Todd Gitlin

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Don Lazere (review date 27 March 1981)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187

SOURCE: Lazere, Don. “Social Change ‘Framed.’” Commonweal 108, no. 6 (27 March 1981): 187-89.

[In the following review of The Whole World Is Watching, Lazere contends that Gitlin's relationship to the New Left brings together a wide variety of perspectives in a clear analysis of the mass media's role in the Left's demise.]

This book [The Whole World Is Watching] gains strength from Gitlin's dual perspectives as a New Left activist (he was, in 1963-64, the third president of Students for a Democratic Society, the main movement organization studied here) and as a politically committed scholar (he now teaches sociology of literature and communications at Berkeley). While many leading figures of the New Left have wandered into dubious ideological paths, Gitlin has continued to command widespread respect within and outside the left for both political and intellectual integrity—qualities whose manifestation in the present book [The Whole World Is Watching] remove from it any taint of being a tract or apologia.

The first of three main parts, “Images of a Movement,” focuses on national media coverage of SDS throughout the year 1965 when it first came under the media spotlight. The study is grounded on his interviews and research in the archives at CBS-TV and the New York Times—selected because they were widely considered most sympathetic to the radical movement.

In rebuttal to the neoconservative view of the media elite as part of a left-leaning “new class,” Gitlin argues (as do other recent critics like Herbert Gans and Gaye Tuchman) that most major media executives and top editorial personnel are allies by class identity and ideology of the industrial, political, and military power elite, devoted to maintenance of a capitalistic corporate state, albeit liberally administered. Their ideology, explicit or tacit, combined with the profit-maximizing interests and daily institutional routines of media corporations, imposed certain distorting “frames” on coverage of radical opposition in the sixties even when newspeople believed they were being fair.

Movement demonstrations, for example, were regarded ipso facto as an undesirable disruption of the normal, valid social order and consequently were covered in the same tone as crime reportage. The media denigrated the more temperate radical elements, such as the SDS “old guard” of which Gitlin was a member, and ignored their substantive concerns while luridly exaggerating violent protest—real or anticipated—and focusing on extremist factions even at the time of the mid-sixties when they were still marginal.

Throughout Part I Gitlin brings a literary critic's astuteness to bear on explicating fine shades of tone and semantic slanting in media reportage. He cites a Dan Rather newscast on CBS in 1976 revealing that the FBI's burglaries and wire taps began in the thirties and continued through World War II and the cold war, reaching a peak ‘“during the civil disturbances of the sixties.” Gitlin notes: “The black and student opposition movements of the sixties, which would look different if they were called, say, ‘movements for peace and justice,’ were reduced to nasty little things.”

In Part II, “Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Movement,” Gitlin examines the effect of media coverage on SDS, drawing from his own files, inside views on and interviews with a variety of movement figures.

In its origins SDS was steadfastly dedicated to non-violent protest and “participatory democracy,” construed as meaning (1) decentralized, widespread national organization intended to minimize the authority of individual leaders, and (2) long-term activism on a number of fronts, including civil rights, community organizing, the campus movement, and opposition to U.S. support of foreign dictatorship. This program, however, ran diametrically against the simplistic...

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frames of the media, which were set for charismatic leader-celebrities and visual, dramatic actions on current “hot” issues that would fit neatly into the limited space of page one or the six o'clock news.

Inevitably, the media's distorted emphasis on movement violence and “stars” became self-fulfilling prophecies: more theatrical and violence-prone figures were attracted to the movement and SDS; media-created “leaders” like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman represented no real organization or constituency at all. Thus Gitlin attributes to the liberal media a large part of the blame for the degeneration, splintering, and eventual disintegration of SDS and the whole New Left—although he is equally critical of the movement's own internal confusions and susceptibility to performing for the media. Moreover, the media's selective emphasis on the crazies helped turn the public against the movement and provided a pretext for official attempts to suppress all opposition.

In a brilliant chapter near the end of Part II, titled “Contracting Time and Eclipsing Context,” and in Part III, “Hegemony, Crisis, and Opposition,” Gitlin shifts into a more theoretical mode influenced by Marxist cultural critics including the Frankfurt School (oddly unacknowledged here), Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, and Stuart Hall. He postulates that in contemporary capitalist society not only the content but the temporal-spatial structuring capacities of mass media have evolved into modes of social control. The media may seem, as politicians like Spiro Agnew and scholars like Daniel Bell and Daniel Boorstin have claimed, to undermine social stability by their constant quest for novelty and sensation as well as their jumbling of images and realities, the authentic and the factitious. But the main effect in the 60's, Gitlin persuasively argues, was to subvert opposition movements by pulling them fatally into the media's time and space warps, fostering illusions of the efficacy of play-acting at instant revolution and guerrilla warfare taken out of its Third-World context.

At the same time, paradoxically, “the stability of the system is predicated on the institutionalization of change and speed,” for the introduction of novelty is controlled by the establishment and contained within its structural and ideological frames. These frames, which include the regular time structures and stereotypy of TV programing, in turn condition the mass public to a normalized, routinized, domesticated order of experience that makes the majority fearful of any fundamental challenge to the social order.

The ultimate, crucial question his analysis tacitly poses is whether any movement for social change regardless of its merits, being perforce dependent on publicity in today's mass-mediated society, can get its message across through the distorting lenses and ideological filters of the media:

People as producers of meaning have no voice in what the media make of what they say or do, or in the context within which the media frame their activity. The resulting meanings, now mediated, acquire an eerie substance in the real world, standing outside their ostensible makers and confronting them as an alien force. The social meanings of intentional action have been deformed beyond recognition.

The critical reception of Gitlin's book in the mass press he criticizes has provided yet another depressing instance of media framing. Unable to effectively fault his facts or analysis, journalistic reviewers have reverted to stereotypes of academic jargon to denigrate his work on stylistic grounds. He has indeed synthesized a vast array of academic sources, mainstream and Marxist, but surely one of his most admirable achievements is having translated all this sociologese into a lucid style and eloquent personal voice. The carping of defensive critics will not prevent this book from solidifying Gitlin's preeminence among younger American cultural analysts.

Andrew K. Semmel (review date winter 1983)

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SOURCE: Semmel, Andrew K. Review of The Whole World Is Watching, by Todd Gitlin. Political Science Quarterly 98 (winter 1983): 718-19.

[In the following review, Semmel praises The Whole World Is Watching for what he judges as its honesty and high quality research.]

Almost everyone agrees that the mass media shape the world around us, but few can agree on the extent of its influence or the consequences they have on social and political behavior. The lack of agreement stems more from the elusiveness of the subject matter than from inattention or lack of interest; indeed, in recent years, research on the media has become an academic growth industry. But studying the mass media is a bit like nailing a chiffon pie to the wall—you start out with clear intentions and a seemingly easy task, only to have the results become inconclusive as they slip away.

Todd Gitlin's book [The Whole World Is Watching] is an honest, exceptionally well-written and skillfully researched analysis of the role of the mass media in shaping the conduct of the “New Left” movement in the U.S. during the 1960s and in brokering its message to the public and elites. It dissects the dynamic interaction between the media and the movement—their mutual attraction and repulsion, the symbiosis and the ultimate distancing—in what Gitlin calls the “movement-media dance.”

Concentrating largely on the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and its offspring, on the one hand, and the New York Times and CBS News, on the other, the author first chronicles the evolution of the New Left and then generalizes about the limits of serious organized dissent in the United States. He argues that the news media not only reflect the dominant values in a society but, as organizations functioning in a complex social system, adhere to certain rules and routines that operate to define the newsworthiness of events. These operating realities contribute to the formation of perceptual lenses or “media frames” through which the media view, evaluate and report (or fail to report) events. As a key arbiter and interpreter of events, the media will, in the end, shape, rather than be shaped by, these events.

Drawing upon the writings of Antonio Gramsci, Gitlin posits that the media operate to sustain, protect, and even promote the dominant social values, and thereby manage and massage the message of “deviant” groups such that the media not only distort the intended message but also impel the movement to accommodate to the media's operating procedures. While taking pains to avoid explaining by a single factor the decline of the New Left, Gitlin nonetheless assigns a leading role to the media in undermining the movement. His analysis is sufficiently broad to be of interest to students of politics, sociology, communications, and recent American history. Despite the heavy dose of ideology, the book's contribution to the understanding of American social movements transcends any one intellectual camp.

Methodologically, Gitlin's research draws on an abundance of data, including experience as a participant-observer, but, though logical and convincing, is not systematic. He is methodologically “soft” and empirical, but adroitly avoids empirical overkill. In so doing, he reveals both the limits of research based on personal conviction and its inherent merit.

For all the insight in this volume, the open-minded reader will be troubled by some nagging doubts. If the news media had followed different standards and reported accurately and fairly the message of the New Left (though what is fair and accurate is open to debate), would the movement have been more successful? If the news media were more diverse (as in continental Europe), would the diversity have altered the strategy and tactics of the New Left such that it would have made a different or more lasting imprint on U.S. society? Between the lines of Gitlin's pages are the unwritten questions: Why didn't they listen? Why didn't they understand? These are legitimate and important questions to ask, but individuals from all organizations having definable goals will ask the same questions of the media over and over again. This, too, is an index of the media's influence. The questions transcend politically deviant groups.

David Crook (review date 23 October 1983)

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SOURCE: Crook, David. “The Public Images of Private Doubts.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (23 October 1983): 1, 9.

[In the following review of Inside Prime Time, Crook asserts that Gitlin's book contains powerful insights regarding the corporate culture of the major television networks.]

Like the Kremlin, the Big Three commercial television networks are closed, secretive, often paranoid fortresses. They are places where truth shifts cynically, where power, prestige and ideology filter through descending layers of evermore insecure bureaucracies.

They are places consumed by internal politics—who's in and who's out, who's standing next to the chairman and who isn't—where curious outsiders, especially journalists and writers, are subversives.

This is a book by one of them. Todd Gitlin's Inside Prime Time is perhaps the best book ever written about the thinking of the insulated men and women in the executive suites of Century City, Burbank and Television City.

Gitlin has listened to them. He has used their words to describe the fear, uncertainty, doubt and bravado of the men and women who make prime-time TV.

My reporting colleagues and I have heard many of the same people speak the same words. But we, too, have been absorbed by TV, co-opted to think the way its executives do, react as they do and report what is important to them.

Gitlin, a true outsider, a UC Berkeley sociologist, penetrates this haze of the present. After interviews with 200 executives, producers and writers, he has discovered the sociopolitical context of TV, its ideology. Because TV truly does reflect, if slowly, mass cultural and political aspirations, Gitlin cuts close to the ideology of America itself:

What comes across the small screen amounts to an entertaining version of the world—to ideology, in a word—but whatever conspiracy theorists may think, this is not because the networks are trying to indoctrinate the helpless masses. No, the networks generate ideology mostly indirectly and unintentionally, by trying to read popular sentiment and tailoring their schedules toward what they think the cardboard people they've conjured up want to see and hear.

If this is cultural tyranny, it is a soft tyranny, operating through stripped-down formulas that the networks selectively abstract, via other media, from mass sentiments.

Gitlin's is a subtle, profound observation. TV executives do not believe they are cultural arbiters, and certainly not political ones. Continually so accused, executives answer (honestly, given the rules where they work) that they only anticipate and reflect the social and political currents of the day. They select programs that instinct, research and ratings say people want.

Gitlin doesn't deny them that. He argues only that selection—how some shows make prime-time schedules and how others don't—is a political process that springs from the social axioms of TV's internal, unexamined culture.

“Ideology,” Gitlin writes, “means nothing more or less than a set of assumptions that becomes second nature. … Television can no more speak without ideology than we can speak without prose. We swim in its world even if we don't believe in it.”

Gitlin is not talking about simple, electoral politics. This is in-vitro politics, how elites respond to the masses. Broad issues of the day intrude—it matters to networks whether the public is shifting to the right or left—and, like politicians, network executives must tune to the vast public yammer, and the vaster public silence. They respond by creating the icons of mass culture.

How else, outside Hollywood's own context, do you explain the patterns of network TV? Why do program trends develop? Why, for instance, in the same season, did all three networks order situation comedy scripts based on Vietnam? Why did all three networks' scripts revolve around the reporters who covered the war? Why did the shows have to be comedies?

Why did none make the prime-time schedules?

The easy answer, given to Gitlin by an NBC executive commenting on his network's failed pilot, was, “I don't think people want to hear about Vietnam. I think it was destined for failure simply because I don't think it's a funny war.”

A CBS executive said that his network's Vietnam show “was so anti-Establishment as to be, I would imagine, offensive to the average American. There were no heroes; the army was the villain. The good guys were the villains and the bad guys were the heroes.”

Gitlin's more truthful answer emerges from the insulation in which TV's men and women operate. “The creative community reads the same cultural newsletter,” Gitlin says. They are forever guessing about an audience they have never met and know only through newspapers and other media.

Executives tend to transfer to the unknown public the doubts, questions or insecurities of their own lives. Controversy has no place in the political environment of a corporation, and the executives who must pick and choose the cultural symbols of millions invariably look to corporate ideals as their guide. TV's lowest common denominator is not in the viewing public, but network bureaucracy.

“An industry devoted to satisfying abstract audiences does not usually attract individuals with strong moral positions in the first place,” Gitlin writes. “This industry that thrives on getting its products liked is inhabited by managers who advance by being liked. … What results is a culture of ingratiation, in which sweeping assumptions about entertainment easily become inflexible and executives drift equally easily into market miscalculation.”

TV executives of Los Angeles, for the most part, are not going to like the picture Gitlin presents of them. They won't understand it, and they will accuse Gitlin of slandering their integrity, of misunderstanding them, of making them look like buffoons. Or worse, like nasty cultural commissars.

They will see buzz words, like political or ideology, and react as if they have been accused of perpetrating some sinister plot on the public.

That's a format Hollywood can understand. That's the way it thinks.

Gaye Tuchman (review date 1 June 1984)

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SOURCE: Tuchman, Gaye. “Making and Marketing Culture.” Commonweal 111, no. 11 (1 June 1984): 343-45.

[In the following review, Tuchman praises Inside Prime Time as cultural criticism, but suggests that analogies to similar corporate practices in other fields outside the television industry would have been helpful.]

Every now and again, a disgruntled Hollywood writer or producer, whose slightly unorthodox idea for a series has been “ruined” by the networks, bares his soul and tells all: TV chases after money. The television industry is an old boys' network of fellas out to earn the big buck by manufacturing kitsch. They use those shows to sell the largest possible audience to the advertisers who finance America's dominant and probably most profitable medium. “Nobody but me,” that bitter expatriate invariably complains, “cares about quality.”

Inside Prime Time presents the richest information ever collected on the inner workings of America's chief culture industry. Todd Gitlin interviewed roughly two hundred men and (a few) women who, with others, write, produce, direct, and manage network television, including its systematically associated production companies. Some are bitter, some resigned, some cautious, some just out for a buck. All seem to be filtered through the eyes of that disgruntled writer or producer. There are talented guys and bad guys. Supposedly, people with talent are serving their apprenticeship so they can move on to the big screen. (Muriel Cantor reported a similar phenomenon in her 1971 The Hollywood TV Producer, although she emphasized how a concern for perfecting cinematic skills leads some men to tolerate network interference rather than to seek professional autonomy elsewhere, as others do.) Everyone seems to be on the make or protecting the position they have already made. All seem intent on getting along and selling their ideas. In the lingo Gitlin occasionally adopts, they want to “give good meeting” in the innumerable conferences and conversations in which the creative folk and managers cooperate and spar.

Reasonably, Gitlin suggests that “the deal is the art form.” That observation makes sense. I wish Gitlin had used it to notice analogies between TV-work and other work. As sociologist Everett C. Hughes explained years ago, when people can't control the outcome of their work, they emphasize what they can control to show how hard they're trying. Unable to explain why Johnny can't read, teachers point to the thoroughness of their lesson plan. Psychiatrists can't prove they have helped their patients; so they construct intricate life histories. Unable to predict a show's ratings, people in the TV industry “give good meeting.”

Like that expatriate, though, Gitlin sees this emphasis on meetings as somehow inappropriate to art, or in his phrase “even entertainment.” Gitlin condemns the “attitudes” rampant in the industry. “Most network television is simply bad—inert, derivative, cardboard—because no one with clout cares enough to make it otherwise. It is good enough for its purposes.” For Gitlin, TV just won't do. As I read and reread Inside Prime Time, I increasingly felt that Gitlin, a published poet, mistakenly believes that art, “real art,” can emerge only from the unitary vision of a man who cares.

I write “man” consciously. Although Gitlin interviewed at least one woman who is a self-described member of the boys' network (and whose lover identifies her as a feminist), he seems oblivious to her analogues in other industries and singularly uncurious about these women. Even as Gitlin carefully details some men's passionate feelings about ideas they want to express but cannot get by the networks, he doesn't think to ask how these women feel when they attend meetings where the old boys discuss “T & A” shows. (The industry-coined initials stand for “tits and asses,” programs such as Three's Company or the now-defunct Charlie's Angels which were afflicted by the jigglies.)

Interwoven with this critical, literary, and often wittily written condemnation of kitsch is another more sophisticated analysis. In it, Gitlin details how the drive for corporate profit in today's culture industries militates against the production and acceptance, let alone celebration, of good shows. In our society, capital is rewarded when it is risked. Frequently using the words of those interviewed, Gitlin skillfully describes how in this capitalist business, all activity is geared toward minimizing the risk. “Safety first is the network rule.”

To obey that rule, people in the industry reproduce the formula of a genre until that genre is played out. They “create” spinoffs; hoping they have identified the key elements in the success of a program, they try to shape a clone. Most important, they seek to mold what Gitlin aptly terms “recombinants”—recombinations of elements from several proven successes brewed together with a pinch of hope. The search for recombinants so affects the industry that its men and women think in terms of what something's like, not what it is. “An ad agency referred to CBS's series Falcon Crest as ‘a taste of The Good Earth and a dash of Dallas in the middle of a California vineyard.’” When a program escapes “the industrialization of mannerism” identified as TV's dominant style, it may be undercut through scheduling; say, put to play “one on one” against a ratings hit or shuffled into a different time-slot each week. To flesh his portrait, Gitlin traces the rise, transmogrifications, and fall of some promising programs, paying special attention to the refreshingly honest and short-lived American Dream.

Ultimately, capitalism does not explain all. And so, Inside Prime Time contains a third theme. That one's about the politics of hermeneutics or how, when managers seek to explain why one program succeeded and another failed, they discredit liberalism, not to speak of radicalism; accede to conservativism, including the Moral Majority; misconstrue the “mood of the country” as more reactionary than it has actually been; and identify social problems with the little guy or gal overcoming death, disease, or disaster. Again Gitlin provides an extended example by focusing upon a show (Bitter Harvest, a “Movie of the Week” starring Ron Howard) whose radical potential was dissipated by everyone's implicit understanding of how TV gets done.

Gitlin's treatment of the industry's interpretation of programs is less satisfying than his other discussions. Thus, although his own discussions of plots and characters are frequently shrewd and insightful, I get queasy about his interpretations of others' interpretations of interpretations of a show. I wonder how he can announce that a show failed “because,” when he has been emphasizing how no one can either predict or even postdict success or failure. Dealing with Hollywood's “word” about shows, Gitlin writes as though the facts speak for themselves, even though his earlier The Whole World Is Watching, on the effects of news coverage on Students for a Democratic Society, clearly acknowledges how the facts never stand on their own.

Sometimes I wish that sociologist Gitlin were more sociologically systematic but he clearly had no intention of writing for that narrower audience. Sometimes I wish he had drawn the obvious analogies to other industries and spoken about risk-taking in the automobile industry or how Harvard M.B.A.'s are said to search for personal success and profit before success for their corporation. But Gitlin is writing about culture, not work. What Gitlin did do, he did very well. Inside Prime Time is superb cultural criticism: a radical expressing dismay at a nonpoliticized America and an audience which doesn't have politics in its soul; a radical discussing what he doesn't like in America by dissecting and condemning the consciousness industry that contributes so significantly to the state of that soul.

Scott McConnell (essay date October 1987)

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SOURCE: McConnell, Scott. “Resurrecting the New Left.” Commentary 84, no. 4 (October 1987): 31-8.

[In the following essay, McConnell discusses The Sixties, along with other histories addressing the rise of the New Left, finding that Gitlin's account of the formation of SDS and its offshoot, the Weathermen, helps dispel some of the myths associated with those groups.]

Wrapped within the current boom in 60's rock-and-roll, and within the more elusive nostalgia for a time when drugs and promiscuous sex seemed there to be enjoyed without consequence, lies a movement to bring about a resurrection of the 60's in their specifically political aspect. The movement finds more or less innocent expression in the efforts of Democratic presidential hopefuls to claim for themselves the spirit of John F. Kennedy. But there are signs of another, more radical, and possibly more consequential political recapitulation, whose spirit is caught not by the New Frontier but in the return to campus of aging former leaders of the New Left. While this phenomenon obviously represents an effort to revive the radicalism of the 60's, it has also found support in pockets of mainstream liberalism.

Thus to the growing pile of recent memoirs and anthologies celebrating the radical movements of that decade—and of such mass-market books as Do You Believe in Magic?1 and It Was Twenty Years Ago Today—can now be added three sympathetic histories [James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago; Maurice Isserman's If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left and Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage] of the New Left. These works all concentrate on the New Left's early period, and particularly on the first years of its flagship organization, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and on the politics which led, in the summer of 1962, to the drafting of the manifesto of the New Left, the Port Huron Statement.

It is not hard to see why there should be so much interest in early SDS. At first glance, it seems the perfect avatar of an indigenous American radicalism, nonideological and unspoiled by the intolerance which later came to dominate SDS itself and the New Left in general. To anyone wishing to contemplate how a radical movement with a considerable mass base can spring quickly and forcefully out of a seemingly quiescent political era (like the 1950's), SDS is a tactical inspiration as well. In short, as past memory or as future model, Port Huron represents, mutatis mutandis, something like the Russian Revolution before Stalin, or even before Kronstadt.

In a passage that is likely to set the standard for dewy-eyed invocations of the idealistic spirit of Port Huron, Hendrik Hertzberg, the former editor of the New Republic (and speechwriter for Jimmy Carter), has recently written:

In those pre-Beatles, pre-acid days, they could have passed for the executive board of the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats. But theirs was not a politics of parties, nor of candidates, nor even of issues. It was a politics of vision and values. They talked about civil rights and foreign policy and welfare and education, but the questions that underlay their discussion were bigger ones: What makes for a meaningful life? What is a good society? How can the world be remade? At 5 o'clock in the morning of June 16, 1962, after four days of intense talk, of cutting and pasting and very little sleep, they ratified their text and walked wearily out into the damp rosy dawn, knowing they had done something important. Some of them held hands on the shore of the lake, and felt exalted.

These words come from Hertzberg's glowing New York Times review of James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago.2 Now a Newsweek writer, Miller during the late 60's was a member of the small anarchist faction within SDS that later grew dismayed by the organization's turn to a Marxism violent in word and deed. In this work, which is in most respects the least significant of the three under consideration here, he says that he was pulled to his subject by a desire to uncover what was inspiring about “America's last great experiment with democratic idealism” and to stand it against “Ronald Reagan's era of cultural retrenchment and expansive jingoism.”

In pursuit of this objective, Miller provides a microscopic examination of the factors that led several of the Port Huron drafters to get involved with SDS. He has extensively interviewed not only Tom Hayden, the document's principal author, but several less prominent figures; he duly notes the pervasive influence of the left-wing sociologist C. Wright Mills; he describes the effect of the emotions generated by the early civil-rights movement; he has pored over the records of the various drafts of the statement, and dwells lovingly on its sonorous preamble (“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit”); he makes a stab at saying something comprehensible about the statement's proposal for “participatory democracy”—though he is finally unable to do anything more with this idea than SDS itself managed during its short life. But Miller fails to deal satisfactorily with the central historical question about SDS, which is how a movement that seemed so promising at its inception managed, in a period of about six years, to recapitulate the entire moral history of Western socialism, from the utopians to Stalinism. Put succinctly the question is, to what extent was the shape of the fully grown New Left prefigured by the New Left in embryo?

Plausible answers to this question are scattered throughout Miller's material, but he seems curiously reluctant to grapple with them. The single sharply contested issue at Port Huron concerned the stance of SDS toward Communists, both in the United States and abroad. In 1962, SDS was still the nearly dormant youth affiliate of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID), a socialist organization under the tutelage of Norman Thomas whose members for the better part of the century had been engaged, with limited success, in hand-to-hand combat with the American Communist party for leadership of the American Left. To some if not all the young people who gathered at Port Huron, those battles were deadwood from the past, of no concern to their effort to generate a revitalized Left. More, they saw in American anti-Communism an attempt to divert the country from progressive renewal, and therefore they condemned it.

Michael Harrington, then the youngest of the old socialists, was also present at Port Huron, as were some of his political associates from the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL). Harrington and colleagues stayed up late into the night arguing with as much force as they could muster that a manifesto of an organization purporting to inspire a renewed democratic Left must be anti-Communist both in word and spirit. He was humored by the addition of several clauses, so that in its final form the Port Huron Statement condemned Communism with nearly as much energy as it condemned anti-Communism.

Miller presents Harrington and his YPSL allies as dogmatists and ideologues, mired in the irrelevant quarrels of the past; he is abetted in this exercise by the present-day Michael Harrington, who now views his own behavior at Port Huron as excessive. In any case, the anti-anti-Communism which was the animating tone of the statement proved extremely irritating to the board of the LID, and resulted in a nasty divorce between SDS and its parent organization—a divorce which became part of the folklore of the early New Left.

Whether such wounds would have healed in time is doubtful; but as it was, they were reopened the next year, when Tom Hayden and other SDS leaders met with the editorial board of the democratic-socialist quarterly Dissent. Irving Howe, the editor of Dissent, has since written twice about the encounter; both times he has stressed how put off he was by Hayden's enthusiasm for Fidel Castro, by his tendency to contrast the ideal of “participatory democracy” with the inadequate version practiced in the United States, and by much else. After the meeting, Howe has related, the old socialists gathered around the table commented all at once that in Hayden's “clenched style—that air of distance suggesting reserves of power—one could already see the beginnings of a commissar.” Two months after the Dissent meeting, at the 1963 National Council meeting of SDS, a warm ovation was given to an outsider who had been observing the proceedings—Alger Hiss.

In Miller's account the rupture between SDS and the democratic socialists remains something of an enigma. There were no explicit political issues on which the two sides disagreed. The socialists were at one with SDS in condemning what they viewed as the Kennedy administration's go-slow policy on civil rights; they were at one in wanting the United States to cease atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and to be more forthcoming in the search for an arms-control agreement; they were at one in seeking to break the grip of the conservative Southern “Dixiecrats” on the Democratic party, and to move the party leftward. Given all this, why should the anti-Stalinism of the LID and of the editors of Dissent have proved a pill which the fledgling student organization found impossible to swallow?

Miller fails to answer this question, but light is shed on it from other quarters. Both Maurice Isserman's If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left3 and Todd Gitlin's The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage4 provide a psychological and political context which makes the split less difficult to fathom.

Like Miller, Isserman is a former member of SDS who wants to rehabilitate the political 60's and to counter the notion that it was a “time of bizarre and even sinister maladjustment, thankfully put behind us.” He is also one of a coterie of young historians, formerly of the New Left, who have taken the American Communist party (CP) as their principal area of inquiry. In previous work Isserman has sought to illuminate the ways in which the CP functioned as an integral part of an indigenous American radicalism; for him, the fact that the party leadership took its political directives from Moscow is considerably less salient than was its participation in the day-to-day struggles of broader American social movements. Such a perspective may not be a useful lens through which to analyze the CP, but it does clarify something about the New Left at Port Huron that up to now has remained obscure.

What Isserman provides, and Miller does not, is a panorama of the broad culture of the American Left at the time of Port Huron, the soil in which the young SDS plant sank its first roots. In Isserman's account, that ground was largely staked out by the men and women who had left the CP during the 1950's, either out of fear of government repression or because their beliefs had been shaken by Khrushchev's revelations of the crimes committed by Stalin, or more generally because they no longer found the party an effective vehicle for the advancement of their political goals. The CP, which in 1956 had 20,000 members, mostly middle-class professionals, lost over 15,000 of them in the next two years.

Although Isserman has little enlightening to say about the political beliefs of these people, they do form a type about which generalization is possible. It is important to recognize that most of them did not abandon the core beliefs which attracted them to the party in the first place, and which had been reinforced by years of party activity. Certainly many of them thought that the American Communist party had been poorly led. Some regretted the party directives which had, during the McCarthy era, ordered many leading members underground, shattering their careers and personal lives. Others found much to criticize in the party's exuberant embrace of Stalinism, particularly now that it had been demonstrated how vicious Stalin had been to other Communists. Many undoubtedly felt sheepish over their own personal admiration of Stalin, not to mention their own failure to perceive the anti-Semitism that lay behind such affairs as the Slansky trial and the so-called “doctors' plot.”

But for a great many (the majority?) of those who left during this period, abandoning the party did not mean abandoning Marxism-Leninism. They became avid readers of such independent Marxist-Leninist journals as the National Guardian and Monthly Review. The United States, they continued to feel, was the world's main bastion of reaction and imperialism. “Bourgeois” liberties were a fraud which masked the domination of the poor by the exploitative forces of monopoly capital. The collapse of capitalism, in any case inevitable, was much to be desired. As for the Soviet Union, although no longer willing to give automatic approval to every turn in its foreign policy, the class-of-'56 ex-Communists continued to support those causes and countries in the world which they deemed “progressive” and “anti-imperialist.” More often than not, this translated into support for the very same causes and countries the Soviet Union was supporting.

This “party” of ex-Communists is described by Isserman as the “most influential adult radical group in the 1960's.” One avenue by which it left its prints upon the newer radicalism then emerging was caught by Irving Howe in a 1965 article in Dissent analyzing the political beliefs of the New Left:

Those who left the party or its supporting organizations because they feared government attack were often people who kept, semi-privately, their earlier convictions. Many of them had a good deal of political experience; some remained significantly placed in the network of what might be called conscience organizations. Naturally enough, they continued to keep in touch with one another, forming a kind of reserve apparatus based on common opinions, feelings, memories. As soon as some ferment began a few years ago in the civil-rights movement and the peace groups, these people were present, ready and eager; they needed no directives from the CP to which, in any case, they no longer (or may never have) belonged; they were quite capable of working on their own as if they were working together. Organizational Stalinism declined, but a good part of its heritage remained: people who could offer political advice, raise money, write leaflets, sit patiently at meetings. …

It is very difficult to gauge the precise extent of the influence this “adult” group exercised on the general tenor of SDS. But many SDS members did indeed come to Port Huron by way of such “conscience” organizations as SANE, or Women Strike for Peace, or from those pockets within the civil-rights movement dominated by the perspectives, and often also the personnel, of Isserman's “party” of ex-Communists. Another group which counted both at Port Huron and after was the so-called “red-diaper babies”—children of people who had recently left the CP, or in some cases children of people who had remained in it. Many of these young men and women had grown up in the CP network of summer camps and political clubs; on the surface they sometimes seemed like part of the “silent generation” of the 50's, but their “silence” was of a particularly sophisticated kind, and any group on the Left which hoped to organize the young had to attend to them.

In this connection, Isserman quotes from a fascinating memorandum by Al Haber, the non-Communist student radical who was a pre-Port Huron president of SDS, explaining to his parent organization, the LID, that while the CP itself was dead on campus, it was vital for SDS to attract students from Stalinist backgrounds; if SDS did not, others would. Haber went on to say of these students that although generally suspicious of ideology, they bristled at any criticism of the Soviet Union. SDS, therefore, should strive for a political tone which would attract the red-diaper babies while at the same time fending off any slide toward “anti-American” and “anti-democratic” attitudes within the organization. In the event, SDS would score a much greater success at attracting students from Communist backgrounds than at inoculating itself against anti-American and anti-democratic attitudes.

