Our Podhoretz Problem at 50

Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he'll accept swarthy grand-kids but won't be happy about it.
Norman Podhoretz: for the greater good he’ll accept swarthy grand-kids but won’t be happy about it.

Fifty years ago, Norman Podhoretz wrote a profoundly stupid article called “My Negro Problem – and Ours.” The article was published in Commentary magazine, which is marking the anniversary.

I say “profoundly stupid” advisedly because Podhoretz himself, despite his reprehensible politics, is not a dumb guy. In fact, he’s a gifted editor and polemicist. The article itself is sometimes praised for being an honest attempt to describe the seriousness of racism.

Yet, what other phrase than profoundly stupid can apply to an article that argues that the best solution to racism is miscegenation. At the end of the essay Podhoretz writes:  “I cannot see how [the dream of erasing color consciousness] will ever be realized unless color does in fact disappear: and that means not integration, it means assimilation, it means—let the brutal word come out—miscegenation…. in my opinion the Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way.”

Anyone who has given a moments thought to the issue would realize that 1) miscegenation has in fact been going on in the United States since the earliest European settlers and African slaves set foot on the continent 2) many of those who practiced miscegenation were in fact slave owners or white racists (the cases of Thomas Jefferson and Strom Thurmond were not universally known or accepted  at the time but anyone who knew the history of African-American was aware of racists white men raping women they regarded as inferior) and finally 3)  that far from getting rid of racism miscegenation simply increased the number of shades between white and black. (No less a figure than Ralph frigging Ellison tried to explain these elementary facts of history and race relations to Podhoretz).

In sum, you can’t get rid of racism by trying to obliterate blacks (or any other race) as a distinct group. That’s as absurd as trying to get rid of anti-Semitism by having all Jews convert to Christianity (interestingly Podhoretz does toy with the idea that it would be good for the Jews as well as blacks to disappear).  You fight racism and anti-Semitism by convincing people that racism and anti-Semitism are wrong, socially sanctioning racist and anti-Semitic behaviour and repealing racist and anti-Semitic laws. That’s the simple, obvious fact that Podhoretz did not consider in his essay.

The core problem with the essay can be seen in the title: “My Negro Problem – and Ours.” First of all, in 1963 America did not have a Negro Problem. It had a racism problem. Secondly, “My Negro Problem – And Ours” invites the reader to respond, “Speak for yourself, Norman.”

Early on in his essay Podhoretz wrote: “To me, at the age of twelve, it seemed very clear that Negroes were better off than Jews—indeed, than all whites. A city boy’s world is contained within three or four square blocks, and in my world it was the whites, the Italians and Jews, who feared the Negroes, not the other way around. The Negroes were tougher than we were, more ruthless, and on the whole they were better athletes.” He also complained that as a child he  was “repeatedly beaten up, robbed, and in general hated, terrorized, and humiliated” by blacks.

The great literary critic Marvin Mudrick wrote a splendid review of Podhoretz’s first book Doings and Undoings where he pinpointed exactly what’s wrong with the claims Podhoretz was making:

The calculated, didactic hysteria of this essay might be more persuasive if other Jews had not had the same childhood experiences as Podhoretz. They remember the fear, the hatred, the beatings. But they also remember that every bit of information that came to them, not at twelve but from the earliest age of consciousness, out of the world at large-their parents, their older brothers and sisters at college or work, the newspapers and magazines and books and movies, every text in their schools, what they saw whenever they walked into a hotel lobby or spent a day at the beach-assured them, and the Negro, that he was dirt and the future theirs: the jobs, the blonde actresses, the power of office, the arts, the money and all the places to spend it in. And these Jews will abhor Podhoretz’s ad hoc paradoxes, his belated and self-righteous squeals of pain; they will refuse to credit — except as a mask for other, unacknowledgeable personal problems — the image of a clever twelve-year-old Jewish city boy who didn’t already know that he would be a doctor, or a university professor, living in some lily-white suburb with occasional recollections of his distaste for the Negroes of his childhood.

Mudrick’s critique destroys any claim that “My Negro Problem – and Ours” should be celebrated at least for its honesty if not its policy proscriptions. Podhoretz was perhaps honest in admitting his hatred for blacks (indeed for blackness) but he didn’t really plumb the depths of his soul to find out what the roots of that hatred really came from.

(Mudrick’s essay is available in his collection On Culture and Literature and in The Hudson Review, June 1964. Someone should do a Best of Mudrick book).


As unhinged as Podhoretz’s 1963 essay was, his 2013 revisiting of these topics is even more radically divorced from reality. At least in 1963 Podhoretz was willing to acknowledge that white racism was a problem, even if his solution left much to be desire. Here are some selections from Podhoretz’s current views:

“For the almost complete abdication of black responsibility and the commensurately total dependence on government engendered by so obsessive and exclusive a fixation on white racism as the root of all racial evils has been nothing short of calamitous….Today, it is still other blacks who are most often the victims of black crime, but black-on-white violence is much more common than it was in 1963, so that many whites could now top my stories with worse. And yet even today, few of them would be willing to speak truthfully in public about their entirely rational fear of black violence and black crime…. But at the same time relations between the races have deteriorated. Gone on the whole are the interracial friendships and the interracial political alliances that were quite common 50 years ago….Thus, any and every criticism of Obama’s policies is now ascribed to racist motivations, and any and every little incident involving the mistreatment—or the alleged mistreatment—of a black is seized upon and blown up into another proof that racism remains rampant, if largely hidden, in American society….So far has this libel traveled that no less mainstream a personage than the editor of the New York Times Book Review has recently disgraced himself with a long article arguing that the ideology of the entire conservative movement is a covert species of racism, and that this ideology has now infected the Republican Party and sickened it unto death. In this intellectually and morally perverted reading, the party of Abraham Lincoln is magically metamorphosed into the party of John C. Calhoun, his greatest political enemy….No, the problem today is not white racism. Today the root cause of all the ills that plague the black community is the astounding proportion of black babies born out of wedlock who grow up without fathers, and who are doomed to do badly in school, to get into trouble on the streets, and to wind up in jail.” (Italics added)

