[Marxism] blast from the past
gary.maclennan1 at gmail.com
Mon Dec 21 21:37:42 MST 2015
I do hope the moderator will indulge me here. I have been going though my
old floppy discs and have rescued some files from oblivion. Among them was
a 1998 polemic with Professor Carl Plantinga of Calvin College. I reviewed
his book on documentary film on the film philosophy list and he wrote back
an angry reply, which I cannot find. But the substance of our disagreement
was Plantinga's gushing praise of Ed Murrow and his attack on McCarthy. So
I wrote back attacking on the philosophical and political fronts and below
is the political onslaught. If I may say so myself, it reads pretty well
some 17 years later. I would only harden it today.
Of Politics and Objectivity: Responding to Carl R. Plantinga
I was delighted to be informed by Daniel that Carl R. Plantinga was going
to reply to my and Jay Raskin's review of his book, _Rhetoric and
Representation in Nonfiction Movies_,
However Plantinga did not like my review of his book, tending to see it as
a "political diatribe". Admittedly there was political comment in my
review but there was also a good deal more philosophy. Ah well, that's all
one. "If you can't stand the heat stay out of the kitchen", I say.
Now there are two distinct areas of concern - political and philosophical.
To be frank I am anxious about pursuing political discussions on a list
devoted to film and philosophy, but I trust the moderator will bear with me
a little if I reply to the main points that Plantinga has made before
plunging into matters philosophical.
I would advise the reader who is not interested in political discussion to
skip the politics and head straight to the philosophy. There by drawing
upon the work of Roy Bhaskar, Andrew Collier and William Outhwaite, I
provide what I would argue is the solution to the objectivity problem.
Let us go back to the source in some attempt to achieve clarity. Plantinga
"In this broadcast (Report on Senator McCarthy) Edward R. Murrow, at great
personal risk, stepped out of his institutional role as "objective" news
broadcaster to take on the powerful Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and his
irresponsible red-baiting". (Plantinga, 1997: 210)
"Moreover Plantinga's characterization of McCarthyism as "irresponsible
red-baiting" (: 210) should not be allowed to go unchallenged. The “red
baiting” consisted in the terrorizing and intimidation of thousands, the
wrecking of lives and the vicious persecution of progressive minded people,
and the destruction of decent trade unionists. "
I then attempted to illustrate the inadequacy of Plantinga's formulation of
the nature of McCarthyism by drawing upon the standard philosophical
instance - Isaiah Berlin's argument concerning correct perlocutionary force.
"I am reminded here of Isaiah Berlin's famous comparison between the
following sentences about Nazi rule in Germany.
a. The country was depopulated.
b. Millions of people died.
c. Millions of people were killed.
d. Millions of people were massacred.
(In Bhaskar, 1979: 75)
All of these sentences are true but only d. is acceptable as it alone pays
some tribute to the dead. The victims of Auschwitz deserve better than
"depopulated". Similarly those who suffered at the hands of Joseph McCarthy
(and President Truman) deserve better than "irresponsible"."
Plantinga lost the plot here. He suggests that I am proposing an
"analogous understatement about the Nazi Holocaust". He seems to be
unaware of the import of Berlin's example. Thus he accuses me of inferring
that he is a Nazi apologist. I did no such thing. If I had had the thought
or even a slight suspicion that Plantinga was a fascist I would not have
paid a penny for his book, never mind the $95 it cost me. Nor would I be
bothering with a reply.
I must, though, confess that before I opened Plantinga's book, I was
expecting him to be a liberal- a typically apolitical product of the
Carroll-Bordwell school of thought. Now it is true that I indulged in some
tautology and described him as a "naive liberal". That was a little wicked
of me but in my defence I would point out that I could have compounded the
tautology by saying "naive American liberal". Howsoever I could have
characterized his politics, the truth is that nothing in Plantinga's book
or reply has shaken my initial expectations.
Let me try and clarify my original point. Plantinga was wrong to state
that McCarthyism was "irresponsible red-baiting". It was much, much worse.
Moreover I say this with some force for the point is an important one. From
1947 onward the Left in the USA were subjected to the most brutal of
persecutions. McCarthyism was just one small episode in a war to eliminate
progressive thought from American public life. And I have to say that when
I read statements like Plantinga's it is brought home to me just how
successful and complete the destruction of progressive and radical thought
was within the American academy.
I want to be especially clear here. Plantinga seems to think that in
criticising his use of the term 'irresponsible red-baiting." I have set up
a criterion for political correctness and that I am demanding that he
satisfy this. Not so. It is the victims of McCarthyism that deserve
better from such an obviously intelligent person as Plantinga is. Perhaps
he should read Lillian Hellman's _In Scoundrel Time_. It will show him
something of the terrible damage done to decent people by the witch hunts
of the Cold War. It also might shake his faith in the courage of American
Which brings me to the other political disagreement between us? Plantinga
wants to stand by his champion, the fearless Edward R. Murrow, - the white
knight who slew the dragon from Wisconsin. I say he got courage to attack
McCarthy only when he had the American Army in his corner. I think an
examination of the record supports my point.
But Plantinga asks with obvious sincerity
"How can MacLennan deny that it is risky to make a personal attack against
a US Senator on national television in a violent and politically-polarised
I can deny it is risky because the White House and the US Military had
turned against McCarthy and were about to take him out. Plantinga actually
says that the US military could not have protected Murrow. Yet it was the
Military that destroyed the Junior Senator from Wisconsin. Really the
problem between Plantinga and me is that he has no idea what political
courage means. If Plantinga wants to find an example of courage he should
take a look at the documentary _Hollywood on Trial_ and watch John Howard
Lawson. He knows full well that his career is ruined and that he is heading
to prison, but yet he stands up to the red baiters. Now that was courage,
but let us leave Plantinga with his illusions about Murrow. They are after
all relatively harmless.
However there is one statement which should not be allowed to go
unchallenged. He writes:-
"MacLennan also denies Murrow's courage because both Murrow and elements of
the US Military were alarmed by McCarthy's fascistic and mind-numbingly
horrific activities (there, is that sufficiently outraged?)"
Well it is of course more accurate to describe McCarthy as "horrific" and
"fascistic" and I can only wish that Plantinga could have felt the truth of
this without me prompting him. However again let that be. What does
bother me here and what I will not allow to pass is the clear statement
that the US military were once alarmed by "fascistic and horrific
activities". Here Plantinga has boldly gone well beyond naivety and is in
danger of ending up deep within the zone of stupidity.
Is there a single historical instance where the army of the United States
has shown alarm at fascism? Plantinga says "we could all use a political
education." Absolutely correct and this is his chance to educate this old
communist. I await enlightenment humbly. However please do not use the
tired and worn out canard of WW2 being "a war against fascism". It was
fought to advance the interests of American imperialism and the immediate
and subsequent activities of the American army prove that. It may shock
Plantinga to his liberal roots but if he should open a book by Noam Chomsky
he would discover meticulously researched proof that the butchers of the
Pentagon are the mainstays of world fascism. Why not try Chomsky's Year
501 (1993) and/or Rethinking Camelot (1993)? They contain what Roy Bhaskar
has correctly described as "devastating documentation".
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