Isserman's book tails off into an attack on the Young People's Socialist League which seems scurrilous and is unsupported by documentation. The virulence of the attack may have something to do with the fact that YPSL, the loser in early factional wars at SDS, came to oppose the New Left in its later incarnations, and perhaps also with the fact that several former YPSL members have become neoconservatives.

In spite of this flaw, however, Isserman's work makes it possible to understand how the anti-Communists lost so quickly and so decisively in the maneuverings which determined the early shape of SDS. It is an essential corrective to the view of the early SDS common throughout much of the 60's and now reemerging from the likes of Miller and Hendrik Hertzberg—namely, that it was an organization of idealistic and politically inexperienced college students focused mainly on advancing the cause of civil rights, bringing an end to the cold war, and transcending a culture whose parameters seemed defined by Leave It to Beaver and Wonder Bread. In Isserman one finds everything left out of Hertzberg's portrayal of Port Huron as a coming-together of young men and women who “could have passed for the executive board of the Young Republicans or the Young Democrats,” everything necessary to make sense of the information in Miller's book that he himself refuses to interpret.

As it happens, of the six or eight people who played leading roles in the forging of the Port Huron Statement, and in setting the tone of the organization in its first years, several could hardly be mistaken for typical “Young Democrats” and “Young Republicans.” One, Richard Flacks (though he had in fact served as president of the Young Democrats at Brooklyn College), had been an activist in the Communist youth organization, the Labor Youth League. His wife, like him a red-diaper baby, was an activist in Women Strike for Peace. A third, Steve Max, was the son of the former editor of the Daily Worker.

This is not to suggest that, at Port Huron or after, any of these had an enduring association with the CP. Flacks, for instance, came to Port Huron as a correspondent for the National Guardian, a Marxist-Leninist publication explicitly independent of the CP. But they were certainly happy to find an organization that was opposed to anti-Communism. And in the young Tom Hayden, a Midwesterner from a Catholic background who was already a seminal force at the age of twenty, they discovered someone who could convey radical disapproval of capitalist America and still “speak American”—that is, use a language that owed nothing to the formulations of American Stalinism. Flacks perceived this instantly; when he first heard Hayden speak, in the spring of 1962, he rushed home to tell his wife, “I've just seen the next Lenin.”

Personal testimony backing up Isserman's account of the considerable power wielded by the allegedly dormant CP, particularly in New York in the late 1950's, comes from Todd Gitlin in The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. Like Miller and Isserman, Gitlin too was a member of SDS—indeed, he was elected president of the organization in 1963, shared an apartment with Tom Hayden, and was present at several key encounters such as the hostile meeting with the editors of Dissent described above. Later he visited and enthused over Cuba, and remained a radical activist throughout the decade. Again like Miller and Isserman, he too sees the 60's as a positive influence on American life, and he concludes his book in a decidedly partisan mode, lamenting the post-Carter conservative trend in American politics. Within the confines of this perspective, however, Gitlin has produced an impressive blend of memoir and history which is likely to disappoint anyone expecting a rosy-hued portrait of the 60's as an era of youthful idealism snuffed out by the repressive “system.”

Gitlin himself came from a liberal middle-class family, and he is particularly deft at portraying the milestones along the way of his own radicalization during the late 1950's. In his telling, the CP held, for him and for many others like him, a sort of mystique of the forbidden. He elaborates on his first love affair with a red-diaper baby (such affairs, he suggests, were important milestones for many young men who joined the New Left), and of the secret thrill of listening to The Investigator, an underground record satirizing McCarthy. (Vignettes like this serve to demonstrate once again how counterproductive it was for American politics that the Communist party was driven underground in the 50's.) To a greater extent than Miller, Gitlin emphasizes the importance of the organization's split with the democratic socialists.

Gitlin's book is particularly useful for tracing the growth of SDS into a mass organization during the mid-to-late 60's. He notes that the first sign of a large constituency for resurgent radicalism came at Berkeley in 1964, during the so-called Free Speech Movement, which preceded the emergence of Vietnam as a mobilizing issue even as it set the tone for it.

The next year, cadres from the Progressive Labor party (PL) first showed up at the SDS convention. PL was a Maoist offshoot of the CP, unusual on the Left at that time both because it was openly and explicitly Marxist-Leninist and because in the tradition of the old CP it was an organization of disciplined cadres. In many accounts of the New Left's demise, PL is assigned the role of the heavy. But as Gitlin makes painfully clear, before PL's entry, SDS had already taken care to strip itself of any possible defense against it. Having defined itself as vigorously opposed to anti-Communism, SDS had no logical reason to resist the entry of PL cadres into its ranks. At the 1965 convention, SDS president Clark Kissinger took care of the details by proposing two amendments: the first eliminated the phrasing in the SDS constitution which defined the organization as a “democratic” movement equally against “Communism” and the “domestic Right”; the second excised the SDS exclusion clause, which had prohibited membership by advocates of “totalitarian” principles. These amendments, opposed by a feeble remnant from the Young People's Socialist League and few others, were debated little, and passed without difficulty.

This evolution from anti-anti-Communism to pro-Communism did not at all stand in the way of the growth of SDS, now accelerating as college students in increasing numbers took notice of an organization which represented their opposition to the escalating Vietnam war. In the three years after 1965, SDS and the broader New Left went from one astonishing success to another. Membership soared: by 1968 there may have been 100,000 SDSers and the organization had become the largest radical group in America since the 1930's. The broader “Movement,” as it came to be called, incorporating a loose alliance of the New Left, militant blacks, and a sympathetic network of middle-aged and more established veterans of the Old Left, created its chief bastions in and around college campuses on both coasts. The Movement swam in the sea of the much larger counterculture of “the kids”—a worldwide youth movement centered on the enjoyment of drugs and rock-and-roll, and a disdain for the restrictive “straight” world of the nuclear family and professional ambition. As a whole, the Movement benefited from the support of a wide range of American intellectuals, which manifested itself in sympathetic efforts to interpret “what the kids are trying to tell us” and, just as often, in expressions of unrestrained enthusiasm and even sycophancy.

There were, however, hidden tensions between the revolutionary core and the larger mass of young people who opposed the war but were not ready to try to destroy the American government. In the Movement's inner sanctums these students were called, in a revealing mimicry of a right-wing epithet, “peace creeps”—they had not yet fully internalized the New Left's hatred of the malignant American “system,” and they were in danger of being drawn into that system by the 1968 presidential campaigns of Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy.

To be sure, some of the Movement's leaders themselves retained a certain ambivalence toward liberalism: when Tom Hayden, who had privately referred to Bobby Kennedy as “a little fascist,” showed up respectfully at his funeral, that ambivalence was probably as much at work in him as was the instinct for media opportunities. But generally liberalism was viewed as the Movement's worst enemy. Theories of “liberal fascism” proliferated, direct descendants of the Stalinist concept of “social fascism” mixed with gibberish derived from Herbert Marcuse about “repressive tolerance.”

The Movement also mastered the tactics of confrontation on the campuses, learning to find obscure or secondary issues as rationales to seize buildings and shout down professors and then, if the university tried to restore order, creating scenes with the police, which helped further to strengthen it. It was not long before such early rallying cries as “participatory democracy” and “free speech” had acquired Orwellian definition: by 1968 the circle of Americans deemed unfit to participate, or to speak, had widened to include any professor opposing campus disruption, any official of the U.S. government, anyone on a campus who supported the right of a student to inquire about jobs with the military, the government, or Dow Chemical (because it was the manufacturer of the napalm being used in Vietnam).

To an extent that hardly anyone could have foreseen, all this was overwhelmingly effective. On one campus after another the Movement grew not only in numbers but in moral authority. While the violence of language and of tactics was sometimes deplored, it was difficult to quarrel with success; many were the students and professors who worried that in its means the Movement might have gone too far, but who nevertheless “agreed with its aims.”

But what, finally, were those aims? Ending the war in Vietnam was of course the one most often stated, the most readily understood. But the Movement had a deeper ambition. By no later than 1965, SDS had concluded that whatever had been so mysteriously disturbing to it about America at Port Huron could now be described in a familiar term like “imperialism,” a disease which could be alleviated only through “radical social change” or, simply put, through revolution. By the mid-60's, the Movement's leaders were traveling to Cuba and North Vietnam, some lending their voices to North Vietnamese propaganda, some simply forging emotional ties with these Communist regimes, some cooperating with their intelligence agencies. By then it was obvious that the New Left's commonly expressed condescension toward the Old Left had nothing at all to do with the CP's unrestrained enthusiasm for dictatorship, but simply implied contempt for the fact that the Old Left had failed to win power and that its aging members had retreated to a kind of checkbook radicalism. Within the New Left the feeling grew that revolution was both a possibility and a moral imperative, and its leaders began to consider strategies which would lead them to victory.

Gitlin is at his best here in describing the frenetic atmosphere in the New Left as it was fed by one victory after another—the camaraderie with Castroism and “the Vietnamese,” the heady feeling that one was involved in a global process that was on the threshold of triumph. One problem remained, however. Successful as the Movement had been in controlling the terms of debate and intimidating its opponents on about twenty major college campuses, it was both tiny and increasingly detested within the nation at large. Giddy with a sense of its own achievements yet dimly conscious of the disdain in which it was held by most Americans, the New Left embarked on a search for classes and social movements possessing revolutionary potential. Both classical Marxism and the Old Left had assigned this role to the working class, and PL, by 1968 a major power within SDS, still believed in it. But in the U.S. (as elsewhere) the workers had never shown much interest; during the 60's, no group in America was more contemptuous of the New Left. So the search went on for a substitute “proletariat.”

One possibility was youth—the millions of teenagers and older hippies who participated in the counterculture. “Yippie” leaders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two politically experienced “freaks,” well-known through their media antics and adept at giving political expression to counter-culture attitudes, were the most prominent partisans of this line. Hoffman's 1969 book Woodstock Nation, published as he was about to be tried for inciting riot at the 1968 Democratic convention, exhorted America's youth to reject the “pig nation” of their parents, and introduced a new set of distinctions among styles of radicalism:

When I appear in the Chicago courtroom, I want to be tried not because I support the National Liberation Front of Vietnam—which I do—but because I have long hair. Not because I support the Black Liberation Movement, but because I smoke dope. Not because I am against the capitalist system, but because I think property eats shit. Not because I believe in student power, but that the schools should be destroyed. Not because I'm against corporate liberalism, but because I think people should do whatever the fuck they want, and not because I'm trying to organize the working class, but because I think kids should kill their parents.

But while the Yippies enjoyed a large following, the intellectuals of the New Left viewed the undisciplined and basically anarchist counter-culture with considerable unease. Many of them looked instead for the substitute proletariat in the Black Panthers and other “Third World revolutionaries,” armed political groups whose members were usually recruited in the prison system. Out of this admiration for those who were “picking up the gun” came the underground terrorist offshoot from SDS known as Weatherman.

It has become customary, among latter-day apologists for the New Left, to treat Weatherman as an aberration—a temporary and alien insanity inexplicably visited upon the idealistic “kids.” Gitlin's incisive demonstration of how the Weatherman choice flowed logically and inexorably from the Movement's own perspectives is a necessary antidote to this fiction.

It was Weatherman that perceived that cheering for armed Third World revolutionaries from the sidelines had a hollow ring. It was Weatherman that sensed the hypocrisy of relying on the Black Panthers, then in the midst of discovering that the police had more firepower than they did. And it was Weatherman that saw through the fantasy of the youth culture, which was enjoying itself too much to think of political action. “The duty of revolutionaries is to make revolution,” as the saying goes, and Weatherman appointed itself not only the vanguard but the agent of revolution.

At the famous national conference of SDS in 1969, Weatherman and its allies expelled PL for being “objectively anti-Communist” (sic) and then marched out, 700 strong, chanting “victory to people's war,” determined to put into practice a moral and political perspective that the Movement had been nurturing for years.

As Gitlin relates, Weatherman contained many of the brightest and most charismatic figures within SDS, indeed within the whole New Left: articulate, good-looking, graduates of elite universities, products (like other revolutionaries who have succeeded in our hemisphere) of upper-class homes. In contrast to Progressive Labor, Weatherman had style and sported a faintly self-mocking sense of humor. Like the early SDS, it too “spoke American”: members liked to sing, to the tune of White Christmas, “I'm dreaming of a white riot,” and, from the opening song in West Side Story, “When you're a red, you're a red all the way, from your first party cell till your class takes the state.” They were well-known to many others in the Movement; some had been organizers in poor neighborhoods, others had been campus radicals who had not only participated in disturbances but had planned and led them. Many were accomplished public speakers, and were practiced in dealing with the straight media. They were, in effect, Movement stars, and when in 1969 they went underground and began to riot and bomb in earnest, the rest of the Left looked on with a certain alarm but also with awe and fascination.

Leninism had been commonplace in SDS since about 1967. It was after all a natural ideology for the SDS elite, for it spoke to the Movement's grudging awareness of its unpopularity once one got away from its enclaves in Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and the Upper West Side of New York, and it provided a rationale for that unpopularity as well as a justification for a vanguard party. But Weatherman also absorbed the newer styles of revolutionary thought, such as that developed by Frantz Fanon, the popular theorist of Third World revolution. Fanon stressed the liberating effect of violence on the psyche of those who perpetrated it. For Weatherman this proved a way to break the psychic bonds of “white skin privilege.” Weatherman leader Mark Rudd expressed it this way: “It's a wonderful feeling to hurt a pig; it must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.”

The denouement came quickly. There were, inspired or carried out by Weatherman, over 250 bombings between September 1969 and May 1970. The climax occurred in a New York town house in March 1970, when an anti-personnel bomb studded with roofing nails, apparently intended for Columbia University, blew up before it could be placed at its destination. Three of the Weatherman vanguard died, others staggered out of the rubble and, for a time, disappeared. This marked the symbolic close of the venture begun at Port Huron. Shortly thereafter a rock-and-roll festival at Altamont turned into a death dance, closing down the fantasy of the hip counterculture.

Political defeats in American life are seldom final. Those members of Weatherman who resurfaced in the late 1970's received gentle wrist pats from the judiciary, as did Abbie Hoffman, who had been caught selling cocaine. More recently Mark Rudd returned from Nicaragua to Columbia University, his alma mater, and announced that he no longer felt power was a “realistic short-term goal.” The event provided material for a pleasant nostalgia story in the press. So too did Abbie Hoffman's return to “direct action,” this time in league with Amy Carter, as they led a group trying to prevent students at the University of Massachusetts from talking to CIA recruiting officers. The timing seemed uncanny: Ronald Reagan drifts into political senescence and the 60's spring back to life.

But the reaction to these latest events, particularly among established liberal opinion leaders, suggests that something besides nostalgia is in the air. Mary McGrory of the Washington Post took the occasion of the Abbie-Amy action to denounce the “galloping apathy of campus youth” and to acclaim “at last a committed college student.” This is by now a commonplace theme: one would not be surprised by a call for congressional hearings to investigate campus complacency. Miss McGrory and her colleagues have even refused to be consoled by the long list of public figures—Caspar Weinberger, Henry Kissinger, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Edén Pastora, among them—who have been effectively barred from speaking on campus by the staged disruptions of today's college Left.

Of course it is hardly among liberals alone that one senses a palpable hunger for a new generation of radicals. The ecumenically socialist In These Times and the Communist Political Affairs have both published articles hailing the revival of left-wing student activism, although in each case the information contained within has been rather sparse. In a recent talk celebrating the old CP, Richard Flacks, once a significant figure in bridging the Old Left to the New, digressed to announce that in the 90's, the children of the 60's radicals would give the Left the same sort of boost that his own generation of red-diaper babies had provided thirty years before. It is a plausible hypothesis.

This yearning for a new generation of leftists, misty among liberals, more focused on the Left, may account for the astonishing response earlier this year to the death in Nicaragua of Benjamin Linder, one of thousands of young Americans who have served the Sandinista regime. A “true American idealist” is how the Washington Post Magazine referred to Linder in its cover story on him; elsewhere he was described as a “peace-corps type,” and (by Post columnist Richard Cohen) as a “dreamer trying to bring a little light to a dark corner of the world.” One had to search more diligently to find that before going to Nicaragua Linder had been a founder of the University of Washington chapter of CISPES, an organization developed through consultations of the Communist parties of the United States and El Salvador to build American support for a Communist victory in the latter country; his family had a long history of activism in Old Left organizations.

It may be that those celebrating Linder's kind of commitment are on to something about the coming shape of the Left. There is already much rustling about the “sandalistas” as a cadre for a revived radicalism, and a book called Yankee Sandinistas5 profiles a handful of them. Paul Rice, a former student at Yale, identified by the Village Voice as Linder's best friend, may be the most dynamic. Beginning in the 1970's with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (whose chairman was Michael Harrington), he moved steadily leftward. First he traveled to China, but was deeply disappointed with the tentative liberalization process then under way and regretted the drift from hard-core Maoism. By the time he returned to the United States, convinced that China was betraying the masses, the cause of Nicaragua beckoned him southward. There he now lives; he serves on the block committees, engages in “economic research” for the Sandinista government, and undergoes military training, looking forward to the defeat of the contras so he can return home to “fight imperialism.”

From an initial flirtation with moderate socialism, to the embrace of ever more uncompromising versions of Third World Marxism-Leninism, Rice's path is strikingly reminiscent of the 60's. Whether his is the kind of stance that will dominate “the next Left” as thoroughly as it did the last two is an interesting question. Two recent books, representing distinct and even opposing visions of the future of the American Left, may help answer that question, as much in how they have been received as in what they say.

Michael Harrington's The Next Left6 is infused, like all his work, with a dogged faith that history is on the side of democratic socialism, and it offers a number of reformist proposals to help history reach that goal. It says volumes about today's Left, however, that Harrington's book has been received in its precincts with polite yawns—this, despite the fact that in recent years as the co-chairman of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) he has learned to soft-pedal the fierce anti-Stalinism which led him to cross swords with the New Left at Port Huron twenty-five years ago. (Indeed, a recent DSA forum on American foreign policy featured Harrington flanked by representatives of the Sandinistas and the African National Congress, neither group known for its commitment to democratic socialism.) Harrington may still be interested in socialist strategies to stem the collapse of the American rustbelt and to promote greater equality, but on today's Left, the energy flows into causes like “anti-imperialism,” which are about something else altogether.

Just what they are about is given muscular theoretical exposition in Mike Davis's Prisoners of the American Dream,7 a book that is in part a polemic against Harrington and the strategy of trying to build a socialist rump within the Democratic party. In those journals of the far Left that are read by liberals, such as the Nation and the Village Voice, Davis's book (unlike Harrington's) has been greeted alternately with deferential disagreement and wild enthusiasm.

Davis describes himself as “fairly typical of the cohort of the 1960's New Left: first immersion in the mass civil-rights movement (CORE), followed by antiwar work (SDS and Communist party), then by a considerable stint within the trade-union opposition.” Actually, the Communist-party interlude is hardly typical, but the early chapters of his book are intended to support a proposition that SDS intuited twenty-five years ago: the American industrial working class cannot be relied upon by the Left as an agent of revolution. Davis, however, has gone beyond this insight to arrive at a position essentially similar to that of Weatherman before it went underground. The centerpiece of that position involves a prospective alliance of non-white Americans and Third World revolutionaries, all taking their marching orders from white Leninists.

To be sure, the dream of a black “vanguard” is not a new one; it was popular in both Old and New Left circles during the 60's. But the rise in America's Hispanic population has given it a fresh twist: the “real weak link in the domestic base of American imperialism,” Davis proclaims, “is a black and Hispanic working class, fifty million strong. This is the nation within a nation, society within a society, that alone possesses the numerical and positional strength to undermine the American empire from within.” In tandem with the Communist resurgence in Central America, this “nation within a nation” can act to bring “socialism” to North America “by virtue of a combined hemispheric process of revolt that overlaps boundaries and interlaces movements.”

Davis admits that there are difficulties with his scenario. A big one is the “weakness of any national black (or Hispanic) socialist cadre.” Yet he does offer the far Left a comprehensive strategy which it has not had since the New Left's collapse (as well as a theoretical basis for support of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaign, the single electoral movement for which Davis evinces any enthusiasm).

Thus far there is no sign of a rise in the memberships of left-wing organizations, and no reason to think that a decisive bloc of the American people would be interested in the kind of “radical social change” entertained by the far Left. On the other hand, there was also little sign in the early 60's that a movement like the New Left would assume the mass proportions that it did, and such symptoms as there were (primarily, the numbers of young people attracted to the civil-rights movement) have their counterparts today in the energies mobilized around the cause of disarmament or the campaigns to protest American policy in Central America and toward South Africa. Moreover, the American Left now has much greater influence at the centers of power than it did during the early 60's, when there was nothing in Washington to rival today's small rump of Congressmen who raise money for and give political legitimacy to groups supporting the Communist insurgency in El Salvador and the Communist government in Nicaragua.

The Left could also benefit from the possibility, still very latent, of a generational change of climate. It has been noted (by Robert Nisbet) that boredom is a powerful and underestimated factor in creating the conditions for social upheaval; the chances that a new generation will be attracted to the spirit of the 60's simply because it was a time of confrontation and excitement cannot be considered low. Nor, given the proclivity of so many shapers of opinion to equate youthful idealism with service to left-wing causes, should we be surprised if any new generational ferment is channeled in a leftist direction. If so, there is every reason to expect that its ideological trajectory will follow the same path, from the lofty rhetoric of idealism to the murderous politics of Leninism, that was traced by the radicals of the 60's, over whom so much nostalgic sentiment is now being expressed.


  1. Reviewed in Commentary by Tod Lindberg, May 1987.

  2. Simon & Schuster, 431 pp., $19.95.

  3. Basic Books, 288 pp., $18.95.

  4. Bantam Books, 512 pp., $24.95.

  5. By Ron Ridenour, Curbstone Books, 160 pp., $9.95 (paper).

  6. Reviewed in Commentary by Larry D. Nachman, August 1987.

  7. Verso, 320 pp., $24.95.

Robert Marquand (review date 8 January 1988)

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SOURCE: Marquand, Robert. “When Youth Rode ‘A Wave of Privileged Vision.’” Christian Science Monitor (8 January 1988): B3.

[In the following review of The Sixties, Marquand maintains that Gitlin has illuminated aspects of 1960s history not covered in the mainstream press.]

The 1960s in America were not “history as usual.” Vietnam, Freedom Rides, assassinations, sit-ins, the Summer of Love, women's liberation, student revolt, Apollo 11, the Rolling Stones—all ran together, creating a time that seemed to exist outside “normal history.”

As Todd Gitlin's excellent new work [The Sixties] shows, nowhere was this more true than in the “New Left,” the student “Movement” of the '60s. The flagship of the New Left, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), of which Gitlin was an early leader, grew from a few hundred members in 1960 to more than 100,000 by the demonstrations outside the Democratic convention in Chicago, 1968.

As in the transcendentalist movement in New England more than 100 years earlier, there was a sense in SDS that history could be suspended long enough for new forms of freedom and justice to emerge.

In some ways it was. Student leader Tom Hayden claimed later that the New Left ended a war, toppled two Presidents, and desegregated the South. Very extravagant, but not altogether wrong.

As Gitlin documents, however, this was not the experience of the student radicals. Like the transcendentalists (from whom many borrowed ideas of nature, civil disobedience, communal living), the New Left started with Utopian idealism, went through intense experimentation, only to end in bitter disappointment, disagreement, and exhaustion.

The central insight of The Sixties seems to be the increasing inability of the Movement to resolve the tension between the new '60s energy of release, letting go, being free, radicalizing—and the patience and discipline required to accomplish tough political compromise and change; between the impulse for dance and self-discovery—and the desire to restructure the institutions of mainstream “Amerika,” which meant sometimes someone had to be around to answer the phone.

Even in civil rights efforts, which mark the Movement's finest hours, things unraveled. The close-to-the-ground radical pacifism of Martin Luther King Jr. and the (black and white) Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for example, was destroyed when the black Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was not seated at the '64 Democratic convention. “This proves the Democratic Party is just as racist as Goldwater,” said SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael; and soon young blacks turned to the streets for a solution, and to the militant Black Panthers.

Then there was the problem of “floaters.” Floaters were newly awakened upper-middle-class white liberal baby-boomers who got “high” on the participatory side of democracy, but only when they felt like it. Gitlin quotes one “hardline” Southern organizer: Floaters were “great talkers … loved to bring meetings to a screeching halt with open ended, theoretical questions. In the midst of a crucial strategy session on the problems of community leaders in rural areas, one of them might get the floor and begin to hold forth on the true meaning of the word leader. …”

By 1968, no one—or everyone—was running SDS. Splinter groups such as the violent Weathermen, and media pranksters like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin—who pulled stunts like dropping bags of dollar bills on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, or held midnight vigils to levitate the Pentagon—formed an image in the public mind of SDS and the counterculture that bore little relation to its more sober and civil origins.

No book yet can claim to cover all the '60s. But this one is a rich source of information and history never covered in the “straight” press. Much of the record has been hidden from the mainstream until now. More important, like James Miller's readable and penetrating Democracy Is in the Streets, and Abe Peck's 1985 Uncovering the Sixties (on the underground press), Gitlin reveals the incredible vitality of the politics inside the New Left and SDS—a far cry from the reductionist caricaturing of that period found in everything from The Big Chill to the National Review.

The impact of the cold war on youth, the betrayal of the Kennedy administration on civil rights, and its role in pushing SDS activists from liberalism to radicalism are closely examined. And Gitlin separates and examines a rich weave of political student types and logic (arguments about individualism vs. collectivism, the third world, war and peace, feminism, influence of music, drugs, Haight Ashbury, Eugene McCarthy, etc.).

Gitlin, whose 1980 book The Whole World Is Watching (on the media and the counterculture) still gets attention, employs a unique narrative style in The Sixties. He blends autobiography (including passages from his diary) with a more “straight” history—using everything from his 1959 Bronx High School of Science yearbook with its rhetoric of “opportunities unlimited” to a fateful ideological brawl between SDS members and the old Left represented by Irving Howe and Dissent magazine.

The result is a vivid picture of the culture and sensibility out of which the New Left emerged. For a young college student concerned in 1961 about social injustice and the perceived arrogance of an American “power elite,” ideas of protest seemed to shimmer in the ether. You didn't need history. Paperbacks by Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills were in back pockets across campus. Basement study groups met on Cuba or hunger. Answers were blowing in the wind.

Who needed the painfully worked out politics and experience of the '30s socialists, or the stodgy anticommunism of the cold war liberals? Better to borrow their romance and penchant for organizing. Just cross-fertilize. Reinterpret. Write an article. Move to California. Create your own reality.

The first line of the 1962 Port Huron Statement, the SDS manifesto written by Tom Hayden, reads: “We are the people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” As Gitlin writes, youth was riding a wave of “privileged vision.”

But by the end of the decade, history had come for the bill. Down came the Ché Guevara posters; up went Renoir and Degas.

Essayist Lance Morrow has pointed out that in a media-driven world where new is spliced, compacted, and rushed, the important lessons of history are not assimilated well, “dealt with adequately in spiritual, cultural terms.”

Journalists will tell you, he says, “‘We've done that.’ OK, Watergate's over, whoosh, it's gone. But it may not be. There are things that are not digested.” Conscience is not satisfied.

Gitlin's book is a refutation of the too-easy and flat denial of the 1960s found in the Reagan era.

But it's also a warning. It's a conscience.

Michael W. Hirschorn (essay date 29 June 1988)

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SOURCE: Hirschorn, Michael W. “A New-Left Challenger Comes to an Uneasy Peace with Academe.” Chronicle of Higher Education 34, no. 42 (29 June 1988): A3.

[In the following essay, Hirschorn examines The Sixties, contrasting Gitlin's relationship with institutions of higher education during that period with his role as a member of the University of California, Berkeley faculty in the 1980s.]

For Todd Gitlin, a self-described “movement intellectual” of the 60's New Left, the academy has never been the ideal setting for his work.

As an undergraduate at Harvard University and a graduate student at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Mr. Gitlin was an open and impassioned critic of the academic establishment. As an early president of Students for a Democratic Society, he was in an elite cadre of left-wing students and young intellectuals who used the university as a punching bag for their criticisms of American society and government.

But two decades after Mr. Gitlin and other members of the New Left posed what many still think was one of the greatest challenges to the academy, Mr. Gitlin is a member of the faculty at the University of California's campus here.

An associate professor of sociology, he teaches courses in the sociology of the media and communications, a topic on which he has written three books. Most recently, he wrote a favorably received personal and historical account of the 60's student movement, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.


Mr. Gitlin, now 45 years old, has not made peace easily with the university. He spent the late 60's and early 70's searching for a way to lead the life of what the writer Russell Jacoby calls a “Public intellectual”: thinking, writing, and teaching outside the confines of the ivory tower.

“I had no interest in the academic life, in what I thought of as a segmented, disciplinarily demarcated approach to the world,” he says.

In 1974, however, disillusioned with a teaching job at California's New College—a “loosey-goosey” alternative institution, he says—he began working on his doctorate at Berkeley. “It was beginning to be clear that a doctorate was a necessary meal ticket,” he recalls. “I don't mean just a matter of making money—it was a matter of getting some standing from within which I could think and write.”

Mr. Gitlin is not the only former New Left radical who has returned to the academy, the same academy that served as a spawning ground for the student movement.

A number of prominent former New Left activists now hold teaching jobs, and many are carrying on the battles of the protest movement in the contexts of their academic disciplines. No definitive numbers are available on how many former radicals have become faculty members, but many old New Leftists say—and many conservatives complain—that the university has become the new front line of radical politics.

Says Richard Flacks, a former s.d.s. leader who is now a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara: “In a real sense the New Left, and the student movement, included at its core quite a few people who were academic from the beginning. The protest was interpreted as a protest against the university. I read it as a protest of people who felt betrayed by the university, but felt a close attachment to it.

“The movement resulted in a lot of questioning of life directions and a temporary move away from the university,” he says. “But as the 70's went on, a lot of people, after being free-lance intellectuals and pursuing other kinds of work, began to go back to graduate school and have ended up in some form or another in the university.”

For Mr. Gitlin, there is no inconsistency between his days as a protest leader and as a professor. “I see [my work at Berkeley] as continuous with the best that I was about in the 60's,” he says. “You pay certain prices for being in the university, and I get mightily disgruntled about those prices from time to time, but I'm in the same league.

“Given the fact of the case, I don't see any terrific alternative to the university,” he adds. “We're forced willy-nilly into making the most of a university. It's a setting. It's a site. It's an arena of action.”


In his book The Sixties, Mr. Gitlin describes his path from an avowed Adlai Stevenson fan as a high-school student in the Bronx, to liberal peace activist at Harvard, to left-wing-movement intellectual.

A key event in his radicalization, Mr. Gitlin writes, was a speech by the Harvard professor Barrington Moore, Jr., a Marxist, at a 1962 rally held by the peace group Tocsin. Tocsin's politics were so mild, Mr. Gitlin writes, that he recalls a Tocsin member passing him a note at a meeting that said: “demonstration is wrong.”

Mr. Gitlin remembers the speech by Mr. Moore as an ideological bombshell. “The standard pacifist reaction, stressing the horrors of war, with an appeal to the United Nations, … is utterly inadequate,” Mr. Gitlin recalls Mr. Moore as saying. “It doesn't expose the roots of the situation. It merely contributes to the general mystification.”

