Wednesday, November 6, 2013

My Log 391: Small disagreement over John Grierson: Randal Marlin says he didn’t “rubbish” Grierson, but admires his contribution to Canada

Randal Marlin
Randal Marlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
John Grierson
John Grierson (Photo credit: y.mclean)

Randal Marlin, to whose revised edition of his book on Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion I recently devoted five posts, was remarkably generous in his comments on my rambling contributions. But on one particular point he objected, and that was when, in a headline, I wrote that he “rubbished” John Grierson, the founder of the National Film Board.

That did not surprise me: I expected a strong response, and I got it. But the fact is, I did slightly overstep the mark, because the word “rubbishes” was a word I summoned up when I was trying to reduce the length of a headline, and it did not, in fact, catch my meaning exactly. What I meant to say, I guess, was that Randal dismissed Grierson in a paragraph, and did not take into account, as he should have done in a book devoted to the arts of persuasion,  the fact that the National Film Board, whose senior staff was chosen by Grierson, trained by him, and took their inspiration from him, did manage when it was at its peak, to carve out for itself a field of action in which it was remarkably free to make its own decisions, to an extent that was almost unheard of among similar government agencies around the world at that time. Also I felt that that it did seem that the grounds for Randal’s dismissing Grierson so airily was that he had been implicated in the Gouzenko affair.
That was the burden of my complaint, and as you can see, it was too long to be accommodated in a headline. In his response Randal wrote to me: I think you have a valid point of contention regarding the short shrift I give to Grierson, but I think you go too far in claiming that I "rubbish" him. I should perhaps have written ‘discredited in the eyes of key figures of the establishment.’ ” 
I might have known, in fact, I did know, Randal being one of those omnivorous-reading intellectuals, that he would have read everything available on the subject before deciding to devote only a couple of hasty-seeming paragraphs to Grierson  in his consideration of propaganda. I, on the other hand, have never read everything relevant on any subject, one of the points I made at the beginning of my series of articles.
So, in his letter, Randal reveals a deep knowledge of the subject, and asks that I make clear to my readers, which I am happy to do now,  that he was not out to “rubbish” Grierson, whose contributions he has much admired:
“There are two books I read before writing the lines that you represent as ‘rubbishing’ Grierson. One is by Gary Evans, John Grierson and the National Film Board, the other by Joyce Nelson, The Colonized Eye. The former, favourable to Grierson, gives more of the actual testimony. The latter attacks Grierson from the left, on the grounds that he was too cozy with the establishment, particularly the oil interests (there was a Rockefeller-Mackenzie King connection, and the latter was the one who gave Grierson his wartime propaganda powers), and also because his ideas supporting the free flow of information meant that Hollywood came to dominate commercial film distribution in Canada. On a world scale he was all for making films supported by big business, because he thought this would help the maturation of capitalism leading sooner to replacement by a more Marxist system. The counter to that theory is, of course, that big business will call the shots and rein in any revolution-inspiring calls for greater equality and justice in the world. Curiously, I have the same problem assessing Grierson as I have with Walter Lippmann, whom Chomsky has attacked vigorously. The charge against both is that they don't trust the common people to form their own opinions, Both think that the world is too complex and that it's up to more knowledgeable people to decide for them by presenting simplified world pictures of the right sort. True, Grierson wanted the elite to get feedback from the public, but so did Louis XIVth. I reserve judgement on both of them until I get a fuller picture. I spent a week at the University at Stirling some years ago looking at the Grierson archives. I came away with interesting material, but I found his handwriting too often unreadable.”

In addition, writes Randal, he had read the Gouzenko archives, and
“at the moment, I'm not prepared to say that the Gouzenko Inquiry gave no reasons to justify discrediting Grierson in the context of giving him substantial bureaucratic power to shape the future of world thought. The case against him would be that he may have lacked good judgement in employing a Soviet informant, but also that he showed insufficient concern, by his responses to the inquiry, about whether people he employed were Soviet informants or not.”

Personally, I find this to be too solemn a judgment, as anybody might guess from what I wrote in one of my posts during the past week about my distaste for patriotism. Along with that goes a kind of insouciance about spies and their machinations. The Soviet Union, after all, was an ally during the war.
I met Grierson only twice, and, like so many others was entirely charmed by him. So I did find the grounds for Randal’s suspicion of him to be somewhat arcane: that Grierson be judged not so much on his actual contributions to Western, British and Canadian culture, as on what he might have done, as Randal wrote in a later letter,  had he been given the power he sought, (whether) he would have imposed his ideas on the world rather than giving alternative and contrasting views a fair shake in the ‘marketplace of ideas.’ ”
I’m not altogether in agreement with this: Grierson, after all, did have a good deal of power. He used it during the war, as he freely admitted, to create propaganda designed to make Hitler and the Germans look foolish, even admitting that on the famous occasion when Hitler was seen on film dancing a little impromptu jig of joy over some victory or other, it was all got up by Grierson manipulating the picture (for which he made no apology at all). But more seriously, his creation of the National Film Board, and the way it worked, was a work that should have earned him more sympathetic consideration that he usually gets.  He could be denounced as bombastic, vain, imperious, and perhaps not as sober in judgment as most people with bureaucratic power, but when I knew him, when he so charmed the students of McGill University, he was a little old man scrabbling to keep himself afloat in this world, using his wits, skills and cleverness to keep ahead of the game. I knew the woman in London who worked for him, helping him collect extracts from documentary films made around the world for his show on Scottish TV, and, according to her, it was a fact that most of these contributions he didn’t pay for. Deplorable, I guess, except that the result of This Wonderful World was to turn audiences on to the wonders of this world and its possibilities.
When I met him, he had tasted power, used it with spectacular effect, and no longer had it, or had any expectation of having it again.
Randal makes the undeniable point that he  “had been given huge bureaucratic power, and he seemed to want to continue in some such capacity after the war was over.”  But there is a kind of assumption that he was some kind of megalomaniac monster who could not be trusted with power. This surely cannot have arisen from his actual behaviour, his achievements in what he did in life.  The National Film Board is his monument.
Finally, to give him his full due, Randal makes the point that ..."I happen to be an admirer of Grierson, and in particular of the National Film Board which he founded. I show the excellent NFB film Grierson to my Truth and Propaganda course each year.”

So that’s the story, morning glory. It sounds as if Randal's lectures would be worth sitting in on.

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