In 1994, he published a bombshell of an essay in Dissent magazine. (I quoted from it earlier.) The essay was called “The Question,” and the question derived from Watergate: “What did you know, and when did you know it?” What did you know about the atrocities of the Communists, and when did you know it? Genovese wrote that “in a noble effort to liberate the human race from violence and oppression we broke all records for mass slaughter, piling up tens of millions of corpses in less than three-quarters of a century. When the Asian figures are properly calculated, the aggregate to our credit may reach the seemingly incredible numbers widely claimed. Those who are big on multiculturalism might note that the great majority of our victims were nonwhite.”
Genovese wanted his fellow Marxists to take stock of their assumptions, prejudices, and careers, as he himself had. But few were willing to go along. As a class, Genovese’s colleagues were furious with him. I ask whether, in writing the essay, he had the sense of writing a professional-suicide note. (I don’t mean to shock you, but they don’t take kindly to anti-Communists in academia.) He says he knew he was saying goodbye — he was writing a farewell letter. “A lot of my friends broke relations, which I always thought was stupid. To break relations over political matters, you have to be an idiot. You must remember that today’s enemies are tomorrow’s allies, and vice versa. You might as well retain civil relations.”
It was a stroke of luck, or a stroke of grace, that Genovese and his wife, Betsey, moved to the right and moved toward religion — Catholicism, specifically — at the same time. Neither left the other behind. “We had different temperaments,” says Genovese, “but our brains were almost as one. We very rarely disagreed on things.” One disagreement, whether intellectual or temperamental, was on Wagner’s music: She hated it, he loves it.
In the field of politics, the two once thought that America could have a different kind of socialism, a socialism consonant with the American traditions of liberty and democracy. They came to the conclusion, however, that this was impossible. Oppression was baked into the socialist cake. Genovese is unwilling to call himself a free-marketeer, believing that the “logic” of the free market “leaves an awful lot of people in the gutter.” But he would support most free-market measures, because “the alternatives are dreadful.” The policies of such politicians as Mitt Romney and Chris Christie strike him as sensible.
One issue he is perfectly firm on is abortion: He is against. So was Betsey, the creator of the leading women’s-studies department in the country, no less. (It was at Emory.) In 2009, Genovese published a beautiful little volume called Miss Betsey: A Memoir of Marriage. He writes, “She gagged on abortion for a simple reason: She knew, as everyone knows, that an abortion kills a baby.”
At some point in our conversation, we discuss Israel, a country that Genovese is now very much for, another of the changes that have occurred in him. I bring up Edward Said — the late Palestinian scholar and rationalizer of terror — and quote something that Paul Johnson said about him: a “malevolent liar and propagandist, who has been responsible for more harm than any other intellectual of his generation.” Who else, in Genovese’s estimation, has done significant harm? He suggests Michel Foucault, the philosopher. “But, you know, these Frenchmen, they come and they go.” I ask about Noam Chomsky. “I don’t understand him,” says Genovese, “because clearly God gave him a very good brain, and yet for decades he has written the most rigid and knee-jerk stuff.”
Genovese thinks that American education is in sorry shape, and he bases this opinion in part on what he saw with his own eyes: In his last years in the classroom — the early 1990s — his graduate students came to him knowing all too little. They had not been adequately taught in elementary school, junior high school, high school, or college. It’s not that the students were any less bright than they had ever been: They were simply ignorant.