Soon thereafter, Mr. Gitlin became part, and later the head, of a fledging group of leftists that included Tom Hayden, Al Haber, Mr. Flacks, and others.

Mr. Hayden, the best known of the student radicals and now the author of his own memoirs of the New Left, recalls Mr. Gitlin as an intellectual and a theorist in a movement he believes was driven more by emotion.

“Most of the people involved in the 60's were not intellectually driven,” says Mr. Hayden, who wrote the original draft of the “Port Huron Statement,” the best known political document of the New Left. “But Todd and others were at the intellectual center in the early s.d.s. and peace movement, and there were a lot of people who went through a very exciting intellectual ferment there that they didn't find in the schools.”

Mr. Hayden, now a California Assemblyman from Santa Monica, says Mr. Gitlin was driven by the feeling that students in the protest movement needed an analysis of what was happening around them. Mr. Hayden scoffs at that notion. “I think people were motivated by wanting to change the world and the desire to lead an unconventional life and take action and be in the streets,” he says. “Where there was a need for some analysis, you could pick it up. You knew in your gut the Vietnam War was wrong.”

Mr. Flacks, however, remembers Mr. Gitlin as having a profound influence on the movement, bringing a sophisticated analysis of nuclear politics to the s.d.s. in its early days and arguing early on that the movement should turn its attention to events in Vietnam. “Todd was one of the early people as I recall it to argue that action against the war was a priority,” he says.


Though Mr. Gitlin wrote often about the events of the 60's—even as a participant—he shies away in his book and in his conversation from making judgments about the movement. Yet the book's tone is one of profound disillusionment with the fractionalization of the s.d.s. in the late part of the decade and its collapse in a wave of violence in 1968 and afterwards.

Mr. Flacks says Mr. Gitlin had “a lot of faith, a naïve faith in the movement as a total answer to one's personal direction and the society's direction.”

“The fact that it couldn't be sustained as a single cohesive force was a big blow,” he says.

Mr. Flacks adds: “What he does not tell in the book is that he really suffered psychologically because of that.”

Mr. Gitlin ends his book on a hopeful tone, however. He argues that while the movement collapsed, it has had a lasting impact on the country. “On a larger scale, the ideals of cultural plurality and participatory democracy remained alive, cultural standards against which to criticize the workplace, the polity, and the household,” he writes. “As an impossible revolution it had failed—how could it have succeeded?—but as an amalgam of reform efforts, especially for civil rights (ultimately for Hispanics, Native Americans, and other minorities as well as blacks) and women's rights and the environment and against the war, it had been a formidable success.”

Mr. Gitlin says he is still grappling with many of the same cultural and political issues that he faced 20 years ago. The difference, now, he says, is that he is doing it as a professor. “I see it as a place where I try to continue the Lord's work,” he says of Berkeley. “I don't mean to proselytize. I mean it as an intellectual.”

Says Mr. Hayden: “He was always brilliant and very cerebral and had infinite curiosity about ideas. He's a born intellectual who didn't like universities, and with good reasons. But I'm glad he found his place.”

Winifred Breines (essay date September 1988)

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SOURCE: Breines, Winifred. “Whose New Left?” Journal of American History 75, no. 2 (September 1988): 528-45.

[In the following essay, Breines compares several histories of the 1960s and claims that Gitlin's narrow male viewpoint in The Sixties overlooks the accomplishments of the women's movement and the gay rights movement.]

Most former participants who write about the movements of the sixties consider themselves wiser now than they were then. And most who write about the sixties are former participants; almost all are men. Certainly many are more cynical. James Miller freely acknowledges this: “Analyzing Rousseau, Marx and the French existentialists. … has left me profoundly skeptical of the assumptions about human nature and the good society held by many radicals; and a decade of covering the music business has left me cynical about the ‘revolutionary’ potential of youth. The New Left was obviously in some respects a dead end.”1 It is not the whole decade about which Miller, Maurice Isserman, and especially Todd Gitlin are cynical, however. Rather, they distance themselves from the student movement after 1967 and 1968, repelled by increasingly militant mass demonstrations and confrontations, an increasingly total rejection of the “system,” and the increasing violence of both state repression and the movement's response.

There can be little disagreement that what happened in the 1960s and what people think happened then has shaped much of subsequent American history. Until very recently what people thought happened has been shaped by the reaction that set in with the election of Richard M. Nixon in 1968 and reached its crescendo in the Moral Majority, the New Right, the Reagan administration, and neoconservatism, all of which were, to a large degree, responses to the movements and impact of the 1960s. In their scenario, the self-indulgence and antiauthoritarianism characteristic of the decade triggered the breakdown of standards and morality. Now it appears that a new phase in the portrayal of the sixties may be upon us—one that distinguishes the good early period from the supposed insanity of the late sixties. These new books (with the exception of The Imagination of the New Left by George Katsiaficas) and the positive media response to them (a fertile topic itself) celebrate the early years of the student and civil rights movements.2

Todd Gitlin's presentation of the radicalization and commitment of idealistic white students [The Sixties], Jim Miller's account of early efforts by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to create a meaningful and participatory democracy [Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago], Mary King's picture of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's (SNCC) dedication to ending the segregation and second-class citizenship of poor southern black people [Freedom Song: A Personal Story of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement], and Maurice Isserman's respectful depiction of the development of the early New Left out of the remnants of the Old Left of the 1950s [If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left]—all contribute to affirmative interpretations of the sixties. So does Katsiaficas's study, but he is the only author to extol the international student revolt of 1968 and the politics of the late sixties.

Nineteen sixty-eight, twenty years ago exactly, was an amazing year, the year of Lyndon B. Johnson's decision not to run again for president; the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the urban riots after King's death; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; the French May rebellion and the international student uprising; the Columbia University revolt, occupation, and bust; and the massive violence in the streets of Chicago at the August Democratic party convention.

Almost all books about the New Left note a turning point or an ending in 1968 when the leadership of the movement turned toward militancy and violence and SDS as an organization was collapsing. These are no exception. (They identify a similar but earlier point when the civil rights movement turned away from nonviolence and embraced black power and nationalism.)3 How the authors under review interpret the turning point is of interest because those interpretations are central to the disillusionment most of them reveal and are related to their (and their subjects') positions in the movement.

The global student insurrections of 1968 and the 1970 national student strike in the United States (in conjunction with resistance in the United States military and black liberation movements, primarily the Black Panther party) provide the focus of Katsiaficas's book. The year 1968 is a wonderful subject for a book, but The Imagination of the New Left is inadequate to its task. That is especially disappointing because it is the only recent book under review to attempt the worthy task of retrieving the emancipatory dimensions of the now widely scorned 1968 movements. It begins with a chapter on “The New Left as a World-Historical Movement,” considers the 1968 student movements internationally with a chapter devoted to May 1968 in France, and looks at 1970 in the United States, particularly the black liberation movement and the antiwar movement at home and in Vietnam. It concludes with two chapters devoted to the philosophical and political legacies of the New Left. To explain 1968 Katsiaficas uses the notion of an “eros effect.” The phrase is never clearly defined, but it appears to refer to the potential of the human species for justice and freedom, a potential expressed during global revolutionary periods. Katsiaficas believes 1968 and 1970 constituted such times: “it was in a period marked by the fusion of the various national, ethnic, and gender movements into a world-historical movement that a vision of a qualitatively different world-system (or non-system) emerged.”4 In political terms common twenty years ago, the book expresses unqualified enthusiasm about the late New Left. Indeed, Katsiaficas's own faith in the spontaneity of mass movements, his belief that the Third World represents the vanguard of the revolution, and his Hegelian Marxism suggest that, unlike the other authors reviewed, he has not changed his perspective. His endorsement of the New Left's embrace of the North Vietnamese, the Black Panther party, and Third World heroes, and of militancy and violence in the streets makes Katsiaficas the prototype new leftist the others, particularly Gitlin, warn against. Unfortunately the book appears to be unedited; it is marred by repetitions, awkward formulations, incoherent theoretical passages, and narrow and outdated references, all of which create difficulties even for the reader interested in recapturing the spirit of late sixties militant new leftism.

A number of themes surface repeatedly in work on the New Left, including the books by Gitlin, Isserman, and Miller. The themes include the absence of effective organization, the growth of militancy and violence, a lack of discipline, and a purportedly foolish utopianism irrelevant to the task of effecting serious political change in America. Analyses circle around those themes in an effort to explain what happened at the end of the decade when the New Left and student movement seemed to let success slip through their fingers. The books under review share the conviction that the New Left was responsible for its own downfall in the late 1960s. Its leaders did not build the kind of disciplined, democratic, and centralized organization that would have enabled the movement to function realistically in American politics. I share the authors' positive evaluations of the early New Left. Nevertheless I believe their books present a narrow view shaped by the authors' (or their informants') male leadership positions early in the decade and their current successes, which lead them to exaggerate both the role of leadership and organization in the New Left and the significance of the collapse of SDS. Effective organization (and success in the world of Democratic party politics) becomes the yardstick by which too much is measured. By focusing on the fate of SDS as an organization, these accounts diminish the mass movement after 1968: regional and local activity that did not depend on a national organization, grass-roots organizing by students and other activists (including women and black people), the counterculture, and the birth of other movements such as the women's liberation and gay movements. Thus the enormous impact of the sixties then and now is narrowed.

Ironically, in light of the celebration of the early years, no one writing about the sixties denies that the period from 1968 to 1970 (the year when four white students protesting the United States invasion of Cambodia were killed at Kent State University and a widespread student strike resulted) was the most successful period of the movement in numbers and demonstrations. In Gitlin's words, “battles raged” on campuses across the country. “Every week the underground press recorded arrests, trials, police hassles and brutalities, demonstrations against the war, demonstrations of blacks and then hispanics and other people of color and their white allies, demonstrations by GIs against the war, crackdowns by the military.” Of the 1968-1970 period, Gitlin writes evocatively:

In Vietnam, while some troops followed orders to the point of massacring the civilians, others “fragged” particularly tough officers. … High school students wore forbidden buttons, seminary students joined the Ultra Resistance, wives left husbands, husbands left wives, teenagers ran away from parents, priests and nuns married (sometimes each other), and people who didn't do these things talked with, and about, people who did. … From subversive questions welled up picket lines, sit-ins, a vast entangled web of organizations, collectives, publications, conferences, a great storm of nonnegotiable demands and radical caucuses and participatory democracy and “getting my head together.”5

While the movement blossomed, expanded numerically, and became more powerful in the everyday lives of tens of thousands after 1968, the first generation of sixties activists and early leaders of SDS and SNCC found themselves pushed aside. (Tom Hayden may be the exception; he embodied most of the white movement's permutations until the end of the decade.) Today it is precisely those white, male former new leftists who are writing, reviewing, and being written about in books on the New Left, thus eerily reconstituting the male voice that predominated twenty years ago.6 Their early goals, college achievements, elite status in the movements, and contemporary authorship suggest a trajectory of success that may have contributed to their estrangement from the movement late in the decade and certainly informs their retrospective interpretations. Miller's subjects (six early SDS activists) and Gitlin himself represent this group. Not accidentally, both authors use the male pronoun throughout, reflecting a reality characteristic of SDS twenty years ago.

Democracy Is in the Streets is about the origins and early years of the New Left when students launched what Miller calls “America's last great experiment in democratic idealism.” He focuses on the Port Huron Statement of 1962, the sixty-three page manifesto stating the goals and values of SDS, identifying it as “one of the pivotal documents in post-war American history.”7 The book is organized around six activists who were at Port Huron and follows their political lives until 1968 and the Democratic convention in Chicago. The book's hero is Tom Hayden, the primary author of the Port Huron Statement. Miller admires all six and early SDS as a whole. Miller believes that the concept of participatory democracy articulated in the Port Huron Statement—“let the individual share in those decisions affecting the quality and direction of [his] life”—was the central contribution of the New Left. He argues, however, that the unclarified and multiple political meanings in the idea of participatory democracy were responsible for SDS's disorganization and confusion after 1965.

Miller's project is to place the New Left's ideas within an indigenous American radical political tradition, articulated most clearly in a debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey in the 1920s, and to clarify the intellectual influences on early new leftists, particularly that of C. Wright Mills. That intellectual framework means that the powerful impact of the civil rights movement, particularly SNCC, on early SDS activists' definition of participatory democracy is not adequately acknowledged. Miller suggests that the failure to develop a coherent political theory or vision of participatory democracy led to problems in the late 1960s when the movement was developing a mass base because no shared vision or approach to the problem of democracy served to unite the activists. More important were the unresolved contradictory meanings of participatory democracy. On the one hand, according to Miller, the notion of participatory democracy involved a face-to-face community of direct democracy that depended on trust and friendship among friends. On the other hand, it implied a democratic experimentalism that encouraged spontaneity, imagination, and risk. The experimentalism undermined face-to-face community and trust, according to Miller. That unresolved theory of democracy, Miller seems to argue, engendered both the appeal of the New Left to students who yearned for democracy and the movement's confusion and demise in the late 1960s. Miller suggests that the New Left's “experiments in democracy perhaps most usefully demonstrated the incompatibility of rule-by-consensus with accountable, responsible government in a large organization—or even in a small group of people with divergent interests and a limited patience for meetings.”8 Thus he concludes that an intellectual clarity about how democracy could function justly and effectively was the missing ingredient. The failure of the early New Left to develop an adequate theory of participatory democracy was its central failure. Ironically, given his sympathy for the early period, Miller locates a critical vulnerability rooted in the early years that came back to haunt the New Left later.

Gitlin's The Sixties is a judgmental, impressive, histrionic, often finely written, and ambitious book, as the title suggests. The book is undoubtedly the most complete and compelling account of the 1960s we yet have. Although the movement (the white movement) is its focus, it begins as a history of the whole decade in the United States, including a significant section on the fifties. Imposing in its detail and broad scope, Gitlin's book interprets just about everything that happened in the New Left, student movement, and counterculture. For sheer information it is unequaled, although the civil rights movement and the historical context for the white movement's behavior, particular government policies, disappear after the early section of the book. The neglect of context creates the misleading impression that movement participants became militant extremists with no provocation. The order in which topics are considered also contributes to that sense. A long and disapproving section of the book devoted to the development of militance, the romance with the Third World, and the hopes for community based on drugs, sex, rock'n'roll, and mysticism (which reproduces the early SDS leadership's hostility to those developments) precedes the discussion of the escalation of the Vietnam War and of racial violence. By its omissions and its arrangement, the book conveys the impression that there was little relationship between the movement's development and government policies.

Gitlin's fluid style aestheticizes the material, creating a smooth and controlled interpretation of events and a very readable book. At the same time, the effort to interpret and thematize everything denies the multiplicity of movement experiences, particularly in the late sixties when Gitlin was most estranged. The Sixties is written from the perspective of an active new leftist with serious reservations, then and now. In essence the book is a political autobiography of a Harvard graduate, an early SDS activist and SDS president, and ultimately a sociology professor. From the time he was in high school, Gitlin assumed his own importance. That assumption, about which he is straightforward, colors his relationship to the movement. Being at Harvard in the early sixties encouraged activists to think of themselves as having access to power, which they did, and undoubtedly shaped their politics. Gitlin's undisguised ambition, openly admitted, and his successes in college, the movement, and later in life influence his harsh evaluation of the counterculture and the cultural politics he considers self-indulgent and useless.

“One of the core narratives of the Sixties is the story of the love-hate relations between liberals and radicals,” states Gitlin. Although the proposition is not self-evidently true about the decade, it is about him. The book's ambiguous voice reflects the dilemma. Gitlin balances his own disappointment in liberalism with his condemnation of the movement's growing disgust with liberals. He considers the rejection of liberalism (the very liberalism that he shows to be inadequate) fatal to the New Left. As the decade wore on, he was less and less able to find a place for himself. Describing the SDS leadership's meeting with Irving Howe in 1963, Gitlin writes, “I am the same age, forty-two, as Howe was in 1963. We agree about more today than we did when I was twenty. I know what it is like now to be attacked from my left—how galling.” (The meeting is also recounted in Miller's book, and Isserman devotes a chapter to Irving Howe and Dissent. Taken together, the three books suggest that Howe figures significantly in the first New Left generation's history and mythology.) Thus Gitlin makes his apologies to Howe for the New Left's arrogance, a recurrent theme, and aligns himself with an older generation of social democrats and liberals who now appear to Gitlin as wise then as he feels he is now.9 The effort to be true to the movement from his more recent vantage point creates mixed messages since the violence and militancy he so condemns were largely occasioned by the failures of liberalism. It is to the early period, when his political and personal inclinations coincided with the spirit of the movement, that Gitlin does the most justice. His account of the later period is on shakier ground, although his overall achievement is large.

Mary King, a former SNCC activist, has written an honest, impassioned, moving, and detailed record of SNCC. Like other SNCC activists, she defined herself completely by the organization. That intense identification is captured in Casey Hayden's preface: “The movement today is commonly known as the civil rights movement, but it was considerably more than that. To me, it was everything: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live. When I was no longer welcome there, and then when it was no longer there at all, it was hard to go on.” Mary King and Casey Hayden, two white southern women who worked for SNCC until 1966, are best known for their 1964 and 1965 memos about sexism in SNCC and in the radical movements of the sixties. The memos influenced other woman to raise questions about the position of women in the movement and are among the earliest documents of a developing feminist movement among students and political activists.10 King remains devoted to SNCC's early principles of self-determination, racial justice, and integration, providing an analytical yet impassioned account. While Freedom Song makes palpable the extraordinary community, intensity, and courage SNCC created in and among its organizers, it is also unswervingly clear about SNCC's wellspring, the semislavery conditions in which many, if not most, rural black people lived in 1960.

King's book underscores the influence of Ella Baker, an older, black, woman activist, as a mentor to SNCC and to individuals like King in the organization. That acknowledgment connects her book to If I Had a Hammer by Isserman, which examines continuities between the Old Left and early New Left. Political (and personal) links between the two generations of activists are Isserman's topics. Despite popular impressions of a moratorium on radical activity in the 1950s, both SNCC and early new leftists were influenced by older individuals and organizations. Baker, Septima Clark, and the Highlander Folk School, for example, played important roles in the gestation of the civil rights movement. Socialists, pacifists, former Communists, and professors functioned in similar ways for the New Left: the influence of A. J. Muste, Michael Harrington, Allard Lowenstein, Dissent magazine, and ordinary Communists who influenced their children (red diaper babies), for example, implies quiet historical continuities.11If I Had a Hammer provides evidence that the behavior and ideas of what remained of the Old Left had significant impacts, both negative and positive. If I Had a Hammer makes it clear that alongside the great American celebration of the 1950s, when most radical activity was ignored or destroyed, some Old Left and radical pacifist groups maintained themselves. By the late fifties and early sixties interactions between them (former Communist party members, Max Schachtman, Dissent, and the radical pacifists) and young activists were helping give shape to the New Left. The most obvious example is the hostile and punitive reaction of the League for Industrial Democracy, SDS's parent group, to SDS's refusal to accept anticommunism as a founding principle (an event discussed in the books by Miller, Gitlin, and Isserman). The incident exacerbated SDS's suspicion of the Old Left (and of anticommunism).

Like others who stress the New Left's organizational vulnerability, Isserman argues that the strengths the Old Left had to teach the New Left but did not were precisely the characteristics absent in the younger movement: a commitment to representative organizational structure and internal education, a patient long-term approach to building a movement, willingness to work with others with differing viewpoints in pursuit of limited goals, and an emphasis on winning small victories as part of a long-term strategy. The Old Left's sectarianism obscured the valuable lessons it had to teach the New Left, thus contributing to the New Left's organizational failure, Isserman suggests.

Isserman argues the 1950s were less static and the 1960s less sudden than they have heretofore seemed. It would be inaccurate to err on the side of continuity, however, since in many ways the movements of the sixties did represent a radical rupture with traditional socialist movements. In Isserman's terms, the early New Left, whose outlook was expressed in the Port Huron Statement, was both more a “merging of traditions and resources … than simply a break with the past” and a more American movement than much of the New York-based Old Left.12 Isserman believes that the effort of some older leftists in the 1950s to shed old dogmas—unswerving commitment to the Soviet Union, ideological sectarianism, or rigidly centralized organization, to name a few—encouraged the younger radicals to be open and relevant. Yet while Isserman stresses this point, he also shows that the older generation did not distinguish themselves. Student activists had few mentors.

These books remind us of a time of hope and idealism, when young people spoke up and fought for racial equality, democracy, freedom, peace, and justice. And as King's book underscores, in the southern civil rights movement young people and students did not struggle alone. It was poor southern black people who were the heroes. They constituted the rank and file of the movement and literally risked their lives for freedom. The early years of the New Left and civil rights movements—when it appeared that liberalism might be responsive to demands for racial equality, for peace, and for an end to the war in Vietnam, before the murder of John F. Kennedy was nightmarishly repeated in the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy—cannot help but inspire admiration and respect. So do the civil rights workers and poor black people in the South who worked in the equivalent of a terrorized and poverty-striken Third World country in the midst of the United States. According to these accounts, most student activists in the early sixties believed they could make American conditions more consonant with American ideals, which is what they somewhat innocently set out to do.13 Miller, Gitlin, and King illuminate the activists' faith that the rightness of their cause would convince those in power to make the United States a more democratic and racially just society.

They rapidly learned, however, of a national hierarchy of power committed to the status quo. In that discovery, Miller makes clear, the intellectual influence of C. Wright Mills was important, especially for Tom Hayden and others who wrote the 1962 SDS Port Huron Statement. King shows that it was the hostile and violent response of southern “law enforcement” officials and the power structure to the effort by blacks to register to vote, a response apparently supported by the federal government, that educated civil rights workers about politics and power.

Disillusionment with the government radicalized many activists. In Mary King's words, “America had broken the hearts of the young idealists of SNCC.” Her words echo SDS president Carl Oglesby's 1965 statement that if his criticisms of the government's policy in Vietnam sounded anti-American, “Don't blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed liberal values and broke my American heart.”14

These and other accounts suggest that the early years were almost innocent, and in the case of SNCC, heroic, but they were not as uncontroversial then as they appear to be now. Gitlin, King, Miller, and Isserman show that during those early years there was enormous hostility directed toward the civil rights movement and New Left by conservatives, liberals, and leftists, particularly by the adult groups with which the student groups were affiliated who, in some cases, red-baited them.15 Ironically, belief in America or America's good intentions, even in the Mississippi or Mekong deltas, appears, in these retrospective accounts, to validate the integrity of a social movement. Unfortunately, however, many young people could not maintain such a belief in the face of evidence to the contrary during the decade. It is the later years of the sixties that inspire controversy now, perhaps because, in contrast to the rage and disillusionment that led to the street fighting, Marxism, and black nationalism then rife, the early years appear more innocent, part of the authors' or subjects' halcyon years. The hope that liberals could be trusted or convinced and that they might take a political stand on the basis of principle had not yet been smashed by the slowness of the federal government to protect southern black people's right to register to vote, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic party compromise at Atlantic City in 1964 (King is eloquent about both), the Tonkin Gulf Resolution and the continued escalation of the Vietnam War. That hopefulness evokes a simpler political time when liberalism still seemed legitimate to many young radicals and when moral commitment and moral appeals seemed an adequate basis for politics.

For Gitlin and Miller (and Miller's early SDS activists), the demise of SDS as an organization in 1968 and 1969 and its abdication of the leadership of the white movement at a time when the movement was flourishing seems the most irresponsible and shocking fiasco, and an important source of their disillusionment. According to them, the late sixties saw a fatal and desperate but growing romance with violence, Third World revolution and revolutionaries, and politics as voluntarist action, the politics that Katsiaficas applauds. Gitlin and Miller agree that the New Left destroyed itself. In fact, in studies of the New Left and the student movement, the characterization “self-destructive” appears repeatedly; it is becoming the standard interpretation. With undisguised disgust, Gitlin condemns the movement for its own demise in an orgy of countercultural self-indulgence, lack of discipline, and mindless militance, all based on what felt good as the basis for politics.16

Two points are downplayed in these interpretations. The first is the responsibility of the liberals for the frustration of the late sixties. Their cowardliness vis-à-vis civil rights and the Vietnam War is the source of much of the anger and disillusionment attributed to the movement. Gitlin, in particular, wants to fault the movement for not organizing and making alliances with the liberals he exposes as bankrupt. The second point is the curious blame and horror at the white movement's militance and violence (which Katsiaficas does not share). The American government and American culture are violent (as Malcolm X and Rap Brown pointed out over twenty years ago). The massive level of state-perpetrated violence during the 1960s, whether it was in the South against local black people and civil rights workers, in the official response to the rebellions of the urban ghettos, or in the war on Vietnam that Americans watched on their televisions daily, shaped the movement opposed to that state. Rather than being an inherent flaw in the movement's politics, the militancy and preoccupation with violence by some activists was a response to state-sponsored violence, a point that can be overlooked when reading Gitlin's picture of self-generated apocalypse. Mary King says of the turning point in SNCC, when whites were expelled from the organization and separatism and sectarianism increased, “In a profound way, a new generation of younger black people in SNCC, as well as whites, and the old hands, were all victims in a curious, ironic, and absurd danse macabre caused by America's racism.”17 American values and institutions infiltrated the white movement. Blaming the movement by isolating its violence from the violence of the larger society obscures the historical interplay between them.

How are we to understand what in almost every analysis of the New Left, including Gitlin's, Miller's, and Isserman's, is identified as the abandonment of SDS and the student movement for the apparently destructive trends of the end of the decade? Unavoidably, the interpretation of the New Left as a failure raises the question of what success would have looked like. At the center of the answer, for these authors, is organization. The standard of success in American politics, shared by radicals, will always condemn a movement that does not issue in pragmatic compromises, coalitions, and durable organizations. Why was it, these books ask in one form or another, that the organizational political expression the authors value did not last? Gitlin is the most explicit, but Miller and Isserman also suggest that the current of moralism, participatory democracy, direct action, “putting your body on the line” for what you believe in, what Gitlin calls expressive politics, present in the civil rights movement and early New Left, found new suicidal expression late in the decade, particularly in the apocalyptic politics of the SDS faction known as Weatherman.

Isserman suggests a link between the radical pacifists of the later 1940s and 1950s and the politics of Weatherman: a moral urgency that precluded consideration of political effectiveness and a desire to display one's personal commitment, especially if it involved risk or injury.18 It is a politics associated with Albert Camus, who inspired many in the civil rights movement and early New Left, a statement of one's values through an existential act, a politics most characteristic of SNCC, some new leftists (often influenced by SNCC), and the Resistance to the draft. About turning in his draft card in 1966, David Harris, a leader of the leading draft resistance organization, said, “I was prepared to abandon what seemed a promising future and pit myself against the war one on one, believing I would redeem my country and realize myself in the process.” Mario Savio expressed a similar idea in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1964, “There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even tacitly take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” And Miller quotes Hayden's impression of a SNCC project he visited in 1961, “The whole emotion of defining not only yourself, but also your life by risking your life, and testing whether you're willing to die for your beliefs, was the powerful motive, I believe.” Four years later, Hayden characterized the Vietnamese fighting against the Americans in a way that struck a chord among many young Americans, “I saw a people in a state of epic transformation, making an ultimate sacrifice against apparently invincible odds. The war was a military epic; it was one of the most phenomenal struggles in the history of the world.”19

Those statements share a current that stresses individual morality and action as the basis of politics and assumes that in concert with others those performing such action can effect change, including the victory of a peasant nation over a superpower. They also share an environment in which such earnestness and faith could flourish and work, before disillusionment had set in. It is this strand, not necessarily socialist, which is identified by left, liberal, and conservative critics alike as apolitical, expressive, and uninstrumental. It led, they suggest, to the demise of organizational politics and organization itself. Gitlin takes the argument further, suggesting that the syndrome led to a politics of extremity and finally to a death culture in which the only politics that counted was confrontation, polarization, and disruption, and which ended, appropriately enough, in 1970 when three new leftists in Weatherman accidentally blew themselves up while making bombs. This criticism of New Left politics as personal and moralistic and leading toward confrontation is similar to that made by an earlier generation of liberal and social democratic academics hostile to the New Left.20

My own book on the New Left identified a closely linked, but somewhat different, strand, which I called prefigurative politics. I analyzed a key dilemma facing the organization of SDS: its attempts to channel a mass movement into a strategically effective national organization. I suggested that SDS was unsuccessful in that attempt but, unlike most writers on the New Left before and since, I argued the result should not be considered a failure. Instead, the effort to build community, to create and prefigure in lived action and behavior the desired society, the emphasis on means and not ends, the spontaneous and utopian experiments that developed in the midst of political actions whose ultimate goal was a free and democratic society—all were central to the movements of the sixties and among their most important contribution. A centralized organization could neither have “saved” the movement, nor was it congruent with the New Left's suspicion of hierarchy, leadership, and the concentration of power. The movement was not simply unruly and undisciplined; it was experimenting with antihierarchical organizational forms.

Finally, the accomplishments and influence of the student movement and New Left on American culture and politics were and still are significant, although that is easy to overlook from the “strategic” or organizational perspective. Prefigurative politics were political and were what was new about the New Left.

In that regard, participatory democracy is critical. Participatory democracy inspired young people to join SDS and to live according to its, in Miller's terms, ambiguous precepts. SNCC lived it in its community projects and in the way the organization was run. Simply put, it implied forms of direct democracy and consensual decision making, decentralization, and community, forms that might ensure that individuals could participate in the decisions affecting their lives. For many, the experiments in participatory democracy and community, or prefigurative politics, were based on a fundamental mistrust of, and lack of interest in, mainstream power politics. For them, the maintenance of organization was not a priority.

Those two strands of movement politics—the moral urgency that issued in direct action often at personal risk and the emphasis on creating community and prefiguring future relationships while building a movement—led, according to the organizational perspective, to the romance with violence and to the ruin of SDS as an organization. Such an analysis, as we have seen, minimizes the war on Vietnam, the intransigence of the government in the face of antiwar sentiment, and state violence against black people as explanations of the movement's militancy. Such an analysis also returns us to the question of why the white and black movements “failed” according to these and other authors or, conversely, how success is measured.

The failure of socialist revolutions around the world to live up to the ideals and programs their revolutionaries fought for, the centralized power and authoritarianism of most existing socialist governments, and the hierarchical and undemocratic features of liberal technocracy put the failures and successes of the movements of the sixties in a different light. Critiques of the New Left assume that the lack of a single unified movement constituted a failure. That there should have been a coherent organizational representation of the movement is taken as self-evident. But it was precisely that assumption about which the early civil rights movement, the New Left, and the student movement raised questions. Perhaps postmodernists (in theory) and the decentered movement (in practice) are correct in that no unified center could have represented the multiplicity and variety of perspectives and activities. There were many centers of action in the movement, many actions, many interpretations, many visions, many experiences. There was no unity because each group, region, campus, commune, collective, and demonstration developed differently, but all shared in a spontaneous opposition to racism and inequality, the war in Vietnam, and the repressiveness of American social norms and culture, including centralization and hierarchy. In a multitude of places, perhaps most (California is the most obvious), SDS as an organization was irrelevant because there was a local movement with local and shifting leadership. Marginal people, the powerless and quiet, the oppressed and repressed, were heard from. And for once the privileged young listened and joined in, sometimes in self-righteousness but often out of identification and compassion. Unfamiliar voices and perspectives raged and communicated with one another. As Clayborne Carson states in his afterword to the King book, “SNCC's historical importance was based on its success in releasing the untapped energies of ordinary people who discovered their ability to do extraordinary things.”21 The same was true of the New Left and antiwar movements.

