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What Did You Know? When?


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Editors note: This William F. Buckley Jr. “On the Right” column comes from the July 31, 1995, issue of National Review.

A student at Swarthmore College sends around a notice from the college bulletin board. It serves as a stake in the heart of memory, reminding us that the philosopher was right when he said that just as there are no permanent defeats, so there are no permanent victories. The student notice reminded us that it was time to reread the galvanizing essay by Professor Eugene D. Genovese, published last summer in the socialist quarterly, Dissent. He called the essay, “The Question.” It was the same question that Senator Howard Baker had hauntingly enunciated about Richard Nixon: “What did he know, and when did he know it?”

Professor Genovese was very early on a Communist. At age 15, he tells us. He remained so conspicuously pro-Communist that candidate Richard Nixon in 1968 publicly demanded of the state of New Jersey that he be expelled from the state university system. Mr. Genovese would not now deny any charge leveled against him by Nixon, even while rejecting Nixon’s recommendation. Genovese did indeed follow the Communist Party line. He did indeed excuse the massive killings undertaken by Stalin, his predecessors, and his successors. He excused the Soviet foreign-policy line. . . . And then, one day, it stopped. He read widely, of course; he always did and does; but one day he stumbled on Roy Medvedev’s charge that the Soviet Union had executed more human beings than the Nazi and Fascist regimes combined. Mr. Genovese concedes that he thought the brave Medvedev had probably taken to drink, and so, however clumsy his own arithmetic, he undertook a personally researched calculation. He learned that it was true, yes. But what most deeply upset him, and moves us, is his acknowledgment that he really did know it before he launched his systematic inquiry. When did he know it? How much of it did he know? That is what Genovese calls The Question.

Because he wishes to confront something other than ignorance. He is telling us that he had every reason to suspect that all the talk about torture and death under socialism was true; but that he could not command the moral courage to face the problem when he had every empirical reason to do so, and what he now asks the socialist fraternity to do is to ask the same question, and to make the going tough for themselves by acknowledging that what was wrong with Communism wasn’t aberrant leadership, it was Communism. There is no such thing as democratic socialism. To the extent it is democratic, it is less than socialist. Socialism attempts to refigure the human soul and brain, and ends by disfiguring it. And all the norms so carefully accumulated over centuries pointing to right conduct are lost, most decisively with the abandonment of religion — in the United States, “bolstered by the monstrous lie that the constitutional separation of church and state was meant to separate religion from society.” Professor Genovese is 64 years old, and he has learned pari passu with the passage of time in the bloodiest century in history. Is this learning to be compared with “learning” that the earth is round, not flat? No, because the physical features of the earth are not deniable. But it is different in the social sciences. Everything is deniable, or ignorable. The note on the Swarthmore bulletin board reads, “A group of students interested in rafting to Cuba is emerging at Swarthmore and other colleges and universities around the country.

We have these goals: 1. To successfully navigate the 90 mile stretch from Miami to Cuba. 2. Volunteer to work for the summer wherever the Revolution needs us. 3. Gain a better understanding of Socialist Cuba (particularly community participation). 4. Return to the United States with the hopes of re-educating our fellow students and people around the country. If anyone is interested, please call . . .” Could it be a hoax? Oh no, my correspondent writes me. Not at Swarthmore. Professor Genovese begs the historical and moral fraternity of scholars to ask themselves in public direct questions about their behavior over the years. “Am I wrong in believing that unless the Left reopens these fundamental questions it will have no future and deserve none? . . . No matter how many pyrrhic victories it piles up on deranged and degraded college campuses?” The only reason to raft to Cuba is to give succor to the multitudes who raft from Cuba because they have learned about socialism under socialism.



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