The Autobiography of Malcolm X Book Club, Part 4
By Bryan Caplan
Malcom’s Purge, Second Thoughts, and Murder (Chapters 16-19, plus Haley’s Epilogue)
By the early 60s, Black Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad’s health is failing, and internal resentment against Malcolm’s success is starting to build. He refuses publicity to calm the jealousy – even turning down a cover story from Newsweek. Yet overall, Malcolm is sitting pretty… until his idol breaks his heart. The puritanical Elijah Muhammad is accused of multiple adulteries, and hit with multiple paternity suits.
Malcolm’s cognitive dissonance overflows. In retrospect, he admits that he’d been refusing to see the facts for years. By 1963, however, he finally confronts Elijah Muhammad, and his mentor confesses. Any other Black Muslim would be shunned for such actions, but of course the rules don’t apply to the leader. Malcolm is ready with a rationalization:
I said that with his son Wallace’s help I had found in the Quran and the Bible that which might be taught to Muslims – if it became necessary – as the fulfillment of prophesy.
Soon afterwards, Kennedy is assassinated, and Malcolm responds with his infamous “chickens come home to roost” remark. Elijah Muhammad responds by silencing Malcolm for 90 days. Malcolm submits at first. But he gradually realizes that his “silencing” is the first stage of impending excommunication – or worse:
Any Muslim would have known that my “chickens coming home to roost” statement had been only an excuse to put into action the plan for getting me out. And step one had been already taken: the Muslims were given the impression that I had rebelled against Mr. Muhammad. I could now anticipate step two: I would remain “suspended” (and later I would be “isolated”) indefinitely. Step three would be either to provoke some Muslim ignorant of the truth to take it upon himself to kill me as a “religious duty” – or to “isolate” me so that I would gradually disappear from the public scene.
Before long a fellow Muslim gets the order to kill Malcolm with a car bomb; he refuses the order, and warns his assigned target. Despite the danger, Malcolm decides to start his own organization and get political. A schism results: “Every day, more militant, action brothers who had been with me in Mosque Seven announced their break from the Nation of Islam to come with me.” He founds his own independent mosque and holds a press conference.
Then he decides to make a pilgrimage to Mecca.
After some bureaucratic hurdles, Malcolm gets to perform the Hajj. He loves it, rejoicing in the multi-ethnic Muslim fellowship:
That morning was when I first began to reappraise the “white man.” It was when I first began to perceive that “white man,” as commonly used, means complexion only secondarily; primarily is described attitudes and actions… [I]n the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been.
Prince Faisal makes Malcolm X an official state guest, and rolls out the red carpet. Malcolm then continues on with a big international tour of the Middle East and Africa. He meets Nkrumah, dictator of Ghana, and basks in his “warm, likeable and very down-to-earth qualities.” He then returns to the U.S. and reaffirms his commitment to violence… if necessary. And taking Malcolm literally, violence definitely sounds necessary:
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man’s problem – just to avoid violence. I don’t go for non-violence if it also means a delayed solution… I’m for violence exactly as you know the Irish, the Poles, or Jews would be if they were flagrantly discriminated against… [T]hey would be for violence, no matter what the consequences, no matter who was hurt by the violence.
Malcolm ends his conversation with Haley by predicting his own murder at the hands of Black Muslims. As as Haley’s epilogue recounts, Malcolm was exactly right. He was publicly assassinated by Black Muslims, sparking decades of further family tragedy.
Malcolm’s story ends with the classic cult saga trope: The second-in-command gets too big for his britches, angers his mentor, and is cast out as a traitor. It’s eerily like Nathaniel Branden’s split with Ayn Rand, though at least that one didn’t culminate in murder.
Along some dimensions, Malcolm is eminently realistic. He quickly predicts that his former brothers will try to kill him for his “betrayal.” At the same time, however, the experience never leads Malcolm to question his underlying dogmatic, emotional cognitive style or his own claim to virtue. Ponder: If, in their heyday, Elijah Muhammad had ordered Malcolm to assassinate a “traitor,” is there any doubt that Malcolm would have accepted the accusations on blind faith and fulfilled the sentence with brutal self-righteousness?
Malcolm admittedly does a little soul-searching after his purge. He rethinks his blanket condemnation of whites, and repudiates racism as a fundamental philosophy. But when he travels the world, he is as hasty as ever to embrace wicked men who tell him what he wants to hear. Nkrumah, Nasser, Faisal, Mao’s ambassadors, whatever – as long as they treat Malcolm like a prince, he hails them as philosopher-kings.
A typical case: After a few days in Saudi Arabia, he idolizes it as a model society – in sharp contrast to corrupt Lebanon:
In the Holy Land, there had been very modest, very feminine Arabian women – and there was this sudden contrast of the half-French, half-Arab Lebanese women who projected in their dress and street manners more liberty, more boldness. I saw clearly the obvious European influence upon the Lebanese culture. It showed me how any country’s moral strength, or its moral weakness, is quickly measurable by the street attire and attitude of its women – especially its young women. Whenever the spiritual values have been submerged, if not destroyed, by an emphasis on the material things, invariably, the women reflect it. Witness the women, both young and old, in America – where scarcely any moral values are left.
Despite his years of reading, Malcolm remains oblivious to basic Enlightenment ideals of tolerance or pluralism. He’s a totalitarian at heart: If something is bad – whether it’s promiscuity or racism – he wants to stamp it out by political means: violence and brainwashing.
The irony, to repeat, is that the Black Muslims’ practice demonstrates a great apolitical way for blacks to better their condition: bourgeois virtue. Unfortunately, saying so is bad for business. Malcolm frets:
It could be heard increasingly in the Negro communities: “Those Muslims talk tough, but they never do anything, unless somebody bothers Muslims.”… I felt the very real potentiality that, considering the mercurial moods of the black masses, this labeling of Muslims as “talk only” could see us, powerful as we were, one day suddenly separated from the Negroes’ front-line struggle.
If I were Malcolm, I would have responded:
We Muslims do something far more effective and reliable than political action: self-improvement. We work hard, eschew alcohol and drugs, obey the law, and form stable families. You should do the same.
Most strikingly, however, Malcolm never deeply reflects on the chief evil he condemns: “discrimination.” He never moves beyond the simplistic theory that racism is nothing but arbitrary malevolence. Notice his reaction to German courtesy:
My brother Muslim and I both were struck by the cordial hospitality of the people in Frankfurt. We went into a lot of shops and stores… My brother Muslim, who could speak enough German to get by, would explain that we were Muslims, and I saw something I had already experienced when I was looked upon as a Muslim and not as a Negro, right in America. People seeing you as a Muslim saw you as a human being and they had a different look, different talk, everything.
My question: If these hospitable German shop-owners moved to Malcolm’s Harlem, how long would their ecumenical attitude have endured? A week? A day? An hour? Based on Malcolm’s description of Harlem’s population, it’s clear that the German shop-owners would quickly become the victims of property crime, if not violence. Before long, they would be suspiciously eyeing their black customers – sparking a cycle of mutual recrimination.
Given Malcolm’s street smarts, I have to think he’d make the same prediction. But then he’d be just a step away from realizing that much of what he reduces to Satanic hate is actually applied statistics.
During this Book Club, I’ve been hard on Malcolm X. In all honesty, I don’t want to be. Malcolm is more than likeable; he’s magnetic. He and I could have shared some delightful lunches together. The right lesson to draw, though, is that we must strive to distinguish charisma from insight or virtue. For all his charm, Malcolm was a weak thinker and a bad person. If he’d ever gained real power, he probably would have emulated the self-righteous Third World dictators he so admired.