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Gessen writes: "Of all the news from which one can get a sinking feeling this week, my brain chooses two."

The Women's March, a giant, influential organization, has found itself in the emotional state of a tiny resistance cell, holding on against a hostile world. (photo: Noam Galai/WireImage/Getty Images)
The Women's March, a giant, influential organization, has found itself in the emotional state of a tiny resistance cell, holding on against a hostile world. (photo: Noam Galai/WireImage/Getty Images)

The Women's March, Louis Farrakhan, and the Disease of American Political Life

By Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

12 March 18


f all the news from which one can get a sinking feeling this week, my brain chooses two. One is the apparent poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain. The other is the evidently dead-end conversation—on Twitter and, subsequently, in the media—about the association between Tamika Mallory, one of the leaders of the Women’s March, and the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. Bizarrely, one of these disheartening stories helps me understand the other.

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.) The group leadership of the Women’s March eventually issued a statement distancing itself from Farrakhan’s positions and affirming its commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism, and white supremacy, listed in that order. The statement explained that the Women’s March leadership had been silent for the first days of the controversy because they had been in talks with “queer, trans, Jewish and Black” activists in an effort to “break the cycles that pit our communities against each other.” To many commentators on social media and in conventional media, this was too little, too late, and the Women’s March was tainted.

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. “The Women’s March, throughout this whole controversy, just hasn’t come across as taking anti-Semitism very seriously,” Jesse Singal wrote at New York. “Mallory’s unwillingness to see Farrakhan for what he is will surely cost the entire Women’s March organization its credibility among many Jewish people, LGBTQ people, and those who see themselves as allies to those communities,” Christina Cauterucci predicted at Slate. It seemed reasonable to take the position that as long as any of the leaders of the Women’s March was associated with a vicious bigot like Farrakhan, the entire organization was delegitimized. This is also an oddly satisfying position.

That feeling of righteousness is familiar to me from living in Russia. That’s a country that has, among other things, been killing its dissidents and exiles—through arranging car accidents, hiring icepick- or gun-wielding assassins, and, most consistently, through poisoning, as in the recent incident in Britain—for nearly a hundred years. When you are staring clear, unadulterated evil in the face—and a state that routinely practices political murder is certainly clear, unadulterated evil—your options crystallize. Politics begins to permeate everything, obliterating the division between public and private, but also imbuing action and speech with exhilarating meaning. Hannah Arendt wrote about this state of being in “Between Past and Future,” describing the private citizens who had become members of the French Resistance: “He who joined the Resistance found himself. . . . He ceased to be in quest of himself, without mastery, in naked unsatisfaction. . . . He who no longer suspected himself on insincerity, of being a carping suspicious actor of life . . . could afford to go naked. In this nakedness, stripped of all masks . . . they had been visited, for the first time in their lives, by an apparition of freedom.” Arendt might have been writing about Mallory, other Women’s March leaders, and many of the activists who have emerged since the election of Donald Trump. Their sense of purpose is palpable. But in the case of Mallory, it seems that what she thought of as a private, basically familial association with Farrakhan has taken on public, explicitly political meaning.

In her other work, Arendt showed that she was suspicious of the comfort and cohesion that stem from living under political siege. That sense of mission is a symptom of the disappearance of politics. Politics is not a war; it is the coöperation of people with disparate views, needs, and interests. “The art of compromise,” distilled from Bismarck’s definition of politics as “the art of the possible, the attainable—the art of the next best,” is not the worst description.

But is compromise possible with a bigot? Can someone who won’t denounce a bigot be acceptable as the “next best”? Could one say that Mallory is just one of several leaders of an organization whose agenda speaks for itself, or is this bigotry by proxy so virulent that nothing but a purge can save the March now? In other words, is Farrakhan’s bigotry the same sort of unmitigated evil as, say, the murderous Russian state? (In The Atlantic, John-Paul Pagano does a thorough job of excavating the resentments and alliances that lie at the root of Farrakhan’s brand of anti-Semitism; on the other hand, in Russia, the case for political murder has been typically grounded in Russia’s litany of grievances against the West.) It’s hard, if not impossible, to make the case for compromise with—or in any way involving—Farrakhan. No politics is possible here.

The tragic part is, the actors are not marginal figures in American politics. Farrakhan has been wielding major political influence for two generations. The Million Man March he organized, in 1995, is a significant milestone in African-American organizing. At least as late as 2005, he was an invited guest of the Congressional Black Caucus. His recent speech in Chicago commanded an audience of thousands. The Women’s March, meanwhile, represents the hopes of millions of Americans who were mobilized by the election of Donald Trump. A giant, influential organization finds itself in the emotional state of a tiny resistance cell, holding on desperately against a hostile world. This is a symptom of a deep disease of American political life, the descent into positional warfare in which politics—the art of compromise—is no longer conceivable.

