The Women’s March, Louis Farrakhan, and the Disease of American Political Life

Of all the news from which one can get a sinking feeling this week, my
brain chooses two. One is the apparent
a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. The other is the
evidently dead-end conversation—on Twitter and, subsequently, in the
media—about the
association between
Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, and the
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Bizarrely, one of these
disheartening stories helps me understand the other.

Two weeks ago, when Farrakhan delivered his annual address to a Nation
of Islam gathering in Chicago, he gave a shout-out to Mallory, who was
in the audience. Farrakhan’s speech was, as it usually is, replete with
anti-Semitic, homophobic, and transphobic invectives. When the news of
Mallory’s presence at the event surfaced, she did not disavow
Farrakhan’s comments. (Mallory and fellow Women’s March leader Carmen
have both posted
pictures of themselves with Farrakhan to Instagram; in a
, Mallory calls
him “definitely the GOAT”—the greatest of all time.) The group leadership of the Women’s March
eventually issued a statement distancing
itself from Farrakhan’s positions and affirming its
commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia,
racism, and white supremacy, listed in that order. The statement
explained that the Women’s March leadership had been silent for the
first days of the controversy because they had been in talks with
“queer, trans, Jewish and Black” activists in an effort to “break the
cycles that pit our communities against each other.” To many
commentators on social media and in conventional media, this was too
little, too late, and the Women’s March was tainted.

Instagram, and
Mallory continued to fumble and equivocate. She wrote that she had been
attending Nation of Islam events since she was a child, and would
continue to do so. She bristled at the suggestion that she was not fully
committed to fighting anti-Semitism and homophobia. She certainly did
not apologize. “The Women’s March, throughout this whole controversy,
just hasn’t come across as taking anti-Semitism very seriously,” Jesse
Singal wrote at New York.
“Mallory’s unwillingness to see Farrakhan for what he is
will surely cost the entire Women’s March organization its credibility
among many Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and those who see themselves as
allies to those communities,” Christina Cauterucci
predicted at
Slate. It seemed reasonable to take the position that as long as any
of the leaders of the Women’s March was associated with a vicious bigot
like Farrakhan, the entire organization was delegitimized. This is also
an oddly satisfying position.

That feeling of righteousness is familiar to me from living in Russia.
That’s a country that has, among other things, been killing its
dissidents and exiles—through arranging car accidents, hiring icepick-
or gun-wielding assassins, and, most consistently, through poisoning, as
in the recent incident in Britain—for nearly a hundred years. When you
are staring clear, unadulterated evil in the face—and a state that
routinely practices political murder is certainly clear, unadulterated
evil—your options crystallize. Politics begins to permeate everything,
obliterating the division between public and private, but also imbuing
action and speech with exhilarating meaning. Hannah Arendt wrote about
this state of being in “Between Past and Future,” describing the private
citizens who had become members of the French Resistance: “He who joined
the Resistance found himself. . . . He ceased to be in quest of himself,
without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction. . . . He who no longer
suspected himself on insincerity, of being a carping suspicious actor of
life . . . could afford to go naked. In this nakedness, stripped of all
masks . . . they had been visited, for the first time in their lives, by
an apparition of freedom.” Arendt might have been writing about Mallory,
other Women’s March leaders, and many of the activists who have emerged
since the election of Donald Trump. Their sense of purpose is palpable.
But in the case of Mallory, it seems that what she thought of as a
private, basically familial association with Farrakhan has taken on
public, explicitly political meaning.

In her other work, Arendt showed that she was suspicious of the comfort
and cohesion that stem from living under political siege. That sense of
mission is a symptom of the disappearance of politics. Politics is not a
war; it is the coöperation of people with disparate views, needs, and
interests. “The art of compromise,” distilled from Bismarck’s definition
of politics as “the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the
next best,” is not the worst description.

But is compromise possible with a bigot? Can someone who won’t denounce
a bigot be acceptable as the “next best”? Could one say that Mallory is
just one of several leaders of an organization whose agenda speaks for
itself, or is this bigotry by proxy so virulent that nothing but a purge
can save the March now? In other words, is Farrakhan’s bigotry the same
sort of unmitigated evil as, say, the murderous Russian state? (In The
, John-Paul Pagano does a thorough
excavating the resentments and alliances that lie at the root of
Farrakhan’s brand of anti-Semitism; on the other hand, in Russia, the
case for political murder has been typically grounded in Russia’s litany
of grievances against the West.) It’s hard, if not impossible, to make
the case for compromise with—or in any way involving—Farrakhan. No
politics is possible here.

The tragic part is, the actors are not marginal figures in American
politics. Farrakhan has been wielding major political influence for two
generations. The Million Man March he organized, in 1995, is a
significant milestone in African-American organizing. At least as late
as 2005, he was an invited
the Congressional Black Caucus. His recent speech in Chicago
commanded an audience of thousands. The Women’s March, meanwhile,
represents the hopes of millions of Americans who were mobilized by the
election of Donald Trump. A giant, influential organization finds itself
in the emotional state of a tiny resistance cell, holding on desperately
against a hostile world. This is a symptom of a deep disease of American
political life, the descent into positional warfare in which
politics—the art of compromise—is no longer conceivable.

This disease did not start with the Trump election. The progressive
simplification of political discourse began decades ago, and even back
when the discourse was more complex, it excluded millions of Americans.
Blind partisanship didn’t start with Trump, either. But the Trump
Presidency, which is both the epitome of anti-political politics and the
product of hyper-partisanship, is helping to expose the disastrous state
of American politics. Before Trump, there lingered the illusion that the
public sphere contained something more than black-and-white choices and
disastrous moral threats. In the eight years before Trump, even as
Congress willfully descended into dysfunction and election campaigns
turned into slugging matches fought with soundbites, President Barack
Obama stubbornly stuck to the idiom of politics as coöperation. The
Trump Presidency has trampled that political vestige. Now, when the
Women’s March fights a Twitter war about Farrakhan, it seems that this
is all there is.

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