The Messenger

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They too needed emancipation.
--Ulysses S. Grant

As I often do on this blog, I'd like journey back to the Crack era--the late 80's and early 90's --when the general sense was that the black youth of America had lost their minds. All across our cities, young black men were bleeding in the streets. All of us had friends who were dead or jailed. All of our high school classes included at least one young woman who was a mother or about to be. All the brothers were out.

It was a good time to be young and angry, to retreat to into the audio chaos of Chuck D, retreat into the writings of Malcolm X, and fantasize about revolution. The verdict of the young held that our leadership was desolate--boycotting South Carolina for some expected slight, trying to secure entrance into a country club, picketing Denny's, or fighting over Affirmative Action at Harvard Law. We didn't know anyone at Harvard Law, and so we fumed. What we wanted was a great messenger who would talk to us, instead of talking to white people. You see, whatever our anger, we were American (though we would have said different) and believed in our talent to reinvent ourselves and compete with the world.

The need was real. And the man who best perceived that need -- Louis Farrakhan -- preached bigotry, and headed a church with a history of violence, and patriarchal and homophobic views. We knew this. Some of us even endorsed it. A few of us debated about it. But, ultimately we didn't care. Farrakhan--and his cadre of clean disciplined black men and modest, chaste black women--spoke to our deep, and inward, sense that we were committing a kind of slow suicide, that--as the rappers put it--we were self-destructing. 

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Farrakhan's beguiled young African-Americans. At the height of his powers, Farrakhan convened a national meeting of black men on the Mall. (Forgive my vagueness. The number is beside the point. It was a group of dudes.) The expectation, among some media, was for violence. What they got instead was a love-in. I was there. I don't know how to describe the feeling of walking from my apartment at 14th and Euclid, down 16th street, and seeing black women, of all ages, come out on the street and cheer. I can't explain the historical and personal force of that. It defied everything they said we were, and, during the Crack Era, so much of what we had come to believe.

I think about that moment and I get warm -- and then I think about Farrakhan and I go cold. The limitations of the man who'd orchestrated one of the great moments of my life were evident as soon as he took the stage and offered a bizarre treatise on numerology. The limitations became even more apparent in the coming months, as Farrakhan used the prominence he'd gained to launch a world tour in which he was feted by Sani Abacha and the slave-traders of the Sudan.

During Farrakhan's heights in the 80's and 90's, national commenters generally looked on in horror. They simply could not understand how an obvious bigot could capture the imagination of so many people. Surely there were "good" Civil Rights leaders out there, waging the good fight against discrimination. But what the pundits never got was that Farrakhan promised something more--improvement, minus the need to beg from white people. Farrakhan promised improvement through self-reliance--an old tradition stretching back to our very dawn. To our minds, the political leaders of black America had fled the field. 

I've thought a lot about Farrakhan, recently, watching Ron Paul's backers twist themselves in knots to defend what they have now euphemistically label as "baggage." I don't think it makes much sense to try to rebut the charges here. No minds will be changed. 

Still let us remember that we are faced with a candidate who published racism under his name, defended that publication when it was convenient, and blamed it on ghost-writers when it wasn't, whose take on the Civil War is at home with Lost-Causers, and whose take on the Civil Rights Act is at home with segregationists. Ostensibly this is all coincidence, or if it isn't, it should be excused because Ron Paul is a lone voice speaking on the important issues that plague our nation.

I have heard this reasoning before. 
As surely as Ron Paul speaks to a real issue--the state's broad use of violence and surveillance--which the America's political leadership has failed to address, Farrakhan spoke to something real, something unsullied, which black America's political leadership failed to address, Both Paul and Farrakhan, in their glamour, inspired the young, the disaffected, the disillusioned. 

To those who dimly perceived something wrong, something that could not be put on a placard, or could not move the party machine, men such as this become something more than political operators, they become symbols. Substantive charges against them, no matter the reasons, are dismissed. The movement they represent means more. But as sure as the followers of Farrakhan deserved more than UFOs, anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories, those of us who oppose the drug-war, who oppose the Patriot Act deserve better than Ron Paul 

It is not enough to simply proffer Paul as a protest candidate.One must fully imagine the import of a Paul presidency. How, precisely, would Paul end the drug war? What, exactly, would he do about the Middle East? How, specifically,would the world look for women under a Ron Paul presidency? 

And then the dispatches must be honestly grappled with: It must be argued that a man who could not manage a newsletter should be promoted to managing a nuclear arsenal. Failing that, it must be asserted that a man who once claimed that black people were knowingly injecting white people with HIV, who fund-raised by predicting a race-war, who handsomely profited from it all, should lead the free world. If that line falls too, we are forced to confess that  Ron Paul regularly summoned up the specters of racism for his own politically gain, and thus stands convicted of moral cowardice.

Let us stipulate that all politicians compromise. But the mayhem and death which attended the talents of Thomas Watson and George Wallace renders their design into a school of sorcery all its own. In that light, it is fair to ask if Ron Paul was willing to sacrifice black people to garner the support of the bigoted mob, who, and what, else might he sacrifice? 

I have some thoughts on the matter:

"We quadrupled the TSA, you know, and hired more people who look more suspicious to me than most Americans who are getting checked," Paul says. "Most of them are, well, you know, they just don't look very American to me. If I'd have been looking, they look suspicious ... I mean, a lot of them can't even speak English, hardly. Not that I'm accusing them of anything, but it's sort of ironic."

Presumably, this too, is just another unfortunate slip. Surely it says nothing about Paul's actual views.

I do not mean to be unsympathetic here. It is regrettable to find ourselves in this untenable space, where all our politicians cower and we are  bereft of suitable standard-bearers. I would like nothing more than to join my friends in support of Paul and exhilarate in a morality unweighted by the ugly facts of governance and democracy. But the drug war is not magic. It is legislation passed by actual politicians, themselves elected by actual by Americans. Unbinding that war demands the same.

The fervency for Ron Paul is rooted in the longing for a reedemer, for one who will rise up and cut through the dishonest pablum of horse-races and sloganeering and speak directly to Americans. It is a species of saviorism which hopes to deliver a prophet onto the people, who will be better than the people themselves. 

But every man is a prophet, until he faces a Congress.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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