A Letter to a Former Colleague

 

 

     Gene Genovese was for several years a colleague of mine at the

University of Rochester.  I had many administrative dealings with him, as

he was Chairman of the history department while I was Associate Dean for

Graduate Studies and hence governor, as it were, of the budget for

graduate student fellowships.  But I also would see him at the faculty

club, and in fact we played poker together quite often at a regular game

at his house.

 

     Since I also took an interest in history and social questions I

was naturally an opponent of most of what Genovese stood for in his

Communist sympathies, but I didn't often argue with him, as he wouldn't

argue seriously with people like me.  He thought he understood me, as I

thought I understood him, so that it seemed that little needed saying.  In

more recent times, however, Genovese has left that cause, and while still

maintaining a Marxist philosphy (as I have been led to believe) he has

become a spokesman for a sort of new conservatism that doesn't really have

a name.  I would venture to say that this new point of view is much the

same as that taken up earlier by Genovese's erstwhile enemy at Rochester,

Christopher Lasch, but I might be missing a subtle point here.

 

     When I read Genovese's remarks, reproduced (in part) below, in the

right-wing journal Chronicles, I was surprised to see that even in his

conversion he had apparently continued to miss a point of some importance,

and so I wrote the following letter to explain it.  I am glad to say it

received a sympathetic and pleasant reply, a far cry from the sort of ironic

response my comments in the faculty club used to elicit in the old days.

         

 

                     Department of Mathematics

                     UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER

                     Rochester, New York 14627

                     Tel (716) 275-4429 or 244-9368

                     FAX 716 244 6631 or 442 3339

 

Ralph A. Raimi, Professor

 

                                                                                           27 July 1994

 

Eugene D. Genovese

1487 Sheridan Walk

Atlanta, Georgia 30324

 

Dear Gene,

 

      This is what the computer does:  I began by making a notation, as

I often do, of things I have read, with reference, just in case I want it

later (not for scholarship, which isn't my thing, but as an idea for

further thought).  So I took down the quotation below and began my small

note on why I thought that "political power" line was curious.  But the

thing segué'd into a longer comment, and finally what amounted to a letter

to you, for all that you appear in the third person in what I wrote.  So I

reproduce it for your pleasure.  Call it a fan letter.  I have been

following your polemical career with great interest.

 

--------------------------------------------------------------

 

Eugene D. Genovese: from The Southern Tradition and the Black Experience,

an article based on his speech of acceptance of the 1993 Ingersoll

Foundation's Richard M. Weaver Award, as printed in Chronicles, August,

1994.

 

[Arguing that the difference between the black and other "immigrants"

makes their problem unique]:

 

      "...its uniqueness emerges from the history of slavery and

segregation, which confronted black people with a raw oppression and

exploitation well beyond that experienced by European immigrants ...

Other peoples contributed much to the development of an American national

culture, but despite acute discrimination, they were not condemned as an

inferior race, and they were able to progress and consolidate their gains

through the steady accretion of political power. Not so for Africans and

their descendants..."

 

      What is curious about this passage is the phrase, "to progress and

consolidate their gains through the steady accretion of political power,"

with its casual assumption that the accretion of political power has some

importance in that context.  Genovese is talking about the disaster that

has recently taken over the black community, that is, the emergence of an

underclass, not to say criminal, culture, that is preventing their taking

an appropriate place in American, or human, society.  But this disaster

has accompanied, indeed followed, on the blacks obtaining a more than

proportional political power.  That underclass mentality was not

overwhelming their community in the days of Jim Crow.  Did political power

consolidate, or did it prevent, their "gains"?

 

      And to consider other groups:  Was it a rise to political power that

caused the progress, and consolidated the gains, of the Chinese, or

Japanese, or (East) Indian groups in America?  Or the Jews?  Who but the

Irish were the leaders in urban politics in the large American cities

fifty to a hundred years ago?  And who (among the whites) but the Jews

were forbidden entry to clubs, suburban neighborhoods, medical schools and

the like?  Yet did the Irish become scientists, musicians, movie-makers,

artists and big-businessmen in anything like the proportions of the Jews?

 

      I do not make this comment to denigrate anything else in Genovese's

analysis, for his view of the problem of the blacks -- their problem and

ours, as Podhoretz once put it -- is one I respect.  I only call attention

to this remnant of old-left thinking, somewhere in a corner of the

Genovese consciousness, that he really ought to extirpate.  Political

power does not consolidate social -- or even economic, or cultural --

gains, such as they are.  Liberty does it.  Equality of opportunity -- or

at any rate some opportunity -- makes the difference, and that's not the

same as having a friend at City Hall, or in the White House.

 

      Alas, I see this equality of opportunity seriously compromised in

today's USA, and I see the "awarding" of disproportionate political power

to the black community as one sad manifestation of this disease.  I do

wish we could stick to the one-man-one-vote principle.  Let the blacks

segregate themselves if they like, thereby gaining a majority in some

places (even as the Chassidim have a majority in some places) if they

really want one.  But I have never felt unrepresented because my

Congressman was not a Jew.  Moynihan and D'Amato, goodness!

 

      I would agree that a largely black school district might want to

impose some disciplinary rules that a largely white district might not,

and I wish all school districts had more freedom from the state than they

have; but I'm afraid that compulsory Christian prayer sessions is not in

the cards, even if Christianity is a good discipline.  I find it hard to

see what "autonomy" can mean, for the black community, beyond what it has

now.  We all have it, in fact, to a large degree; but private and voluntary. 

We can send our kids to Cheder, but we must not ask the state

to build some because we can't afford enough of them. What is public has

to be neutral as among definable subgroups, be they men (as against

women), homo (as against hetero)(sexuality), Jew against Christian, or

black against white.  Inequality in the law instantly leads to

manipulation, with "all the advantages that theft has over honest toil."

That's what started this all.

 

      The white put-down of the black, from slave times to today, has been

indefensible; but it was not the cause of the collapse of Christian

morality, parental responsibility, and the work ethic among blacks, which

is quite recent and is seen enough among whites to deny the racism, or

former-slave, thesis right there. What we are doing now is also terrible,

and a most terrible irony that it is being done in the name of reparations.

 

      If I were to make a rough and ready prescription, I would say that

in the time of the Messiah we shall beat our social workers into

policemen, and then shall the lion eat straw like the bullock.

 

                                                     R