Two public figures—Rudy Giuliani and Malcolm X, different in fundamental ways—share something in common. Each voice exemplifies a prominent political discourse in America—one conservative, the other progressive.
The juxtaposition came to life recently by way of independent, coinciding events. On February 18, Giuliani made strident interpretations about President Obama’s feelings toward America. A few days later—on February 21—Americans paused to recognize the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination.
Giuliani’s comments made headlines: “I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn't love you. And he doesn't love me. He wasn't brought up the way you were brought up,” Giuliani said. That attribution—interpreted variously as arrogant, dismissive, and even racist—also carries truth-value for some. “7 of 10 Republicans in a poll say Obama doesn’t love America” reported The Washington Post (February 26). We should “thank Rudy Giuliani” said Congressperson Darrell Issa.
For his part, Malcolm X was concerned about love of country, too, but in a different way. “You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it,” he said. Word like those—uniquely his in both substance and style—resonate with many people today, including those who were born long after his death. It’s the reason why Malcolm X has “enduring relevance.”
These two—Rudy and Malcolm X—speak different languages. That’s the way The New York Times’ Charles Blow frames it. It’s a reasonable framing, too. And a big difference is how the languages handle critique. “Does love of country bestow exemption from critique,” Blow asks? Absolutely not, would be Malcolm X’s response.
Giuliani? His answer would likely depend on evaluating the messenger. Yes, might be the answer if critique is viewed as criticism; if questions about America mitigate praise of America; and if ebullient expressions about country are absent. “Yes” could even lead to characterizing a sitting U.S. president as “the other,” as “not one of us.”
But what if those interpretations aren’t based in reasonable judgment? What transpires when “having common enemies matter more than factual detail?”
It’s hard to believe Giuliani would (or could) say what he said. But it's no more inconceivable than what has happened to Malcolm X’s public persona over the years. He has evolved from "radical status" of the ‘60s to national prominence today, a figure that's respected and admired by a cross-section of Americans. Neither outcome should boggle American minds—not in today’s environment, at least. We live in a “both-and” reality.
How did it come to be? It’s a matter of history. With Giuliani, it’s a matter of today meeting yesterday. His words—uttered just last month—fan the flames of an American conservative revolution that began in the ‘70s. For Malcolm X, it’s a matter of yesterday meeting today. His words, spoken in a seemingly very different America—the yeasty social movement days of the ‘60s—relate well to the world we live in today.
What’s the story on the conservative side?
Pulitzer-Prize winner author, Hedrick Smith, does a good job of explaining the conservative evolution in his book, Who Stole the American Dream? As Smith sees it, the story began (in earnest) in the early ‘70s. It came by way of an unexpected conservative backlash—a reaction to the presumed failed leadership of fellow conservative, President Richard Nixon.
It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, Viet Nam protests, the Women’s Movement, environmental organizing (“Earth Day”), and Ralph Nader’s proclamations regarding product quality and safety. Conservatives thought that Nixon had “caved in” to populist political pressure by enabling Federal legislation and policies that hurt Corporate America.
In response to these presumed policy errors, a prominent attorney named Lewis Powell wrote a lengthy memorandum to America’s business leaders. In that memo—known today as “The Powell Memo” (sometimes as “The Powell Manifesto”)—Powell argued that Corporate America needed to organize, just as “the people did,” to assert and advance business interests. Political power needs to be mobilized in the interests of business, Powell urged, and that power needs to be used “aggressively and with determination….” The critical ingredients, he proposed, were organizing and organization—the same ingredients used in populist movements.
Powell put it this way: “Strength lies in…careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.”
Sounds like the Koch Brothers of today, doesn’t it? But it was long ago, 1971 to be specific. And later that year Powell was named to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Business took Powell’s advice and efforts have continued unabated for over 40 years. It was epochal in nature, Smith asserts, because it “sparked a business and corporate rebellion that would forever change the landscape of power in Washington and would influence our policies and economy even now.”
How so? Business spread its creed through public and political outreach—seeking public support for “why business is good for you” and funding candidates who supported “the agenda.” It worked, not only for business, but also as a way to promulgate a social philosophy for America. The ideas and preferred actions—fringe thinking for many beforehand—began seeping into the mainstream as “what’s good for America writ large."
