Fascinated and appalled by Louis Farrakhan, Singh (a British-based political scientist) and Levinsohn (a Chicago-based journalist) each write meditations on this man characteristic of their craft. Singh offers a rigorous and scholarly but ponderous and even boring analysis, very much from a distance. Levinsohn presents a quirky, self-indulgent, sometimes charming, but unreliable account premised on the immediacy of her search for an interview with Farrakhan.
Singh seeks to understand the causes of Farrakhan's rise and its implications for the United States; religion and worldview have only the slightest importance for this author, whereas black American politics are paramount. Although shakey on the Nation of Islam (referring mistakenly to its seven daily prayers and female Fruit of Islam guards) and also on conservative politics in the United States (thinking Farrakhan shares important features with Jesse Helms and Ronald Reagan), Singh has a thorough grasp of American racial politics and a clear sense of his subject's place in them. Correctly, he de-emphasizes the importance of antisemitism to Farrakhan's message while placing much greater emphasis on his vituperative attacks on other black leaders. These are based on the leaders' social liberalism, which is so much out of tune with the electorate's conservatism: "Farrakhan's popular appeals are also in part based upon his persistent exploitation of the disjunctures between elite black attitudes and popular African-American beliefs." In Singh's view, the Nationa of Islam's (NOI) religious doctrines and Farrakhan's eclectic theological claims are most appropriately regarded as merely an embellishment of more fundamental traditionalist and populist political tenets."
Arguing against those who see Farrakhan as a media creation, Singh points to his having built up a large constituency without help from the mainstream newspapers and television. He concludes from this that the best way to fend off Farrakhan's ugly and threatening influence is "to accord him the opportunity-and even the responsibility-for implementing effective political, economic, and social change." However scary this course, the author maintains, it is the best way to call a demagogue's bluff.
Levinsohn, has an intelligent mind and a good knowledge of race relations in the United States, but she remains captive to a far-left mentality that distorts her understanding of this subject (poor black women in search of domestic work she terms "victims") as well as international politics (the Kuwait conflict she dubs "George Bush's curious war against Iraq"). Her ignorance sometimes causes her needlessly to speculate about well-known facts (such as the physical characteristics of the NOI founder, W. D. Fard, whose huge portrait has graced many of the movement's public events). She repeats old mistakes (that Farrakhan was expected to succeed Elijah Muhammad, that Malcolm X was more powerful than Elijah Muhammad) and initiates new ones (Farrakhan never mentions in speeches the old NOI goal of a separate black state, that the NOI does not follow up on its threats of violence).
Despite these shaky underpinnings, Levinsohn does offer insights to help decipher Farrakhan, showing the role of his family's West Indies background and explaining the "aura of madness" that surrounds him. She calls him "the most influential man in the black world" but also "one of the shrewdest opportunists in recent history," someone who "doesn't care" about such issues as job training and the problems of the black poor. Instead, his "interest is in building a great and strong Nation of Islam, with branches wherever there are black people."