Good Night, and Good Luck is reviewed by Len Phillips.
Like Tennyson’s echoes, the reverberations of the Cold War are “dying, dying, dying”, but like his “horns of Elfland”, they are still “faintly blowing”.
I’ve just been to see George Clooney’s much acclaimed Good Night, and Good Luck. It is beautifully directed, despite the occasional anachronism. (Did men really wear wedding rings back then?)
There were about six other people in the theatre – no threat to Harry Potter from this quarter.
In black and white footage evoking early 1950s television, CBS journalist Ed Murrow takes on anti-communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy, despite the misgivings of the network’s management.
McCarthy is eventually brought down, but by the US Army, not Murrow.
Actually, there was never a lack of non-leftists, military and otherwise, who saw through McCarthy. Malcolm Muggeridge (who had witnessed the horrors of Stalinism as a journalist in the Soviet Union during the 1930s) satirised him in Senator McCarthy McCarthyised, or The Biter Bit.
Paul Johnson followed Arthur Miller in calling his campaign a “witch-hunt”. In fact, Miller’s The Crucible could just as easily represent Stalin’s inquisitions, with the qualification that McCarthyism caused only one innocent death, that of Ethel Rosenberg.
Ravages of communism
Despite the extremely low level of damage done by McCarthyism compared to the ravages of communism, the West’s academics and journalists continue to give it disproportionate attention because it is so useful to them. If McCarthyism had not existed, it would have been necessary for them to invent it.
George Clooney’s self-serving film is just another way of ingratiating himself with Hollywood and the rest of the left-liberal establishment, despite his risible attempts to posture as the brave and lonely voice of truth. Good Night, and Good Luck is unashamedly didactic. Cold Warrior Clooney really hammers home his points:
One: McCarthyism was a Very Bad Thing.
Two: The perils of McCarthyism are discernible in recent anti-terrorist legislation.
Three: Television muffed its opportunity to develop a public hunger for political debate, which would have replaced pap such as the Ed Sullivan Show and Liberace (shown here expressing his hopes for a wife and children).
While left-wing in its sympathies, Clooney’s film is not overtly pro-communist. At one point Murrow even claims to be aware of the “terrors and dangers of communism”.
Apart from this grudging concession to balance, there is a virtual silence regarding the immediate historical background to the story’s events, which smacks of moral numbness.
Stalin – second only to Mao (who had seized power in 1949) as history’s worst mass murderer – only died in 1953, the year before McCarthy’s collapse. Before the war, he had liquidated millions in the Great Famine and the Great Terror. After 1945, the Soviet Union had consolidated its hold on Eastern Europe, and in 1949 exploded its first nuclear device.
In 1950, Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea with Russian and Chinese support, seeking to extend the totalitarianism which still controls North Korea (and which, if it were non-left and linked to the US, would have the West’s “peace activists” in a permanent paroxysm of outrage).
In other words, anti-communism, even in its rancid McCarthyite version, was not a synthetic hysteria which came out of nowhere.
A short biography of Murrow by Bob Edwards, Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism, was published in 2004, and is now riding on the film’s publicity.
Murrow comes across as a brave, humane and competent journalist in the struggle against Nazism, but blind (or at least mute) when it came to the even more murderous Stalinism and Maoism. Neither Stalin nor Mao appear in Edwards’s index.
Clooney’s film was not the only popular contribution to discussion of the Cold War in 2005. Jung Chang (of Wild Swans fame) co-authored with her husband a new biography of China’s murderous dictator, Mao: The Unknown Story.
There have been critics of the book’s scholarship, such as Professor Andrew Nathan in the London Review of Books, but what has been significant about the reviews is the absence of attempts to defend Mao. A consensus, however reluctant, has finally emerged that he was indeed an evil monster.
It would be nice to hear Australian ex-Maoists admit this, in the same way that a previous generation of ex-communists, such as Stephen Murray-Smith, displayed their bigness and integrity by openly abjuring Stalinism.
Talk of Australians leads to offerings on the local scene. Most of Left Right Left: Political Essays 1977-2005 by storm-petrel Robert Manne is concerned with recent issues such as Aborigines, refugees and the Iraq War. However, the opening section of the book deals with communism, harking back to an era when Manne occupied a considerably less lionised position than he does today.
The articles are still fresh and relevant. His brilliant demolition of Wilfred Burchett, in particular, is very timely. Rationalisations are continuing to appear which gloss over Burchett’s betrayals – of Australia, certainly, but more importantly, of liberal democracy in general.
Even Manne’s pieces on asylum-seekers serve as a reminder that he was championing Indo-Chinese boat people back when the left were vilifying them as black marketeers and CIA agents.
Finally, 2005 saw a new publication from the Grand Old Man of anti-communist scholarship, Robert Conquest, who is now in his eighties.
The title, The Dragons of Expectation, comes from one of the old Norse Eddas, and probably gets it misplaced on the fantasy shelves. At least it is not called I told you so, you **** fools, the book he threatened to write after his vindication by the fall of the Soviet Union.
Conquest is clear that McCarthy “disgraced” legitimate and principled concern about communism, and goes on to warn that “the attempt to equate anti-communism with McCarthyism is a grave distortion”.
It can only be hoped that Clooney’s film, for all its merits, does not contribute to the perpetuation of that “distortion”, which reached its reductio ad absurdum with Sartre’s dictum that anti-communists are dogs.
The only possible response to Sartre’s challenge is a resounding “Woof!” – or, as French dogs say, “Aouf!”
- Bill James is a Melbourne writer.