The movement cannot be measured on the basis of its instrumental achievements alone. It is probably not insignificant that King, one of the few female authors writing about this period, involved in the civil rights movement, and not the New Left (which was notoriously less hospitable to women), argues that the word “failure should never be applied to SNCC,” given the profundity of its vision and the overwhelming issues it tackled. SDS was not all that mattered, these authors notwithstanding. Studying leadership and organization encourages an evaluation of the sixties that overlooks the myriad expressions and influences of the movement. In fact, as all the authors acknowledge, not only a generation of people was changed, the whole culture was transformed.22 Everything was opened up to scrutiny. Most of the democratic and hopeful elements in American society even today have roots in the sixties: feminism; countercultural perspectives in the arts; the contributions of people of color finally acknowledged by white society; a distancing from patriotic, militaristic, and nationalistic sentiments; and the decentered political organizations and projects attempting to build a more equal, less competitive, multicultural, and tolerant society.

I do not believe it diminishes the movements of the 1960s to suggest that the demonstrations, confrontations, experiments in collectivity and democracy, questioning, militance, drugs and counterculture—and the radicalization that accompanied them—were what was accomplished. That suggestion is not foreign to Katsiaficas's emphasis on contestation, struggle, and the vision of a better world as the global New Left's unique contribution. They were not only means to another end, such as the realignment of the Democratic party; they were the end. Furthermore, an identification by white Americans with the Vietnamese or Third World people was not only a misguided and romantic adoption of victims who might make a revolution; it also represented a healthy rejection of the ethnocentrism and ignorance of other peoples so characteristic of American culture. For white students, solidarity with people of color and a rejection of empire contained a moment of internationalism that broke with superiority. In the occupation of Columbia or People's Park, in the Panthers' opposition to racism through the public carrying of arms, in the myriad expressions of the rejection of the rules, activists questioned authority and challenged the legitimacy of the government and major institutions.

While the imagery and tactics of violence and revolution associated mainly with Weatherman (a very small number of SDS-related people) at the end of the decade may have been extreme, Gitlin's horror at the counterculture, expressive politics, and street fighting reproduces the distance of many early SDS leaders from the movements they helped to generate, had difficulty organizing, and became estranged from. It was not all an orgy of death and vanguardist politics. In the larger picture it was only a few new leftists who journeyed to Vietnam or Cuba and romanticized “the other side,” belonged to the most extremist groups, and fantasized about violence. The politics of the late sixties, after 1967 and 1968, were not simple signs of the deterioration of the movement. There were imaginative political experiments as well as desperate responses to the apparent uselessness of years of peaceful demonstrations and organizing in the face of continued escalation of the war. And there were the movements growing out of the civil rights and student movements that continued the drive for equality and peace in American society. The mistake in the social democratic evaluation is to focus on left extremists and in the process devalue or ignore how individuals became radicalized in the midst of movement activities, achieved some victories, and transformed the terms of the culture.

The critique of the movement of the late sixties now articulated by these white male leaders turned authors (or subjects) of books reproduces their distance from the movements then, a distance created in part by their identification with SDS as an organization. Their analyses duplicate the early SDS leadership's unsuccessful effort to channel the movement into an organization. This instrumental yardstick recreates the tensions of more than twenty years ago between the early New Left leadership, those who espoused strategic politics and lost, and the mass movement, whose disregard for organization still generates dismay. The perspective that dismisses the more anarchic and cultural expressions of the movement reminds us that even the most dedicated leadership may be unable to recognize the genuine contribution self-directed local movement activity can make to social change. It also reminds us that in order to be faithful to a social movement, social history and sociology must incorporate the multiplicity of participants' voices. These books, which seem almost to have been written in defiance of Reaganism or in anticipation of its demise, signal the beginning of a new and necessary reappraisal of the 1960s. Their authors' political passions (and the passions of the reviewers and the media) reveal how powerful the sixties remain in American consciousness. The hope, disappointment, and rage are still with us, articulated in books and politics, obliquely informing us we still have much work to do.


  1. James Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets: From Port Huron to the Siege of Chicago (New York, 1987), 17.

  2. For exceptions to this celebration, see a hostile review of The Sixties by Todd Gitlin, Democracy Is in the Streets, by James Miller, and If I Had a Hammer by Maurice Isserman—Scott McConnell, “Resurrecting the New Left,” Commentary, 84 (Oct. 1987), 31-38. Its argument may well become a familiar theme of the neoconservatives as the rehabilitation of the sixties proceeds. See also Paul Berman, “Don't Follow Leaders,” New Republic, Aug. 10/17, 1987, pp. 28-35.

  3. In fact, 1965, only halfway through the decade and certainly early when considering the development of the mass movements, seems the more critical year for both Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). It was after the first antiwar demonstration called by SDS in 1965 and after the Mississippi Summer in 1964 and the Selma March in 1965 that both organizations experienced the centrifugal pull away from original members and visions.

  4. George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968 (Boston, 1987), 21.

  5. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1987), 343-44.

  6. For reviews, see, for example, Berman, “Don't Follow Leaders”; James Miller, review of The Sixties by Todd Gitlin, New York Times Book Review, Nov. 8, 1987, pp. 13-14; Hendrik Hertzberg, review of Democracy Is in the Streets by James Miller, ibid., June 21, 1987, pp. 1, 31, 33; Sean Wilentz, review of If I Had a Hammer by Maurice Isserman, Nation, Nov. 14, 1987, pp. 565-68; Stanley Aronowitz, review of The Sixties by Todd Gitlin, The Imagination of the New Left by George Katsiaficas, and Democracy Is in the Streets by James Miller, Zeta Magazine, 1 (Jan. 1988), 57-59.

  7. Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, 16, 13.

  8. Ibid., 326.

  9. Gitlin, Sixties, 127, 173. The rediscovery of social democracy by former new leftists is widespread. For a particularly vituperative version, see Berman, “Don't Follow Leaders,” 28-35.

  10. Mary King, Freedom Song: A Personal Song of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (New York, 1987), 7. Although Mary King raised the issue of the status of women in SNCC, she aggressively defends SNCC's record on women, citing large numbers of female SNCC workers and leaders who were supported by SNCC men. She credits SNCC with building concern for the rights of women in the United States. The development of feminism in SNCC and SDS and the importance of black southern women as role models for young women is discussed in Sara Evans, Personal Politics: The Roots of Women's Liberation in the Civil Rights Movement and the New Left (New York, 1979). See Wini Breines, review of Personal Politics by Sara Evans, Feminist Studies, 5 (Fall 1979), 496-506.

  11. On the continuities between political generations in the 1950s, see Leila J. Rupp and Verta Taylor, Survival in the Doldrums: The American Women's Rights Movement, 1945 to the 1960s (New York, 1987).

  12. Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York, 1987), 219, 207.

  13. For alternative interpretations that downplay the New Left's idealism and stress instead material conditions, particularly the formation of students into a new working class or professional managerial class, which was protesting its own proletarianization in the 1960s, see Michael W. Miles, The Radical Probe: The Logic of Student Rebellion (New York, 1971); Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich, “The Professional-Managerial Class,” in Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Walker (Boston, 1979); Alvin W. Gouldner, The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class: A Frame of Reference, Theses, Conjectures, Arguments, and an Historical Perspective on the Role of Intellectuals and Intelligentsia in the International Class Contest of the Modern Era (New York, 1979); and Cyril Levitt, Children of Privilege: Student Revolt in the Sixties: A Study of Student Movements in Canada, the United States, and West Germany (Toronto, 1984). For an explanation of new leftism based on the psychic ambivalences of participants, particularly Jews, see Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, Roots of Radicalism: Jews, Christians, and the New Left (New York, 1982). See Wini Breines, review of Children of Privilege by Cyril Leavitt, and Roots of Radicalism by Stanley Rothman and S. Robert Lichter, Theory and Society, 14 (July 1985), 511-23.

  14. For a study of the impulses and tensions in the early New Left, see Wini Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left: The Great Refusal (South Hadley, 1982). For Oglesby's statement, see ibid., 22. The book will be reissued by Rutgers University Press in early 1989.

  15. A number of reviewers have raised the communism question again. Berman, “Don't Follow Leaders,” and McConnell, “Resurrecting the New Left,” revive redbaiting by suggesting the infiltration of communism into the New Left in the persons of former red diaper babies who were more influential than has been earlier acknowledged. Wilentz's review of If I Had a Hammer by Isserman (like the books by Gitlin and Isserman) proposes that the anti-anticommunism of the early New Left made the New Left susceptible to Communist infiltration and sympathies, with dire consequences. The revival of accusations of significant Communist influence in the New Left ignores a number of factors. First, there was a left critique of communism and Stalinism shared by many new leftists and ignored by recent writers. Second, such accusations focus on a small group who were unimportant in the larger context of the movement. Third, there is something arid and constricting about allegations of Communist influence that squeeze the sixties and the New Left into the old categories of Stalinism, Trotskyism, and social democracy and thus exempt those making the allegations from contending with much of the novelty and breadth of the sixties. McConnell's and Berman's arguments are reminiscent of accusations against the New Left made twenty-five years ago by an older generation. In fact, they reproduce a debate that misses the significance of the sixties.

  16. See a recent version in Berman, “Don't Follow Leaders,” announced on the cover of the magazine containing it as, “Who Killed the Sixties? The Self-Destruction of American Radicalism.” Alan Brinkley's review of Jim Miller's book suggests that from the very beginning there was a fatal weakness at the heart of the New Left in the form of a yearning for personal fulfillment and gratification, which in the shape of the “seductive appeal of the counter-culture” ultimately undermined the New Left. Alan Brinkley, “Dreams of the Sixties,” New York Review of Books, Oct. 22, 1987, pp. 10, 12-16, esp. 16.

  17. King, Freedom Song, 530.

  18. Isserman, If I Had a Hammer, 169. Inexplicably, Wilentz chastizes Isserman for not finding more of a connection between pacifism and the radicalism of the 1960s. See Wilentz, review of If I Had a Hammer, by Isserman.

  19. Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left, 148, 23; Miller, Democracy Is in the Streets, 59, 269.

  20. Breines, Community and Organization in the New Left, 1-6.

  21. King, Freedom Song, 557.

  22. See Annie Gottlieb, Do You Believe in Magic? The Second Coming of the Sixties Generation (New York, 1987), on a transformation of American culture consisting of a rejection of materialism and ethnocentrism and an openness to other cultures, religions, and feelings. It is expressed in new ways of living and of relating to people, and an interest in mysticism, internationalism, conservation, and peace—an apolitical American version of the West German Greens.

Murray Hausknecht (review date fall 1988)

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SOURCE: Hausknecht, Murray. “Generational Conflict and Left Politics.” Dissent 35, no. 4 (fall 1988): 497-500.

[In the following review, Hausknecht compares the views of Gitlin with those of two of his contemporaries regarding the generational clash between the New Left and the Old Left during the 1960s.]

The subtitle of Todd Gitlin's book about the sixties, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, echoes the famous tag, “the best of times, the worst of times.” It was an intensely political time and for some the memory shines with nostalgic glow; others remember it as quite the worst of times. Each memory suppresses the other, and what is needed, but hard, is to see both.

It was also a time of significant cultural changes inseparable from politics: a shift in sexual mores, beginnings of the women's movement, the spread of casual drug use, changes in popular music. Gitlin reports that early SDSers followed Bob Dylan's career “as if he were singing our song; we got in the habit of asking where he was taking us next.” The radical politics of those years cannot be understood apart from what came to be called “the counterculture.”

But “radical” is too simple a rubric under which to group events that run from the sit-ins of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1960 and end with the violent Weathermen. The term “New Left” also conjures up too neat an image, since by the end of 1965 there is in the Students for a Democratic Society an “old guard” who exercise no decisive influence on its policies—the New Left has become by now a different kind of New Left. We cannot usefully think of the sixties as if they were a unitary whole.

That much is clear from Gitlin and from James Miller's Democracy Is in the Streets, though their focus, while overlapping, is different. Gitlin, part of the SDS old guard and now a sociologist at Berkeley, takes his political biography as a baseline for a fine, wide-ranging analysis of the student movement and its relations to the cultural events of the time. Miller was a demonstrator in the streets of Chicago in 1968 and has previously written a book on Rousseau's political theory. If Gitlin's work is a sociocultural analysis, Miller's is acute intellectual history.

The differences between the New Left at the beginning and the end of the sixties prompt questions about what happened in between and to what extent the beginning foreshadowed the end. And what made the New Left “new”?

By the middle fifties American left-wing parties had all but disappeared. The collapse of this ideological old left and the early stirrings of the New Left is the subject of Maurice Isserman's If I Had a Hammer. … Isserman, a historian who has written a book about the Communist party, offers a fair and thoughtful story of the radical situation from the end of World War II to the early sixties. He shows that the disintegration of the Communist party after the Khrushchev revelations had already begun under the impact of the Cold War, the passing of Earl Browder from the leadership, and McCarthyism. Elsewhere on the left, a once- or semi-Trotskyist group under Max Shachtman merged with the Socialist party. Sectarianism triumphed in this union, and whatever political potentialities this merger had soon disappeared.

With the collapse of the organized old left, there was a “missing generation.” The new generation of the sixties was politically unanchored; it had few if any connections with groups that had earlier formed the American left. Without such anchorage political principles and ideas remain wholly theoretical; unexposed to the realities of everyday political life, thought becomes “mere ideology.” Some consequences of having only a tenuous connection to a living radical tradition soon became apparent in SDS.

The membership was young; they were, after all, Students for a Democratic Society. “Youth” designates chronological age, and this implies that the experiences of the young in modern societies are different from those of their elders. And soon the differences between the two experiences unavoidably produce generational conflict.

“Youth,” however, also suggests “youthfulness,” a quality or spirit, a tangle of many strands of feeling and thought: unbounded optimism and self-confidence, an eagerness for adventure, an impatience with the world, a keen moral commitment, a conviction that one understands more deeply than those trapped in existing institutions, a yearning for transcendent experiences, a desire for intense social relationships—all bound together by highly charged libidinous energies.

The association of youthfulness with chronological youth is not invariable. Cultural wisdom is full of patronizing allusions to those who “retain their youthful idealism” as well as approving recognitions of those “wise beyond their years.” We approve of the latter because they have been successfully socialized; unqualified youthfulness suggests that the task of directing energies into approved channels has not yet been completed.

Socialization is the elders' attempt to transmit the fruits of their experience. Typically, the more experience a person has had, the greater his or her appreciation of the need to curb and channel desires and passions. But such knowledge, “learned from experience,” is rejected by the spirit of youthfulness as an attempt to impose dull restraints, and this resistance then sharpens generational conflict. The elders see this rejection as a challenge to their authority: their “wisdom” is being questioned. Politically, then, youthfulness is always a threat to authority and its order. Young Turks do not challenge the powers-that-be only because they have dissident views but also because they are youthful Turks. And often they are helped by allies hiding behind the mask of age.

Domesticating youthfulness requires the integration of the young into everyday life, but in recent decades higher education has postponed integration. Middle-class students cluster for years on university campuses which sometimes resemble youth ghettos. Many find this life irksome because it offers too little scope for the energies of youthfulness. The itch for action characteristic of SDS was one force leading to its formation. Its leftward orientation was, in part, the result of family background; a disproportionate number of early SDS members had parents with old left experience.

In 1960 there was a model of political action that was almost an ideal embodiment of the spirit of youthfulness. “SNCC moved us,” Gitlin recalls, “seized our imaginations. From 1960 on, SDS felt wired to these staggeringly brave, overalled work-shirted college students … SNCC had suffered, SNCC was there, bodies on the line, moral authority incarnate.”

SNCC also proved the importance of student activists. Aside from a minuscule number of young people organizationally connected with the remnants of the old left—e.g., the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), whose membership in 1960 Isserman puts at 300—politically interested youth had no identification to fall back on other than “student.” In 1960 to be a YPSL was to have a political identity, but to be a member of, say, Tocsin at Harvard only meant you were interested in political issues. Tending to dominate identity, the student status made it easier to succumb to the notion that students could be a decisive political force. SNCC confirmed this heady illusion.

It was also reinforced by the authoritative voice of the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who was seen, Miller says, as “a rebel and iconoclast in a world of button-down pedants” (a youthful ally among the elders). In a 1960 paper Mills celebrated “the young intelligentsia,” and that article, Tom Hayden later told Miller, “helped us make sense of what we were doing … it made us feel as if we had been anointed.

Mills's influence is apparent in the notion of “participatory democracy.” As against mass society Mills stressed the importance of “publics,” people in face-to-face interaction freely exchanging opinions and reaching decisions. Participatory democracy rests on the premise that without such interaction there is no real democracy. Another influence was Arnold Kaufman, one of Hayden's teachers at the University of Michigan and the coiner of the phrase. For Kaufman politics was not simply a way to achieve goals; it was also a way to find, as the SDS Port Huron statement said, “a meaning in life that is personally authentic.”

Participatory democracy was a notably ambiguous concept. That is only to be expected, Miller maintains, since it contains “two distinct political visions.” One “is of a face-to-face community of friends sharing interests in common; the second is of an experimental collective, embarked on a high risk effort to test the limits of democracy in modern life.” The first is an instrumental orientation, and it became the animating principle for SDS groups that went into urban slums to organize the poor. There they lived, worked, and made decisions through consensus. The other vision represents an expressive component. “The guiding values of democratic experimentalism,” Miller explains, “are spontaneity, imagination, passion, playfulness, movement—the sensation of being on edge, at the limits of freedom.” Gitlin, too, sees in the idea of participatory democracy “an expressive tendency … in revolt against all formal boundaries and qualifications. … It trusted feeling and wanted ‘to let it all hang out’. … Its faith was that a politics of universal expression would make the right things happen. …” All of which owes much to the spirit of youthfulness.

That spirit played a role in the break with the League for Industrial Democracy, SDS's formal parent. Michael Harrington and others in the LID thought the Port Huron statement showed an insufficient sense of the dangers of Soviet communism as well as an antagonism toward organized labor. Hayden defended it vehemently, and Richard Flacks, another SDS leader, later told Miller that Hayden “felt that he'd put too much anti-Communism into [it] already. The only reason he'd put in any anti-Communism was to placate these people who were bigots and were living in the Cold War past.” This conflict was clearly generational, with perceptions of the Hungarian Revolution emblematic of the gulf between generations. For Harrington, as Gitlin sees it, it was “the living, burning epitome of his politics,” while for the radical members of SDS “‘Hungary’ was ancient history, something out of their early teens; it signified not so much a crushed revolution as a tattered banner in the Cold War. …”

Many others besides Harrington believed that Hungary was not at all “ancient history”; for them it was a significant marker in their lives. But for many in SDS, the significant marker was Fidel Castro; the Cuban revolution was imaginatively appropriated and made part of their identities.

Nor did the spirit of youthfulness always help matters. In an interview with Isserman, Gitlin remembers that when he first read a draft of the Port Huron statement he was “absolutely enraptured by it, thinking, ‘My God, this what I feel.’ I wouldn't even say ‘think’ because my thoughts were too inchoate.” Since the statement was constructed to have exactly that emotional impact, his response was not unusual. But for those whose own youthfulness had been tempered by the experience of the radical politics of the old left, the Port Huron statement could only be a source of impatience.

Logically it might seem that the writers around Dissent would be one old left group SDS could have felt close to. Isserman, who devotes a chapter to Dissent, points to its continual warnings on the dangers of sectarianism and its emphasis on a conception of politics that was least partly congruent with the SDS vision. In 1956 Lewis Coser wrote that “one of the most significant contributions of a radical movement … will be to allow at least some men to fight their way to personal autonomy. …” Yet what many remember is bitter conflict between the two groups. In retrospect, the conflict seems almost inevitable.

The flight from sectarianism among the Dissent people meant a greater receptivity to ideas of political coalition and the compromising of differences in behalf of common ends. An emphasis on the value of personal autonomy meant, again in Coser's words, “that the struggle for civil and intellectual liberties is as important as the struggle for industrial democracy.” But Coser also stressed that a desirable political life does not sacrifice “the here-and-now … as a necessary preparation for the revolutionary days to come.” A premise like that requires a strong interest in maintaining and extending the welfare state. Dissent, without abandoning its basic commitment to socialism, began to move at increasing speed toward a kind of liberalism.

To the New Left, however, liberalism was, in the cliché of the era, “part of the problem.” Gitlin discerns “a collision of political cultures” in the contrast of liberal and New Left perspectives. “Beneath the language of justice, in SDS's eyes, the liberal manager is a custodian of order. … The New Left style … valued informality, tolerated chaos, scorned order.” A radical politics demanded a rejection of liberal politics. Miller cites an influential 1962 editorial in Studies on the Left which argued that not the conservative right but the liberals stood in the way of social change.

The New Left leaders, as Hayden told Miller, “thought our vision lay in the traditions of the left, but they had to be constructed all over again, in our time and our place.” There were differences in style as well: “SDS was a group like the Jesuits or the Bolsheviks. It was a band of true believers taking action to catalyze and convert.”

When Dissent editors met with Hayden and other SDS leaders including Gitlin—who comments on the meeting—it was a microcosm of generational conflict. “Above all, Hayden was inspired by, and loyal to, the handfuls of students who had succeeded in making history, whether through sitting-in at southern lunch counters or storming the Moncada barracks in Cuba.” When the meeting ended, the Austrian Socialist Joseph Buttinger gave Hayden and Gitlin copies of his book, The Twilight of Socialism. They respected Buttinger for his heroic past, but “through no fault of his own, history condemned him to be a loser. Not for us the elegies of the twilight; for us the celebration of sunrises!”

As one looks back at the student movement, it is precisely the spirit of generosity that is most impressive. Unselfishness marked much of its thought and action. Blacks sitting-in at lunch counters were turning away from the traditional black bourgeoisie, and middle class white students who went south to work in the civil rights movement were, for a while, transcending barriers that separated them from the poor. The sheer guts of those activists still commands admiration.

Such students were morally serious and possessed of a genuine desire to grapple with the evils of racism, poverty, and powerlessness. Their activism helped reawaken interest among many of the old left who had retreated from politics. The qualities of generosity, moral seriousness, and courage did not disappear even when the student movement became more problematic. I am thinking here of the antiwar movement and some aspects of the commune movement in its search for ways of realizing utopian goals. But the antiwar movement signaled a turning point.

The March on Washington, the teach-ins, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement brought thousands of new members into SDS. Yet, Isserman points out, just at this critical time of rapid growth, the SDS leadership, full of “heedless self-confidence,” left to organize the urban poor. Inspired by their own ideology and the example of SNCC, they went to work with “real people” and turned over their posts to new, untried leaders. Their fierce commitment and their itch for action now showed an absurd side. Miller describes how the new leadership, attempting “an experiment in office democracy,” plunged the SDS national office into “mounting chaos. … Elitism was routed but virtually no mail was processed.”

Numbers alone did not change SDS; the new recruits were qualitatively different. Gitlin uses their own self-description, “prairie power,” to distinguish them from older SDS generations. They were younger; there were fewer Jews; more were from working class families; “and they were less intellectual, less articulate. …” They came from the small towns of the midwest and southwest where their support for civil rights earned them the label of “Communist” and estranged them from parents who had voted for Barry Goldwater. The rupture of relations with family and community joined to the youthful suspicion of authority meant that “they encountered no obstacles to moving further left-ward.” Nor did it check the expressive tendencies encouraged by SDS ideology. Many became highly vulnerable to countercultural freakishness, with youthful energy dribbling away into the pseudopolitics of the Yippies. The SDS old guard living among the urban poor and preoccupied with “the we-happy-few mystique of the early years of face-to-face organizing,” writes Gitlin, “failed to take these ‘prairie people’ into our own old-boy networks. … Whereupon a generational chasm opened up within the student movement, reproducing the one that was opening up in the wider society.” He neglects to mention that the SDS old guard was in almost the same position with respect to the new recruits as the old left had been vis-a-vis the New Left.

Some of the consequences of rigid ideology and untempered youthfulness became apparent in the antiwar movement. The New Left had always been sympathetic to Castro and Third World revolutionaries, and these sympathies made it easier for students to assume, as Gitlin puts it, that “the Vietnamese were a more victimized and better organized version of ourselves”; support for them was part of the struggle here in America. Hayden's well-publicized trip to Hanoi helped reinforce this vision. Nor was the antiwar movement helped when television viewers saw demonstrators waving Vietcong flags.

Running through New Left ideology was a profound distrust of leadership. The admired model was what Miller calls “the self-abnegating (anti-) leadership style” of SNCC. Problems like how to make leaders accountable were not pertinent for those who believed that face-to-face groups living by consensus represented the core meaning of democracy. Yet at the same time those who elaborated this version of democracy defined student intellectuals as an “anointed” elite with a “mission.” The ultimate consequences of these visions became visible in the final stages of SDS's life. In its last days, according to Gitlin, “all factions of the SDS strutted about as self-appointed vanguards in search of battalions,” and discovered the key to successful organizing in … Leninism! History as farce, but only if we forget the Weathermen.

The decade ended violently: police riots, ghetto riots, murders of civil rights workers, assassinations. To see the Weathermen as simply a product of radical politics gone completely off the rails is to ignore a broader social and cultural context from which they emerged. For the Weathermen were one possible end-product of New Left ideas, and in Gitlin's unsentimental description we can see them in the narrower context of New Left ideology and the spirit of youthfulness:

They were pure New Left in a way—self-enclosed, contemptuous of liberalism, romantic about Third World revolutions, organized in small squads, exuberant with will, courageous, reckless, arrogant, burning to act as if anything might be possible.

The Weathermen, however, were only one possible outcome.

The student movement was a youth movement, and inevitably youthfulness is tempered by experience and the challenge of succeeding generations. This is evident in these three intelligent books. If these writers can be taken as representative figures, then perhaps the student movement will have long-lasting effects. American politics, both liberal and democratic socialist, may yet be enriched by a youthfulness that will have assimilated what was most positive in the thought and most generous in the spirit of the student movement.

Joshua Meyrowitz (review date autumn 1988)

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SOURCE: Meyrowitz, Joshua. “Peering Back.” Journal of Communication 38, no. 4 (autumn 1988): 134-39.

[In the following review, Meyrowitz discusses Watching Television, maintaining that Gitlin has made a convincing case for his argument that the medium deserves more careful scrutiny than it generally receives.]

On reflection, the phrase “watching television” is as rich and complex as it first seems banal. It trips from our tongues and enters our ears dozens of times a week without much conscious thought, its meaning apparently too transparent to require elaboration or analysis. Yet hidden within it are multiple layers of potential significance.

These multiple meanings, reflected in the diversity of television research and in the variety of our daily experience, range from innocent to sinister. They include, but are not limited to: the active choice of what to watch; the unified mass of all the viewing options; individual variations in the processing of the same televised information; the passive cognitive orientation often assumed in relation to the medium; the national activity that consumes more time than almost any other; the artistic manipulation of the medium's production variables; the critical, sometimes hostile, stance taken by some viewers, who not only watch but shout back at the tube; and that which is unique about our interaction with television when contrasted with print, radio, the movies, and other media.

As a book title, then, “watching television” holds both promise and danger. Capitalized and set off [as in Watching Television], the words ask us to think about a phrase that we rarely contemplate. But once set into motion, our thoughts may demand more than, or at least something different from, what any one book can deliver.

Editor Todd Gitlin wisely begins this book's introduction by wrestling with his title, exploring a few of its contrasting meanings, and pointing the reader to his specific intent: “to try to peer back at the screen and through it, to use it as a window into the industries that crank out the shows and ultimately into American culture as a whole” (p. 6).

In recent years, the more sophisticated analyses of television content have divided roughly into two camps. The first group believes that the significance of television programs becomes visible only when one comes close enough to viewers to understand how they, individually or by social category, process what they see, revising the “texts” presented to them or “actively misreading” what is offered. The other group believes, in contrast, that one must stand back far enough to see the institutional construction of television content as a whole and to discover its uniformities and underlying forces—forces that are not within the awareness or control of individual viewers.

Gitlin firmly places himself and this book in the second camp. Having already contributed such solo-authored classics of institutional analysis as The Whole World Is Watching and Inside Prime Time, Gitlin, with the assistance of six other critics, now blends such analysis with a close reading of the resulting television texts. Gitlin wants to call attention “to the stultifying forms of popular culture, to the ways in which mass-circulation styles train their audiences to see accordingly and discourage practitioners from making unconventional statements” (p. 5).

To cover the terrain of television, Gitlin and his collaborators take a look at the news, soap operas, children's TV, music videos, advertising, prime time, and a previously unnamed genre of “simulations.” All the authors are clearly in control of their subject matters. Although some of the essays are a bit too long, one gets the feeling that the authors still have much more to say. And nearly every piece is marked by a subtlety of style and a richness of insight that defy brief summary.

In the first essay, “We Keep America on Top of the World,” Daniel Hallin presents a clear and convincing portrait of network news as an ideological medium that offers not just information and entertainment but specific frames of interpretation and cues for reaction. He shows how the oft-stated view that television is “anti-establishment” misses the mark. News, says Hallin, often grapples with two conflicting traditions in the United States: populism and reverence for authority. He demonstrates how TV news often resolves the contradiction by criticizing White House policies but bolstering the president and “the system” at the same time. As a bonus, Hallin offers an insightful contrast of the subgenres of morning news and evening news.

Ruth Rosen's “Search for Yesterday” also deals with the resolution of conflicting strains, but this time in the daytime soap opera. She argues that that genre's generous flow of sins and constant violation of norms are less significant than the redemption that is ultimately found only in reaffirmation of community and family values. The appeal of the programs, she contends, rests in viewers' hunger for lost communal life.

In “The Shortcake Strategy,” Tom Engelhardt presents a detailed history and analysis of the rise of the “program-length commercial” for children. He shows how the creativity, excitement, and emotion in children's TV rest in the behind-the-scenes merchandising strategies and in the commercials, not in the bland, repetitive, poorly animated, good-vs.-evil world of the programs. What develops at first as a scholarly version of the argument “look what they are doing to our kids” ends with a startling and ironic twist: that we are embarrassed by our children liking these inane programs—filled with violence (for boys) and cloying sweetness (for girls)—because they actually teach our children what our culture now seems to value most, though in bald forms, stripped of our typical obfuscations.

The theme of the blurring of commercial and program is expanded in Pat Aufderheide's essay on music videos, “The Look of the Sound.” Not only are music videos both “program” and “commercial,” but “as nonstop sequences of discontinuous episodes, they have erased the boundaries between programs” (p. 111) as well. Aufderheide explores the music video's history, content and style, sensuality, and remarkable mutability, as well as the institutional forces and economic constraints that shape it. She sees the music video as the most accessible form of postmodern art, with its characteristic blurring of commercial with artistic, image with referent, past with present, essence with performance, and art with life. Music videos, says Aufderheide, are at once cynical commercial creations and a new sort of “primary experience” (p. 117) in which “image is reality” (p. 112). They offer an alternative world for adolescents seeking a sense of identity in a landscape filled with shopping malls but lacking community centers. Paradoxically, they fill the need for a sense of “anchoring” by allowing viewers to participate in a swiftly shifting “improvised community” and in a “continuous performance” (p. 118). In short, they involve a “constant recreation of an unstable self” (p. 135).

New definitions of self are also an issue in Gitlin's “We Build Excitement,” an essay on car commercials and Miami Vice. Gitlin discusses the current prevalence of “surface”: slick, fast-paced images; blank faces; unpeopled terrains; reflections on sunglasses, buildings, and cars. Beneath this surface, Gitlin sees a composite message about Americans' perennial dreams: of freedom, power, and technology. But the aggregate desire he identifies is filled with contradictions and paradoxes. We call on new technologies to help us escape the nightmares created by old technologies. We want to be loners but also part of a supportive group. We covet freedom but also a powerful spot in the corporate hierarchy. “The promise of freedom conceals the fact of dependency” (p. 147). Daniel Boone longs to be Lee Iacocca. In car commercials, Gitlin says, bodies transmogrify into cars and blank-faced “lone drivers” find emotion only behind the wheels of vehicles that provide escape. The images, says Gitlin, embody the Reagan-era fantasy of the “self-sufficient man” whose “freedom” is gained at the cost of “taking on the persona, the aura, the power, the very body of the boss” (pp. 143-144).

