The Company We All Keep
Every family has an Uncle Joe. He is your mother’s third brother that no one in the family seems to like, who still gets occasionally invited to dinners and get-togethers. He rants, insults and holds a number of conspiratorial opinions about why they haven’t done well financially or why their wife left them nine years ago. Uncle Joe is tolerated for the sake of family unity and then quickly shipped off as soon as dessert is finished. Sometimes we might even challenge him if he wanders too far from your family’s sense of common decorum. When he is gone, we remind the younger sons and nephews that most of what Uncle Joe says is uninformed, even when vehemently expounded.
In our political lives, we have figures much like Uncle Joe. A few weeks back, the leadership of the Women’s March was embroiled in a controversy over their ties to Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NoI). Masha Gessen noted:
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 Perez have both posted pictures of themselves with Farrakhan to Instagram; in a caption, Mallory calls him “definitely the goat”—the greatest of all time.)
On Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere, 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.
Keith Ellison, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, has also been scrutinized for his ties with the anti-Semitic organization.
Ellison, who had defended Farrakhan against charges of anti-Semitism as a law student, publicly renounced the Nation of Islam in 2006 when he first ran for Congress, but the issue re-emerged after a CNN exploration about his decade-long involvement in the group.
After the CNN report, Ellison wrote an article for The Washington Post, saying he had failed to scrutinize the words of people such as Farrakhan when he defended him for his role in the Million Man March.
For most of us, standing opposite to the NoI takes little struggle. It doesn’t take much effort to uncover a litany of terrible ideas perpetuated by Farrakhan’s organization. The ideology professed by the group is anti-Semitic, racist, sexist, conspiratorial and totalitarian. They even have links with Scientology, which should justly earn them “most ambitious crossover event in history.” To condemn the NoI is the political equivalent of making a layup in an empty gymnasium.
Yet, I understand why it is a challenge for some in the black community. I had a friend who spent some of his formative teenage years involved in the NoI. While I was getting pulled into Marxist and socialist organizations, the clean-cut young men proselytizing for Farrakhan’s group in his neighborhood captivated him. They offered him a clear answer to why black people were second-class citizens in America and provided an existing, rooted community for him to jump into. Better yet, it made him, a young black man, the hero of an epic narrative. Just as I imagined playing a vital role in the looming proletarian uprising, he saw a great historical moment before him. We both felt we had been given a cause and meaning.
Unlike the small Marxist and anarchist groups I took part in, the NoI was an institution in my friend’s community. It was a presence in daily life and felt like a rock in a community where economic and social insecurity were widespread. When black men are killed by police, the NoI is there to demand justice. They are present in the discussions about economic injustices perpetrated against the black community.
While he left the NoI years ago and rejects the organization, its gender dynamics, and its anti-Semitism, he does note that it is hard to criticize the group when at home with family or at black community events. Everyone has a cousin or uncle involved with the organization. You hold polite conversation with these members of your community, find some common ground (the weather is always popular), and try to avoid bringing up anything that would result in a sermon from this Uncle Joe.
My friend describes joining the NoI because he “needed a mission.” Like many young men, myself included, he needed to feel part of something bigger than himself and guided by those who seemed more seasoned and wise. It is no different than the throngs of young white men who have been radicalized to fascism and the alt-right in recent years. They too felt the victims of history and looked for something to give them order and purpose. The clean-cut, “masculine” visage of fascist iconography and organizational structure is an all-too-easy sell.
Many of us tried to understand why white voters turned to Trump even if we could never support the man. Many also tried to understand the pull of radical movements like the alt-right in an attempt to process the impact said groups were having on young men. Sometimes, that attempt to understand and grasp why radical groups gain footholds in a specific community may appear to be excusing their destructive viewpoints. This is especially true when we address radicals in our own communities and family. Because they are brethren, we are willing to contemplate why they have adopted their drastic dogmas. Our proximity to the adherent also means we are less likely to condemn them unequivocally, unlike a distant community’s radicals who are easy to denounce as we accrue no social consequences for our posture.
Thus, I often dislike the calls for members of the black community to publicly condemn the NoI. Not because it isn’t necessary to confront anti-Semitism, but because it always reeks of Anglo society demanding something from African Americans that we ourselves struggle with inside our own community.
We all tolerate our own Uncle Joes, but our community’s leaders should not. Republicans have seen what can happen when they wink to the racist, totalitarian elements within their movement for the sake of unity. Eventually, those elements demand an increased role at the table and as such little effort was made to exclude them, the radical’s ideas become normalized and tolerated by the party apparatus hungry for votes and power.
It takes courage for leaders to condemn the worst elements of their community and put a distance between them. We should never give a pass to our leaders who are unwilling to address evil in their own ranks, but we should not always expect the same diligence from the average community member.
We all have to live with Uncle Joe and, since he is family, he is going to attend some dinners.