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Fulfilled Prophecy Puts an End to the Phantasms of Race
Nearing his 80th year, more than a decade removed from his pulpit as editor of Commentary magazine, Norman Podhoretz signed on this past fall as a foreign-policy adviser to the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani.
It is an endeavor that can only leave the "World War IV" monger Podhoretz looking irrelevant as the Giuliani bandwagon rapidly loses its wheels.
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.
In one essential aspect of the 2008 presidential race, however, 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. But Obama 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. 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 adopted daughter Bridget was the product of an interracial fling.
Obama's presidential campaign has excited and attracted young voters in a way unknown since 1968 with Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy. Many of these newcomers, in their late teens or 20s, grew up in a society finally acknowledging the reality of interracial ancestry. In their era, pop-culture stars from actress Halle Berry to baseball superstar Derek Jeter 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.
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's known in the vernacular as 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 postracial 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 also wrote 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 that 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."
The Negro problem, needless to say, is inextricably the Caucasian problem as well. Whether 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.
Samuel G. Freedman is an author and New York City-based columnist.