Friday, April 25, 2014

Malcolm X: Hero of American Conservatism?

Forget the works of Richard Weaver or Whittaker Chambers: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” may very well be the touchstone of modern conservative politics in the United States

-- Malcolm X,
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)
P. 276

For the longest time, I refused to watch “Do the Right Thing,” the critically-revered 1989 film that put Spike Lee on the proverbial Hollywood map. For the most part, I postponed viewing it, because in my mind, I had an idea of what I thought the film would be like -- in essence, just a bunch of whitey-blaming while one-dimensional honky stereotypes do racist things to innocent, 100 percent conscientious black folks for two hours straight.

Eventually, I ended up watching the film, in its entirety, one particularly uninspiring afternoon. And when I finally gave it a shot, it absolutely blow me -- and my preconceived notions -- away. Instead of being a reverse racist film that violently condemned those rascally white devils, the film was a shockingly unbiased glimpse into just how uneasy we still are as a nation about race relations. Perhaps the film’s most iconic scene -- a montage of people, of various ethnic groups, saying various insensitive things about other ethnic groups -- demonstrates this best.

The undeniable beauty of “Do the Right Thing,” to me, was the fact that Spike Lee didn’t even attempt to tell us what the titular “right thing” was supposed to be. The film concludes with an incinerated pizza parlor and young black man choked to death by the police, and the only commentary the film feels necessary to send us home with are two completely contradictory quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In a world desperate for easy answers, I had to applaud Mr. Lee for having the testicular fortitude to come right out and say that there aren’t any real answers -- it’s that unashamed, and shockingly unemotional, honesty that quickly catapulted “Do the Right Thing” into my pantheon of all-time favorite movies.

I believe it was for those very same reasons listed above that I was so reluctant to pick up “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” the 1965 book penned by “Roots” author Alex Haley. For years, I had heard about the book, and although I hadn’t seen the 1992 film adaptation (coincidentally, directed by Spike Lee himself, and perhaps just a bit ironically, spun-off from a screenplay penned by Jewish playwright Arnold Perl), I certainly recall the controversy surrounding the film when it was originally released -- by the way, I was just six-years-old at the time, and proud to say that much of my worldview had been shaped by that great 1990s institution, “In Living Color.”

As an elementary schooler, I remember spending half of February each year listening to my teachers drone on and on about MLK and Rosa Parks -- almost always giving us the sanitized, fit-for-mainstream consumption version of their respective life stories, of course; meanwhile, Malcolm X’s name was mentioned only in passing, if it all. In middle school, “Letters from Birmingham Jail” was required reading, but I’m not even sure my library even had X’s autobiography on the shelves. By the time I was in high school, the narrative passed down to me was that Malcolm X was basically the Magneto to MLK’s Charles Xavier, and the former’s autobiography was nothing more than hate-filled, antagonizing anti-white propaganda for the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Even in college, the multicultural, inclusiveness uber alles experience it was, not once did I hear a lecture on Malcolm X, or even faint words of praise for his works, from even my most liberal of professors.

I was oblivious to the fact that so many people didn’t seem to want me to read the damn book (almost always a sign that the contents therein are generally worth reading) until I was almost 30, and when I finally decided to pick up a copy and read it for myself, I had yet another “Do the Right Thing”-like reaction. Not only was the book not what I expected it to be, it was almost the complete night-and-day opposite.

I always wondered why white folks -- in particular, the super-liberal and super-guilty types -- championed Martin Luther King Jr. and always seemed to pretend that Malcolm X never existed. I always kind of assumed it was because of that whole “By Any Means Necessary” stuff, but as it turns out, their peculiar aversion to Malcolm X most likely stems from altogether different political reasons. Simply put, modern liberals don’t shun X because he “encouraged violence,” but simply because he called them out on their bullshit and backed political remedies to urban black plight that sound dangerously close to conservative talking points.

The not-quite-socialistic-but-definitely-not-capitalistic perspective of Martin Luther King, Jr. seems a perfect ideological foil to Malcolm X’s socioeconomic doctrine, which at times, seems to both condemn government entitlements and vaunt private sector wealth generation. Indeed, the entire civil rights discussion seems to ignore the reality that Martin Luther King Jr. was born into an already-wealthy family, an individual who, in every sense of the word, was about 100 times more “privileged” socioeconomically than a majority of white folks in the southeast. While King lived a relatively pampered existence -- hardly fraught with any of the adversities most regional blacks had to face at the time -- Malcolm Little was clearly a man of the soil, a poor kid from Michigan who grew up eating dandelion weeds while King cosplayed as a migrant worker in Connecticut and was told he was too good to marry a white lunch lady. By all traditional liberal measurements, it seems as if the school-of-hard-knocks trained, self-made X would be the progressive poster boy of the Civil Rights era, but wouldn’t you know it, lefties for half a century have instead been championing a man who refused to leave a will to his own family [*].

