Monday, August 07, 2006

# Posted 4:40 AM by Patrick Porter  

MCCARTHYISM, MYTH AND TERRORISM: When it comes to the emotive topic of Soviet espionage in the USA, William Nolte accepts two assertions that are often treated as mutually exclusive:
For too long, the demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy has been used to argue the innocence of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. The truth, in the end, is more complex and even more interesting: McCarthy was a demagogue, and Hiss and his colleagues were traitors.
I'm hardly qualified to comment on whether Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty. But I'm more interested in the reductive way the debate about McCarthyism can turn the issue into an 'either/or' proposition.

Of course, Senator McCarthy's own deliberately polarising strategy probably contributed to this.

It is true that Senator McCarthy was a demagogic rogue with little regard for due process. At teh same time, it can be true that some of his targets were, in fact, Soviet agents. Some Cold Warriors fought dirty. But this doesn't automatically entail that serious Soviet infiltration was wholly fictitious.

Anyway, I was slightly irritated by the film V for Vendetta which I finally saw the other night.
Lots of good acting and nice effects and cinematography and everything. Its about the campaign of a vigilante, dressed up as Guy Fawkes, against a totalitarian state.

But in its portrayal of a future dystopia in the UK, it portrays all terrorism, all perceived threats, all security problems, as things manufactured by the state to keep its citizens obedient and scared.

No doubt responsible citizens are entitled to be concerned about the potential and actual abuse of power by the state in the name of our security. But it would have been much more interesting if the film had accepted that some fears of external security threats are justifiable, that there are predators in the world beyond the state, even if the state might exploit those fears for its own interests.

The film Under Siege with Denzel Washington and Annette Benning, which came out in the late 90's, accepted the proposition that both real threats and state exploitation of fear can exist, making the film much more uncomfortable, messy and interesting.

Finally, I could be wrong but V for Vendetta seems to celebrate the mission of the hero to blow up Britain's Parliament like his historical forbear.

At a time when people who lived under dictatorships are getting to vote for the first time, and voting under threat of violence, and at a time when insurgents are blowing up all sorts of government buildings to disrupt the effort to create a federal democracy in Iraq, this was an unfortunate way for the film to reaffirm democratic values. Oh well, just a film.
(15) opinions -- Add your opinion

"I'm hardly qualified to comment on whether Hiss and the Rosenbergs were in fact guilty": nor I, but I understand that the the already persuasive evidence was made incontrovertible by the Venona decrypts.
Small quibble. The wonderful film with Washington and Benning was actually titled "The Siege." "Under Siege" was a 1992 movie with Steven Seagal.
I had the exact same reaction to that movie. I left thinking that Hollywood has maybe gotten a bit ahead of itself -- that in its over-eager, self-righteous rush to be the brave and lonely voice cautioning us about the exploitation of fear by the state, it has skipped a whole generation of movies concerning the nature and validity of the very security threat that the state exploits. That apparently isn't interesting, or least it isn't PC.
The film was, I felt, a damaging oversimplification of the graphic novel. It was worse than the usual broad-brush smoothing out of text to film; this I felt was wholesale misappropriation. Please don't judge the source text on the film if you've not yet read it - Alan Moore's novel has a far more sophisticated understanding.

Also, Oxblog, I wondered what you'd make of this.
Hey Paul,

to answer your second question first, if there's one thing worse than notoriety, its not being talked about. Or however the saying goes.

thanks for the tip on the graphic novel, I'll check it out if I can get my hands on it.

Wilde: "The only thing worse than being talked about is - not being talked about."

I'm in Oxford on Friday night, I think. You free for a beverage?
The most significant change between page and screen in "V for Vendetta" is that V, in the original graphic novel, was not pro-democracy. He was an anarchist who vehemently believed that the only acceptable form of government was NO government at all. He also was not, in any sense, a populist. His attitude towards the great mass of people was that they would either learn to live within an anarchy or else die amid the resulting chaos.

The movie's big mistake was making V a character and trying to give him a personality. In the graphic novel he is more like a force of nature, devoid of empathy or humanizing characteristics. Evey is the one the reader identifies with.
That link to "The ten most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries" is one of the funniest things I've read for ages. So Mill on "Liberty" and Keynes on economic theory are more harmful than "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion"?? Telling women to go to work is worse than telling people that Jews eat children?? Where did they get that list of phoney professors? I also find it hard to believe that Ralph Nader's thoughts on car design really merit their place, but perhaps I've just been brainwashed by Charles Darwin...
"Also, Oxblog, I wondered what you'd make of this."

Three things:

1) I had no idea Phyllis Shlafly could read. (And when she's the well-known name on the list, you know you're in serious cuckoo-cloud land.)

2) I would venture to guess that Hitler and Mao are happy exceptions, included to give the rest of the selections that good ol' patina of having - literally - killed millions of people.

3) The funniest thing about this list is that it provides links to Amazon so you could... um, BUY the books they loathe. And of course, Amazon is a major GOP contributor. Maybe it's a sneaky way for the murderous and the debauched to support the Republicans.
Of course, it's easy to check claims like "of course, Amazon is a major GOP contributor."

Patrick, is there any evidence that Hiss or the Rosenbergs were not guilty?
"And of course, Amazon is a major GOP contributor."

Dear bgates,

"Patrick, is there any evidence that Hiss or the Rosenbergs were not guilty?"

I simply don't know. The point is, not having read any of the evidence, or at least not for a long time, I didn't want to pronounce on their guilt.

Regardless, their guilt or innocence was incidental to the point I was making: just because McCarthy misbehaved, doesn't necessarily mean that there was no Soviet infiltration of the US government.
Paul de man,

seriously, what's your real name? I'm confused. I might be around Fri night.

Patrick, I don't think you have to make a completely independent pronouncement. As I recall, there was a trial verdict. I agree with your larger point, but your aside about the Rosenbergs suggests an unsustainable level of openmindedness. You don't have similar doubts about the JFK assassination, I bet. Or the moon landing. Why cut the Rosenbergs more slack than Lee Harvey Oswald?

I accept that LHO killed JFK because I've read some stuff about it and accept the premise. I have almost read nothing about Hiss/Rosenberg and know very little about it. That's the only difference.

PS Being accused of having an 'unsustainable level of openmindedness' is not something that happens to yours truly every day!
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