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Letters to a Young Activist, a new book by Todd Gitlin ’63, is the work of a passionate and lifelong leftist.
The president of Students for a Democratic Society during the mid-1960s, Gitlin directly addresses today’s activists in Letters. In a time of war and highly visible worldwide demonstrations, his book powerfully links today’s protests to their ’60s-era antecedents.
But the book is also the work of a college professor—Gitlin is now a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. Part history, part political science, Letters to a Young Activist is not the firebrand radicalism one might expect from a leader of the ’60s student movement.
Instead, Gitlin emerges as a reflective, weathered veteran activist. Recognizing his position as an architect of the New Left, he speaks to today’s activists as a loving but sometimes critical father. Like a palm reader, he tells his readers what qualities activists are likely to have, identifies what kinds of challenges they face, and divines what obstacles will likely be thrown in their path.
Gitlin’s fatherly knowingness is comforting and patronizing. His insights are priceless. He analyzes how the turbulent ’60s differ from our own moment, noting how the student movement of the 1960s can be both inspirational and intimidating.
Gitlin is the first to point out that his book is not an activist’s toolkit and can’t provide a roadmap for justice, peace and equality.
“Over the years, I’ve stored up ruminations, what you could call principles, about how best to be an activist,” Gitlin told The Crimson. “They aren’t things that could be considered political theories or manifestos.”
So he offers the “political wisdom” gained from years of organizing, and years of reflecting about organizing.
Gitlin acknowledges that the 1960s, through media, music and the lore of the vocal Boomer generation, has been suspended in time as a glittering era of idealism, collaboration and carnival-like counterculture. The fashion and music of the ’60s remain as ubiquitous now as then. The concrete victories of the Civil Rights Movement and the sexual revolution are, in many ways, routinized into our culture, he says.
Moreover, assasinations, riots, and Vietnam’s refusal to end make the 1960s as dark and ominous as it was bright and jubilant. And Gitlin’s movement ultimately splintered, leaving a legacy of extremism, violence and the hedonism of the 1970s in its place.
Prefacing the book in his first letter, he writes: “The sixties, like parents, are useful but also oppressive.” So in the spirit of purposeful reminiscence, he speaks of “The Movement” of which he was part.
According to Gitlin, this movement was characterized by “collectivity and animation,” — qualities that members of social justice movements today should aspire to. Today’s activists “don’t clump” like they used to and are instead divided by varied issues and by identity politics, he says. He warns against the “balkanization of the Left” by too narrow self or group definitions.
Gitlin, while recognizing the need for racial, ethnic, gender and class groups to work towards greater social equality, maintains his original emphasis on unity. The best way to achieve social equality is “as a citizen, not as one of the persecuted.”
Gitlin also hopes that today’s activists, challenging the status-quo on globalization, protesting war, fighting for living wages and against sweatshops, can find joy and originality in their work. He says he remembers when Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman rained dollar bills down on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange just to see what havoc ensued: “They were not embarrassed by a surfeit of joy.”
With joy, according to Gitlin, comes originality. He applauds the 1999 globalization protests in Seattle when Teamsters and Greens, dressed as sea turtles, marched together. He eschews purely hateful protest, no matter how heinous the injustice.
“Contrarianism is a perverse submission to power. It refuses initiative. Playfulness, though, pursues action, not reaction...Why should party-ers have all the fun?” he asks.
Gitlin’s critique of fragmentation and contrarianism is more than philosophical dissent. He laments that while the Left was “hanging loose,” the Right took control. Gitlin saves his harshest admonishments for the right wing conservatives who occupy the highest echelons of power (and did so, says Gitlin, before George W. Bush was appointed president by the Supreme Court) and the Naderites who helped boost the current administration.
Gitlin argues that Leftists, perhaps even liberals, are squeamish about winning because they are inherently uncomfortable with centralized power. Moreover, in one of several stabs at the academy of which he is part, Gitlin says that left-leaning individuals are more intent upon debating the “political significance of movies and TV shows” or “marching on the English department.”
Showing his idealist’s stripes, Gitlin writes that in the post-Sept. 11 era, leftist activists will not only have more causes to rally around, but a new paradigm for organizing.
“We have an opening now, free from our ’60s flag anxiety and our automatic no,” he writes. “It is time for a liberal patriotism, robust, unapologetic, and uncowed.”
He believes that this is the moment for the American Left to reclaim its country. But, Gitlin says, in order to reclaim America, the Left must first rescue it from administration officials like Ari Fleischer, John Ashcroft and Donald Rumsfeld.
Gitlin’s book was mostly written in the summer and fall of 2002, and perhaps for that reason, does not deal significantly with the war with Iraq or the substantial anti-war protests surrounding it.
Gitlin now says that he sees “something with legs” emerging.
“It’s quite genuinely national, with demonstrations in small towns and little cities, religious elements, polycentric, more than just the skin of the elite universities,” he says. “And it has a dazzling global presence.”
Gitlin sees parallels, both in the peace movement, and in the urgency of the moment, with when he was at Harvard in the early 1960s organizing against nuclear weapons. In those early days, he says, campus activists were exhilarated to fill Lowell Lecture Hall during the Cuban Missile Crisis to talk about nuclear disarmament, even with Martin Luther King, Jr. speaking simultaneously elsewhere on campus.
He and his fellow organizers in a group called TOCSIN were galvanized by apocalyptic concern for the fate of humanity during the height of the Cold War.
But Gitlin—who will return to Harvard at 6 p.m. Monday to speak in the Holyoke Center—says those “nightmare visions” of nuclear annihilation may soon recur.
“Clearly this administration is revolutionary,” he says. “It is understood everywhere in the world as radically reshifting not only the balance of power, but the landscape. And they could do it. They could turn the world upside down. I don’t know if Americans realize how radical this shift is.”
So what’s an activist to do?
“I believe in reasoning back from what we know the world needs to be, for global warming not to overcome [us], for the world not to explode,” Gitlin says. “We need to reason back from these imperatives.”
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