Exploring Progressives’ Record of Activism, Professor Reveals A Sense of Defeat

review by J. Russell Tyldesley

The left would rather be right and lose than be wrong and win. Lacking the "killer instinct" of the right, the left resides too comfortably in a loser, outsider role.
coverLetters to a Young Activist (The Art of Mentoring)
by Todd Gitlin NY: Basic Books, 2003; hardback; 192 pages; $22.50

My guess is that this book will not receive a lot of good reviews in the progressive community. Nonetheless, I think it is an important book for progressive activists to read and discuss. Professor Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, covers much familiar territory here, but I detect some bittersweet nostalgia for the civil rights era and the Vietnam protest years. He also does a pretty good job of assessing these periods—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The professor appears to have settled into a period where the fire does not burn with the same intensity as it did in the heady years of the ’60's and ’70's. In cautioning young activists against hubris and overzealousness, he betrays a decided establishment bias. He warns against leftist "fundamentalism" and spills a lot of ink reminding activists that they will not always be pure in their motives, and certainly not always right in their causes.

Though on issue after issue Gitlin displays his progressive bona fides, the reader nevertheless gets the sense that Todd Gitlin lives in defeat. His implicit, though unspoken, question is, “After all the sound and furor of the last generation of aging dissenters, what has really been accomplished? He can and does cite some victories, but they were mainly short-lived and ad hoc, and came about too late, in many cases, to prevent much loss and pain. The gains, if any, seem to have quietly faded away.

One of Gitlin's best historical analyses is how the Republicans have succeeded in accumulating power even when their ideas are not accepted by a majority of Americans. He contrasts the unity of the right wing, their tenaciousness, lust for power and control, with the situation of those on the left, who do not covet power, preferring diversity and localism over centralized power. This progressive ideology, by its very nature, eschews the reach for power, yet paradoxically power is arguably necessary if the left is to realize its goals.

The left would rather be right and lose than be wrong and win. Lacking the "killer instinct" of the right, the left resides too comfortably in a loser, outsider role. “America as empire” does not have much appeal for the left, whereas the right will glory in the righteous use of power and cloak imperial ambitions in democratic prose.

Gitlin's concludes that liberals must adopt some of the tactics of the opposition, and must be resigned to small, incremental changes, hoping for minor victories with the understanding that politics will always be messy, and outcomes much less than perfect. The best that can be done may be to slow the decline of civilization and the dismantling of the progressive gains of the 20th century—not a very uplifting prospect for this reviewer.

Several built-in assumptions drive Gitlin's prescription for the cautious activist. One is the impossibility of fundamental change in the political system. He asserts that we are stuck with the constitution we have, and the form of government that the founding fathers invented, and there is no way to change things short of violent revolution (he does not advocate this route, of course ), which is how we started this democratic experiment.

Gitlin also concludes that we must resign ourselves to a two-party system, because third parties are only disruptive, and the Green Party will only assure Republican dominance if liberals divide their vote. He sees Greens as spoilers, but ignores the fact that simple adjustments to voting practices like instant runoff voting mechanisms and proportional representation in local elections could easily fix the "spoiler" dilemma.

The Democrats, he opines, seem only too glad to share the stage with the Republicans. As a result, many good ideas go begging. Professor Gitlin advises Greens to work within the Democratic party, but never explains why the Democrats need to be awarded the prize of exclusivity for all time.

Another area that Gitlin seems to see as beyond argument is the triumph, for all time, of capitalism over communism. Aside from the gross oversimplification inherent in using such sweeping generalizations, capitalism is not that old an economic system, and is beginning to show unmistakable signs that it is not sustainable on this planet. Economics does not have all the answers to the deeper ontological questions of how the human species is to survive and comprehend its placement in nature and evolution. (Perhaps, this is not the book Gitlin wants to write, but even the legendary economist Milton Friedman prophesized a system to replace capitalism, which he dubbed " the greed and envy" system.

Capitalism does not value externalities in its limited calculus, so it is embarked on a collision course with life-sustaining ecological systems in nature. If we can believe compelling scientific evidence that the earth cannot support its present population, how can the growth paradigms of modern-day globalized multi-national corporations be reconciled?

