In The Diaspora: Norman Podhoretz's prophecy

The venerable writer and thinker's support today for Rudy Giuliani is ridiculous.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Nearing his 80th year, more than a decade removed from his pulpit as editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz has signed on as a foreign-policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. It is an endeavor that can only leave Podhoretz looking irrelevant or ridiculous, irrelevant as the Giuliani bandwagon rapidly loses its wheels and ridiculous for Podhoretz's role as the candidate's World War IV-monger. You need not share many of Podhoretz's political positions to wince at this unintended folly on the part of one of the last century's most significant Jewish public intellectuals. Imagine if the founding neoconservative's favorite liberal foil, Irving Howe, had culminated his career by enabling the expedient populism of John Edwards. In one essential aspect of the 2008 presidential race, however, Norman Podhoretz has indeed proven prescient, even prophetic. Before he took his ideological turn to the Right in the Vietnam years, Podhoretz had foreseen, or at least wished for, the phenomenon known as Barack Obama. AMERICA'S STUNTED dialogue about race has meant that Obama is portrayed as the black candidate for president. It is true, of course, that Obama has brown skin and nappy hair, that he is married to an African-American wife, that he attends an African-American church. And in his tight contest with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama has logically turned to black voters as his electoral base. But Barack Obama, as most informed people know, has a mixed racial heritage as the child of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas. He embodies what was for centuries the signal fear of American bigots: miscegenation, mongrelization, the deflowering of white womanhood. How many lynchings were undertaken in service to that canard? One should not pretend these sick phantasms have left the national psyche. Just eight years ago, John McCain was smeared during the South Carolina primary with rumors that his daughter Bridget was the product of an interracial fling. (McCain and his wife in fact adopted the girl from Mother Teresa's orphanage.) And while we're on the subject of South Carolina: shortly after the state's arch-segregationist senator, Strom Thurmond, died in 2003, a seemingly black woman named Essie Mae Washington-Williams emerged to reveal that she was the illegitimate daughter of Thurmond's youthful sexual encounter with his family's maid. No episode could better distill white America's twisted attitudes about race, specifically its willful denial of racial mixing, than the distance between Thurmon's public policy and his wayward penis. With McCain and Mike Huckabee and particularly Obama, the current presidential campaign has excited and attracted young voters in a way unknown since 1968 with Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy or 1972 with George McGovern. Many of these newcomers, in their late teens or twenties, grew up in a society finally acknowledging the reality of interracial ancestry. In their era, the United States census added, for the first time, a category for people of mixed-race background. In their era, pop-culture stars from musician Lenny Kravitz to actress Halle Berry to football coach Herman Edwards were widely and uncontroversially known to have both black and white parents. In this era, to put things more precisely Jewishly, the boom in adoption has brought countless Asian and Latino children, if notably less African ones, into hitherto Jewish households and congregations. Conversion also has changed the Jewish racial map. A few weeks ago, I attended a brit for the newborn son of a black Jewish father and a white Jewish mother. My running joke about this couple is that theirs is a mixed marriage, because he's Orthodox and she's Reconstructionist. So for many young people, I have to think, Barack Obama's biracial identity serves as a selling point, a reason for approval, a touchstone for affinity. He looks like the world around them. He looks like the nation they are casually creating, one that can finally get past what the sociologist Orlando Patterson has called the "binary definition" of race in America - or, as it's known in the vernacular, the "one-drop rule," under which any amount of black blood made you all black. WHICH BRINGS us back to Norman Podhoretz, a half-century too old to be part of this evolving post-racial generation. Except that 45 years ago he anticipated it. In February 1963, Podhoretz wrote an essay for Commentary with the provocative title, "My Negro Problem - And Ours." It was a piercingly candid piece of autobiography, recounting the way he "grew up fearing and envying and hating Negroes." Podhoretz wrote of being beaten and shaken down and intimidated by the black boys of his Brooklyn slum. He wrote also of the childhood friendship with a black schoolmate that ended, forever, when the boy became aware of racial (and religious) difference. In a passage worthy of Faulkner, Podhoretz wrote of that sundered bond: "There would be embarrassed moments of catching his eye or of his catching mine - for whatever it was that had attracted us to one another as very small children remained alive in spite of the fantastic barrier of hostility that had grown up between us, suddenly and out of nowhere. Nevertheless, friendship would have been impossible, and even if it had been possible, it would have been unthinkable. About that, there was nothing we could do by the time we were eight years old." The solution Podhoretz offered to such tragedy, a solution he offered as a moral plea rather than a political platform, was interracial love, sex, and childbearing. "I believe," he wrote, "that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned…[T]he Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way." MY POINT in observing Obama is not to endorse him, much less to suggest that a conservative like Norman Podhoretz ever would or should. Jewish voters will have their own set of questions for him about whether his opposition to the Iraq War suggests a closeness to the "realist" streak of foreign-policy, which has never had much warmth for Israel. But the mere fact that Obama is a viable candidate with a mixed racial heritage gives a message that transcends partisan or ideological boundaries. The Negro problem, needless to say, is inextricably the Caucasian problem, too. Whether Barack Obama wins the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency, his example has begun to deliver America from a kind of terror that has nothing to do with enemies without and everything to do with phobias within.