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Pennsylvania Is The Heartland Of The Nation (Of Islam)

On the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, video of the state's governor Ed Rendell heaping praise on the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, went viral through the blogosphere yesterday. The context is a 1997 rally for racial … Read More

By / April 22, 2008

On the eve of the Pennsylvania primary, video of the state's governor Ed Rendell heaping praise on the Nation of Islam and its leader, Louis Farrakhan, went viral through the blogosphere yesterday. The context is a 1997 rally for racial reconciliation that Philadelphia NoI leader Rodney Mohammed and Rendell co-organized and Farrakhan keynoted, back when Rendell was mayor of Philadelphia. Given the prominence the six-degrees-of-Louis-Farrakhan gambit has taken during this campaign, it's a bit jarring to watch as Rendell thanks the "Nation of Islam in Philadelphia…for what you stand for" and goes on for a full six and a half minutes extolling the NoI for its promotion of family values, its efforts at curbing drug use, its various projects in support of education, and its mission of "ending racism and bigotrythroughout the United States" [my emphasis, though you could infer it from the speech]. Rendell gives Farrakhan as heartfelt an encomium as one can expect from a Philadelphia politician, explaining how "my respect for him has grown, for the intensity of his beliefs, for the decency of his soul, and for the strength of his courage." And he climaxes by specifically striking back at those who criticized him for attending the NoI rally, arguing that anyone serious about healing "the central problems facing our country" should have shown up to "talk about our differences and make progress."

But here's the thing. Despite Tim Russert's recent success in making tenuous connections to Louis Farrakhan not only a potential disqualification for public office, but also a scarlet letter on anyone who votes for anyone tenuously connected to Farrakhan — the man is so toxic that, given what what we know about social networks, everyone in America is a vicarious racist thanks to Farrakhan† — this sort of ring-kissing exercise has been standard operating procedure for as long as both political coalitions and highly influential, morally reprobate demagogues have co-existed. (Here, for example, you can see Tim Russert grill Joe Lieberman in 2000 over his own fawning overtures to Farrakhan. Watch Lieberman whinge about a Washington Post editorial that "very personally…hurt me"; apparently, being an insufferable sanctimonious prick is a quality that transcends partisan loyalties.)

You know what else? Rendell wasn't wrong to go to that rally. Philadelphia was a city with severe problems, and it's much better off today than when he took over the mayoralty. To the extent that occasionally collaborating with the local NoI provided a helpful means of reducing crime and drug use and improving educational opportunities for poor kids at low or no cost to taxpayers and without ratcheting up state infringements on individual rights, Rendell would have been irresponsible not to accept NoI entreaties. As Rendell's and more recently Michael Bloomberg's examples show, pace Rudy Giuliani, it is possible to successfully govern a big, diverse northeastern city without assuming a mandate to behave like a tyrant or mount the occasional putsch. And indeed, if those are the alternatives, Rendell's is far better.

But the political media environment today is one in which the people whose profession it is to inform the electorate of their choices believe that the substantive platforms of the candidates are outranked in salience by virtually everything else, and in particular, this year, by the perceived (factual or not) guiltiness of candidates' associations. Which is why Matthew Yglesias is wrong to say that Ed Rendell's effusive performance for the NoI has no relevance to the 2008 election. By the standards of inanity to which our democratic process has descended with the media's active help and the Clinton campaign's approval, Hillary Clinton has an obligation to cut ties with her chief backer in Pennsylvania, "because of the implications…which can be so far reaching." Or, to dysphemize her euphemism, by the lights of the argument Clinton has been making to voters and superdelegates, Rendell's continued presence in her campaign licenses the inference that Rendell and therefore Clinton are phenomenally well-disguised supporters of the Nation of Islam's ideology of antisemitism and racial separatism, despite the patent absurdity of that proposition.

Of course, no one would ever suggest such a thing, because it is patently absurd. Nor would anyone suggest that Joe Lieberman, in virtue of an eight-year-old pander, should be judged a Farrakhan ally, or that John McCain has to answer for Lieberman's suspect sympathies or risk being judged a tacit bigot too. (Lieberman is a loathsome carbuncle on the ship of state for many reasons, but antisemitism is not one of them. Though his willingness to endanger the lives of seven million Israelis doesn't make him much of a friend to actually existing Jewish people.)

It is just as patently absurd to suggest that Barack Obama is an antisemite or a bigot — no more or less absurd than to level that charge at either of his opponents. But as the Democratic primary heads towards a dying fall, the one criticism of his campaign that is receiving substantial attention (outside the world of politically attuned blogs and mags) is not the left's criticism of the alleged conservatism of his health care and retirement savings proposals, or the right's criticism of the alleged defeatism of his foreign policy proposals, but innuendo — and it never rises above the level of innuendo, since to express it openly is to flag its preposterousness — to the effect that his fundamental loyalty as an American citizen is suspect, that he may be a dangerous fifth columnist whose true allegiance is to an array of racist and even terroristic anti-Americanisms.

No white politician in the same circumstances would be subject to this particular brand of vicarious-loyalty McCarthyism for months on end. And you can be confident about that counterfactual because many white politicians — including, in particular, two white presidential candidates — are in the same circumstances (or circumstances similar enough to warrant vicarious-loyalty McCarthyism if anything does) — and they obviously will not be treated by the mainstream media as if the onus is on them to prove they aren't bigots or America-haters.

†Fortunately, it's possible to atone. First reject and denounce yourself, then draw up a list of houses of worship in your area, fax it to Clinton campaign spokesmonster Howard Wolfson for guidance on which are led by pastors Hillary Clinton would choose, and check in to an acceptable church/temple/mosque for further spiritual counseling.

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