Just as Gitlin describes cars that serve as fantasized escape mechanisms from reality, so does Michael Sorkin identify an overall retreat from the real to the artificial. In “Faking It,” he defines a new genre, “simulations,” which includes such shows as wrestling, The People's Court,Puttin' on the Hits, and other forms where the distinction between the actual and the copy is obscured. As one exemplar, he analyzes the impossibility of pinning down Mr. T's “reality.” Mr. T's (what is his “real” name?) public manifestations have ranged from “real” Muhammad Ali bodyguard, to fictional opponent to Rocky, to member of the A-Team, to a “real” wrestling opponent of Hulk Hogan, to children's doll, to a “real” lap for Nancy Reagan to sit on, to an animated Saturday morning cartoon figure (introduced by the “real” Mr. T). Sorkin's clever and original analysis challenges our thinking even more fully when he pulls us from the safe realm of “entertainment” into the world of news. There he describes “Newsbreaks” determined by schedule, not by breaking news; Today show interviews that promote and “naturalize” an upcoming fictional movie on the same network; and evening news introduced by science fiction-style music and surrealistic images. Ultimately, says Sorkin, “nothing fashioned from the field of bits is finally any different from any other selection” (p. 182). Television dominates events by a “thrust to absolute parity” (p. 181). And Sorkin himself hints at a desire to enter the bit stream. As we learn from his biographical note, “he awaits the call to Hollywood.”

The book ends with Mark Crispin Miller's analysis of prime-time television. In “Deride and Conquer,” he takes on television's myth of abundance. He argues that television presents a closed and self-reflexive universe where real alternatives are not presented and where choice is an illusion. Television content, says Miller, has been purified of any elements that might impede its singular drive to sell goods. The twist that Miller sees television bringing to this totalitarian enterprise is that it constantly immunizes itself from criticism by blatantly parodying itself. Television is forever winking at its audience, saying, in effect, “Yes, we know you know this is silly,” flattering viewers by acknowledging their wisdom, and—in the process—keeping them hooked. Miller slaughters some of the sacred cows of television, from Father Knows Best to Sesame Street to Bill Cosby (both the star and his show). His essay—deliciously derisive itself—forces us to consider alternative interpretations of television content and of why we watch what we do.

Although the authors vary in their subjects, styles, and approaches, a remarkably large set of overlapping themes emerges: how television flatters us with our own sense of goodness and enlightenment; how it thrives on our hunger for stability and community while further depriving us of them; how conflicting desires and values are resolved in television through the seeming naturalness of consumption; how a self-mocking tone defuses possible criticism; and how the boundaries between traditional genres and between reality and representation are dissolving.

What emerges ultimately is a view reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse's One Dimensional Man: that we are increasingly living in an environment where a monolithic way of life is presented as one of abundant choice, where we are told we have freely chosen the one option that is presented to us, and where all potential forces of opposition are coopted by, and incorporated within, the dominant mode.

In short, Gitlin has compiled an unusually coherent, well-written, entertaining, and provocative collection of essays—so coherent, in fact, that it comes closer in flavor to a coauthored book than an anthology. (One structural exception is that helpful subheadings appear only in Hallin's and Gitlin's essays.)

There are, however, some weaknesses in this approach as well as strengths. There is so much implicit and explicit cross-referencing and reinforcement that, in places, the book appears as monolithic and relentless as it claims television to be. The very frequent explicit links throughout to policies and fantasies of “the Reagan era,” for example, dilute the freshness of the various arguments. They also unnecessarily date the book, since many of the elements described lie deep in our past and show no sign of disappearing. One wishes, at times, for broader political and historical linkages, such as those provided in the works of Erik Barnouw.

Additionally, while the authors push hard in some areas, they pull their punches when it comes to showing how the themes they describe in television and in American culture have contributed, via aspects of our foreign policy, to a more dangerous and unstable world. As a result, some readers may mistakenly believe that they can become immune to the forces described if they simply turn off their sets and associate with the right people—a belief that would be impossible after reading the cultural criticism of Noam Chomsky.

For better or worse, the relative uniformity across pieces also makes the reader more aware of a few inconsistencies within the essays. For example, a number of the authors vacillate between the position that economically and politically motivated institutions are manipulating us through television and the view that we, as a culture, are manipulating ourselves through such institutions, which in some sense do our collective bidding.

Further, while the authors seem aware at times of the ways in which television—regardless of its specific content—is different from other media, this perspective is usually lost in the primary emphasis on “message.” In his introduction, for example, Gitlin argues that television is misnamed because rather than allowing us to see far, it shows us only “what the nation already presumes” and “what the culture already knows” (p. 3). What Gitlin overlooks here by examining content and the “nation” level is that television—with its unique patterns of dissemination and visual form—may rearrange the relative access to information within the culture, even when it circulates “old information.” Television, for example, has certainly altered the balance of information between children and adults and between other social groups. Analyses of dissemination patterns and information form might contradict some of the book's arguments, but they would also illuminate many of the described trends, including the blurring of previously distinct forms of experience and the shifting perceptions of political, news, and entertainment figures.

Nevertheless, the book remains powerful and convincing. It is a major contribution to the literature on popular culture. Readers—especially students and lay persons—will appreciate the very many specific examples that support the more abstract principles. And if, by the end, the reader starts to find that other meanings of “watching television”—including those that result in challenges to the collective thesis presented here—intrude on his or her thoughts, then all the better. Gitlin et al. have pushed us to thinking more deeply about the medium that is so often viewed as just surface and experience, signifying nothing.

Randall Collins (review date November 1988)

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SOURCE: Collins, Randall. “Searching for the Structure of the Sixties.” Contemporary Sociology 17, no. 6 (November 1988): 729-33.

[In the following review of The Sixties, Collins claims that the book suffers from a slow start and an overemphasis on the activities of the Students for a Democratic Society.]

What was the meaning of “the sixties”? More precisely, what was the meaning of those intertwined social movements in the United States that, with typical overestimation, we used to call “the Movement”? Todd Gitlin, a core activist in SDS across the decade, is exceptionally well qualified to attempt an answer. Gitlin is now a sociologist, but the book [The Sixties] is not primarily sociology. It is part autobiography and part history of Students for a Democratic Society from its early days of emancipation from its place as the youth branch of an old socialist organization, until its takeover by the violent Weatherman faction in 1969. At times, the book seems overly SDS-centered, with more consequential events and movements coming in only as expanded background. But in the end this seems both inevitable and right. A main thrust of the sixties mood was to break down the artificiality of the public and formal and to reveal the personal and private within them. Politics aimed at being participatory, culture at turning on the full experience of the subjective self. If in the end these ultrademocratic and antielitist impulses failed, and even lost themselves in their own forms of political and cultural elitism, Gitlin lived through it all at a high level of awareness.

Reading this book poses some problems for those of us of a certain age and experience. We believed in constructing our own reality, whether politically, psychologically, psychedelically, or all three. The boundaries were not at all clear for us between what we really could construct locally (whether by taking things into our own hands with a sudden spurt of direct-action politics, or by freeing the head with one psychological/meditative technique or psychedelic substance or another, or by just plain physically getting the hell out) and what we sometimes felt we could do collectively to change the world. This combination of iconoclastic realism and ideological irrealism was perhaps not too surprising, at a time when a stream of movements were surging, feeding off of each other, spinning off local eddies which sometimes unexpectedly swirled back to make yet another main stream.

The barriers between micro and macro seemed to be breaking down, and there was a tendency to feel that what we did had cosmic significance. Thus, to lapse into the kind of ego-centeredness that was a sixties style, and which Gitlin's book reinvokes, I want to mention the shock that I got from finding that events at Berkeley (where I happened to be) take up small space in Gitlin's narration, and also a little haughty satisfaction at uncovering some small errors in his account of the Free Speech Movement there in 1964. After all, we had our “Berkeley-the-center-of-the-universe” self-image, full of not only the feeling that what we were doing was the most important thing of our own lives, but also the illusion that what we did rippled outwards and catalyzed followers everywhere else. With more detachment, one can say it is precisely that feeling that is the mark of a movement on the rise, and which constitutes one of its strongest attractions.

Gitlin's narration has some of the same tone, but it has a way of overcoming its flaws. The first 100 pages, covering the period up to about 1963, take a while to get going. I felt at first that Gitlin spent too much space on an uninspiring picture of the pop culture of the 1950s, and on the tiny ban-the-bomb and pacifist movements of the early sixties that he happened to be involved with. But even this draggy opening turned out to have the right feel. Gitlin brought back the atmosphere of the very early days of the Civil Rights Movement, when the left was busy calling one another either Stalinist or soft on communism, and everyone was afraid of criticizing the United States about racism or anything else, for fear of not seeming to denounce Soviet totalitarianism strongly enough. The early days of the Movement consisted above all in freeing itself from the fifties. When the slogan “don't trust anybody over thirty” appeared in Berkeley in 1964, it had a special meaning that separated the New Left from the old left: it meant we weren't taking any advice from our older “friends” who kept telling us to shut down civil rights demonstrations lest they call forth the backlash of a Senator Joe McCarthy or his alleged 1964 incarnation, Barry Goldwater.

What finally broke up the logjam on the left was a set of new forces: above all, the militant, nonviolent direct action of the Civil Rights Movement. Gitlin's book suddenly comes alive, just as the 1960s did, when he gets to a chapter on SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), together with CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and SCLC (Martin Luther King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference), and their confrontations with official and unofficial segregationist violence in the South. Gitlin is eloquent on the genuine heroism of this movement. But his writing is more than hagiography, for it carries a double theme: the battles were against not just external enemies, but internal ones.

Some of the most revealing portions of the book are where Gitlin takes us inside Democratic party politics (an arena in which he had good contacts), and its maneuvers to hold the center of the political spectrum. President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general, come across as anything but the heroes they became in postassassination civil rights mythology. As was apparent to participants in the movement at that time, the Kennedy administration had written off the South to the segregationists, and constantly tried to dissuade the nonviolent activists from engaging in confrontations that embarrassed the president while he concentrated on a military showdown with the Russians. Gitlin is especially good at describing the maneuvers of the old-liberal Democrats under Hubert Humphrey in excluding black delegates from Mississippi from the 1964 Democratic Convention.

From 1964 on, the book—and the decade—barrels ahead, unstoppable. So much is happening that Gitlin can barely keep hold of it, much less analyze it. Certain themes surface from time to time, such as the dialectic of turning points, usually in three-sided conflicts (like the 1964 Democratic convention conflict, won locally by the anti-civil rights forces but setting off a polarized movement that went far beyond anything that had happened so far). Gitlin himself owns up to his inability to cover it all:

How can I convey the texture of this gone time so that you and I, reader, will be able to grasp, remember, believe that astonishing things actually happened, and made sense to the many who made them happen and were overtaken by them? … The years 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970 were a cyclone in a wind tunnel.

(p. 242)

At times, all he can do is mention names of successive shocks: the Tet offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and RFK, the Black Panthers, the Charles Manson murders, fraggings in Vietnam, LSD, Woodstock, Columbia sit-ins, the My Lai massacre, and many more.

This kaleidoscopic treatment makes his book a rather imperfect history. Sometimes names are intruded—James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Eldridge Cleaver—without explanation, that would probably perplex some readers, though they were newspaper headliners at the time. Sometimes truly major events are bypassed or receive only the most marginal attention: above all, the ghetto uprisings from Watts (Los Angeles) in 1965 onward, and especially the huge battles in Detroit and Newark in 1967. This is probably the most serious shortcoming of the book, for it was these events more than anything that brought a sense of urgency to the public and the politicians, and that accounted for much of the apocalyptic mood within the white student movement which Gitlin spends the latter part of the book trying to explain. Similarly, the shift of the civil rights movement from nonviolence to a Black Power stance, with changing relationships among black activists, the suddenly enfranchised black middle class, and the increasingly isolated black underclass, is perhaps the major structural transformation which Gitlin fails to portray.

Some of what Gitlin describes is even more unbelievable now than it was then. Perhaps not so important, but worthy of record, are such events as the intrusion of the Diggers' mind-blowing “guerrilla theater” into the SDS national convention in 1967, prompting one dedicated activist to protest, “If the CIA wanted to disrupt his meeting, they couldn't have done it any better than by sending you” (p. 228). There was worse in store. The story of the street warfare with the police at the Chicago Convention in 1968 leads to the 1969 SDS convention, with the bomb-setting Weatherman faction expelling the Maoist PL (Progressive Labor) faction for being “objectively anticommunist” and “counterrevolutionary” (p. 388). There are ugly scenes as the Black Panthers endorsed “pussy power” (p. 388), and women received obscene catcalls for raising feminist issues in a 1969 meeting of the National Mobilization against the Vietnam war. Small wonder, then, that Gitlin's narration winds down at the end, in a note of near-despair that was shared by most members of the now-old New Left who remained committed to altruistic, nonviolent personal action.

For many participants in the Movement, deactivation from the headlines had already happened earlier. Here is another way that Gitlin's narration loses some of its target. It remains focused on the Yippies and the renovated revolutionary Marxists because they were what remained on the public stage by the end of the sixties. Gitlin does remark from time to time about the burnout already occurring in the early sixties among the most dedicated of the southern civil rights workers, and steadily through the rest of the decade as political activists left a movement with whose tactics and ideology they could no longer identify. But they did not go back to the world they had been rebelling against. The conservative wave came from elsewhere: the neoconservatives were from the older generation of liberals or leftists (those whom the New Left fought against to get their movement going at the beginning of the decade), while the just-plain-new-conservatives were members of the subsequent generation who came of age in the economic downturn of the 1970s. As Gitlin suggests cursorily, the sixties generation of activists kept up at least some version of their vision: spearheading the psychedelic counterculture, with its literary, artistic, and media offshoots that went on well into the seventies; as well as finding their way back into quasi-conventional politics, usually as liberal Democrats, and providing the core of the feminist, environmental, and anti-nuclear weapons movements in the following decades.

One unfinished task is to derive sociological insight from the sixties. It was a time of massive expansion of higher education, and of inflation in the value of educational credentials; this provided the structural basis for mobilizing a major part of the left movements of that time (and not in the United States alone, as Maurice Pinard is currently demonstrating in a comparative study). It was the time of what I once called “the Goffmanian revolution,” a massive shift in deference and demeanor styles, and hence in the fundamental structures through which status and personal identity are staged in everyday life. The effects of these structural shifts are still with us. Here I will comment only on the sociological themes raised by Gitlin's treatment of the dynamics of political mobilization in the sixties.

A massive social movement is really a chain of social movements and countermovements. This is apparent in the way the southern civil rights movements—the Montgomery bus boycott, the local efforts at school integration—spawned northern movements, both black and white; these in turn kicked off campus movements, initially over the right to organize for off-campus causes, and then turned into confrontations over university policies themselves. New events and new causes emerged, building upon or imitating existing organizations: the Vietnam war protests, the Black Power movement, the return of revolutionary Marxism, the rise of militant feminism. It was this vortex of movements that gave the sixties its breathtaking quality. For this reason, no movement could control its own destiny, or even its own tactics; different kinds of recruits, causes, and motivations were constantly being mixed at public events, and the focus of attention (and hence the crucial point of subsequent reactions) went to whomever's action was the most dramatic.

But the structural web spread still wider. Movements were also being shaped by their enemies; and these enemies were both external and internal. The external enemies are the most obvious. The existence of grievances produced by enemies is what gives a movement its realistic basis. The sixties movements also give textbook examples of how the atrocities committed by opponents are the prime source of escalating support for one's own side. Thus the mobilization of racist countermovements in the South, and those few of their murders and beatings that were well publicized, marked the turning point for civil rights victory. What we need to see analytically is that power shifts because the escalation of movement and countermovement is not symmetrical. The actions of each side tend to be viewed as atrocities by the other side, while one's own actions are viewed as justifiable militancy. As Gitlin points out, the campus trashings, the guerrilla theater tactics, and the “unpatriotic” stance of the antiwar movement in general, by the late 1960s, were making the student movement the most hated target of the American population. One is tempted to say that victory goes to the side that wins the “balance of atrocity blaming.”

The dynamics by which public emotions of this sort propagate are not yet well understood. The same wave of cascading emotional energy that was mobilizing a massive student movement (and the hippie dropout movement) was also mobilizing violent ghetto uprisings, politicizing some black gangs (e.g., the Black Panthers), and even spilling over into the armed forces (producing the disintegration of troop discipline that more than anything brought about the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam). This structural/emotional dynamic was simultaneously mobilizing the White Citizens Councils, energizing the vehemence of police countermovement violence, and no doubt creating the atmosphere responsible for the assassinations of political figureheads.

The resulting pattern is full of ironies. I have already commented on how JFK was more of an obstacle to than an ally of the civil rights movement; yet his assassination was just the atrocity, directed against the primary “sacred object” of American political ritual, that began to swing the balance towards the reformers. But, as sociologists, we have to dig beneath the common-sense viewpoint of a factional participant, which is the level at which “irony” resides. For at the deeper level of the structure of conflict dynamics, it is just this redefinition of enemies and the shifting of moral blame that is always crucial. Gitlin's account of the assassination of Robert Kennedy during his presidential campaign in 1968 drives home the point, for this both turned off the antiwar militancy of Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign, and reignited a stalled student movement towards a massive (and ultimately very ugly) showdown at the Chicago Democratic convention. (Which is to say, it was a showdown in which the atrocities were so badly mixed in public perception that its overall effect was disorder and disgust.)

So we have movement spinning off movement, and movement versus countermovement escalating via each other's perceived atrocities. But that's still not all: to complete the structure we need to capture the logic of internal conflicts. We can take as emblematic the way the New Left in the early sixties had to struggle against the old-liberal/left to get off its anticommunism crusade and address current issues of inequity in America. The deeper structure here was a three-way or even four-way conflict; for the liberal Democrats of the 1950s were heavily on the defensive against right-wing assault linking them with the Soviet Union, as well as carrying the aftermath of the Stalinist versus anti-Stalinist fights in the left itself. This is ultimately the same structure as that underlying President Kennedy versus SNCC in the early sixties (or LBJ and Hubert Humphrey versus the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964); for Kennedy (LBJ) was maneuvering to maintain himself politically against U.S. conservatives, by keeping up a posture of military belligerence against communists of Russia/Cuba (Vietnam). Politics is primarily the art of garnering support from the public for one's own leadership in a conflict; the maneuvering is over which conflict is to be defined as salient, which one a distracting sideshow. There is an ironic—no! structural—repetition of this pattern in the late 1960s, when the feminist movement emerged within the antiwar mobilization, and was greeted with anger for splitting the movement just at the time when it was entering a showdown with its “real” enemies (militarism and racism).

The chaos of the 1960s, then, was not ultimately so chaotic as it may have seemed by the end of the decade. It had the underlying structure that conflict always have. Marx documented the same structure in The Eighteenth Brumaire for the waves of escalating movements and countermovements in France after the revolution of 1848. Here were the same kind of internecine battles and splits, with the power struggle ultimately decided by which enemy was the focal point of the waves of fear stirred up by the political movements themselves. For the participant, in both cases, it felt like traveling through the meat grinder of history. Neither Marx in his day, nor we in our own, really understood what was happening through the lens of his, or our, own ideologies. The conflict structures are still there today, only mobilized at different levels of intensity. Whatever else the sixties accomplished—and in many ways they accomplished a lot—their story gives us an opportunity now to understand that deeper structure with sociological clarity.

Ron Carlson (review date 18 October 1992)

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SOURCE: Carlson, Ron. “Was Einstein Poisoned?” Los Angeles Times Book Review (18 October 1992): 4.

[In the following review, Carlson discusses Gitlin's novel The Murder of Albert Einstein, a work of suspense involving a television journalist.]

What if Albert Einstein had been murdered? What if one of the greatest minds of this century, the man credited with tearing the veil from the mystery of physics, had not died relatively peacefully in a hospital in Princeton in 1955, but had been poisoned?

Such is the premise of Todd Gitlin's first novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein, and it opens a Pandora's box of questions: Who would have done such a thing to a benign 76-year-old gentleman? Why would they have taken such a desperate measure? Could the crime be detected after almost 40 years? Who would want to solve such a crime? And why?

Well, good; Gitlin has got us wondering, and his tale is full of twists and turnings and one major inversion. He's had a lot of fun with his choice of narrator, one Ms. Margo Ross, television producer/personality, “a woman in her transitional forties.” Margo has achieved “medium-magnitude star”-dom in her role as a television journalist on In Depth, a weekly news program a la 60 Minutes or 20/20. Her work and her television world at powerful Consolidated Communications serve as a heady medium for our unfolding mystery.

Gitlin is at his very best in the scenes involving the media, the power positioning among the bosses, the preparation of Margo's show on an aging rock star, even the presentation of the resulting program. The characters give off a hyperkinetic charge as they cut and paste the many facets of the show; it's authentic and exciting.

Margo has done features on designer drugs, pesticides, a girl chess champion and an arms merchant, and she's jaded in a way that we would almost call hard-boiled in a more traditional thriller. She thinks in voice-overs. She is a camcorder in a skirt. She knows that on her show “Segue is power. Continuity isn't born, it's cut. God the Editor stitched to get this continuity, too. Just look at the stop-and-go rhythm of Genesis, basting the world together, barely.”

Into Margo's successful Manhattan life comes her old mentor Harry Kramer, a charismatic, plot-sniffing radical, also the author of the famous novel Fix, which became a generation's all-purpose allegory about corruption, conspiracy and power. Harry has an urgent story idea for Margo: “There's been a murder.”

Almost 40 years ago.

As cold as the clues may be, Harry and Margo begin a circuitous trek that involves several trips to Princeton, alleged murderee Albert Einstein's stomping ground; they run across several shady characters, some with accents, a left-winger, a right-winger … and the story heats up.

Of course, exploring Einstein's demise is going to require more exposition than would the average demise, and Gitlin acquits himself fairly well as a first novelist. To set up his story, he needs to plant these seeds: physics, particle theory, Neils Bohr, wave theory, Heisenberg's principle, Teller, Oppenheimer, relativity theory, Einstein's last days, and unified-field theory, as well as some obligatory philosophy and religion. He manages this via lengthy interviews with three of Einstein's colleagues who are currently players in the mystery. There is a good deal of this stage setting, but once the furniture is in place, the story comes together to form a bona-fide thriller—conspiracy, mayhem and betrayal.

Harry and Margo are a kind of dynamic duo, their dialogue a chain-reaction repartee, sharp and extremely well done. They both speak in epigrams at times, pithy and on target, as canny as television wiseguys. Harry's famous credo is “History is an unsolved crime.” He sees a conspiracy in every coincidence. And Margo's might be: “Necessity into virtue.” She does what she can. Their involvement with each other as the case deepens is also a breath of fresh air, since the dew is off both of them. Middle-aged lovers trying to solve a crime. Or at least get it on the air.

The dealings at Consolidated Communications, an empire whose motto is “We Take In the World,” are entertaining indeed, as Margo's boss Burke Gilman and their ultimate chieftain Sir Colin McShane—a man with a $2-million desk—are drawn into the web of intrigue. Margo fights for a chance to follow her (and Harry's) story, and for the chance to get it on In Depth. When they get the go-ahead, they have less than a week and no solid leads. As Burke Gilman says, “Anyone can be right, the point is to be fast.”

There begins a real rush, a beat-the-clock marathon of gathering the data necessary for a television documentary. The other shows competing for the story are titled Human Interest, Wanted and People This Week. Gilman has a sturdy understanding of the media. Ross finds all the evidence tantalizing, if thin, but she knows how to wring emotion if not logic out of amazing graphics, quick cuts and soundtrack, and her own speed becomes conviction. This is where the book is best, the thriller becomes thrilling and dramatic.

One of the central themes in the novel is power and its use. The book starts with a look at nuclear power and the possibility of a unified-field theory, a single key to the universe. But Gitlin's suspense drama goes beyond that to explore the power of information and the manipulation of the media. As Sir Colin McShane says, “You know what actually unifies the field? Television unifies the field.”

Jonathan Alter (review date January-February 1996)

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SOURCE: Alter, Jonathan. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. Washington Monthly 28, nos. 1-2 (January-February 1996): 55.

[In the following review, Alter discusses the excesses associated with radical multiculturalism and how such excess contributes to the decline of the Left's power.]

My idea of hell on earth would be life as a lefty professor at Berkeley in the 1980s and early 1990s. A conservative could oppose the politically correct idiocy, but as a liberal professor I would have felt obligated to uphold the basic values of my creed, while quietly enduring the most appalling manifestations of multiculturalism. Some of that is receding now—the demands to spell “women” as “womyn” seem a tad off the point—but for a while, it was bad.

Todd Gitlin, a former president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and author of books on the 1960s and the media, has lived that hell and survived to tell the tale. In The Twilight of Common Dreams, Gitlin delivers a devastating description of how identity politics have wrecked the American left, which he contends, is pretty much confined to academia these days.

Gitlin's survey of the left's demise is cogent and useful, and his stories of academic life are harrowing. “While the Right was occupying the heights of the political system, the assemblage of groups identified with the Left were marching on the English Department,” he writes. It was the irrelevance as much as the pettiness of liberal academic politics that's so annoying—the “rapture of marginality,” in Gitlin's words, “the narcissism of small differences” in Freud's.

Gitlin is especially good in connecting academic fads like Michel Foucault with the descent into absurdity. “From ‘the personal is political’ it was an easy glide to ‘only the personal is political’—that is, only what I and the people like me experience ought to be the object of my interest,” he writes. The examples, such as the group of women of color who staged a walkout from a women's studies course at the University of Michigan in 1991 because “only one-third” of the assignments were written by women of color, are familiar, but Gitlin gives such fundamental irrelevancies a personal twist and illuminating context.

In 1992, for example, the sociology department at Berkeley nominated a French leftist named Loic Wacquant for a professorship in Chicano studies. He was perfectly politically correct, except that he had applied late, didn't specialize in Chicano studies, and was reputed to be a “bad listener.” A boycott of Wacquant ensued, and it became the main activity of the left even as California's state government was savaging the budget for all levels of education. Such misplaced priorities remind Gitlin of the story of the fool on his hands and knees searching the sidewalk under a streetlight. “What are you looking for?” a passerby asks. “My watch.” “Where did you lose it?” “Over there,” says the fool, pointing to the other side of the street. “Then why are you looking here?” asks the passerby. “Because it's dark over there,” says the fool.

Gitlin is also hard on the mainstream press for describing political correctness as a new McCarthyism. “P.C. did not, in fact, haul miscreants up before congressional committees,” he writes, “fire or flunk nonconformists, pillory them in the press or take their passports away.” But Gitlin's attack on the anti-P.C. overkill misses the point. Just as liberals earlier in the century had to purge communists from their ranks, the radical multiculturalists he's taking on must be fought, not just reasoned with. It's hard—even paradoxical—to build a commonality movement by excluding people, but as Hubert Humphrey and other liberals learned in the 1940s, it's the only way.

“For too long,” Gitlin writes, “too many Americans have busied themselves digging trenches to fortify their cultural borders, lining their trenches with insulation. Enough bunkers! Enough of the perfection of differences! We ought to be building bridges.”

Yes, but cooperating with other factions in opposition to the right is not nearly enough. We need to totally redefine what it means to be progressive, liberal, or of the “left.” In part, that will mean subordinating individual causes and identities, such as ethnicity, to a larger, common interest. Tony Blair, the likely next prime minister of Great Britain, has begun to do that with the Labor Party. If Bill Clinton had been more clear-headed, he might have done it here. It is gratifying to see a bona fide liberal break free of liberal dogma. For those who didn't know it before, Gitlin has illuminated the wrong turn we made and shown us where we shouldn't go. Next, maybe someone can muster the vision to show us where we should.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (review date 22 March 1996)

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SOURCE: Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. “What Happened to the Left?” Commonweal 123, no. 6 (22 March 1996): 22-3.

[In the following review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, Fox-Genovese suggests that the main weakness of the book is Gitlin's effort to reclaim the moral high ground for the Left by dismissing the complexity of its opposition.]

Like many today, Todd Gitlin mourns the eclipse of common dreams and deplores the narrow identity politics that fuels our escalating culture wars. But, unlike many who express similar concerns, he unflinchingly writes as a man of the Left, which, notwithstanding the admirable values he defends, occasionally draws him into blind alleys. Gitlin's views frequently echo those of Jean Bethke Elshtain, the late Christopher Lasch, and a variety of other fervent proponents of social justice, civility, and democratic renewal, but he appears considerably more wedded than they to social and economic policies that depend heavily upon the intervention and expenditures of the federal government. Consequently, even at his most thoughtful and humane—and he is incontrovertibly both—he risks confusing his readers about his own position, not to mention misestimating the prospects for an easing of our national travails.

By way of dramatizing the excessive forms that identity politics may assume, Gitlin opens Twilight of Common Dreams with an account of the battle over the adoption of a textbook that wracked the schools and city of Oakland, California. In this instance, the victory of the multicultural extremists left the school children and teachers of Oakland without any textbook at all. Gitlin sadly acknowledges the unconscionable “squandering of energy” in which the “obsession with separate identities” has resulted, conceding that “identity politics is a very bad turn.” How can it be, he asks throughout the book, that the Left, which once “stood for universal values,” has succumbed to an expanding congeries of special interests, while the Right, which has always stood for special interests, can get away with the claim that it represents the common good?

Much of the remainder of the book develops the claims that the Left, in embracing identity politics, has betrayed its history and purpose and that the Right has never stood, and does not now stand, for the common interests, much less identity, of American society. In attempting to explain how we could ever have reached our current disastrous condition, Gitlin begins with the claim that the very idea of American commonality, or time-honored national identity, is a myth which emerged from the exigencies of mobilization during the First and Second World Wars and was fed by the hysteria of the McCarthy period, only to unravel under the débacle of Vietnam and the economic changes that followed upon the consolidation of a global market. We have always been, he insists, a heterogeneous society, composed of a myriad of groups with discrete purposes and interests. Worse, the powerful never delivered on their vaunted political promises of equality and freedom. To the contrary, they built their fortunes and prestige upon the enslavement of Africans, the dispossession of American Indians, the exploitation of workers of all ethnicities, and the oppression of women. Under these centrifugal conditions, the Left preeminently came to stand for the universal human values of the equality among and dignity of all persons notwithstanding differences of race, sex, national origin, and religion.

Gitlin takes great, and frequently justifiable, pride in the legacy of the Left in this regard, although, in any number of ways, he sorely shortchanges the claims of those he views as class enemies. The Constitution, for example, does not contain a word about the equality of individuals—only about equality among the states. And it was framed in a period in which most of the world still accepted, and many parts of it still practiced, various forms of unfree labor, including slavery, and virtually the entire world took the subordination of women to men as natural. Gitlin is less than fair in charging its elite framers with bad faith because their vaunted “equality” excluded slaves and women. The Founders were honest men who could speak of equality while holding slaves and upholding male authority because they understood equality in accordance with a Christian tradition that recognized human rights within a structure of social hierarchy. Like most contemporary critics, Gitlin is not hearing what they, for better or worse, actually said.