The intellectual architecture of the movement is both neoliberal and neoconservative.
Neoliberalism—the prominent socio-economic philosophy of “The Corporate Right”—now imbues popular thought, public preferences, and institutional operations across sectors. The basic tenants of neoliberalism include interpreting social life and success in “market” terms (e.g., return-on-Investment), cutting public expenditures for public and social services, deregulation, privatization, and replacing “the public good” with emphasis on buying, owning, and amassing private goods.
Neoliberalism’s “cousin”—neo-conservatism—is also widely embraced by Americans today. Its basic tenants include rejecting the notion that large government is best for America; accepting economic and social inequality as inevitable; supporting local solutions over Federal solutions.
Neoliberalism’s “cousin”—neo-conservatism—is also widely embraced by Americans today. Its basic tenants include rejecting the notion that large government is best for America; accepting economic and social inequality as inevitable; supporting local solutions over Federal solutions; and—especially applicable to understanding Giuliani’s comments—being a strong advocate for democracy, democratic systems, and America’s leadership role in advancing and protecting both.
What will it take to counter this 40-year evolution? A “political metamorphosis,” Smith contends, “a populist renaissance” with a “rebirth of civic activism from average people at the grass roots.” Millions of Americans will have to come off the sidelines, Smith speculates, “in order to reestablish ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ and to achieve a genuine people’s agenda in Washington.”
How might that happen? That’s where Malcolm X factors into the equation. Although Malcolm X wrote, spoke, acted, and lived in a different time from today, his words and style apply well in contemporary America. Consider what Brian Gilmore had to say recently about Malcolm X and how his words apply to an issue facing America today—blacks, the police, and what happened recently in cities around the country: “A black man in America lives in a police state. He doesn’t live in any democracy. He lives in a police state.” (Malcolm X, 1964)
One of Malcolm X’s daughters, Ilyasah Shabazz, spoke recently about his contemporary relevance (The New York Times, 1/20/15). Shabazz offered a personal interpretation of why her father remains popular; speculated about what he might say about today’s scene; and wondered how he might advise today’s social change leaders, especially youth. Her words are worth highlighting.
“…he’s a model for strident activism.”
“…there’s /no such/ prominent, resonant voice in the modern dialogue.”
“…slogans aren’t action…. “…he did not simply cry “Inequality!” He demanded justice and he laid out the steps necessary to achieve it.”
“He’d applaud the “Hands Up” gesture for its sheer dramatic effect, but also critique it as rank capitulation that ironically accommodates the very goal of police brutality…. He’d agree that “Black Lives Matter”… but also note that uniformed police officers who disagree are not likely to be persuaded by a hashtag.”
“He’d bemoan the lack of sustained, targeted activism. …Far too many have moved on.”
“He would challenge today’s young protesters to draw upon the nation’s rich history of activism…. /They/…often act like they are starting from square one…. It’s a symptom of our failure to teach this generation about…/how/…our economic and social systems actually function.”
“He would demand that today’s activists…fight the impulse (of the news media and white America) to explain away activism as irrational, temporary, or pointlessly violent.”
“He would recognize that while some things haven’t changed in 50 years…many have…. He’d encourage activists to take advantage of…access /and opportunity/…to take power inside the system as well as outside it.”
“He’d emphasize the importance of …local organizing…. Grassroots work is not flashy, and rarely celebrated on the national media level, but that is where change begins.”
“He was never one man acting alone. Malcolm didn’t create black anger with his speeches: he organized and gave direction to it. A modern hero alone won’t bring us a magic solution.”
“He’d…encourage…/today’s activists/…to follow his lead and never take the path of least resistance.”
So there we have it: Rudy G. and Malcolm X, side by side: today meets yesterday as yesterday meets today. They offer radically different views—one conservative, the other progressive—about what’s best for America and how to achieve what’s best.
“America, the beautiful,” is seems, is in the eye of the beholder. It has always been that way. It always will be that way—for Rudy G., Malcolm X, and the rest of us, too.
Note: I dedicate this article to my long-time friend and colleague, John Duley. John was involved actively in The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. At 94 years of age he remains active in civic affairs. John is a remarkable human being and an exemplary Progressive leader. Read about him and his work here.