[sixties-l] Re: _Rebels with a Cause_

From: radman (resist@best.com)
Date: Sun May 20 2001 - 19:18:41 EDT

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    _Rebels with a Cause_

    Date: Wed, 09 May 2001
    From: "Doug Rossinow" <Doug.Rossinow@metrostate.edu>

    It's easy to sympathize with what Wesley Hogan has to say. However, I have
    to admit that my immediate response to Jesse Lemisch's criticism of this
    film was one of gratitude and essential agreement. Upon further
    consideration I don't agree with everything he has had to say.
    Specifically, other radical historian friends of mine have reminded me that
    the old left suffered a kind of sustained smear campaign and persecution
    (i.e. McCarthyism) that the new left never did, and that therefore it seems
    more understandable that films about the old left would be simply
    affirmative, as efforts to counteract scurrilous and widespread rightist
    propaganda. No doubt some will say that the new left has been smeared
    plenty, but really there's no comparison to what the Communist movement
    endured. While films like _Seeing Red_ are intended to rescue one movement
    from condemnation and distortion, _Rebels with a Cause_ seems like it's
    meant to rescue another movement from obscurity. There's a difference, and
    it means that (1) we might evaluate these films differently and (2) they
    are not simply two manifestations of a single deep problem of the left
    having trouble telling the truth about itself. Indeed, the makers of
    _Rebels with a Cause_ can only hope that those on the left will view it
    that way - if they can tap into our instinctive and quite justified anger
    over the red scare for their own 1960s-related purposes, then so much the
    better for their film!

    Aside from this caveat, I still incline toward Lemisch's basic criticism:
    that this new film seems like simply an exercise in self-affirmation.
    Hogan's report on how students reacted to the movie is obviously of great
    interest; the proof is in the pudding. However, despite Lemisch's call for
    truth and honesty, I don't think this is a disagreement over relativism vs.
    objectivism (to use an ugly term). It's simply a question of audience.
    The film might be very good for students, especially young ones. It may
    teach historians nothing. To sophisticates like ourselves, it may seem
    quite precious to see long-remembered names attached to middle-aged faces
    telling us that, no, really, they did change the world once upon a time.
    Personally, I think the frustration of these grand aspirations, rather than
    persecution or even erasure from historical memory, is exactly the
    experience in which this desire by former SDSers to tell their stories is

    Incidentally, I don't think it's true that historical documentaries give
    short shrift to the voices of the historical actors themselves. I use many
    such documentaries in my classes, and sometimes I actually feel that the
    perspective and knowledge offered to students by these films is limited by
    the heavy reliance on participants, who often have their own agendas.

    The issue Lemisch raises for us, I think, is finally whether left
    historians can stand to subject left-wing movements to the same kind of
    historical analysis that we turn on everything else. More explicitly, I
    would ask, What does a radical analysis of radicalism look like? Is it
    just affirmation? We tend to get more interpretive than that when dealing
    with any other subject. Robert Pardun, also involved in producing _Rebels
    with a Cause_, took me to task in a review of my book (in which he was a
    prominent "character") for imposing an interpretive framework on the
    movement he was part of. He liked the parts where I just told his story
    and that of his comrades, but entirely rejected the interpretive bits.
    That seems like the problem in a nutshell.

    One closing thought: Hogan raises a problem that we can't easily dismiss in
    wondering if serious criticism of left-wing movements will not inevitably
    dampen hopes for change by tainting the instruments of change. Maybe
    that's true. But if so, and if we consider that a factor we have to
    consider in the writing and teaching of history, then radical historians
    might have to allow that this is also true of other objects of our analytic
    gaze. Only some radicals have thought that radicals and radicals alone
    advance social progress (and then we get into who are the real radicals,
    yes?). If you don't hew to a rather sectarian viewpoint, then you might
    have to consider the damage we can do in much of our professional activity.
      It's hard to limit the scope of this consideration once we grant it

    Doug Rossinow

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