At a campaign debate yesterday Virginia Senator George Allen was asked by a television reporter whether it was true that his grandfather was Jewish. Allen was upset and clearly considered the question to border on racism, but recovered and explained a bit about his ancestry, confirming that his gradfather was indeed an Italian Jew.
Allen's Jewish heritage has also been raised as an issue by left-wing bloggers and by Jewish groups and elsewhere in the media, many of whom have been critical of the Senator for trying to downplay the ethnic diversity of his background to appeal more to a white audience. Concerns about Allen's prejudices have also been raised because of his use of the obscure term 'macaca' to refer to a dark-skinned heckler, a term which he apparently learned from his mother who was from French North Africa where the term originates.
It is certainly true that Allen's potential racism – something which many people are at least slightly tainted with – is a legitimate concern for the voters and the media. But why are his mixed ancestry or his Jewish blood issues which should concern the media or on which he ought to be criticized or interrogated? How is the ethnicity and religion of his grandfather any more newsworthy than the fact that his father was a famous football coach? Do they perhaps think that people who have Jewish grandfathers are potential dictators? After all, Hitler had a Jewish grandfather, too. For that matter, most of the leading Neocons are Jewish, and they're the modern incarnation of evil in the minds of many on the left.
I was never much of a fan of Allen prior to this incident, but it certainly arouses some sympathy to see him the target of the kind of smear campaign that's building up against him, aimed not only at this campaign but at his potential aspirations for the White House in 2008. I also gained a somewhat more positive impression of Allen after seeing him on Meet the Press on Sunday. Allen came off as straightforward and reserved, but his opponent Jim Webb came off as such a creepy, edgy near-lunatic that I started to root for Allen just to keep Webb out of office. I don't mind seeing the occasional Democrat elected, but Webb seems to hearken back to the good old days of southern Democrats in the tradition of Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd.
The Webb campaign has been accused of using anti-semitism as a campaign tactic a number of times, including circulating flyers with anti-semitic depictions of his primary opponent and racial attacks against Allen on campaign-related blogs. That theme now seems to have been picked up by the media.
The question all of this brings to my mind is whether racial ancestry is something that candidates should be campaigning on and using against their opponents, and should reporters be held accountable for lowering the tone of the campaign and their coverage of it by asking questions like this and making race a political issue?