"I am deeply saddened by the controversy," Louis Farrakhan said early on during his March 11 appearance at the August Wilson Center. "Because it need not have been."
But that didn't stop him from talking about it.
Controversy is probably inevitable when the Nation of Islam leader comes to town, as he did for a panel on "The Disappearing Black Community." Arranged by Pittsburgh-based syndicated radio host Bev Smith, the discussion drew heat before it began. The Jewish Chronicle, for example, published an op-ed accusing Smith and the Center of "provid[ing] a forum for hate speech." Noting Farrakhan's past anti-Semitic remarks, the op-ed argued Smith was "defeat[ing] her own purpose" by hosting a panelist who "tries to blame Jews for many of the African-American community's challenges."
One would-be panelist, Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, promptly withdrew. But few others were dissuaded. Campbell was replaced on the panel by civil-rights activist Dorothy Tillman, who joined U.S. Rep. James Clyburn. The auditorium was packed with more than 500 people, including a former head of the local NAACP, at least one state representative and a Pittsburgh police commander.
And whatever your politics, Farrakhan probably said something you agreed with that night. Liberals could empathize with his critiques of global trade and genetically-modified crops. Conservatives could warm to his decidedly traditional take on family life: "[M]en are to be the maintainers of women, not women be the maintainers of men." Few people of any stripe, meanwhile, would object to his message of self-empowerment, or his criticism of homes in which the "mother and father ... are too busy trying to keep up a standard of living, so the children are being reared from the television."
Still, while Smith pledged early on that "We are not going to talk about [charges of anti-Semitism] tonight," Farrakhan seemingly couldn't help himself.
He weighed in against "control of the media by the Jews," who he described as "a group that is very small, but their influence is so large that they can direct [the] foreign policy of this nation." He touted the Nation of Islam's two-volume book, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, which claims Jews played crucial roles in creating the slave trade, profited from Jim Crow ... and even helped finance the Ku Klux Klan.
For the record, the mainstream historical consensus is that Jewish slave owners and traders were bit players in the shameful history of American slavery. (By contrast, they later played outsized roles in supporting the civil-rights movement.)
Still, Farrakhan insisted that "I have never been [and] am not now a hater of the Jewish community." He professed to admire Jews, which makes a kind of sense. His depiction of their influence is, after all, a haunted-house-mirror reflection of the ideal he espouses for blacks: a community that, despite persecution, takes care of its own.
In any case, it's not like Farrakhan is the only guy practicing the paranoid style in American politics lately. Fox News personality Glenn Beck, for example, also propounds a vision in which his audience is victimized by shadowy forces -- many of whom are Jewish. Yet when Beck visited Pittsburgh late last year, there was little criticism or outcry.
Of course, when a Beck or a Farrakhan comes to town, you risk emboldening them whether you decry their presence or ignore it. Melanie Campbell's withdrawal from the panel, for example, seemed to confirm fears that outsiders want to dictate what blacks should do. (As Smith put it, "We never step into another ethnic group and say, 'Don't meet with them!' ... [B]ut when we finally sit down and say, 'It's time for us to talk about us,' we got a problem." In situations like these, no one ends up looking good.
At least James Clyburn got close. He said little during the event (Farrakhan sucked up most of the oxygen). But when publicly challenged about his participation in it, his office issued a statement saying he found "nothing new" about appearing with controversial figures. After all, the statement noted, as a representative of South Carolina, Clyburn served alongside arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond for years.
Which is something everyone might do well to think more about.