[*] To be far, neither did Malcolm X, but considering all of the money MLK made/inherited during his lifetime, X’s “oath of poverty” excuse, I surmise, is just a tad more defensible than King’s. 

The story of Malcolm X is really a permutation of two time-tested tales; the ascension of the unlikely and the classical Greek tragedy. The tragedy part is quite evident, even to X himself, who many times throughout his own autobiography, predicts his own imminent, violent early death; that he saw this coming from a mile away only heightens the inherent tragicomedy -- with the ultimate swerve, of course, being that his death came not at the hands of the vile “white devils” he spent literally his entire life railing against, but the very Nation of Islam “brothers” that he once said he would die for himself.

Malcolm Little has inconspicuous roots. He grew up in abject poverty, with a mentally ill mother, whom more than likely, was driven insane by her husband’s grisly murder at the hands of racist whites. From a young age, Little was aware of “white oppression,” but he saw it as something a little more abstract than obvious displays, such as cross burning vigils and lynchings. You see, in Little’s eyes -- and remember, these are the thoughts of a relatively young child -- white oppression wasn’t just a tangible social edict, it was a psychological state. The society itself, he thought, was responsible for fostering in the American Black a sense of inferiority, which the black community itself mindlessly propagated through criminal enterprise shortcuts, drug running, vapid materialism (then it was conks and zoot suits, today its iPhones and hair extensions) and playing the “numbers” game. Whitey had imposed his superiority upon the blacks, and the blacks responded by immersing themselves in a culture that -- inadvertently -- proved the points of racist whites. When confronted with prejudiced allegations of laziness, shiftlessness and moral impieties, Little saw a black society that responded with greater investments in drinking, gambling and other vices; ever the astute youngster, Little also observed how Christianity was being used as a literal deus ex machina for blacks to self pardon themselves for their excesses and general aimlessness.

And so, Malcolm Little lived the life he was expected to live: he became a porter in New York and Boston, spending his weekends at clubs in Harlem and buddying up with numbers runners and cat burglars. Funnily, Little’s escapades in home invasions is manifested in a sardonic safety tip; if you want to keep would-be robbers out of your house, try leaving the bathroom light on all day and night.

And so, Little continues to smoke reefers and drink heavily and run afoul of some particularly nefarious crime folks. All the while, his hatred for the white devil increases, especially after he comes into contact with New York’s underground sex trade; bet you didn’t think diaper fetishism would be a prominent plot point in his autobiography, did you? And then, Little’s luck runs out, and he’s sent to the slammer for about a decade; according to himself, the extra time was tacked on because of his “unofficial” crime of hanging out with white women.

In prison, Malcolm Little makes a statement fairly similar to Mike Tyson in his autobiography, saying that his time in the clink was more or less his equivalent of attending college. After converting to Elijah Muhammad’s super racist version of Islam, Little starts reading like a motherfucker, and begins having scholarly debates with his cellmates. Given time to think, Malcolm Little more or less read his way to intellectual -- and eventually, physical -- freedom.

The communiqué between X and Muhammad reminded me a lot of the camaraderie between Philip Seymour Hoffman and River Phoenix’s brother in “The Master” -- albeit, with Malcolm X serving as a much more lucid and cognizant protégé than Joaquin's character. In hindsight, you kind of have to wonder how X was unable to see just how full of shit Muhammad was, but then again, X’s story is a tragic ascension; he needed Muhammad’s eventual betrayal to goad him into realizing the abject racism -- not to mention the batshit madness -- of the Nation of Islam, and why it wouldn’t be until he rejected the Man-God he formulated for himself that he would be able to truly grasp the “reality” he had sought since elementary school.

Oh, there’s some irony to be found here, of course. For one, Malcolm X himself acknowledges that if it hadn’t been for the white devil produced “The Hate that Hate Produced,” he never would have taken off as a national spokesman. Similarly, it was the financial contribution of the white devils in academia and the press that eventually allowed X to travel to Mecca, and keep him from becoming insolvent after being blacklisted from the Nation. Still, that didn’t prevent X from criticizing MLK for his own collusion with liberal whites, at one point referring to the March on Washington as an orchestration of the white devils themselves. Alas, many today seem to overlook the veracity of X’s “by any means necessary” call-to-arms; while the peaceful demonstration and integration policies praised by King worked, we tend to overlook the fact that those policies worked only because the maestros behind them were a.) wealthy as fuck, and b.) already had backing from the political elites. What X promoted, then, was a policy for the truly downtrodden black American: that, in the absence of socioeconomic political power, the only just response to externalized force until that socioeconomic political power was obtained was to physically defend oneself. In that, X’s highly-criticized “By Any Means” platform was actually a ways to a means, and not the intended destination point at all.

