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Leo Tolstoy was taken with the idea that the masses always find just the right leader to address the crisis of the age. Last October, with all the fuss about just how many black men showed up in Washington for the Million Man March, it was easy to overlook Tolstoy's observation at work. Those who arrived at the National Mall had come to move beyond the pieties of "We shall overcome" and to bear witness to their experience of tragic social and economic dislocations that have touched the poor, the well-to-do, the brightest and best among them. And they came to do so at the fiery beckoning of Louis Farrakhan. As leader of the Nation of Islam, he had wandered in his own raging wilderness for nearly 40 years and now finally had an open circuit to the audience he desired.
In traditional American politics, the luster of success is reserved for those who defend the moral high ground. No longer. The high ground belongs to another era now, an old moral topography too idealistic for present use. This belief, so common among black and white youth, has transformed the political landscape. Organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. and its leaders seem expendable. This isn't cynicism so much as despair. It lingers in the words of the rap artists who today quote Farrakhan instead of Martin Luther King Jr. Who can afford to discuss moral issues when the children are dying? Farrakhan's troops believe devoutly in his message of self-respect yet find it possible to ignore the core beliefs of a raging orator who claims aids is a government conspiracy, reviles Jews and finds "traitors" everywhere.
The black middle class is just as deeply alienated as the young poor, and the support of both groups allowed Farrakhan, 63, who lives in Chicago, to upstage leaders like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Farrakhan knows the feeling of pain, its patina and scent. Indeed, he says it is his ability to "articulate pain" that has drawn a new following to him. That, and the Nation of Islam's program of self-reliance, healthful eating and abstinence from drugs, tobacco and alcohol. "The time is now better for such a doctrine of doing for self because everything else we have tried has failed," says Farrakhan. "And since government is no longer responsive to the needs of our people, then we have to be responsive." Black Americans have heard it all before. But in the past, racial and economic segregation was legal. Farrakhan asks his flocks to return willingly to a self-dependence that never was. That is his message. In many quarters it is selling quite well.
COURTNEY LOVE Punk Provocateur