There was good news and bad news in Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan's adventures last week in Libya, where he teamed up with another world-class statesman, Moammar Khadafy, to forge a political alliance reportedly aimed at influencing American foreign policy.
The good news is that Farrakhan's efforts to mainstream himself, which pundits presumed to be the goal of his Million Man March in October, were revealed as a sham by the comic-opera summit in Libya.
The bad news is that Farrakhan might not care. With an alienated, angry constituency that has every reason to believe that the nation's political leadership has abandoned them, Farrakhan's extremism, loony as it seems from a middle-class perspective, has a certain resonance in the nation's anarchic cities.
Farrakhan's cozy relationship with the erratic Libyan strongman tells us much about a man who actively shuns the mainstream: "Legitimization" is the least of the Jewish community's worries as this curious character pursues goals we only dimly understand.
Last fall's march in Washington was threatening to Jewish leaders because its success — its participants' noticeable nonviolence and the powerful messages conveyed by many speakers on the podium — seemed to suggest a new and broader role for Farrakhan, who conceived and planned the event.
The Nation of Islam leader, who has frequently been accused of anti-Semitism, was filling a leadership vacuum in a black community that was staggering in the face of the accelerating decay of America's cities and the federal government's shift away from social safety-net programs that have kept a lid on ghetto discontent.
But even at the march, Farrakhan seemed to refute the experts who said what he wanted was a wider leadership role in the African-American community.
His rambling two-hour speech, laced with numerology and cockeyed conspiracy theories, was hardly an appeal to middle-class blacks or to potential coalition partners. His speech conveyed the rhetoric of an unrepentant extremist who was intentionally appealing to the fringes, not to the hundreds of thousands of black men who gathered on the Mall in a spirit of hope and determination to find personal and political solutions to the deepening emergency in the inner cities.
In the months since the march, Farrakhan has done little to capitalize on the event's success — that is, its success with the mainstream black community.
The Khadafy summit was the latest tip-off that legitimization is the last thing on Farrakhan's mind.
Khadafy belongs to that elite fraternity of world leaders who elicit almost universal condemnation by virtue of their irresponsibility and sheer wackiness; other members are Cuba's Fidel Castro, Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Iran's ayotallahs.
After their meeting last week, Khadafy reportedly promised to spend $1 billion to support minority participation in American elections — a curious move for a dictator who doesn't care much for free elections in his own country.
But that may be precisely the point; Farrakhan's tete-a-tete with Khadafy suggests that the Nation of Islam leader is still aiming his uncompromising, separatist message at the angriest, most disaffected fringe of American society: a fringe that he believes, not without reason, is rapidly growing in the face of big social, political and economic changes in the nation.
Civil rights leaders like Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who leaves Congress this month to head the NAACP, recognize the depth of the troubles in America's cities. But they also understand that solutions will come through the effective use of political power, through community organization and through active coalition building.
Farrakhan clings to a separatist vision, based not on the possibility of reconciliation and democratic action, but on a desire to further polarize a nation that is already facing explosive divisions.
The Million Man March, at which throngs of middle-class black men projected a strong message about working through the system, was actually beside Farrakhan's point. His true audience was, and remains, a despairing, alienated and expanding black underclass, a population that could be ripe for his demagogic message as the government retreats from programs aimed at the inner-city poor.
Teaming up with Khadafy makes Farrakhan look even loopier to most Americans. But at the same time this move is a clear message to his core constituency that he cannot be co-opted by white America and that he will neither be pushed around by the U.S. government — a government that continues to regard Khadafy as tref (nonkosher) — nor by the Jewish groups whose justifiable anger and fear about Farrakhan's bigotry provide such a convenient foil for the black extremist.
And it is a message that separates him from the mainstream black leaders who are fighting a difficult battle to preserve a nonviolent, democratic and effective civil rights movement in today's increasingly hostile environment.
That's very bad news for a nation that has failed miserably to deal with its racial emergency, and that is now compounding the problem with policies that can only magnify inner-city poverty and widen the gap between rich and poor.
And it's bad news for a Jewish community that suffers when democratic institutions are challenged by an angry, energized minority — especially a minority led by a bigot who uses anti-Jewish images to provide explanations, however irrational, for our nation's inexcusable behavior.