Throughout the book, it’s quite obvious that Malcolm’s disdain of the white man stemmed from perpetual cultural indoctrination. Daddy Little was a faithful adherent of segregationist pioneer Marcus Garvey -- so profound an influence on Malcolm’s upbringing, Garvey’s name is mentioned literally on the first page of his autobiography. That ideology ultimately led to Malcolm developing an intense hatred of all whites, which was effectively sublimated into the unabashedly racist teachings of Elijah Muhammad -- and thus, kick-starting X’s own career as a political firebrand. Of course, Muhammad’s jealousy would lead to X being ousted from his own social movement, and later on, be the catalyst for his own death; peculiarly, it wasn’t until X traveled to Mecca that, like a ton of proverbial bricks, the error of his whitey-hating ways bopped him on the head:

Funny how today, on both sides of the political spectrum, hardly anyone at all has taken X’s advice against blindly following personalities and other social movements to heart, no?

One of the thing that X keys in on in his autobiography, and its something Ossie Davis somewhat rephrases in the paperback’s epilogue, is that the most insidious form of racism imaginable isn’t blatant prejudice, clearly visible in social policies and folkways, but rather, institutionalized paternalism, in which the whites reiterate their “superiority” over the black man by preventing them from becoming self-sufficient. Indeed, X’s own cries for voluntary segregation was less an attempt to escape racial hostilities than it was an attempt to allow the black man to build his own society, create his own industries and businesses to generate his own income, and become a self-made man without the constant oversight of white bureaucrats. Segregation, per X (at one point in time, anyway), was the only viable alternative to permanent dependency upon “the man.” Indeed, X called the efforts of Northern Freedom Riders to “rescue” imperiled blacks in the south a “ridiculous” endeavor:

…their own Northern ghettos, right at home, had enough rats and roaches to kill to keep all of the Freedom Riders busy. I said that ultra-liberal New York had more integration problems than Mississippi. If the Northern Freedom Riders wanted more to do, they could work on the roots of such ghetto evils as the little children out in the streets at midnight, with apartment keys on strings around their necks to let themselves in, and their mothers and fathers drunk, drug addicts, thieves, prostitutes. Or the Northern Freedom Riders could light some fires under Northern city halls, unions  and major industries to give more jobs to Negroes to remove so many of them from the relief and welfare rolls, which created laziness, and which deteriorated the ghettos into steadily worse places for humans to live.” (P. 276)

If all of this sounds eerily similar to the perpetual anti-welfare tirades from the right, it’s because, fundamentally, X is espousing the exact same ideological premise. Indeed, he even touches upon Goldwater-era conservatism as a far superior alternative to LBJ’s sprawling social services reform:

Granted, it’s not exactly great praise heaped upon contemporary conservatives, but just a few sentences later, X drops this little atom bomb on us…

In the eyes of X, even the most brutal forms of southern-conservative racism was less oppressive than the liberal policies imposed upon the black community; indeed, whereas the empty promises and token gestures of northern liberals merely cemented African-Americans into poverty, the unabashedly aggressive policies of the southern conservative forced the black community into taking action and seeking self-sufficiency. At the end of the day, Malcolm X’s big call to political arms within his autobiography is really no different than the central thesis of the work of someone as far right as Charles Murray: it’s not until the black man is economically independent and capable of living his life without the assistance of the government and other paternalistic whites that he can call himself truly free.

Of course, it’s a hard sell to most arguing Malcolm X as a modern conservative pioneer -- especially to Tea Party contemporaries, who would almost certainly blackball him on grounds of being a “moose-limb” alone -- but even then, it seems as if X has more in common with modern neo-cons than today’s leftists. Even as a Muslim, X’s religion mandates a vaunting of asceticism, the traditional family construct and considerably conservative-sounding fiscal principles, which are all near anathema to the Democratic Party’s current platform. And hell, X is a clear cut ally of the NRA if there ever was one, and as an appeal to the conspiratorial libertarian crowd, he also seemed to have a thing against Jews and the Freemasons, too.

While “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” may not exactly be “Atlas Shrugged” or “Road to Serfdom,” there’s no denying the unexpected similarities between X’s sociopolitical values and those of Red State America. Of course, X himself would probably hate the ever-loving shit of today’s hardcore conservatives, but odds are? He would probably hate today’s hardcore liberals even more…which, to some degree, probably explains why his autobiography remains one of the nation’s most celebrated -- yet seemingly unread -- nonfiction works to this very day.

1 comment:

  1. You know what's funny? I've always agreed that X's values and positions are closer to conservatism then it is liberalism. Not only that, I believe it speaks for the wider Muslim community that many of the morals and values that they believe in is closer to the right. Yet for some reason they hate our guts, sometimes racism runs deeper then values.


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