interesting, least informative ideas are “this person is good” and “this person is bad.” But those are the only two ideas that an army of young writers know. Fairy tale stories of valiant princes and wicked stepmothers are told to children, and for a reason. The truth of the matter is that the world is a collection of terribly flawed people, all of whom are capable of really awful behavior, and all possessing minds that are ever-ready to justify that behavior. Ultimately reputation, for the vast majority of us, is subject to the whims of chance and the strangely faddish evolution of moral tastes, and yet we live in an intellectual world policed by people intent on reducing all of life’s questions to a grim, clumsy game of insiders and outsiders. I suspect that many people quietly yearn for an adult world of negative capability. That’s why I wrote about Farrakhan.

And now I’ve written it, and I’ve been paid very well for it, and people are reading and responding to it, and they’ll pick up the magazine and read it in bed and in airports and in libraries, and my gratitudes only increase.