Thursday, October 11, 2012

Goodbye, Gene Genovese

I realize that I am late commenting on this, but the unfortunate truth of our culture is that we do not announce the deaths of great thinkers with quite the same vigor as the deaths of mediocre musicians. I met the news of Eugene Genovese's death--a few nights ago when I finally heard it--first with disbelief and then with a profound, perhaps misplaced, sense of loss. I came to Genovese somewhat late in my academic career, after making the unlikely shift from Byzantine intellectual traditions to Southern ones, from oriental mysticism to Baconian rationalism. Genovese became something of an inspiration to me, both because of the monumental shift in focus that he represented in his academic life (from Marxist to conservative, the mind of the slave to the mind of the master) but also simply as a native northerner who developed a profound fascination for southern history. My comparatively recent turn to southern history means that I have only just scratched the surface of Genovese's contributions to the field, but Consuming Fire and The Southern Tradition proved easily the two most influential works in cementing my love for the South as an object of study. Genovese will be missed. He was the sort of scholar who might very well have gone on producing monumental new works indefinitely if life allowed it. It is my good fortune to be left with so many volumes of his thought still unread so that I might continue to have new experiences of him for years to come.

In tribute, let me leave you with these thoughts by Genovese, a voice from beyond critiquing the blindness of that overwhelming majority on the Right who proudly claim conservatism in ignorance of its most basic features:

Southern conservatism has always traced the evils of the modern world to the ascendency of the profit motive and material acquisitiveness; to the conversion of small property based on individual labor into accumulated capital manifested as financial assets; to the centralization and bureaucraticization of management; to the extreme specialization of labor and the rise of consumerism; to an idolatrous cult of economic growth and scientific and technological progress; and to the destructive exploitation of nature. Thus, down to our day, southern conservatives have opposed finance capitalism and have regarded socialism as the logical outcome of the capitalist centralization of economic and state power...

What goes largely unnoticed is that, on much of the American Right, the conservative critique of modernity has largely given way to a free-market liberalism the ideal of which shares much with the radical Left’s version of egalitarianism. The traditionalists are entitled to gloat, for they have always regarded socialism and radical democracy as the logical outcome of bourgeois liberalism. The free-market Right professes to believe in a level paying field and an attendant doctrine of equality of opportunity, despite all evidence that neither could ever be realized. The projected hopes are no less an invitation to disillusionment and despair than their counterpart in the Left’s chimera of equality of outcome and ultimate condition. And they are just as cruel. The left-wing version of egalitarianism generates the politics of envy and the degrading psychology of victimization. Those who cannot match the performance of others blame sexism, racism, and other forms of social oppression for their personal failures and shortcomings. Their frustration, anger, and irrationality produce effects all the worse since there is often a measure of truth in the complaints.

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