Professor Gitlin also misses the profound antipathy progressives feel for the forces of globalization, and the fact of American empire. Gitlin wants activists to hang on to the possibility that they could be wrong, and their opponents could possess some parts of the truth. He frames this as a gentle rebuke to activists, and also entreats them to avoid the "blame America first" syndrome.

The problem with this advice is that it is hard not to have such a reaction faced with compelling evidence that both official pronouncements and media hype are little more than propaganda with a primary objective to maintain a nation of mindless consumers. What has been stolen from us is the ability to accept what we are told as being either neutral or benign—and truthful. Only the deliberately gullible could accept anything coming from government or the corporate world without automatic skepticism. The loss of innocence is profound in the progressive community, and it is unclear how a simple faith in authority can ever be restored.

Professor Gitlin experienced the tragedy of 9/11 in New York City first-hand and thus gains authority for his views on the meaning and significance of the event. Nonetheless, he assumes that certain views are, or should be, universally held about the events of that fateful day, but I and many others have conflicted and ambivalent interpretations of 9/11, and are not so quick to adopt the "good vs. evil" black-and-white picture that our President has painted for us.

Horrible as 9/11 was, there is a danger in describing it too glibly as "war," and, indeed, as a continuation of the cold war. In terms of an appropriate response, one that is totally military seems inadequate, and somehow disrespectful to the victims and their families. Our militaristic leaders appear to have used 9/11 as a pretext to implement some post-cold war ideas they had been hatching for a long time. Another rather glib assumption is that 9/11 represents a manifestation of a holy war, and that Islamic fundamentalists are bent on conquering America.

Such facile assessments have brought us to virtual martial law in America. The assumption underlying the passage of the USA Patriot Act seems to be that we must give up those very freedoms the President extols, in order to save them. Todd Gitlin seems to see cause and effect the way our government wants us to see it. Much of the progressive community sees 9/11 as a reaction to America's heavy-handed foreign policies and the result of decades of meddling by the CIA. and corporate predators in the internal affairs of third world countries with assets that are critical to our "national interests."

Funding arms sales and counter-insurgencies and targeted assassinations can cause considerable blowback. 9/11 was not the first time America has felt foreign backlash, but is simply the most dramatic. The 9/11 tragedy was important in the symbolic significance of its targets. It wasn't just that the two most ostentatious buildings were struck: they were the symbolic center of world trade. The Pentagon was symbolically the center of military dominance in the world. And the date, 9/11, is the symbol of emergency.

Beyond symbols, the events of 9/11 exploded the myth that America can do whatever it chooses around the world and not be touched. In the face of recent setbacks for "coalition" forces in Iraq, I heard President Bush in a rare press conference expressing his bafflement at how anyone could bomb the UN facility in Baghdad—the very agency that is there to help the Iraqi people. Well, it is hard to see this as a case of "biting the hand that feeds you" after considering that it was the UN that placed 13 years of sanctions on Iraq, and was at least partially responsible for the deaths of over 500,000 children during this period of scarcity of such essentials as food, medicine, and potable water.

Professor Gitlin undercuts the force of his otherwise strong arguments and perspectives on the history of protest and dissent by trying to be too politically correct—no doubt a topical issue on his university’s campus these days.

This reviewer is a tad older than the professor and also lived through the decades of civil rights tension and Vietnam angst. Today seems different, and somehow more important. There does not seem to be a moral center to return to, or to turn to. The very language seems to be perverted today when words such as “democracy,” for example, are used as cover for imperialism. Bold face, obvious lies from our leaders, almost immediately proven wrong, don't seem to matter with the vast public. The entire country seems to be asleep at the switch.

Professor Gitlin sees parallels with Vietnam in our present dilemma. He is correct that the protests during Vietnam never succeeded in convincing the establishment of the essential evil of our intent in that war, only the political impossibility of continuing public support. It was the visual images, the malaise, the lying about the progress of the war and, perhaps, the martyrdom of the students at Kent State that finally turned the tide and, perhaps, the conscience of a President.

When Bush leaves office, the nightmare may be over, but that may be only a feeble hope. By all accounts, the military is in charge of this country, and will have its way no matter who replaces Bush. That Todd Gitlin would not credit the great service to real patriotism from such sources as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, leaves me with doubts that his book will resonate with activists of today, young or old.

J. Russell Tyldesley, of Catonsville, Md., heads an insurance company.

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This story was published on November 27, 2003.