American history has never divided into the neat Manichaean confrontation between privileged elites (bad) and oppressed groups (good). The antislavery movement and, especially, the Republican party, included a goodly share of wealthy and powerful individuals, many of whom would grow wealthier and more powerful with Emancipation. The cutting edge of the final push for woman suffrage came from the National Woman's Party, the members of which were frequently affluent and openly opposed special attention to the needs of working women. As these and countless other examples demonstrate, the division of civic virtue and moral responsibility between the Right and the Left has never been as clear-cut as Gitlin would wish. The wealthy have normally tended to protect their wealth and frequently to increase it at the expense of others, but they have often divided among themselves in their assessment of tactics and principles. Nor have working people consistently resisted the temptations of racism, sexism, and ethnic chauvinism.

These caveats should hardly deserve mention were it not that they point to the central weakness in an otherwise fine book, namely Gitlin's determination to resuscitate the Left by unilaterally discrediting the Right. Few commentators upon the contemporary scene understand the depressing complexity and disquieting prospects for change better than Gitlin, as his chapter on the social and economic transformation of the United States during the last thirty years confirms. He cogently, if rapidly, sketches the world with which we have all become too familiar—a world in which the gap between rich and poor has greatly expanded, the chances of children to do as well as, much less better than, their parents have evaporated, and the importance of interest groups in garnering scarce resources has mushroomed. No one understands better than he that the politics of identity is dividing those who most need a common allegiance and program. And, having argued that this politics directly serves mega-corporations' palpable interest in reducing communities and families to so many competing atoms, I was delighted to see Gitlin advance a similar argument. Yet for all his intelligence, humanity, and courage in protesting the excesses of the politically correct multiculturalism that has stormed the nation's schools and college campuses, Gitlin remains imprisoned by a vision of what would constitute a worthy Left that may not be adequate to our times.

Gitlin is at his best and most moving in defending the universalistic and, yes, Enlightenment legacy of the Left, which has traditionally insisted upon uniting people solely on the basis of their class position. He correctly denounces personal or identity politics as the direct legacy of fascism and reaction. He even bravely acknowledges that the African-American experience may indeed be unique and not easily respond to anyone's preconceived models. And withal, he clings to the necessary beneficence of federal programs and enhanced federal spending, thus implicitly endorsing a welfare-state model of justice. One might think that the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the well-documented difficulties with which the Western European states are wrestling might encourage us to think along new lines. One might even think that some of the ideas of those whom Gitlin dismisses as the Right merited attention, notably the need to strengthen two-parent families and private support for children. Gitlin knows that the so-called Right is no monolith, but he is not much interested in its internal divisions and discussions, and especially not in the Christian Right, which does not represent large corporations and rejects the free-marketeers' willingness to throw poor people on the garbage heap.

There are grounds for criticizing the Christian Right as there are for criticizing almost every political group today. We do confront a new and dangerous situation, and it is hardly surprising that no group has a neat solution. But before Gitlin decides that the United States never had a common culture, he might recall that Protestant Christianity has, from the arrival of Europeans, constituted the bedrock of American civil and, yes, political society. Today, Protestantism must share its place with Roman Catholicism, Judaism, and, in lesser measure, Islam, not to mention the myriad of other faiths. Withal, the fraying shreds of our national virtues remain Judeo-Christian, and their legacy includes respect for the individual person, the sanctity of marriage, and the mutual obligation of parents and children; charity to the weak; equality of souls before God if not equality of material condition; and, pace Gitlin, universalism. These virtues are under assault from the Left and the Right and, especially, from the triumph of the notion of the individual as consumer and as interest group, which both Left and Right feed. But it is difficult to imagine a renewal of Left or of Right which does not begin with the promise and the obligations this religious heritage imposes.

Elizabeth S. Bell (essay date summer 1996)

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SOURCE: Bell, Elizabeth S. “He's Relatively Familiar: Albert Einstein in Contemporary American Fiction.” Journal of American Culture 19, no. 2 (summer 1996): 119-25.

[In the following essay, Bell compares Gitlin's The Murder of Albert Einstein with Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams.]

Perhaps one of the truest gauges of a person's impact on culture is the limerick. With that in mind, we should check on the state of Einstein's:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Who traveled much faster than light.
She started one day
In the relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

Clifton Fadiman attributed that to Arthur Buller in his 1962 The Mathematical Magpie (Friedman & Donley 11). But certainly, well before the 1960s Einstein's Theory of Relativity had already made enormous changes in our culture, even though as most experts on both culture and science agree, it is virtually always grossly misunderstood and distorted except in the halls of science. When one speaks of what a culture adopts as its icons, however, accuracy hardly matters. Icons serve a completely different purpose altogether.

Having established this disclaimer, we can turn to more recent events. Within a matter of months in 1992 and 1993, two very different types of novels were released with Albert Einstein as a central character: Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams purports to take place in Einstein's mind in 1905 as he developed his Special Theory of Relativity. The other, Todd Gitlin's The Murder of Albert Einstein takes place in 1992 with plot involvements that hark back to the 1950s and Einstein's last year as he worked—ultimately unsuccessfully—to develop a Unified Field Theory. Theoretical physics does not seem the stuff of rousing novels; nevertheless, Lightman's novel became a best seller, and Gitlin's collected a smaller but enthusiastic audience. Both authors rely on documented, factual events, as well as accurate science, for their clearly fictional stories, but they use both those events and science in what appears at first glance very different ways.

Lightman, a distinguished physicist himself, wants more than to tell a good story about an important scientist; he wants to illuminate the scientific process itself. His definition of scientific thinking, the kind involved in the “first-rate science” that leads to redefinitions of reality, depends on more than analytical thinking or the scientific process. He points to a very necessary intuitive component, the epiphany perhaps, or in his words, “planing”: “that lifting feeling when everything suddenly falls into place” (“Science on the Right Side of the Brain” 43). While by his own admission Lightman has planed briefly and sporadically for no more than seconds at a time, he speculates that Einstein could probably plane for minutes at a time—minutes in which he came to know what no one else had even imagined before.

Independent evidence indicates that even Einstein himself valued this kind of thinking and, according to Einstein scholar Gerald Holton, he “was on record, more than once, that a means of writing must be found that conveys the thought processes that lead to discoveries—showing how scientists thought and wrestled with their problems” (“Einstein's Scientific Program …” 49). Holton also discusses the unconventional way Einstein structured his own scientific papers, noting their “heuristic character” (55), a quality more often associated with humanities scholarship than with scientific thinking. According to William Eamon, “Above all, for Einstein the mind must be free to think any thought: only in this way can scientific progress be guaranteed. … The creative process is not only the most difficult part of science, it is also indescribable, for the creation of scientific concepts is fundamentally an intuitive, almost poetic experience” (349). And so, as the first-rate scientist whose work embodies the qualities Lightman values, Einstein becomes his ideal protagonist.

But Lightman's task gets more complicated. If, as Aristotle proclaimed in his Poetics, plot requires action, the contemplative life of a remote scientist poses particular problems for the would-be novelist in search of a story. Abraham Pais, Einstein's biographer and personal friend, tells us that for Einstein as a scientist at work, “every scientific triumph was preceded by a long period of quiet gestation” (38).1 Indeed, to be faithful to the well-known particulars of Einstein's personality and work habits, Lightman must give life to the solitary, contemplative process of Einstein's thinking without betraying the substance of this very real, very publicly-known, private man, a man Felix Gilbert called “willingly remote” (17). The action, then, and there is a great deal of it, takes place inside Einstein's mind. Thus, the first element of Lightman's portrayal of Einstein takes form: the internal field of action, for both Pais and Lightman show a man more alive in his mind and more engaged with his work than with the outside world.

Pais, who knew Einstein well, paints a quiet man, unassuming to be sure, if also aware of his celebrity: “Einstein's company was comfortable and comforting to those who knew him. … There was nothing in his personality to promote his mythical stature; nor did he relish it. … To the physicists who could follow his scientific thought and who knew him personally, the legendary aspect was never in the foreground—yet it was never wholly absent” (7). But this image does not capture the entire man.

Indeed, evidence suggests that Einstein found his own legend amusing, as long as he didn't take it too seriously, and he didn't take himself too seriously a great deal of the time. Again, a limerick demonstrates the point:

In a notable family called Stein,
There were Gertrude, and Ep, and then Ein.
Gert's writing was hazy,
Ep's statues were crazy,
And nobody understood Ein.

Bennett Cerf, in Out on a Limerick (1960) attributes this display of whimsy to Einstein himself (Friedman & Donley 3). As a matter of fact, this poetic playfulness seems to have been a trait of Einstein's. A family friend, Peter A. Bucky, devotes an entire chapter of his memoir, The Private Albert Einstein (1992), to examples of the doggerel and light poetry Einstein frequently sent to friends to mark special occasions. One such poem, addressed to a friend in 1927, accompanied a photograph of himself and provides insight into his own opinion of his growing celebrity:

Wherever I go and wherever I stay,
There's always a picture of me on display.
On top of the desk, or out in the hall,
Tied round a neck, or hung on the wall.
Women and men, they play a strange game,
Asking, beseeching: “Please sign your name.”
For the erudite fellow they brook not a quibble,
But firmly insist on a piece of his scribble.
Sometimes, surrounded by all this good cheer,
I'm puzzled by some of the things that I hear,
And wonder, my mind for a moment not hazy,
If I and not they could really be crazy.

(Bucky 143)

But Pais also shows a more serious facet to the playful side of Einstein. He records a conversation they had sometime in the early 1950s on a walk when they were being “not particularly metaphysical.” Einstein asked him, “if I really believed the moon exists only if I look at it. … We were discussing the quantum theory, in particular what is doable and knowable in the sense of physical observation” (5). This discussion, as others, was both enjoyable and inconclusive, he says. The thrill, we may suppose, was in the scientific speculation, independent of any form of solution or conclusion; this slice of conversation shows the fondness for “what ifs” that marked Einstein's mind at play.

This pattern of thought finds a complement in Lightman's way of working. His essay “On the Dizzy Edge” (1984) discusses the conjunction of science and philosophy—“the dizzying edge” itself—specifically the idea that “life could not have arisen anywhere in the universe if the values of certain physical parameters were somewhat different than they are” (46). He sets up a series of “what ifs”—alternative universes—that are in rudimentary form very much what he creates in Einstein's Dreams almost a decade later. He toys with universes quite strange, inhabited by “life forms very different from our own, including some definitely out-of-town types like the galgols,” perhaps “intelligent clouds of electrostatic energy” (48). The idea intrigues him; in fact, he relishes the thought that “Many other universes, with vastly different parameters, could easily have been in this one's place, and got along nicely without life forms evolving to ask embarrassing questions. Inconveniently, we have no other universes to compare” (48). His major point in this essay is that science cannot answer all questions; indeed, if it is good science, it raises more than it answers. There will always be more questions to explore; that is the thrill of it all. And this willingness to ponder—from “our Dalis and Sartres as well as our Madame Curies”—he calls “surely another miracle, like the fragile balance of nuclear forces and the just-right release of the cosmic pendulum” (50). Lightman's intrigue with hypothetical situations finds a match in Einstein's own way of thinking.

And so, Lightman finds the perfect marriage of protagonist, theme, setting, and narrative technique. As fits his purpose, ideas take center stage, and so within the novel Einstein the man recedes into the background becoming visible, but nameless, in Prologue, Epilogue, and a few scattered Interludes as he works on a paper outlining his “new theory of time” (4). Lightman, too, presents a narrative of time, providing the primary time—6:00 AM in Prologue until 8:06 AM in Epilogue on the same late June morning, 1905—in which the young man waits for a typist to arrive at the patent office so he can “mail today [his twenty crumpled pages of new theory] to the German journal of physics” (4). Between these bookends of time, Lightman takes the reader on a journey spanning several months (April 14 until June 28, 1905) and many worlds imagined from “many dreams about time” (6). Einstein appears only in the four or five Interludes (and briefly in the hypothetical world in which time moves backward [105], for he would not have been possible in worlds with more exotic forms of time). In the Interludes, he dines or fishes with his friend, Michele Besso, in wordless companionship, pulled almost grudgingly from his contemplations only by the concern of a fellow scientist. Glimpses of the difficult life of isolation and lack of communication he created for his first wife Mileva and their child, portrayed as more social than he, suggest the price of his genius.2

But the real drama of the novel resides in the hypothetical worlds Einstein creates as he imagines different natures of time. “Suppose,” he dreams, “time is a circle, bending back on itself,” (8) or “Suppose that people live forever” (117). In others of these worlds, time gets stuck or is fragmentary or is fixed and immutable. And for each of the supposes, Lightman creates a scenario in which we trace the implications of that nature of time on the lives of everyday people caught in it. In some worlds, much happens; in others very little. In most, the concept of continuity which defines our sense of time, our linear sense of history, does not exist. In all the worlds, however, the lives of the characters are proscribed by parameters the nature of time places on what is possible. In fragmented time, for example, relationships cannot develop. In backwards time, life mandates a loss of accomplishment and accumulated knowledge; at the same time one's understanding of the world becomes more simplistic and childlike. What is possible as action—movement in time—in any one of the worlds remains impossible in any of the others, for the nature of time dictates possible kinds of actions. In narrative terms, then, for each of these worlds, Lightman redefines the nature of plot and the possibilities of action, either internal or external. In very real terms, he has taken us on the process by which scientific thought becomes, on one hand, theory and on the other, art. In so doing, he has wedded the heuristic and the algorithmic.

Lightman ends the novel, not with an elated or contented Einstein, but with a drained one: “He feels empty. He has no interest in reviewing patents or talking to Besso or thinking of physics. He feels empty, and he stares without interest at the tiny black speck [a bird in flight] and the Alps” (179). Independent evidence shows the accuracy of Lightman's portrayal. Gerald Holton sheds some light on why an Einstein who had just completed what is probably the most important paper ever written in theoretical physics would react in this manner. For although the paper was complete, the concept was not: Its central issue “was a problem of particle/field duality that Einstein did not solve in this paper or, for that matter, to the end of his life” (55). Furthermore, “As is well known, Einstein was always far more interested in what remained to be done than in what he had accomplished” (59).

Alan Lightman used the realities of Albert Einstein's personality and work, along with his own, to project some of the creativity of “first-rate science” for a lay audience. The science he reveals demands much of its practitioners, intellectually, creatively, and personally. But he also anchors the myth of the omniscient scientist to more human foundations—from “all knowing” to “always curious, willing to explore and ask questions,” and thus to help define who we are. Ironically, the Einstein that serves so well to embody this positive and productive definition also became the image of a very different kind of scientist, and Todd Gitlin draws on that darker image in his novel The Murder of Albert Einstein.

As Alan J. Friedman and Carol Donley point out in their Einstein as Myth and Muse, the public concept of science underwent a rapid and seminal change after World War II, and Einstein was caught in the center of it. “In a new version of the myth of Prometheus, Einstein brought the atomic fire to mortal men” (156). Unlike the world of Lightman's Einstein, a world innocent of nuclear weapons, the world Gitlin portrays has already experienced Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His primary time, the early 1990s, survived the Cold War; his flashbacks to the 1950s are just beginning it. Gitlin's purpose—so obviously different from Lightman's in most ways—in some ways shares a focus. Gitlin, too, wants to show accurate science; indeed, his plot revolves on it. But he wants more than accurate physical or cosmological science; the human sciences, the vagaries of the human mind, hold more interest for him. He, too, then, explores the relationship between analytical science and the more irrational, indescribable thought processes that affect it.

Primary action in the novel takes place in 1992, well after Einstein's death, with tabloid broadcaster Margo Ross as protagonist. Gitlin, too, is fond of “what ifs,” for he centers the action of the novel on an intriguing one: What if Albert Einstein were really murdered in 1955 in Princeton? To stifle the scoffers, he bases his premise on science: Harry Kramer, former journalist and mentor of Margo Ross, assures her that his confidential source will swear a recent analysis of preserved slices of Einstein's brain shows massive, hence lethal, amount of methamphetamine. Too massive for an accidental overdose, and too far removed from what was known of Einstein's habits, the amount of methamphetamine surely indicates murder. With this premise, Gitlin sets the context for an exploration of human motivation.

He, as did Lightman, draws on the verifiable historical record as the catalyst for his hypothetical central premise. Einstein's brain really was preserved after his death in 1955. Slices of it really were available to scientists for further study on its make up. Forensic science in 1992 really could produce unexpected findings. The well-reported analysis conducted by Drs. Marian C. Diamond and Arnold B. Scheibel in 1985 revealed that the one significant feature of Einstein's brain was a higher concentration than normal of glial cells. The discovery sparked extended discussion in the popular press of the exact function of glial cells—which remains in scientific communities as well as the general population somewhat of a mystery. Nevertheless, the scenario Gitlin proposes for his readers approaches—more closely than it would seem at first glance—developments in the real world.

Having posed his premise that Einstein was murdered, Gitlin goes about the mystery novelist's next job: suggesting several possible motives—several false and one that leads unmistakably but not too obviously to the killer. In this case, given the contemplative nature of a well-beloved cultural icon who spent the last 20 years of his life at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, his task was far from simple. Two elements of Einstein's life hold possibilities: his support of Zionist causes and his—publicly misunderstood—role as initiator of this country's commitment to nuclear weapons. Less immediately compelling, perhaps, Einstein's continuing work in theoretical physics searching for the Unified Field Theory, and by extension his reluctance to embrace quantum theory, provides a backdrop for professional conflicts, perhaps escalating to intense personal rivalries. Again, Gitlin turns to the historically verifiable.

Although not a religious Jew, Einstein's involvement in Zionist causes during the 1930s and for the remainder of his life garnered international attention. So well known was he that in 1952 when the first president of the state of Israel died, Einstein was offered the position. He declined, citing poor health and lack of experience for the job. Largely a ceremonial job at the time, with real authority resting in the hands of the prime minister David Ben-Gurion, the presidency was a visible and highly symbolic role, especially in 1952, only four years after the birth of modern Israel. The offer to Einstein was a mark of his visibility and his public connection to a highly political and controversial movement.3

More to the point, however, and a more fruitful path for Gitlin's purposes, Einstein held a central position in the public's perception as the “father of the atomic bomb.” Without his E=MC2, atomic fission could not have been conceived, much less produced. However, in reality Einstein's involvement with the A-bomb began with that theory, and ended with the famous 1939 letter he wrote at physicist Leo Szilard's request pointing out to Franklin Roosevelt possible military uses of atomic fission, of which the Germans might be well aware, and urging some form of official attention to the matter. He was not a member of the Manhattan Project, nor did he ever witness any atomic tests. In fact, when Szilard first approached him in 1939, he “was staggered by the idea of utilizing nuclear fission in an atomic bomb. … Einstein was more isolated from the world than many realized” (White and Gribbin 235). Indeed, Einstein dealt in pure science, in mathematical theories divorced from the empirical world around him. The implications of his theories, played out in the flesh and blood world of humans, never entered the picture for him, for the human stage was far too small, too brief, too limited to matter in his cosmic theories.

Needless to say, as Michael White and John Gribbin point out in their 1994 biography of him, by the end of the 1930s, Einstein had been labeled a security risk by the FBI because of his political naiveté and “extreme pacifist” leanings. “He was just not worldy enough to understand the concept of censorship or secrecy” (241). Until his death in 1955, he worked publicly and with other scientists to end the idiocy of nuclear weaponry, especially during the iciest days of the Cold War in the early 1950s.

Gitlin draws heavily also on the documented record of Einstein's last days. He suffered from recurring gastric attacks that had been diagnosed in the late 1940s as an aneurism of the abdominal aorta, for which he refused surgery. On April 12, 1955, he suffered a severe attack at home in Princeton, becoming critically ill and in severe pain. Hospitalized on the 16th, he improved some on the 17th, but in a sudden setback, died on April 18th of a burst aneurism. Despite the extreme pain he suffered, he had been lucid until the end of his life, working on the unified field theory and making notes even while in the hospital. Thus, history created the stage Gitlin needed to produce in his murder mystery three viable suspects with opportunity and three plausible motives: Franz Rosenthal, an old friend who could have committed euthanasia to end Einstein's suffering; Gustav Janousek, a right-wing militaristic physicist at the Institute who abhorred Einstein's pacifism and saw him as a threat to the nuclear superiority necessary to stop the Communist threat to world peace; and Norman Gottehrer, a strange disciple who idolized Einstein and shared his ideas for the unity of all beings, albeit his path was through Eastern philosophy and meditation rather than science, which he really didn't trust. All three had visited Einstein on the day of his death; any of them could have administered the fatal dose of methamphetamine. As Margo Ross investigates, and as one of the suspects is murdered, she and Harry Kramer find themselves deep in the implications of theoretical physics, soon providing the most compelling argument of them all for murder.

Before we examine it in the context of Gitlin's novel, a simplistic definition of the Unified Field Theory might well be in order. As White and Gribbon explain, quite simply, it is the logical connection of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, published in 1916, and his work on Quantum Theory. He spent his lifetime trying to show the mathematical relationship between the forces of the universe: “Gradually I despaired of the possibility of discovering the true laws by means of constructive efforts based on known facts. The longer and the more desperately I tried, the more I came to the conviction that only the discovery of a universal formal principle could lead us to assured results” (Einstein 49). He succeeded in uniting the magnetic and the electric, but gravity eluded him because it was so significantly weaker than the other two.4 He came to the realization that its link can only be ascertained if a quantum theory of gravity can be demonstrated. The problem is that can't be done on earth. “Just about the only place where quantum gravity was important was in the big bang itself, the superdense fireball of energy in which the universe was born” (White and Gribbon 250).

In his own time, Einstein seemed to be making no progress toward this theory and, indeed, was virtually alone in the scientific world in even working on it. Most physicists felt he was deluding himself with a theory that would ultimately lead nowhere. “Although he continued to pursue the Holy Grail of the unified theory, the work was really leading him into more and more isolated backwaters on the extreme edge of physics and into a realm where very few could follow” (243). Ironically, the discovery in 1992 of unevenness in the background radiation left over from the beginning of the universe—the big bang—matched Einstein's predictions in his 1916 General Theory paper and “persuaded remaining doubters that Einstein's equations really had been telling the truth” (251).

Gitlin plays on the disparity between the state of today's knowledge and that of the 1950s by using the Unified Field Theory as a motive not apparent to the world in 1955, but of astounding impact in 1992. He puts the key in Margo Ross's hand: She asks herself who might benefit from killing Einstein, who would possibly have a motive. She answers her own question: “Cold Warriors, bomb-makers, right-wingers, anti-Semites. If we are not going to eliminate anyone, add quantum theorists, Professor X, the dice-thrower out on a limb with a lot of useless theory” (125).

She discovers that Einstein kept notes in the hospital and is informed that he admitted to one of the suspects that he had found his unified theory; it was all there in the notes, which have mysteriously—and conveniently—disappeared.

But, the idea becomes more pointed. She comes to realize that the Unified Field Theory describes “how the universe is wired together” … and what is wired “can be unwired” (189). Using the example of how E=MC2 turned into the horrors of the A-bomb and the H-bomb, she envisions the plausibility of a Unified Field bomb capable of destroying the entire universe. Two of the suspects are clearly unhinged, one with the motive of killing Einstein to save the universe, the other with killing him in order to maintain the balance of military power in the hands of the good guys. Both are extreme motives, both suspects, now aging and close to death, are extreme personalities. Without revealing the solution Margo Ross uncovers, suffice it to say that just as science provided the opportunity to analyze Einstein's preserved brain almost forty years after his death, when the state of the world and the state of science itself had changed so radically, science provides the route to the killer, the mastermind of the crime, and a surprising one at that with a motive born in the 1990s.

Gitlin's Einstein bears remarkable similarity to Lightman's. He is the contemplative, serious physicist alone with his theories even at the end: A private man, an isolated man, driven by his work, the work that had engaged him for the better part of the century. Only the circumstances around him differ. Lightman's Einstein lives in obscurity and theorizes in the months that precede his fame; Gitlin's lives in the stunned aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, working on his theories in the obscurity of a once-leading physicist now virtually ignored by the scientific mainstream. Gitlin resurrects him once more in the tabloid world's 15 minutes of fame, the sound bite entrance into a world of cosmic plotting and unbelievably sensational high stakes. In Lightman's world, science is orderly, its intent what Einstein called “the holy curiosity of inquiry” (Einstein 17). Science is noble and benevolent. In Gitlin's world, science is suspect, open to manipulation and vulnerable to political agenda. Science is dangerous, its potential ambivalent, just as the tabloid press's relationship to truth is distorted. Gitlin's world holds more threats.

So, what is the meaning of the comparison? After all, the two works are far different, bound together only by the central figure and the time of publication. Yet both, by implication and by definition, provide a paradigm of how we view science. Lightman's reveals science from the inside, the scientist's view of science, where parameters are clearly drawn and the intent is discovery of truth. Gitlin's shows science from the outside, from a world hungry for sensation, where the search for truth sometimes gets sidetracked in favor of high ratings. Scientific parameters take on alarming dimensions when mixed with the record history hands us. Einstein himself understood this, way back in 1923 when he wrote the following poem:

Children do not profit from their parents'
experiences; nations do not heed history.
The unfortunate experiences must be repeated
Over and over again.

(Bucky 145)

Both paradigms exist side by side and, as we struggle with the implications of them, we are pulled in different directions—the two cultures C. P. Snow described, or maybe just the uneasiness that results when paradigms brush against each other. The two novels taken together, however, urge us toward the same destination. In both novels, resolution comes from the combination of analytical science and human intuition and creativity. In both novels, the author engages his reader along with the protagonist in a fascinating and provocative process, the search for truth: Einstein's “holy curiosity of inquiry.”


  1. Pais's biography of Einstein is more a discussion of his science than of the particulars of his life. Family relationships are rarely mentioned and then only in passing. For example, of the year in which his Special Theory of Relativity was published (1905), Pais records in the same paragraph that the two events which helped Einstein's “genius” to “emerge” were that his job at the patent office became more stable and “his first son was born.” Before moving to the real focus of the chapter, Einstein's three scientific papers of that year, he follows his statement with a mere and stark, “I believe that the arrival of his son may have been a profound experience” (18). Of Mileva Maric, his first wife, Pais mentions nothing at this point. Indeed, she is virtually absent from this biography, appearing briefly and in contrast to Einstein's later, more conventional, and to Pais more suitable second wife. Pais's audience is clearly the science community more interested in the content of Einstein's writings than the movements of his personal life. In contrast, Jurgen Renn and Robert Schulmann, who edited Einstein's love letters to Mileva Maric in the years immediately preceding 1905, show that Einstein and Maric felt a deep bond with each other and that their lives were inextricably woven together both personally and professionally. The letters themselves belie Pais's dismissive account of the impact of Maric on Einstein, and vice versa.

  2. In Subtle Is the Lord …, Abraham Pais refers to a letter Einstein wrote to Hermann Broch, 2 September 1945, in which, “In his sixties, he once commented that he had sold himself body and soul to science, being in flight from the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ to the ‘it’” (39). Throughout his life, he displayed extreme reticence in discussing his personal life, preferring that to the public—and perhaps himself—it did not exist. Even the Autobiographical Notes he wrote in 1949 consist more of an explanation of his theories than of his life. Indeed, calling the autobiography an “obituary,” he explains the discrepancy between what he has written and what one usually expects to find in autobiography: “For the essential in a being of a man of my type lies precisely in what he thinks and how he thinks, not in what he does or suffers. Consequently, the obituary can limit itself in the main to the communicating of thoughts that have played a considerable role in my endeavors” (31).

  3. In his biography, Abraham Pais cites an amusing anecdotal conclusion to this offer. He quotes Ben Gurion, in a private conversation with his secretary, as asking, “What are we going to do if he accepts?” (11).

  4. As White and Gribbon explain, since Einstein's time, science has discovered the strong force and the weak force within the nucleus of the atom: The strong force holds the nucleus together, surprising since the nucleus contains positively charged protons that should repel each other; the weak force is responsible for nuclear decay. These two forces unexpectedly fit well with the unity of electromagnetism, thus supporting the concept that all forces of the universe can be united under one theory. Einstein was not aware of their existence; discoveries since his death tend to reinforce what he was trying to do, although a unified field theory—today known as the Theory of Everything—does not yet exist.

Works Cited

Bucky, Peter A. in collaboration with Allen Weakland. The Private Albert Einstein. Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1992.

Eamon, William. “Inventing the World: Einstein and the Generation of 1905.” Antioch Review 43 (Summer 85): 340-51.

Einstein, Albert. Autobiographical Notes. Ed. and Trans. Paul Arthur Schilpp. LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1979.

Friedman, Alan J. & Carol C. Donley. Einstein as Myth and Muse. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985.

Gilbert, Felix. “Einstein's Europe.” Some Strangeness in the Proportion: A Centennial Symposium to Celebrate the Achievements of Albert Einstein. Ed. Harry Woolf. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1980, 13-27.

Gitlin, Todd. The Murder of Albert Einstein. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1992.

Holton, Gerald. “Einstein's Scientific Program: The Formative Years.” Some Strangeness in the Proportion: A Centennial Symposium to Celebrate the Achievements of Albert Einstein. Ed. Harry Woolf. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc., 1980, 49-65.

Lightman, Alan. Einstein's Dreams. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

———. “On the Dizzy Edge.” Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe: Essays on the Human Side of Science. New York: Penguin Books, 1984, 45-50.

———. “Science on the Right Side of the Brain.” Time Travel and Papa Joe's Pipe: Essays on the Human Side of Science. New York: Penguin Books, 1984.

Pais, Abraham. “Subtle Is the Lord …”: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Renn, Jurgen and Robert Schulmann, eds. Albert Einstein/Mileva Maric: The Love Letters. Trans. Shawn Smith. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

White, Michael and John Gribbin. Einstein: A Life in Science. New York: Dutton, 1994.

Frank Browning (review date September-October 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3004

SOURCE: Browning, Frank. “Identity Crisis.” Tikkun 11, no. 5 (September-October 1996): 86-9.

[In the following review, Browning compares Twilight of Common Dreams with William Connolly's The Ethos of Pluralization and finds Gitlin's text less theoretical and less practical in terms of its potential to effect social and political change.]

The time was spring 1969, the place, Paris, a year after “the events of May” when student revolutionaries had seized the streets in renewed calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was my first journey abroad and I was the guest of a generous revolutionnaire I'd met at an American conference the previous winter. Jean-Jacques was a ruddy, round-cheeked fellow, one of the most eager, gregarious fellows I'd ever met—and just married to a dark-eyed, moody art history graduate. Jean-Jacques came from new but big money, and he arranged for me to stay in his parents' posh (Belgian tapestries on the wall) apartment.

“Just tell her you are revolutionnaire and she will sleep with you,” Jean-Jacques assured me the night before I set off for a quick wander to the South of France where he had a student friend. Dutifully/expectantly I took the piece of paper he'd written with his friend's name and number and shoved it in my pocket. I never called the girl, but I kept the crinkled slip of paper for a long time, for it seemed like an odd sort of Comintern card, a certification that I was not an American but a certified citizen of the international revolutionary movement.

In 1969, none of us middle-class kids in fancy universities wanted to embrace Americanism. To be an American was to be ashamed: of our lynching of Black people, of our slaughter of the Indians, of our napalming of Vietnamese children, of the alliance of racist Dixiecrats and Northern plutocrats who ran the government. The American Dream of manicured suburban lawns was a Teflon nightmare where Mom popped Valiums, Dad took long lunches to screw the boss's secretary, and Johnny and Susie were surviving it all only through a little help from their acid friends.

I was Swedish, or English, or Irish, or Dutch, or Canadian—a revolutionary who spoke bad college French but better English than the French did. Anyway, the French people I met, young or old, didn't have much interest in where I was from. They, as always, wanted to know what I thought of France.

We student brigadistas, most of us, fell in love with France for all the same romantic reasons people have fallen in love with France for centuries: food and style and breathlessly beautiful settings complemented by sophisticated cosmopolitan table talk that no one in Akron or St. Louis or even Ann Arbor could pull off.

