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 Review, Mother Jones, Harper'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. It takes the terrorist attacks as a point of departure for raising difficult questions about political authority, patriotism, civic engagement, and the role of intellectuals in American public life.
As Gitlin sees it, the American left has squandered not only much of its political capital over the last two decades or more but also its animating sense of purpose. "The left," he says, "has been imprisoned in the closed world of outsider politics." Instead of a search for robust ideas and practical reform strategies, the left has been engaged in criticism and resistance as an end in itself. Academic intellectuals in particular have been preoccupied with "what has come to be called 'theory,'" he writes, "a body of writing that is, in the main, distracting, vague, self-referential, and wrong-headed."
In "The Antipolitical Populism of Cultural Studies," Gitlin contends that the academic left has emphasized abstract theories of politics at the expense of active involvement in the public sphere. Similarly, in "The Values of Media, the Values of Citizenship, and the Values of Higher Education," he calls on his colleagues in the academy to embrace social responsibility and civic engagement. "If we wish to do politics," he charges, "let us organize groups, coalitions, demonstrations, lobbies, whatever: let us do politics. Let us not think that our academic pursuits are already that."
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.
But Gitlin offers little in the way of a roadmap. While he tries to resuscitate some of the ideals that gave impetus to the movements of the 1960s, his gaze seems more focused on the past than on the road ahead. This is exemplified by his fondness for nostalgic terminology like "intellectuals," "the left," and even "patriotism" (a phrase that has been all but co-opted by the right in recent years). It's not so much that these phrases have lost their meaning. Rather they lack the sort of resonance that is likely to galvanize a new generation of activists.
It is also unclear whether David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and Irving Howe three "exemplary intellectuals" Gitlin says embody a pragmatic and reform-minded liberalism can serve as effective role models today. While his profiles of the three critics help us understand their important contributions to American thought, there is a limit to what can be gained from applying mid-20th-century thinking, however admirable, to the problems we face today.
In "The Postmodernist Mood," Gitlin sketches the outlines of that distinctive sensibility that characterized American popular culture at century's end. He does a masterful job of defining what remains a difficult and abstract category of thought. The essay struck a resonant chord when it first appeared in 1988, but after nearly two decades it has lost much of its power. It doesn't help that Gitlin reworked the essay for this book, shifting the discussion of postmodernism as a cultural phenomenon out of the present and into the past tense. The result is a chapter that seems oddly out of step with the rest of the book.
In fact, though these essays have been adapted and revised for this collection, in some cases rather extensively, there is a general lack of symmetry and continuity that is disappointing. The essays are simply too varied in tone and subject matter to make the case that Gitlin intends for the book. Taken together, they don't add up to a strong and persuasive argument, let alone a contribution for what he hopes could be "a new start for intellectual life on the left." The whole, in this case, is finally less than the sum of its parts.
This review appears in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of Politics (Volume 68, Issue 3, pp. 750-751).
Copyright 2006 by Scott London. All rights reserved.