Bamboozled: Two Recent Biographies Shed New Light on Liberal Icons

Did you hear that ripping sound? Two liberal icons known by their silly stage names -- Mahatma Gandhi and Malcolm X -- have just been torn down from their sanctified perches thanks to a pair of massively researched but finally damning new biographies.

Both men, it turns out, were at pains to take on phony identities. Each hid his homosexuality, each was racist, each took pains to manufacture favorable coverage, each was driven by petty hatreds instead of shining ideals -- each of these supposedly principled figures was an out-and-out phony.

Perhaps the most delicious irony of this myth-busting is that writers with impeccable liberal credentials are the ones who are doing the exposing -- and implicitly rebuking the generations of journalists who actively participated in the distortion and exaggeration.

Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, by the Columbia scholar Manning Marable, who died just as the book was being sent to stores, shows us a “profoundly flawed individual,” Princeton professor of African-American studies Melissa Harris-Parry told NPR, which called the book “an abrupt departure from ‘heroic’ and ‘perfected’ visions of the African-American minister that were set in motion by The Autobiography of Malcolm X and perpetuated in American popular culture.”

That “autobiography,” as David Remnick makes clear in a review in The New Yorker, consisted in large part of Malcolm Little making up tall tales about his life while being egged on by the sensationalist writer Alex Haley, whose later book Roots would also turn out to be mostly fictitious (and partly plagiarized). Haley, says Marable, wanted to write “a potboiler that would sell,” facts be damned.

Essential to the Malcolm X legend is the "autobiography's" story that his father was murdered by being laid on railroad tracks by white supremacists. But Malcolm himself said in a 1963 speech that the death was an accident. Haley and Malcolm exaggerated the latter’s youthful criminal behavior to make the later redemption myth more salient. They also painted the young Malcolm as uninterested in politics until his famous prison conversion to the nutty preachings of the Nation of Islam, but in fact Malcolm’s father was a Marcus Garvey devotee who raised his son in the same school of black separatism.