But there was something else too: We were seduced by the notion of being a revolutionary and loving your country. Generation upon generation of French university students had been taught to embrace revolutionary ideas (though not to toss paving stones) before settling into positions of power and administration. That was (and is) part of the promise and the mystique of La France. Remake, renew, redream the nation, bien sur, but never forget what it means to be French.

Until Vietnam, Americans of the Left as much as the Right articulated a parallel national faith in the American idea. The Left distinguished itself as a movement of universalistic human ideals that were consonant, even reflective, of the broader American ideals: the freeing of all mankind under the guidance of the people's reason. Jefferson and Madison had written it into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Todd Gitlin's greatest contribution in The Twilight of Common Dreams is his history of what happened to the Left's faith in Americanism. Masterfully and elegantly, he traces that history, from its redemptive strains in Emerson—this “asylum of all nations … will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature”—to the Popular Front during the Great Depression.

The language of the Left was the language of a common dream—until the arrival of the Sixties and the birth of the New Left. Always before, the passion of the Left had been a dedication to the future in which the outcasts would come inside and the whole of America, remade, reorganized, renewed, would be richer than any of the parts. After Vietnam it all changed, and the integral symbols of America tarnished into totems of shame, disgust, and embarrassment. “The result,” Gitlin writes, “was that as the war ground on, any lingering New Left belief in a redemptive American dream to be held in common bled away. … From the early nineteenth century onward, nativists and immigrants alike had each proclaimed that they were the real Americans, as opposed to those Others. Now, for the first time in American history, there were groupings who had no stomach to be included, and wanted out.” The New Left no longer wished to be American. We hid our passports and said thank you when we were mistaken for Swedes.

The decline of the American Left and its replacement by a gaggle of self-involved identity movements pitting Blacks against whites, women against men, gays against straights, the faithful against the faithless, Gitlin argues, resulted directly from the New Left's abandonment of its core universalist ideal, the common liberation of all mankind, to be replaced by a shrill, “shapeless melange … of subcultures” where “[i]ntiative, energy, intellectual ingenuity went into the elevation of differences. The very language of commonality came to be perceived by the new movements as a colonialist smothering—an ideology to rationalize white male domination. The time for reunification would come later, so it was said—much later, at some unspecified time.” A movement whose ancestor anthem had once been “we shall be all” was replaced by a factory-stamped T-shirt slogan reading, “It's a [Black, Woman's, Gay, Latino, Redneck] Thing. You wouldn't understand.”

Gitlin, a university man and one of the early leaders of the New Left, brings a moving sense of anguish to his account. His deepest distress comes from the solipsistic babble spewed out by grad student acolytes of French post-structuralism, where the intertextual interactions of discrete subject positions are interrupted by the elisions and erasures of hegemonic encapsulation: It's a deconstructionist thing—you wouldn't understand. Drawing on the work of Derrida, Lyotard, Deleuze, Irigaray, and especially Michel Foucault, the partisans of group identity politics have erected an epistemological apparatus (marketed as “perspectivist” or “standpoint” theory) that has granted intellectual and political justification to the partitioning of campus life. Black or Orthodox Jewish students insist on living apart in their own compounds, while lesbians storm out of a gay studies class because a male professor could not possibly understand the lesbian-authored texts he has assigned. To Gitlin, a devotee of the Enlightenment, these developments are doubly upsetting because they are the antithesis of a progressive intellectual tradition even as they have seized control of what passes for leftist discourse in the academy. “But what follows from these categories once they are imposed?” he asks. “Identity is no guide to accuracy, to good judgment or political strategy. Race (or gender, or sexual preference, or disability) is far from an adequate, let alone complete, guide to the world, since all identity is a blindness as well as a way of seeing. A map colored strictly by gender (or race, or religion) does not account for the complexity of the world, does not allow anyone to navigate a society that is, by any definition, multiple, replete with perspectives.” Indeed, as he later points out, “identities overlap within the scope of a single human life.”

It is hard to argue with Gitlin's historical critique and his lament over the state of current discourse. Our vision of ourselves as world revolutionaries was callow and naive; the general denigration of the white working class was strategically idiotic; and the cry for identity solidarity has proven divisive and stultifying. All that said, however, the college student search for new kinds of allegiances did presage another sort of genuinely revolutionary thinking.

We were the first generation to embrace multiple identities and cross-national affiliations outside the maelstrom of migration or the salons of the trust-fund intelligentsia. A mass internationalism that Lenin and Trotsky only fantasized was birthed by jet planes (with youth fares), rock and roll (with tape cassettes), and international fashion marketing (with Levis and Nikes). We could walk the streets of Paris and Amsterdam in shoes and jeans that no longer set us apart, talk Althusser and acid rock, meet and make love (or say we did) with the Viet Cong in Bratislava and believe we were creating a new world where the frontiers of nationalism would be irrelevant.

As more thoughtful analysts have pointed out, we were really the advance guard of global capital, training our palates at solidarity conferences to replace pot roast with pot au feu and Pad Thai. At home, we were withdrawing further and further from any real politics of common cause and progressive change. We had babies and kept them out of public schools. We founded “alternative” newspapers where Yuppie marketing and arts reviews quickly disposed of exposés and radical politics. We bought mortgages and stereos and laptops and joined the Internet and withdrew both from the voting booth and the P.T.A. In short, we recapitulated the very class divisions for which we attacked our parents, and then, guilty over all the groups of people who weren't able to gather up the trinkets and privileges we had, we celebrated their victimhood with the jargon of identity politics, neatly absolving ourselves of much responsibility to change their situation. But is that all?

William Connolly, like Gitlin a veteran of the New Left, suggests not. Also like Gitlin, Connolly takes seriously the tendency toward “centrifugal fragmentation” in contemporary life, the tendency to splinter into smaller and smaller groups of mutual distrust and antagonism. And he is deeply committed to the cause of mutual respect and common action. Unlike Gitlin, however, he finds profound value in the emergence of new group identities and allegiances, and he credits the postmodernists with critical insights that could lead us toward a renewed and reinvigorated democratic process.

What the last quarter-century has shown us, Connolly argues, is the extent of injustice within justice, foreclosure within democracy, gagging within free speech. Buried with the Lockean, Enlightenment formulations of rational democratic discourse is an endless profusion of exclusions, exclusions that rely on a prevailing idea of what is normal. One need only regard the U.S. Constitution: African slaves and women were not, for the purposes of democratic discourse, human: Their concerns, vis à vis each other or vis à vis the white men who owned them, resided beneath the language and functions of justice. Their cultural concerns, rendered as private and personal, either were not the business of politics or were relegated to the males who represented and interpreted them.

Connolly makes the point sharper when he revisits Tocqueville on the terrible fate of the Indians, who, while they were undeserving of their fate, were incapable of being considered as human equals in the social and philosophical world the founders were building. Why? Because, in the Rousseauvian terms of Enlightenment, they as nomads were not civilized: “The Indians occupied but did not possess the land. It is by agriculture that man wins the soil,” Tocqueville wrote. Until he has erected a civilization, he is not civilized; he is beyond the pale. Similarly, an ethos of Christian monotheism provided the cultural glue that enabled Americans to live beside one another and still engage in fierce political debate. Indians, being both “pagan” and often nomadic, challenged the subliminal codes that formed the non-debatable foundation of American life. This is the key to traditional democratic pluralism, Connolly argues: “… politics is free to dance lightly on the surface of life only because everything fundamental is fixed below it.”

At this point, Gitlin and Connolly diverge. Gitlin argues that yes, of course, America has a dreadful history, even a dreadful current practice of excluding and abusing the poor, the Black, the brown, the female, the sexually different. We must stop all that, we must expand the plurality of our debates to bring all groups into the tent of our political life. In contrast, Connolly argues that the challenge for contemporary democracy is to establish an ethos whereby we remake ourselves, rebuild our own political house by extending critical engagement with an endless procession of the uninvited, the unrecognized, the yet unformed visitors to our doorstep. In the contemporary world, where each individual contains multiple identities, it is not enough simply to bring the outsiders inside. We cannot hear the emerging polyglot voices unless we acknowledge the denials and repressions and exclusions in our own story.

The challenge—and here Connolly draws deeply on Foucault—is to excavate the genealogy of our underlying moral and social assumptions: How it is that our “secular” founders relied upon an unstated Judeo-Christian consensus, including particular types of family organization and child-rearing practices, which presupposed certain exclusions of sexual practice, which were rooted in the division of labor, the availability of land, and attitudes toward settlement and nomadic wandering? If we are to inhabit the same nation, town, campus, or classroom amicably, even fruitfully, we will need to know more about how our mutual strengths and frailties have made us seem so strange to each other.

Many, perhaps Gitlin among them, will find this “pluralizing ethos” a fancy cover for old-fashioned moral relativism. But that is a misreading of Connolly's propositions. His object is not to establish neutral equivalences: saving fetuses versus saving the rights of pregnant women, or valuing man-boy love equally with procreative heterosexual marriage. The point is to acknowledge that different assemblies of people have negotiated differing moral codes on each of these issues, resulting in highly regulated rules of conduct.

Human beings can only live together peaceably through the formulation of such codes. But if we are not fundamentalists, if we do not arrogate to ourselves the omniscience of God, we would be wise not to dress the codes we embrace in the cloth of normalcy. The denomination of who is moral and who is not, of who should have a voice and who should not, is a human artifact. We can only examine the story of our choices (say, for example, the reasons why some of our ancestors found it normal to make sodomy and interracial coupling capital offenses) and feel chastened as we negotiate with others the kinds of moral codes we wish to live by.

To a greater degree than we might always acknowledge, that is where the revolutionaries of the Sixties were most effective. As much as multinational marketers may have turned the counterculture into a retail bonanza, as much as the universalist ideals of the Left have given way to balkanized identities, the exchange across old boundaries of nation, language, and geography has taught us that no one can any longer live an insular life with an insular code of morals free of political and moral challenge. One-time Pan-Africanists find themselves demonstrating against the butchery of Nigeria's military dictator. Gay Republican men and liberal lesbian activists find that they are antagonists, not allies, on issues of health care and the minimum wage, even though both make common cause for human rights in Beijing and Moscow. Environmentalists in California fight industrial polluters in Sao Paulo, Tokyo, and Boston. In each of these acts, the players drop universalist claims about all mankind for their own group interest, but in doing so something else happens. They relinquish and often dissociate themselves from simple national allegiance and discover the profound cultural differences within their own tribe/movement/group: As homosexual people, they discover that privacy and freedoms do not mean the same thing everywhere; as Black people, they find that personal authority and independence are played out in different ways in different places; as activists they learn that reliance on abstract law versus familial contacts provides a different sense of personal security and opportunity.

Frequently, Connolly admits, he is asked “how much diversity and fragmentation” we can tolerate and still sustain any concept of “the common good.” The problem, he answers, is the question itself, its presumption that the diverse others—gays, women, Latinos, Blacks, disabled, the aged—are simply new limbs drawing strength from the trunk of our historic cultural tree. If, instead, we look within ourselves to find points of interdependence, we might discover that “we” (the white Jews and Christians) are not so much drained or distracted by “them” (say, the mystical Puerto Ricans with their Santaria shrines) as we are both inspired to honor the place of spiritual knowledge alongside empirical science, and, further, by recognizing the differences among ourselves, we may be more ready to leave respectful room for the pagan goddess worshipers and atheists as well. In short, we may come to realize that the experience of being alive is greater than the categories and codes by which we live, that the heuristic models of science and the magical metaphors of religion are merely cages for the spirit that flows above, below, and through them.

Given Bosnia and the orthodoxies of the Farrakhanists and the Kahanists and the Falwellian creationists, what reason do we have to look forward to such a democratic ethos? Here is where Gitlin, the tempered one-time activist of practical politics, might temper his screed and draw on Connolly, the theorist. Without institutions—parties, caucuses, movements, papers, interactive Web sites, and government itself—we never move beyond the arid banter of critical studies. But if we dare to look at the faiths and group identities of others as reflective of our own often-unarticulated yearnings, we may at last discover how to construct a political movement that is porous, elastic, and tough in its commitments, a movement built on mutual generosity and forbearance that recovers the best of the Emersonian vision of ourselves as an “asylum of all nations.”

Sanford Pinsker (essay date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Pinsker, Sanford. “Dispatches from the Culture Wars.” Georgia Review 50, no. 3 (fall 1996): 575-83.

[In the following essay, Pinsker compares three books on the culture wars, among them The Twilight of Common Dreams, and claims that Gitlin's critique of both Left and Right is balanced and well-grounded historically.]

The marketplace of ideas has never been a refuge for the intellectually timid nor a safe haven for those who imagine that what the academy vigorously debates has no consequences beyond its ivy-covered walls. Yet one would be hard pressed to think of a time before now when the professoriate has been more divided, its squabbles more contentious, or its injury reports so widely covered in the popular press. What I'm describing, of course, are the “culture wars”—an umbrella term meant to cover the conflicts over not only who should be admitted to higher education's most prestigious institutions and what they should study when they get there but also whether standards of excellence can coexist with efforts at social engineering. Add the destabilizing effects of postmodernist theory and the result is a litany of fighting words: “evidence,” “rigor,” “logic,” and the “pursuit of truth wherever it might lead” from one end of the faculty spectrum; “multiculturalism,” “identity politics,” and “the social construction of reality” from the other. Even those professors who would prefer nothing more than to tend the narrow garden of their own disciplines have found themselves on edge, fearful that uttering an unpopular opinion might turn them into front-page campus news or, worse, end in official disciplinary procedures.

During the 1980's, a steely, pinchfaced curtain of what came to be known as “political correctness” began to descend on campuses from Brown to Berkeley. Identified with the academic Left, political correctness was an effort to seize the moral and intellectual high ground by insisting that only narrowly defined attitudes about race, class, and gender were “correct,” and thus worthy of serious consideration. Other possibilities on these matters need not apply; and indeed, those who so much as whispered a note of dissent were often treated to volleys of angry contempt. Later, of course, the list of politically correct attitudes widened to include nonnegotiable pronouncements about homosexuals, animal rights, and the handicapped.

For some (one thinks of Allan Bloom, Richard Bernstein, Dinesh D'Souza, and George Will), recounting the loopy antics of the local Thought Police became a cottage industry. Did such critics sometimes exaggerate the conditions that, taken together, traveled under the heading of “political correctness”? Possibly. On the other hand, were they onto something? Absolutely, for the missionary zeal of some on the far Left often matched the pundits' cartoon version with eerie precision. Nor did it take long before PC came to stand for bullying and intolerance rather than for a “personal computer.” In this regard, the strained insistences of the Language Police (for “manhole cover” read “personhole cover,” for “short” read “vertically challenged”) were an exercise in language-as-power that largely backfired. And when humorists such as Jackie Mason or Bill Maher got into the act, the academic Left—more noteworthy for self-righteousness than for a sense of humor—found itself with a sizable public-relations problem.

John K. Wilson's The Myth of Political Correctness is at once an effort at damage control and an attempt to put the PC monkey where, to his mind, it more properly belongs—namely, on the backs of those traditionalists guilty of what he calls “conservative correctness.” As such, Wilson's study means to assure readers that most, if not all, of the travesties so ballyhooed in the national press are benign rather than cancerous, and that day-to-day life on our nation's campuses pretty much goes on as it always has.

But in his own book, which dutifully footnotes hundreds of war stories, the evidence suggests otherwise. Take, for example, the oft-repeated 1989 anecdote about the memo written by a student on a committee examining diversity: “At Penn,” she argued, “we should be concerned with the experience of INDIVIDUALS before we are concerned with the group …”—only to have an administrator on the committee return her memo with the word “INDIVIDUALS” circled and with this response: “This is a ‘RED FLAG’ phrase today, which is considered by many to be RACIST.” Small wonder that many were outraged then, and many more continue to be rightly alarmed now. For Wilson, however, the very fact that the incident has been so often recounted (at last count, some thirty-five times) in articles and books about political correctness is proof that those with agendas of their own fastened onto a spark and then blew it into a firestorm. Wilson concedes that the administrator's comment was “stupid,” but he goes on to argue, “The administrator did not take any action to punish the student, did not control what the student thought, and did not even make a public statement condemning the student's view.” In short, it could have been worse but wasn't.

While Wilson acknowledges that some scattered incidents were pretty bad, for him even those hardly constitute the orchestrated threat to liberal learning that the bashers of political correctness rail about. After all,

There is no national conspiracy of leftists to suppress ideas they disagree with. No one can plausibly maintain that leftists exert powerful control over higher education. … Administrators on college campuses are equal opportunity offenders when it comes to academic freedom. Intent on avoiding controversy, they are rarely staunch defenders of free speech for anyone, and pressure to get rid of troublesome faculty most often comes from conservatives, not liberals.

Moreover, Wilson keeps asking, what about documented instances of intolerance from the religious Right? Why don't these get the same public venting that the misconduct by overzealous leftists occasions? Consider, for example, the under-publicized case of Daniel Maguire, a leader of Catholics for a Free Choice, who found that

… invitations to speak at Catholic colleges were canceled because of his unorthodox views, even when abortion was not the subject of his speeches. The president of Saint Martin's College in Lacey, Washington, wrote to Maguire: “The Board [of Trustees] determined that the Saint Martin's religious studies program should avoid the hiring of personnel who advocate teachings that may be contrary to the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church,” which included hiring Maguire to deliver a speech. Maguire's lecture at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, was canceled by the president because of Maguire's “association with Catholics for a Free Choice.” Similar cancellations occurred at Villanova University and Boston College.

We are, at this point, very far indeed from the argument Wilson tries to press in his introductory remarks—namely, that what he read about PC simply never matched the reality he encountered in “more than 150 classes from dozens of departments.” (He is currently a graduate student in the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought program.) Apparently, lots of ugliness is going on elsewhere, however, and herein may lie the real value of Wilson's spin on how PC does or does not play itself out in the press. Rather than making charges and countercharges about what constitutes fairness, and then entering into shouting matches about who got whom last, shouldn't all of us be more concerned with why these efforts to level the academic playing field and extend the borders of academic study have produced at least as much backlash as social progress?

In large measure this is precisely the question Todd Gitlin addresses in his estimable study, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. Rather than focusing narrowly on the campus battles, he is concerned with the broader ramifications of a culture in which Columbus Day becomes a litmus test of one's politics and the National History Standards end up in a dogfight about whose history? whose hegemony? and whose truth? Gitlin's credentials as a man of the Left are at once impeccable (during the Vietnam War protests, he was president of Students for a Democratic Society) and impressive (his book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage remains one of the best accounts of a nation at odds with itself). Moreover, Gitlin is better equipped than Wilson to talk about how the march to social justice has become sidetracked, for he writes less as a partisan than as one able to balance his critique of the Right with sober advice for his friends on the Left. The result is a study that looks at our current culture wars from a wider, more historically grounded perspective. Gitlin calls our attention to the forest, while Wilson dutifully tags hundreds of free-standing trees.

For Gitlin, the questions that matter—and haunt—are these:

Who are we? The acrimony is as intense as the quarrels are predictable. Follow the script of each battle in the culture wars and before long you arrive at the same tangle of questions: What is America anyway, and who wants to know? Who gets to say, and with what consequences? Are we finding ourselves through or despite our differences, or are we falling apart despite what we hold in common? Do we become more equal as we become more antagonistic? Is separateness the necessary prologue to a commonality that can only be attained once the most oppressed secede to cultivate truths that the majority long suppressed? Are there bridges worth building?

To his credit, Gitlin realizes full well that vexing questions such as these are likely to raise still more questions, and that efforts to find common ground (much less the occasions for making common cause) will not be easy. Part of the problem has to do with the central truth of the American experience itself—namely, that it is more “dream” than fixity, something always in transition rather than inscribed. “Has any other nation, even an empire,” Gitlin ruminates, “ever identified itself so closely with a dream?” After all, he continues,

Is there a Spanish or Pakistani dream? Was there a Roman dream? a T'ang dream? a Hapsburg or Napoleonic dream? It is one thing to have a “vision,” to invoke glory or reason, or for that matter Aryan supremacy, as a national purpose; it is quite another to identify the nation with something so insubstantial as a dream. A dream may be evocative, illuminating, fascinating, or frightful, but one thing it is not is a fait accompli. It is incapable of verification. It invites revision. Intrinsically ambiguous, it begs for interpretation and reinterpretation. A dream, after all, is the most private and invisible of experiences. So, to paraphrase [Walter] Lippmann: America is not yet.

This being so, he goes on to argue, it is hardly surprising that our current culture wars are evidence of a long-standing condition writ large and especially problematic. It is impossible to “contemplate compressing the sense of what it is to be an American into a single procrustean idea.”

At the same time, however, we were formed by documents (above all, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) that transmogrified a geographical place into an idea, “a democracy of free individuals. This new nation was to be more than another nation, it was to be the homeland of liberty, showing the rest of the world that what it wanted to be was, in fact, America. In its most liberal, least nativist version, America was the truth of the world unveiled, a decisive moment in the revelation of humanity to itself.”

Why our “common dreams” slowly unraveled is at the core of Gitlin's study. If it is true that the seeds of our present discontent germinated in the very fabric of our dreamy history, it is even truer that recent decades have produced what for Gitlin comes as a shocking reversal: the Left, which once stood for universal values, is now most noteworthy for its defense of identity politics—in whatever form a given group calls itself to wide public attention with claims of victimization and the need for reparation. Meanwhile the Right, long associated with privileged interests, dons the mantle as protector of common aspirations and needs.

Small wonder that Gitlin is perplexed. The agenda of a common social justice that was once the most prized possession of the New Left has been hijacked by Newer Leftists with more interest in the pluribus of e pluribus unum than in the unum. And although Gitlin makes heroic attempts to put efforts toward separatism into a larger cultural context and even to retain a margin of sympathy for some separatist programs, the shifting of focus from a politics of the mean streets to squabbles inside the academy just doesn't wash:

On campus, today's obsession with difference is distinguished … by the haughtiness of the tribes and the scope of their intellectual claims. Many exponents of identity politics are fundamentalists—in the language of the academy, “essentialists”—and the belief in essential group differences easily swerves toward a belief in superiority. In the hardest version of identity thinking, women are naturally cooperative, Africans naturally inventive, and so on. These pure capacities were once muscled into submission by Western masculine force—so the argument goes—then suppressed by rigged institutions, and now need liberating. Sometimes what is sought is a license to pursue a monoculture. Only the members can (or should) learn the language of the club. Only African Americans should get jobs teaching African-American studies; conversely, African Americans should get jobs teaching only African-American studies. Men, likewise, have no place in women's studies.

Gitlin rightly deplores all this and has the intellectual honesty to say so; and though he often joins Wilson in feeling that many conservatives have not been above playing the anti-PC card for political advantage, he puts the major share of blame squarely where it belongs: “the campaign against PC had legs—more legs than a caterpillar” because “identity politics and [its] attendant censoriousness were real.”

But the more fundamental crisis for Gitlin is the widening gap between traditionalists who want to “shore up the former center” and radicals who “resent any center at all.” Gitlin's book provides a powerful critique of both camps, along with an invitation to “see what lies on the other side of the politics of identity.” To get there, however, we must be willing, in his guardedly upbeat words, “to look, look again, and … go on looking.” What we need, in short, are more bridges than bunkers, less emphasis on “the perfection of differences,” and more efforts to envision common dreams and to work collectively toward their realization.

To such efforts, Stanley Fish's Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change would no doubt say “Godspeed,” although he would be quick to follow his assent with the more sobering observation that this is the sort of project that should—yea, must—be conducted outside the university's walls rather than within them. Whatever else might be said of Fish's voluminous writing, he conducts his quarrels in clear English, and he means to give mushy thinkers something to chew over. As one of postmodernism's more flamboyant practitioners (he often seems more akin to performance artist than professor), Fish is widely known for championing reader-response theory, deconstruction, and of late—as a professor of law—critical legal theory.

In this regard, his latest title seems consciously chosen to be as attention-grabbing and provocative as possible. My hunch is that Fish rues the occasions when he weighed in about “political correctness” (who knew that the term would circle back to bite him?), just as I suspect he regrets writing his infamous memo to Duke University's provost urging him not to appoint members of the National Association of Scholars (NAS) to key university committees because “you wouldn't want on a personnel or curriculum committee somebody who had already decided, in terms of fixed political categories, what is or is not meritorious.” Fish's memo (which he denied ever writing until the matter went public) was a shocking instance of intolerance, as was his equally notorious assertion that members of the NAS were “racist, sexist, and homophobic.”

Even John Wilson had trouble putting a happy face on such meanspiritedness, but he chose to air the affair nonetheless—and to its credit, Duke University Press (currently directed by none other than Fish himself) printed every word. Meanwhile, at least some of Fish's certainties seem to have changed since the early 1990's. By the time he gave the 1993 Clarendon Lectures at Oxford (on which Professional Correctness is based), he was out to question the political effectiveness of transforming literary study until it directly addresses such PC topics as oppression, racism, and cultural imperialism, and in the process he took a few well-aimed shots at the new historicism, along with the worst excesses of gender and cultural studies.

At the same time, however, the book's introductory remarks protest (perchance a bit too much?) that nothing essential about Fish's mind or politics has altered one whit, and that he continues to worship in the church of what's happening now: cultural studies, black studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, and (as he put it) “other forms of activity that have reinvigorated the literary scene.” Indeed, Fish has never met anything on the cutting edge he didn't like, but he points to a considerable difference between the accomplishments of the new kids on the academic block and “the claims that sometimes accompany those accomplishments, claims which are in my view uncashable.” Fish is out to give the latter a much-needed reality check:

It is not so much that literary critics have nothing to say about these issues [i.e., racism, terrorism, violence against women and homosexuals, cultural imperialism], but that so long as they say it as literary critics no one but a few of their friends will be listening, and, conversely, if they say it in ways unrelated to the practices of literary criticism, and thereby manage to give it a political effectiveness, they will no longer be literary critics. … Samuel Goldwyn once said in response to someone who asked him why his movies were not more concerned with important social issues, “If I wanted to send a message, I'd use Western Union.” I say, if you want to send a message that will be heard beyond the academy, get out of it. Or, if I may adapt a patriotic slogan, “the academy—love it or leave it.”

Having thus directed many of the newer academic Left to the egress, Fish settles down to do what he probably does best—namely, unpack the opening words of Milton's “Lycidas” (“Yet once more …”) by demonstrating what literary criticism can and ought to be. Fish has been a steady worker in the Milton industry for some thirty years, and it is clear that he knows how to talk the requisite talk. But it is even clearer that literary critics, including himself, do not traffic in wisdom, but in

… metrics, narrative structures, double, triple, and quadruple meanings, recondite allusions, unity in the midst of apparent fragmentation, fragmentation despite surface unity, reversals, convergences, mirror images, hidden arguments, climaxes, denouements, stylistic registers, personae. This list goes on and on, but it does not include arms control or city management or bridge-building or judicial expertise or a thousand other things, even though many of those things find their way into the texts critics study as “topics” or “themes.”

In short, Fish feels that literary critics ought to do what they do best, and ought not to dabble in what they don't know about. Politics, defined as the slow, patient business of building a wide public consensus and moving social justice forward by inches, tops the list. For all the heady talk about “power” on our campuses, the bald fact of the matter is that most professors, including those at postmodernism's outer reaches, are absolutely clueless about how power works or how to go about getting some. That all this emanates from Fish's mouth is refreshing, because if a more traditional scholar made the same arguments, he or she would have been hooted out of the room.

Unfortunately, Fish continues to have trouble heeding his own advice. Months after the deed, people are still guffawing about the hoax that physicist Alan Sokal of New York University perpetrated on the unsuspecting folks at the helm of the trendy postmodernist journal Social Text. His essay (entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”) was packed to the brim with fashionable jargon such as “privileged epistemological status”; copious footnotes to Jacques Lacan and Luce Irigaray; and arguments in support of the proposition that gravity is merely a social construction. Indeed, Sokal's claims on behalf of a nonsensical “liberatory science” were, in fact, nonsense. But this is precisely what the editors of Social Text printed. The result made it clear, as only ridicule can, that the hasty marriage between postmodernist theory and hard science is not likely to last.

In the concluding pages of Professional Correctness, Fish suggests that academics should quit defining public intellectuals as people who address matters of public concern (every law professor does that) and, instead, think of them as people who have the public's attention. By this reckoning, even those academics who occasionally pop up with Ted Koppel on Nightline (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Noam Chomsky, Harold Bloom, and Fish himself) are at best “cameo intellectuals,” rent-for-a-day folks who show up, get some pancake makeup smeared on their noggins, and then are soon forgotten. Far better, Fish argues, for academic types to admit that they are busts in the lobbying/public relations business and to hire professionals to do the job. Imagine, Fish ponders, the giddy results of a vigorous PR campaign: millions of Americans will go to their beds “thankful that the members of the Duke English Department are assuring the survival and improvement of Western civilization.”

Unfortunately, when the rock hit the hard place—which is to say, when Sokal's article turned Social Text and Duke University Press into national laughingstocks—Fish gave his own words the deaf ear and fired off a long Op-Ed piece to The New York Times. The jury is still out with regard to how effective his effort at damage control was, but I think it a safe bet that millions of Americans are not nodding off pleased as punch that people such as Fish are at the cultural helm.

For better or worse, the culture wars are very much with us, and even though the skirmishes often seem like tempests in teapots, the fact of the matter is that important issues are at stake—not only for our nation's campuses but also for the nation itself. At its worst incarnations, political correctness turns classrooms into indoctrination centers and throws a wet blanket over national debate. Reasonable people can of course differ about how to strike a difficult balance between the claims of equity and the case for merit, or how best to close the gap between our national ideals and our current imperfect reality. But so long as trenches are being fortified and provisions continue to be stockpiled, I suspect that few true believers will buy into Gitlin's “bridge.” On the other hand, if tuition sticker-shock hangs around long enough, those who foot the bill for courses in oppression studies and its assorted cousins just might yell loud enough to make a moratorium on PC possible. As they say on television, stay tuned.

ETC. (review date winter 1996-97)

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SOURCE: ETC. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. ETC. 53, no. 4 (winter 1996-97): 472-73.

[In the following review, the critic finds that The Twilight of Common Dreams offers “sensible suggestions” to both those on the Left and the Right.]

Can Whites, Blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Gays, Jews, Christians, Feminists, Fundamentalists, and a host of other identity category groups get along with each other and work toward achieving justice for all? Maybe, says Todd Gitlin, a president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the Sixties, a professor of sociology at Berkeley for 16 years, and the author of The Twilight of Common Dreams. This book reveals Gitlin's deep disappointment with the direction America's political Left has taken since the Sixties.

Gitlin believes that the “Left,” which once stood for universal values, has come to be identified with the special interests of distinct “cultures” and select “identities.” The “Right,” long associated with privileged interests, now claims to defend the needs of all. The result is that, “Since the late 1960s, while the Right has been taking the White House, the Left has been marching on the English department.”

The author contends that Americans are obsessed with their racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities. Lots of energy which could be directed toward seeking common good is directed to “culture wars” over concepts such as “multiculturalism,” “identity politics,” and “political correctness.” This seems particularly the case in academia, where university culture encourages groups to narrowly form and argue for their own interests. What gets lost in this contemporary passion for special consideration is the need for building bridges among groups and the importance of building toward commonalities as a way to reduce inequality.

Gitlin sees no easy answers to the trench warfare that he observes among all parties in the culture wars. His contribution to “making peace” is entreating those on the Left to stop relying on identity politics and to move toward advancing concepts of common obligations and mutual reliance. He argues those on the Right should ease off their attacks on political correctness and concentrate on the costs of inequality in our culture and the importance of democratic pluralism. These seem like sensible suggestions.

