_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
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