This disease did not start with the Trump election. The progressive simplification of political discourse began decades ago, and even back when the discourse was more complex, it excluded millions of Americans. Blind partisanship didn’t start with Trump, either. But the Trump Presidency, which is both the epitome of anti-political politics and the product of hyper-partisanship, is helping to expose the disastrous state of American politics. Before Trump, there lingered the illusion that the public sphere contained something more than black-and-white choices and disastrous moral threats. In the eight years before Trump, even as Congress willfully descended into dysfunction and election campaigns turned into slugging matches fought with soundbites, President Barack Obama stubbornly stuck to the idiom of politics as coöperation. The Trump Presidency has trampled that political vestige. Now, when the Women’s March fights a Twitter war about Farrakhan, it seems that this is all there is. your social media marketing partner


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+11 # PeacefulGarden 2018-03-12 15:08
Excellent piece of writing! It really is odd to see our insane fool of a president expose the horror of federal and state policy; that our politicians ignore huge swaths of citizens. Betsy clearly shows this in her lack of understanding of the state of education in her home state...

But, speaking frankly, I do not think we will make it out of the Bad Guy vs. Good Guy thing for a long time. Any money hungry sack of skin and bones striving to get elected, mostly white business men, will stand on a box, and speak endless rhetoric about the bad jews, germans, muslims, greeks, communist, socialist, intellectuals, and homosexuals; securing a false sense of "join me" thing.

Can anyone imagine a time when this disease will not exist in our communities?

But, funny is, a nutty pre senile president is bringing this disease to full exposure. Will our news outlets figure this out is the question.
+7 # joejamchicago 2018-03-13 03:20
The Women's March should immediately disassociates itself from Tamika Mallory. Duh!
-9 # gentry cooper 2018-03-13 05:22
Gessen u said Farakhan's speeches are usually filled with antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic invective. This is simply not true. I totally disagree with u on that point. And because u told that lie, u aren't credible. I read no further than that. U are like many other conservative/re publican or establishment/d emocrat types who have taken out of context, misconstrued, or just outright lied about what he said. Kind of reminds me of how the right and Sean Hannity in particular lied about the honorable Rev. Jeremia Wright a few years ago.

than that.
+1 # RLF 2018-03-13 09:43
Farakhan has been a racist homophobe for decades and the only way you don't know that is because you have never heard him coop.

England will do absolutely nothing about another poisoned Russian because they are in love with and dependent on Russian oligarchic money. The Brits have a government just like the US which means an and for the rich...I they want the money.
+1 # gentry cooper 2018-03-13 13:09
I have read some of Mr. Farakhan's speeches. I have seen documentaries of his speeches. I don't recall seeing or hearing any bigotry.
0 # gentry cooper 2018-03-13 13:11
Also, England, U.S., or Israel had the Russian killed.
+3 # ddd-rrr 2018-03-13 08:07
Politics is "the art of the possible" -- and it must therefore include compromises and adjustments designed to meld differing points of view. History has shown that absolutist political positions rarely succeed on any level for very long. However, when one side turns to terrible absolutist positions, what is the practicable alternative position that can be assumed by the opposition? Discourse is closed, as we are seeing happen now in our government, and little advancement toward needed solutions is then possible. I do not know what the cure is for this polarized condition we now find ourselves in. Perhaps some respected, wise, and good-communicat ors will rise to service this need we now have?
+7 # Kootenay Coyote 2018-03-13 08:23
There can be no compromise in some issues, of which Global Heating is the most conspicuous.
0 # hkatzman 2018-03-13 09:05
"Farrakhan’s speech was, as it usually is, replete with anti-Semitic, homophobic, and transphobic invectives."

Farrakhan's name is never mentioned without the words "anti-Semitic, homophobic, and transphobic." But noone ever mentions what he has said that is labelled such; it is always taken as a given, never needing explanation.

Politically, the writer has done a good job of smearing Tamika Mallory by association and then the Women's March by even further association. This simplistic thinking is used to splinter the left by creating some super-human universal standard of conduct.

The one good thing that is attributed to Farrakhan is the Million Man March. That, in and of itself is one heck of an accomplishment. Who else could, and did, do this?

But with the Women's March.. is it only the product of its initiators? Was the millions of people who marched there because of Mallory, or were they there because it tapped into something internal to themselves.

Knocking a movement because of the possibly human foibles of leaders is an age-old tactic to discredit. Is the Civil Rights Movement any less critical? Is MLK any less an inspirational leader? If we find out he is a philanderer? I suppose if he were an abuser, then he could be discredited, but not the movement.

One big 'SO WHAT'!
+8 # they said what? 2018-03-13 09:30
I fail to understand how the actions of one person smear the whole group. And I fail to understand how the groups smeared are only "minority" groups. This smearing seems to apply only to groups trying to change the system, as evidenced by the fact that all men are not smeared because the majority of rapists are men and white male Christians with guns are not smeared by the fact that most of the mass murders in this country are committed by white male Christians with guns.

But the legitimacy of the Women's March comes into question because of the actions of one of its organizers?
+2 # wilding 2018-03-13 14:45
While Farrakhan's hatred is not the same as Russian killing, ultimately it can have the same result. Southern Poverty Law Center has noted a rise in killings resulting from race hatred, Jewish victims included. not just blacks, and Muslims. Of course one woman does not a movement make. But to trivialize anti-Semitism does the cause of justice no good.We seem to forget in our search for racial and gender justice that everyone should be included in protection against hatred. Does it destroy a movement that one leader won't disavow a racist? No, but this Gessen piece sets up a kind of false equivalency which only confuses the issues.

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