Intellectuals and the Flag

by Scott London

Cultural critic Todd Gitlin’s latest essay collection, Intellectuals and the Flag, takes the attacks of September 11 as a point of departure for raising difficult questions about political authority, patriotism, civic engagement, and the role of intellectuals in American public life. My review of the book appears in the new issue of the Journal of Politics.

An excerpt:

Todd Gitlin has written a number of fine books over the past two decades, among them The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage and The Twilight of Common Dreams, and his occasional pieces in the New York Times Book ReviewMother JonesHarper’s and elsewhere are always intelligent and engaging, often eloquent, occasionally brilliant. But perhaps his most memorable work remains a series of short essays that have never, technically speaking, appeared in print.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Gitlin wrote a string of commentaries combining first-hand accounts of living in Manhattan, about a mile downwind of Ground Zero, with incisive analysis of the responses to the attacks by politicians and other public figures. The essays were posted on the openDemocracy website, the first one within 24 hours of the twin towers’ collapse. Gitlin’s dispatches from the front quickly made the rounds on the Internet, circulating via listservs and forwarded e-mails. For many of us, they were a bracing antidote for that “perverse abuse of language in play from Washington officials,” as he put it, and the “overwrought metaphors” endlessly circulated and amplified through the media.

Several key passages from the 9/11 commentaries reappear in “The Intellectuals and the Flag,” the centerpiece of Gitlin’s new essay collection by the same name. [...] What Gitlin sets out to do in these essays, he says, is to lay the foundation for a recovery of the left, to point the way to a renewed sense of patriotism —

not the patriotism of symbolic display and empty ritual, he insists, but of self-sacrifice, tough-minded criticism, vigorous ideas, and an active engagement with the difficult issues of our time.