The lack of outrage over the presence of the Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan at the Aretha Franklin funeral demonstrates a strange double standard on hate.
In recent months, the debate about free speech has taken a disturbing detour. Many on the left have made clear that they’re only willing to speak up for the rights of those whose opinions they share. The American Civil Liberties Union — which once defended the rights of far-right extremists — will now only take up the cases of those on the left whose opinions they like. Indeed, as even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan recently confessed, liberals think that free speech has been “weaponized” by conservatives to defend causes the Left dislikes and therefore is a principle that should be only selectively enforced.
This new double standard of, as author Nat Hentoff famously wrote, “free speech for me but not for thee” marks the end of any libertarian consensus that once united liberals and conservatives on behalf of the rights of all American. But the impact of this shift isn’t limited to the courtroom and to arguments about free-speech issues. It also seems to influence how some of us think about hate. Some on the left now think that free-speech rights deserve respect only in the case of those with whom they agree, and they’re just as selective when it comes to outrage about hate groups.
That’s the only possible explanation for the relative silence in the mainstream media about the on-stage presence of Farrakhan in a place of honor at the televised funeral of singer Aretha Franklin as well as the decision of former President Clinton to sit with him and publicly shake the hatemonger’s hand.
Franklin’s family had the right to invite anyone they wanted to an event that was less of a funeral and more of a concert and celebration of her music. Given that both she and Farrakhan have been major figures in the African-American community in Detroit, there may have been some ties between the Nation of Islam (NOI) leader and the singer or her family.
Nor should we necessarily hold it against the many artists who showed up to honor Franklin that they didn’t protest the presence of Farrakhan on the stage behind them as they performed; their focus was understandably on their music.
But we cannot give the same pass to Bill Clinton. Nor should the media, which provided extensive coverage of the event that day, have treated Farrakhan’s presence on stage as a non-story. Indeed, most outlets ignored the issue of Farrakhan’s presence until Jewish news outlets began to publish criticisms.
Given his record, the silence about Farrakhan was nothing short of astonishing. The NOI has been appropriately labeled a hate group by both the ADL — which remains the nation’s primary monitor of anti-Semitism — as well as the Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-wing group that has often rebuked conservative groups for drawing attention to Islamist terrorism. But even the SPLC understands that a group that preaches contempt for whites and that singles out Jews for constant abuse should be treated as being beyond the pale.
For decades, Farrakhan has used his NOI pulpit to harp on the “evil” and “satanic” nature of Jews. Using rhetoric straight out of the traditional Nazi playbook, he has relentlessly peddled conspiracy theories about the “synagogue of Satan” oppressing African Americans and controlling the banks, the media, and the “slave trade.”
This ought to have consigned him to the margins of American life, but it hasn’t. His sympathizers may number in the hundreds of thousands. That’s been especially true since the “Million Man March” he organized in 1995, which aided his effort to portray the NOI’s main goal as empowering the black community rather than spreading hate. Representative Keith Ellison (D., Minn.), the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is a former ardent supporter of Farrakhan, a fact he’s tried to cover up since he sought higher office. Members of the Black Congressional Caucus have also embraced Farrakhan.
They are not the only ones treating Farrakhan as a respected black leader rather than a pariah. Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour — the leaders of the Women’s March in January 2017 and organizers of mass anti-Trump “resistance” rallies — are both ardent supporters of Farrakhan.
As Franklin’s funeral showed, Farrakhan has been just as successful in winning support in the music world. Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, who sang at the event, also took part in a documentary made by Farrakhan’s son about his father, and they played with him on a companion album set that celebrated the hatemonger’s prowess as an amateur violinist.
The key question is how and why someone with such extreme views can be treated as respected black leader.
Part of the answer comes from the fact that the African-American community has embraced or at least legitimized others who have freelanced as anti-Semites, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The two of them sat between Farrakhan and Clinton at the Franklin funeral.
Jackson has apologized for calling New York City “Hymietown” during one of his presidential campaigns, but he and many of his supporters clearly blamed the Jewish and pro-Israel community for the criticism that this anti-Semitic slur brought his way.
Early in his public life, Sharpton helped incite a violent anti-Semitic attack in New York City; that, along with his famously libelous conduct during the Tawana Brawley case, brought him widespread opprobrium. In the decades since those incidents, Sharpton has insinuated himself into the political and media establishment, but he has never apologized for his past lies and hatemongering.
But compared with Farrakhan, both Jackson and Sharpton are saints.
When it comes to spewing bile at Jews, Farrakhan is the moral equivalent of Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. But unlike Farrakhan, Duke has very few followers or allies, as shown last month by the pathetic turnout of white supremacists at the march marking the one-year anniversary of the Charlottesville protest. No Republican or former president would ever stoop to be seen with Duke. Indeed, the mere hint of having appeared on a platform with anyone who can possibly be labeled a right-wing extremist has resulted in forced resignations among even lower-level Trump-administration staffers.
You don’t have to have much of an imagination to ponder what would happen if Duke received a similar place of honor at a funeral for a famous singer. Or the storm that would follow if a former GOP president were to share a platform with Duke, or, as Clinton did with Farrakhan, shake his hand. That would have been the only story coming out of such an event, dwarfing the coverage that Franklin’s funeral or even the John McCain funeral received.
But that didn’t happen when Clinton treated Farrakhan as just another friend of Aretha’s who deserved respect last Friday.
The only explanation is that, for many in the media and the liberal political establishment, hate coming from a black or Islamic group or individual is somehow less odious than hate from white supremacists — even if their rhetoric is remarkably similar.
This may stem in part from the bogus theory about prejudice that holds that it’s impossible for blacks or anyone without power to be guilty of racism. But the problem goes deeper than that absurd assertion. Hate from any source that can’t be identified as somehow tied to conservatives or Trump is simply of no interest to the political Left these days. Even worse, such hate is sometime even whitewashed by the Left — recently, in a YouTube video, Vox and Pro Publica sympathetically depicted MS-13 gang members as nice teenage kids who ride bikes and hold part-time after-school jobs.
The claim that Trump has empowered the far Right continues to be repeated by many liberals even though there is no proof that such a thing is remotely true. Trump’s policies and his administration’s personnel are diametrically opposed to the hate that Duke, the KKK, and the neo-Nazis promote.
But whatever they may think of Trump, the mainstream media should not excuse Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism and hate for whites, or pretend that it’s a result of a misunderstanding.
The Franklin funeral may be dismissed as a meaningless media event with no impact on society. But the truth is that it was a major triumph for Farrakhan and his efforts to bring his message of Jew-hatred into the mainstream. The willingness of the networks to ignore Farrakhan’s hate and the ability of figures such as Clinton and Stevie Wonder to embrace him with impunity allows the virus of hate to spread. A society in which Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism is normalized, as it was last week, is one in which Jews cannot claim to be entirely safe.