What’s noteworthy here is the extreme ideological clarity that Podhoretz is imposing upon reality. By his account, blacks have a “total dependence” on the government, fear of black crime is “entirely” rational (and public policy doesn’t respond to these “entirely rational” fears despite the United States having an unprecedented incarceration rate), interracial friendships and political alliances are almost entirely gone (which makes it hard to explain how Obama got to be president), the GOP is still the party of Lincoln (which is why it’s now based in the South), and the “root cause of all the ills” of the black community is illegitimate births. The starkness of these claims is so violent and so easily contradicted by contrary evidence that the essay feels like the work of man who has given up trying to convince others. Once a formidable debater, Podhoretz no longer tries to engage with competing arguments but prefers to be king of his own internal mental universe.

6 thoughts on “Our Podhoretz Problem at 50

  1. Excellent takedown, particularly of Podhoretz v. 2013. The intellectual laziness and oversimplification if his unquestioning conservatism certainly makes his ’63 incarnation appear more compelling, problematic as that version is as well.

    I actually do feel his miscegenation recommendation has something to it (at least in theory) but it needs to be explained more starkly than he did: in fact what would work is not so much the elimination of the black race, but the white as well. Since it is only the former that is discussed, the point is unclear and I’m not sure he himself even realized it.

    As for Mudrick’s contention, I’m not so sure about it. DID 30s Jews receive advance notice of their absorption into mainstream “white” society or was this in fact more a phenomenon of postwar society? I would suspect more the latter; especially in working-class/recent immigrant Jewish communities. As Podhoretz notes, he did receive messages of “Jews are rich” but it seemed incongruous with his more visceral immediate reality. Still I wish he’d delved more deeply into the “future expectations” area of childhood memory, which is implicit (where did he & his friends think their parents’ protectiveness and their own academic success would lead them, if not out of the ghetto – and why did the black kids NOT have this sense?) which remains largely unexplored.

    Nice site here – and you’ve got pieces on Liberal Fascism? Oh goody; that book remains an object of immense frustration/fascination for me; buried beneath its glib rhetorical pyrotechnics is the idea of a very interesting book, about the complex lineage of fascism (a half-baked yet deeply-felt “ideology” that is a weird fusion of modernism and traditionalism), that unfortunately didn’t get written. In also interested in how Goldberg’s – and others’ (I’ve recently come across a book called “A Conservative History of the American Left”) – fascination with the history/intellectual heritage of their opponents comes at a time when their own movement/ideology is coming apart at the seams; hence, I think, the convenient obsession with where “liberalism” (hate that word as a catch-all for left-of-right ideology) hails from. It prevents them from having to ask the troubling & confusing question of where their own “conservatism” comes from…and where it’s headed. I digress, but then I usually do.

  2. Thanks for the interesting comment. Mudrick grew up in the 1920s and 1930s and his memories seem more inherently plausible to me than Podhoretz’s (in part because in my own experience kids pick up on the racial hierarchy of society at a very young age). For Mudrick’s point to stand, the 12 year old Podhoretz wouldn’t need to know that immigration Jews would one day be fully integrated into white society. All he would need to know is that Jews had access to many areas of success that blacks didn’t, that even in the 1930s there were Jewish doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc. and that if he kept to his studies that world would be open to him (in a way that it wouldn’t be for even the most academically successful black kid). I’d submit that any 1930s child who wasn’t a complete dolt was aware of that. And the young Podhoretz, whatever else we can say about him, was no dolt.

  3. This is true. An interesting variation on the theme would be the way today (or recently, anyway) many smart kids, marginalized as nerds, are encouraged to envision their bullies as future gas station attendants or McDonald’s employees; in making “liberal” common cause, the snobbishness (not just projecting and implicitly welcoming subordinate economic status on the bullies, but perhaps also tacitly assuming that they often come from, and thus won’t be able to escape from, lower-class backgrounds to begin with). Especially interesting in today’s “liberal” stridently anti-bullying culture (and don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to excuse bullying, and haven’t a clue if it can consistently be tied to any socioeconomic factors, but it’s worth unpacking some of the rhetoric surrounding it). It’s also interesting that the myth is overblown, especially in this economic environment, where a college degree means little: bullies and victims are probably pumping gas together these days. But that’s a topic for another thread, I suppose.

    -Joel (a/k/a MovieMan0283; the form used my somewhat archiac WordPress sign-in before)

    1. *Oops, a bit of hopping back and forth resulted in some non-sequiturs and repetitions. Meant to write “…or McDonald’s employees; often overlooked is the snobbishness of this attitude”


  4. hmmmm…..miscegenation……you’d think an intellectual rascist would know better than to go against something that’s been a no-no in most civilised societies through the ages. Yes, “profoundly stupid” does sort of fit.
    Well, we cant have everyone digging to deep to find out the reasons why for their pet peeves exist. Down that road lies madness
    …Interesting article

  5. Hey, there. Found this blog while looking up obituaries on Joe Sobran. I caught sight of a link to this piece on the sidebar, remembered that it had been a feud with Podhoretz and Decter that first drove Sobran off the rails, and clicked. “A pox on both houses” is all I can say. They deserved each other.

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