David D. Cooper (review date summer 1997)

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SOURCE: Cooper, David D. Review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. Midwest Quarterly 38, no. 4 (summer 1997): 433-34.

[In the following review of The Twilight of Common Dreams, Cooper summarizes Gitlin's arguments against identity politics.]

[In The Twilight of Common Dreams,] Todd Gitlin joins a small circle of public intellectuals who have managed to enter onto the battlefields of the contemporary culture wars and not come away spattered by the rancor and righteousness that too often stain debates over culture, identity, and the struggle to define an America on the threshold of a new democratic millennium. He achieves a level of oversight and understanding and, more important, a degree of wisdom in an important analysis of the identity politics that roil the current academic, political, and social scenes. Gitlin's achievement becomes clearer when considering that the lion's share of recent dispatches from the front lines of America's contemporary culture wars rarely avoid the seductions of extreme ideological partisanship.

Gitlin defines identity politics as the impulse “to deduce a position, a tradition, a deep truth, or a way of life from a fact of birth, physiognomy, national origin, sex, or physical disability” (126). He tracks that impulse into several arenas: rancorous debates over high school history books, tedious tit-for-tats over “political correctness,” and, among others, the romance with marginality that turns humanities departments into reservoirs of pent-up grievances. He explores anxious questions raised about national identity throughout an American history marked by successive waves of ethnic immigration. He questions race and ethnicity as vague and clumsy demographic categories; he wonders aloud why so many identity politicians invest so much political will and philosophical faith in such notoriously ambiguous classifications. And he offers a cultural history of the Left in America that culminates in the fault lines of the New Left's recent fragmentation and cannibalization. The Left's tradition of commitment to common ideals that span differences into universal solidarity in service to social justice—the moral engine of participatory democracy—has been sacrificed, according to Gitlin's main axis of argument, to the special interest sectarianism that has spawned identity-based movements and turned the American university into a cloister of monocultures.

The wreckage caused by identity politics, Gitlin concludes, is both intellectual and political. Cowed by postmodern shibboleths that demonize appeals to common truth, the old New Left of “universalist hope”—the Left of the civil rights and antiwar movements—degenerates into the new New Left of separatist rage, with no compelling memory of a unified Left and little feeling for the sort of moral imperative that connects campus politics to the concerns of the wider society. The result, according to Gitlin: “While the Right was occupying the heights of the political system, the assemblage of groups identified with the Left were marching on the English department.” (148).

The myopic cultivation of group difference, Gitlin laments, is ruinous for the Left. And without a vital Left, Gitlin predicts “more of the same soft apocalypse to which Americans have apparently grown inured: more inequality, more punishment of the poor, more demoralization and pathology among them, the slow (or not-so slow) further breakdown of civic solidarities” (230).

The antidote to the hardening of differences into identity factions seems as painfully obvious as it is obviously painful to groups already over-invested in the politics of racial, gender, and ethnic difference: a renewed commitment to commonality. “For too long, too many Americans have busied themselves digging trenches to fortify their cultural borders. … Enough bunkers! Enough of the perfection of differences! We ought to be building bridges” (237).

Nicola Evans (essay date February 1998)

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SOURCE: Evans, Nicola. “Identity in Question.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 84, no. 1 (February 1998): 94-109.

[In the following essay, Evans takes issue with Gitlin's criticism of identity politics in The Twilight of Common Dreams.]

The quest for an identity is turning into an imperative. Since the end of the Cold War, identity has become a new way to do politics, and something new to do politics for. Nations are said to be in search of one; individuals nurture theirs; collectives of all kinds are encouraged to seek rights for their identity and defend it from the imprecations of others. More than a self-help fad or fashionable neurosis, identity talk is the language of multiculturalism and seems poised to become the currency of the public sphere. Philosopher Charles Taylor writes of a new demand for “recognition” driving contemporary social movements, a demand based on the idea that because identity “is partly shaped by recognition or its absence … nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression.”1 But the demand for recognition of distinctive identities is sending liberal ideals of a disinterested citizenship into a tailspin. Does not a working democracy require that we respect people regardless of their differences, rather than because of them? And if identities are secured by cultural attitudes and practices, is this properly a political issue at all?

In a speech given by President Clinton at San Diego University, June 14, 1997, a speech billed as the most important pronouncement on race relations of his administration, one could hear echoes of the struggle to reconcile diversity with unity.2 While supporting Martin Luther King, Jr.'s desire for a color-blind society where children would be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” Clinton nonetheless repeatedly invites us to celebrate the visible signs of race and ethnic diversity: “Look around this crowd today. Don't you think you have learned a lot more than you would have if everybody sitting around you looked just like you?” Clinton is in search of a particular face—the face of what he calls “the real America” that he has “seen over and over again” but that we still, paradoxically, “have to make real.” Yet despite his quest for the face of unity, there is an obsessive flavor to the persistence with which Clinton remarks the variety of races assembled before him, bidding the pessimists acknowledge “how far we have come … I cannot believe they have ever seen a crowd like you.” “When I look at you,” Clinton tells the crowd, “it is almost impossible for me even to remember my own life.” The attempt both to see and not see racial difference entangles Clinton in contradictions. We should not, Clinton stresses, see race when people commit crimes—even apparently, crimes motivated by racial antagonism. If white teenagers beat up a black teenager, Clinton says, condemn the act, not the white majority. We can, however, acknowledge racial differences when they have cultural goods to offer, as Clinton, a “Scotch-Irish Southern Baptist,” professes himself “enriched by the power of the Torah, the beauty of the Koran.” Clinton tries to make identity safe for politics by removing it from the political, shunting it off into the cultural domains of festivals, food and religion. He looks forward to an America “bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.” Note the placement of “respect for differences.” It comes at the end of the sentence, once the important work of identifying “shared values” has been accomplished. Yet do not (and should not) our different identities and cultures have a say in decisions about values and aspirations?

Wherever identity or difference is voiced, it seems automatically to foreground the vexed relations between politics and culture. Consider the two criticisms most often made about identity politics. The first claims that attention to identity has driven out politics: “Identity Politics is all the rage. Exploitation is out (it is extrinsically determinist). Oppression is in (it is intrinsically personal). What is to be done has been replaced by who am I. Political culture has ceded to cultural politics.”3 Concerted action towards social change gives way to endless, fruitless marches around the identity borders, policing who comes in and out, who is really black, or authentically lesbian. Once you stretch the category of oppression to encompass cultural forms of discrimination, the critics say, you sink the term altogether, losing the ability to distinguish between a petty insult and an injustice worth fighting: “a friend could oppress with a joke, an advertisement could oppress by omission.”4 Typically some of the blame is apportioned to the postmodernists, who reduced the world to a text, producing an “overinvestment in discursive gestures, the often fatuous assumption that an alteration of textual style or nomenclature … sends shock waves to the heart of social domination.”5 From both left and right critics reproach identity politicians for a failure of nerve, a retreat from politics to the safe confines of the academy and squabbles over classical canons.

If the first objection refers us to the disappearance of politics into a series of vacuous culture wars, the second complaint against identity politics, as frequently heard, argues almost the opposite. Rather than politics collapsing into culture, culture has been subsumed by politics. Formulations of this argument range from the crude assertions of a George Will, lamenting the threat to “our” national identity posed by a Chicano Studies program, to the more liberal sentiments of Frank Lentricchia who mourns the passing of close textual criticism now that assessments of aesthetic value have given way to the knee-jerk judgments of the PC brigade. Lentricchia cites the example of a graduate student who declared authoritatively that the “first thing” to know about Faulkner is that he was a racist—which turned out to be the last thing to know also, short-circuiting any discussion of Faulkner's literary achievements.6

The assault on identity politics demands an answer from scholars of both cultural studies and rhetoric and reveals in the process many points of convergence between these two transdisciplinary fields. Cultural studies is engaged because the reaction to the perceived blurring of lines between culture and politics is often to try to redraw them. Nancy Fraser, for example, criticizes identity movements for their pursuit of social and cultural recognition in place of economic justice.7 As Iris Young notes, such reproaches renege on a fundamental insight of cultural studies, “that political economy … is through and through cultural without ceasing to be material.”8 Rhetoricians, meanwhile, find their activities challenged by the attempt, evident in both of the camps critical of identity politics, to retrench on the power of the text. Thus proponents of the culture-swallows-politics school think that we are making too much of language, overestimating its political reach. Supporters of the politics-is-destroying-culture line think we are making too little of language, but would similarly urge that we confine our attentions to its aesthetic properties, narrowly conceived, a project clearly opposed to the lifelong efforts of Kenneth Burke to make salient the sociopolitical import of categories like “imaginative writing.”9 The study of rhetoric is bound to conceptions of identity in other ways too. John Bender and David Wellberry connect the demise of classical rhetoric to the refashioning of identity by the Romantics whose vision of creative, original individuals made the very idea of rhetorical precept and precedent anathema. The return of a revamped, modern understanding of “rhetoricality” is tied to the dethroning of this magnificent ego and its replacement by shape-shifting “rootless beings” held in service to language strategies that escape conscious control.10 An even stronger case for the interdependence of rhetoric and identity is made by Edwin Black. Societies that base their identity on convictions rather than on blood lineage are likely, Black argues, to have more need of rhetorical activity since a conviction, unlike the brute fact of heredity, is something from which one can always be dissuaded.11 Here is another occasion to insist upon the need for dialogue between cultural studies and rhetoric. Aside from new technologies of reproduction like surrogate births and in vitro fertilization, that have at the very least introduced more uncertainty into biological determinations of kinship, the disclosure of the cultural codes that underwrite what is received as a brute fact and what is perceived to be man-made and therefore malleable suggests that the scope of rhetoric may be broader than Black suspects. The downgrading of anatomical proofs for race and gender has reached the point where it may soon make sense to ask, paraphrasing Richard Sennett, “when did you become black?” and “how gendered are you?”12 If culture and politics are no longer quite where we thought they were, neither is culture and nature a dichotomy on which we can continue to depend.

In this review I discuss three books that react to the contemporary obsession with identity with strategies for moving beyond some of its most unproductive impasses. The Twilight of Common Dreams by Todd Gitlin gives reasons why identity and culture are obstacles to democratic goals and argues for a wholesale change in the focus of theoretical investigations. Questions of Cultural Identity, edited by Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay features a range of attempts to rework the concept of identity in the interests of making it more theoretically useful. Lastly, The Anatomy of Disgust, by William Miller, offers us, I will argue, a different point of purchase on questions of identity.


Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams is the work of a former president of the SDS and noted scholar of the sixties, and has consequently attracted attention as the first full-length assault on identity politics from the Left. For Gitlin, the current preoccupation with identity is a mirage, leading us far afield from the most urgent problem of the day: the accelerating growth in economic disparities. Gitlin prefaces his study with a vivid account of a battle over school textbooks that took place in Oakland. At issue was a set of history books that were deemed to disparage the suffering and the historical contributions of people of color. The critics of these books had, Gitlin acknowledges, many legitimate complaints, such as an account of Thanksgiving that neglected to mention that Puritans slaughtered Indians. Unfortunately these valid objections were intermingled with trivial criticisms reflecting the opponents' conviction that a white editorial board could never do justice to their concerns. The discussion degenerated into vitriolic name-calling and the children ended up with no history textbooks at all. With this account Gitlin ranges himself alongside those who argue that under the auspices of identity, politics has degenerated into cultural pettiness. The opponents of the textbooks could better have spent their energies, Gitlin notes, by protesting the appalling state cutbacks in funding for education in the Oakland region.

When did this obsession with identity arise? Gitlin traces the emergence of identity politics to the demise of universalist Enlightenment ideals that underwrote both the socialist aspirations of the Left, and a nationalist confidence in America as the place where universal equality might be realized. Gitlin's strategy for overcoming the excesses of identity politics involves a journey back into the past to reconnect with these older verities, and thus rebuild the kinds of majoritarian movements capable of winning elections and addressing the economic problems that affect people across identity boundaries. To see why Gitlin would have us journey back into the past we must understand what he believes to be fundamentally different about contemporary identity politics when compared with sectarian movements in earlier eras. What is new about identity politics, according to Gitlin, is that the desire to transcend group differences by establishing a larger community of “Americans” or a global association of “workers” is no longer perceived as a valid objective. Whereas early phases of the New Left could still produce optimistic documents like the Port Huron Statement, brandishing terms like “human brotherhood,” for succeeding movements agitating in favor of blacks, women and gays, the very notion of commonality became poisonous. The dream of a unified America was either “a hoax or a menace,” but at any rate no longer desirable.

The mauling of notions such as “truth” and “reason” by philosophers from Nietzsche onwards added to the growing sense that lofty talk of a universal humanity was a dirty trick played by white males to ensure their continued hegemony. The struggle for common dreams of any scope lost ground, as a series of difference-bound groups hurtled back into their respective histories to find materials for a culture of their own that could restore self-respect and provide a bulwark against the exclusions and inequities they suffered in the public realm. This turning inward to explore cultural identity was further aided by European theorists who affirmed that everything from fashion to shopping was political—a handy excuse in Gitlin's eyes for the “surrogate politics” of campus groups holding Asian American evenings in order not to have to face the real political battles for voting membership: “If the Right held political power, what did it matter? This bad deal felt even better than compensation. It felt like an opportunity to change life—immediate lived life—through direct action. And so the blurring of the line between culture and politics perfectly suited the movements that succeeded the New Left. They had vernaculars, turfs, sectoral music and literature to protect” (152).

Against what he identifies as the too massive equation of cultural practices with political realities, Gitlin would have us shrink the category of “oppression” back to where it refers solely to economic exploitation and racial antagonism. The project of rebuilding a Left that could cement together a majority must recognize that the “deepest sources of social misery” are economic (“it's the economy, stupid!”). It must find ways of appealing to its “natural constituencies … the poor, those fearful of being poor” (237).

The story Gitlin tells is of a nation that once looked ahead and saw visions of equality to a nation of cultural ostriches who dig themselves deep into the sand, and safely ensconced, exchange identity slogans like insults, secure (or trapped) in the illusion that black cannot understand white, male cannot empathize or perhaps even communicate with female, gay cannot teach straight and so on—a presumption that, Gitlin points out, may ironically be the most entrenched universalist premise of all. Identity politics seduces because it offers people, in Gitlin's words, a “still turning point,” a place to hang one's hat, as the certainties once furnished by family, church and blood kinship fade. But this love is a false one and it will lead us, like Merlin, to nowhere but small dank caves.

Gitlin's book is valuable as the first attempt to set identity politics in historical perspective. He offers, moreover many sensible criticisms of the idea that identity is a sure foundation for politics. “How men and women think,” he points out, “is not simply a function of what they have seen or felt in their lives” (200). Identity is not sufficiently stable or singular to offer a firm basis from which to derive a philosophy, or a course of action. Even within a person's life, identities overlap, compete, and change. Yet we should be clear on who exactly Gitlin is asking to forgo their commitments to particular identities. In an affecting anecdote, Gitlin in his role as a professor at Berkeley tells of a white male student who came to ask his opinion on whether or not to join a white student association that was organizing in response to the increasing number of ethnic based groups on campus. The student was “timid, softspoken,” without the “swagger or truculence of a white supremacist.” Sympathizing with his plight, Gitlin nonetheless advised the student on the dangers of organizing around membership in the dominant race and sent the student away “unhappy—possibly less lonely, having gotten his professor's attention, but no better equipped with a hard-and-fast identity” (122). One wonders why the professor did not use this opportunity to alert the student to his multiple identities, to the chance of finding a home in a non-racially oriented group. One may wonder, too, why the discomfort of those who are summoned to question their privilege is so often presented as more worrying than the more-than-discomfort felt by those who continue to suffer from discrimination. Gitlin asserts that there are practical reasons to pay attention to the discomfort of students like this one. Accusations against white men risk alienating a crucial voting bloc, and “a Left that was serious about winning political power and reducing the inequality of wealth and income would stop lambasting all white men, and would take it as elementary to reduce frictions among white men, blacks, white women, and Hispanics” (234). The suggestion that white men should be appeased for the sake of winning elections echoes unpleasantly the “wait until after the revolution” admonitions addressed to feminists, among others, in the sixties, whose unwillingness to wait launched us, according to Gitlin's history, on the road to identity politics in the first place. Could we not envisage a critique of white male institutions (which is not the same as lambasting white men) that might encourage white men to vote for social change? The growing numbers of male feminists and the emergence of “men's studies” interrogating constructions of masculinity across class, race and sexuality suggest that such alliances are not unimaginable.

What I find strange in Gitlin's critique is the failure to acknowledge those scholars of race, gender and sexual identity who have sought to take us beyond a simple doctrinal sense of identity. For example, the perils of assuming identity as a fixed point of departure for political practice, the problem that race, class and other differences between women make activism in the name of “women” suspect, and at the same time the absolute necessity of continuing to invoke gender when people are oppressed on that basis are all matters that have been exhaustively debated by feminists, most often under the rubric of “essentialism” and “antiessentialism.”13 Work that reconceptualizes identity as “process, as performance, and as provisional,”14 an invitation to rhetoric, as Burke would have it, rather than rhetoric's a priori, all bespeak a conception of identities as positions creatively deployed, rather than graves in which we bury the possibility of change. At times this lack of attention to other work on identity leads Gitlin to ride roughshod over important distinctions. For example, Gitlin lumps “queer studies” in with the move to create African American Studies and Chicano programs, ignoring the fact that queer theorizing arose to challenge precisely the kind of monological identity thinking that Gitlin decries.15 The caricature of postmodernism that Gitlin advances (“The whole edifice of postmodern theorizing is topped by a spire flashing a single slogan: ‘objectivity … is only another word for white male subjectivity” [150]) belies the fact that postmodernists have consistently opposed the reduction of epistemology to simple identity categories.16

Gitlin sums up identity politics as an error: “the recognition of a collective hurt, followed by the mistaking of a group position for a ‘culture,’ followed by the mistaking of a ‘culture’ for a politics” (147-48). Granted that terms such as “oppression” and “resistance” may have been overused, to respond by scrapping all attention to identity and culture seems extreme. In certain locales where legal restrictions on access to resources have been removed, culture may in fact be the key conduit for discrimination, ensuring that no more than lip service is paid to the new legal and policy arrangements, as the recent exposure of racism in the corporate culture of Texaco should remind us. In any case, the idea that we return to politics following this diversionary obsession with culture contradicts Gitlin's own assertion that what is needed to revive the Left is a “culture of commonality”: What might a culture of commonality look like? After this promising start at acknowledging that culture has a role to play, Gitlin has only some weak Habermassian sentiments to offer: what we need, he suggests, is some “sensible conversation.” But as David Simpson points out, conversation is better conceived as the reward for overcoming differences, not the means for attaining this goal.17 If economic equality is the goal that is being overlooked, why are people failing to be seduced by it? Gitlin's argument that identity groups provided a replacement for traditional attachments to kin and nation might explain the rise of identity politics in general, but it does not explain why certain people gravitate to particular identities. Why does one person privilege race at the expense of gender? Why do some ignore both and choose instead to work for the environment? Are these mere diversions from politics, or alternative ways of expressing citizenship? Simply telling such people—however reasonably—that they should be using their energies to develop an economic citizenship is probably not going to tempt the ostrich heads out of the sand.

Throughout his book, Gitlin remains certain of where politics takes place. Real politics is what happen at the voting booth, political issues are economic issues and both are to be clearly demarcated from what goes on in the name of culture. The decision to define ahead of time what identities (American, Left) and what endeavors will count as political is an odd move to make, given the emphasis Gitlin places on looking to the future rather than to the past. A key insight of the poststructuralists that Gitlin indicts is that how power is exercised and therefore what counts as “politics” is not invariable across time and space. For Foucault, the practice of political criticism demands flexibility: “the problem is not so much that of defining a political ‘position’ (which is to choose from a preexisting set of possibilities) but to imagine and to bring into being new schemas of politicization. If ‘politicization’ means falling back on ready-made choices and institutions, then the effort of analysis involved in uncovering the relations of force and mechanisms of power is not worthwhile.”18 One may read Gitlin's final remarks that identity politics has left the “centers of power undisturbed” ironically, as the failure not of the movements to leave the margins, but their failure to budge Gitlin and scholars like him one inch from their sense of what is significant and what irrelevant to disturbing those centers of power.


Questions of Cultural Identity is a collection of essays that does precisely what its title promises, treating culture and identity as subjects for investigation, rather than as founding assumptions. The essays are written from diverse theoretical perspectives and cover considerable ground, ranging from Nikolas Rose's Foucauldian prospectus for the study of microcosmic practices of the self to Zygmunt Bauman's historical overview that moves from the premodern to the postmodern era to track the emergence of identity as a locus of struggle. No effort is made to fit the contributions into an organizing architecture; Stuart Hall's introductory essay is less an attempt to plot the territory covered by the authors than a sophisticated account of the kinds of theoretical work the concept of identity is still called upon to do. This means that the reader has to work a little harder to establish connections between the essays. One theme that does emerge, however, is a general dissatisfaction with the way cultural identity is talked about in theory and used in politics. Rather than abandoning the concept, the authors rethink the questions of how, when, and in what forms identity and culture should matter to a progressive politics. This effort resolves itself into two recurring moves. The first move cracks open the categories of “politics” and “culture” and challenges assumptions about what activities and attitudes these labels describe. As several of these essays demonstrate, what goes on in the name of “culture” or “politics” may be radically at odds with the rhetorical work performed by these terms. The second move involves an effort to look past the identities that routinely feature in discussions of culture to uncover more inventive groupings. Instead of essays on race, sexual identity and class, we find a discussion of the “bureaucrat” and the “citizen” alongside meditations on how the experience and conceptualization of time and space form the basis for collective identifications. Both strategies invite us to question what we know about concepts such as ‘culture’, to be more flexible in where we seek evidence of politics, and to be more imaginative in the types of identifications we envisage.

Three essays in particular interrogate the facile opposition of culture and politics in critiques of identity politics. The contributions of Paul du Gay and Kevin Robins remind us that culture has become a preoccupation of state governments as much as grass roots activists. Robins reports on a century of efforts by successive administrations in Turkey to suppress and later resuscitate a collective cultural identity for the Turkish people. Such shifts are situated in the context of Turkey's conflicted relations with Europe, especially the damage wrought by Europe's self-appointed status as the modern destiny of its “less developed” neighbors. Robins's history depends upon recognizing a greater fluidity in the scope and significance of what counts as “culture” or “politics.” Under the leadership of Turgut Ozal in the 1980s, traditional Islamic values were harnessed to a nation-wide project of stimulating economic change, in order to achieve what Ozal called a “mental revolution.” Thus religion, superficially a “cultural matter,” expanded to take on some of the responsibilities of formal political bodies.

A second essay focusing on the interventions of culture into formal politics is Paul du Gay's analysis of changes in the British civil service. Du Gay observes that current initiatives to improve the efficiency of the service are likely to be framed as “cultural crusades,” an ironic development since the objective of these reforms is to transform the civil servant from a “bureaucrat” to an “entrepreneur.” Gay's chief concern here is whether the new emphasis on profit, and the corollary shift in the identity of the public from “constituency” to “consumers” sacrifices the valuable disinterest that a bureaucratic ethos encouraged. However, his opening remarks make a crucial point. As a concept bearing connotations of choice, pleasure and freedom, “culture” is a useful flag to wave for groups wishing to disguise the authoritarian character of their projects. British theorists are well positioned to understand the dangers of this manipulation of cultural terms, given the infamous success of the Thatcher government in implementing blatantly racist policies under the cover of an appeal to a traditional “British culture.”19

Whereas the essays by Robins and du Gay draw attention to the uses of culture as a vehicle for the pursuit (or disguise) of conventional political objectives, Simon Frith's essay on popular music goes a step further by proposing that culture may be a protopolitical form in and of itself. Frith begins by taking issue with the brand of cultural essentialism that simplistically maps music and other aesthetic forms onto sociological categories, finding, for example, in rap the expression of a purely African American sensibility. The idea is of course not entirely new. Post-Marxists have been working for some time to attenuate relations between base and superstructure and oppose the reduction of aesthetic experience to its social conditions of production. However, Frith makes a valuable contribution to this work by bidding us to attend to the communal values and social interactions that are experienced through the performance of culture: “What I want to suggest, in other words, is not that social groups agree on values which are then expressed in their cultural activities … but that they only get to know themselves as groups (as a particular organization of individual and social interests, of sameness and difference) through cultural activity, through aesthetic judgement” (111). Thus the act of joining a group to listen to, dance to or otherwise experience a performance of music affords an opportunity to rehearse political and social identities. Music offers a workout for the political imagination, fashioning novel collectivities and thus demonstrating that culture can be a force for alliances across identity boundaries, rather than imprisoning us within them.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick once observed that for all the talk of differences, it is striking how few tools we have for recognizing the myriad ways in which people differ from one another: “A tiny number of inconceivably coarse axes of categorization have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thought: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are pretty much the available distinctions.”20 In Questions, the effort to expand the theorist's toolbox is evident in several essays that explore time and space as bases for cultural identity. Lawrence Grossberg's essay partakes of the increasing enthusiasm among political and cultural theorists for exploring ways in which space inscribes ideology into our daily environments.21 Expressing doubts that identity can continue to “define the appropriate models and sites of political struggles,” Grossberg proposes to distinguish identity from agency, seeing agency as conditioned less by physical characteristics than by the ability to access spaces and places and mobilize within them. Thus “different maps of spatial existence” may be more useful in accounting for the Los Angeles riots than ethnic and racial divisions, “since the ethnic identifications were often mistaken in their simplicity” (101). Conversely, an essay by Homi Bhabha focuses on time as a candidate for charting social divisions. Bhabha addresses what Arjun Appadurai once called the “hegemony of Eurochronology,”22 showing how Europeans use time as a criterion of worth in identifying social collectives and judging between them. In particular, Bhabha gestures towards liberal multiculturalism which, despite its urgent desire to pay respect to other cultures, vitiates the concept of respect by first refusing to recognize as a culture anything that does not meet a certain standard of longevity.23

Bhabha's work points to the popularity of time as a determinant of identity. We have grown accustomed to a terminology that recognizes other societies by their position in the flow of history. Are they postcolonial or neocolonial, upstream or downstream from postmodernism, developing or developed? Such descriptions are governed by a perception of time as a constant stream moving in only one direction. In one of the most original contributions to this collection, Marilyn Strathern offers a reading of kinship that requires rethinking how we talk about time. The context for Strathern's discussion is the new reproductive technologies and their effects on the way we draw on blood relations to establish our identity. If advances in techniques of fertilization have produced innovative family forms, permitting the so-called “virgin births,” they have simultaneously extended the options for creating traditional families, since more couples can have children. Instead of moving us from traditional to modern kinship arrangements, technologies of reproduction and genetic typing have created more tradition and more innovation. Strathern's analysis takes the straight arrow of time and bends it round into the shape of a U, inviting us to imagine that we are at both ends of the continuum at the same time. The beauty of this move is that it promises to halt the debate between those who stress the boom in authentic, stable identities, and those who point instead to the arrival of forms of “symbolic ethnicity” and see a public engaged in opportunistically trading one identity for another, like costumes off a peg. Perhaps, as Strathern suggests, there is simply more of everything.

If people seem to need identities, or at least to need the political capital that accrues to those in possession of the right identity, do theorists need the concept of identity? They do according to Hall, who poses this question in the essay that opens this anthology. Theorists, he suggests, need identity as a placemarker for something we do not know, a missing link between two larger problematics we know quite a bit about. For Hall, this missing link is the relationship between institutional life and the interior landscapes of the self. For other thinkers, identity might stand for what is unknown about the meshings of power and resistance, culture and politics. However this missing link is conceived, each of the essays in this volume do their part to make identity less recognizable, so as to remind us that identity stands for something we do not yet fully understand. Hall's own way of defamiliarizing identity is the deceptively simple suggestion that we shift focus from “identity” to examining the process of “identification,” including both the way people are discursively interpellated into certain positions, and the process by which people are brought to invest in or contest their assigned positions. Turning the noun into a verb has the advantage of transforming identity into something more precarious and variable, making it seem less like a fully furnished house in which we simply take up residence.24 However, the task of putting identity in question cannot rest there. When we identify someone as black or when we self-identify that way, what is it that we think we know or do not need to ask about the feelings, cognitions, cultural preferences and political agendas of that person? What, if anything, are we entitled to presume?


Psychoanalysts distinguish between “identifying as,” the act whereby one recognizes persons or objects (including oneself) as a member of a category, and “identifying with,” a mode of relating oneself to other people that spans the gamut from empathy and imitation to wholesale commitment and internalization.25 In the oversimplified terms of identity politics, the act of identifying as African American, for example, is presumed to command an automatic identification with other African Americans and to pose self-evident barriers to identifying with members of other races. Not only does the complexity of people's multiple identifications make nonsense of this claim, but the categories themselves do not always function in ways consistent with their key attributes. Cherríe Moraga, a Chicana lesbian feminist theorist, once wrote that her lesbian self-identification turned her white in the eyes of many Chicanos for whom homosexuality was a corruption introduced by Europeans.26 Here a sexual identification behaves like a racial one. Or take Gloria Anzaldua's description of what it means for Chicanos to talk of being Mexican: “Deep in our hearts we believe that being Mexican has nothing to do with which country one lives in. Being Mexican is a state of soul—not one of mind, not one of citizenship.”27 Here we have a territorial, juridical identity experienced in the intimate, poetic terms more often reserved for moral discourse about the self. The problem is that the relatively few axes we use to locate ourselves and others, to predict behavior and intuit attitudes—race, religion, nationality and so forth—are themselves unstable and impossibly simplistic. Using gender to understand a person's political affiliations or cultural agenda is like using a map of the continents to find one's way around a small town in Texas. Supposing we were to reverse the order of inquiry and, instead of starting with identity, start with the ideas, feelings, tastes and behaviors that bind and divide us?

This approach describes the argument developed in William Miller's Anatomy of Disgust. Miller tracks the emotion of disgust across vast territories, from the way it regulates moral domains, to its role in love and sexual relations, to its appearance as a key site of tension between the bourgeoisie and the working classes in the writings of George Orwell. In so doing, Miller offers ways we might learn from culture to do politics, a point to which I shall return later. More profoundly, Miller's work hints that the way we define disgust reveals a fundamental aversion to making connections with other people. Many of the norms of civility that society evolves seem from this perspective designed to keep other people at a safe distance. What Miller uncovers about disgust in social and political arenas is, in other words, a salutary corrective to the assumption that identifying with other people is either predictable or easy.

Among the collection of emotions we use to record negative reactions, such as fear, horror, irritation and contempt, disgust is a heavyweight because the rejection of the disgusting object is registered in highly physical ways. The first half of Miller's book examines the qualities and substances most likely to provoke such a strong reaction. Sliminess, stickiness, greasiness are disgusting, as are the creatures that embody these qualities—snakes, newts, and the like. Excrement, semen, menstrual blood, skin lesions oozing with pus were as repellent to people in the Middle Ages as they are now. From Miller's fascinating documentation of the visual, tactile properties of disgust's domain, a striking theme emerges. Those things that disgust hold the potential to disturb the boundaries between self and other. Objects that are greasy and slimy disgust because they stick to us, disturbing the body's ability to separate itself from its external environment. Likewise, substances such as excrement and menstrual blood upset the body's intactness from within, breaching the fragile encasement of the skin that keeps our insides from leaching into the external world. Rotting vegetation, a standing pool, a teeming swamp occasion disgust not because they are sites of decay, but because they intolerably mix life with death, drawing attention to the way in which our own bodies may become in death the compost for future life forms. Miller's survey of disgust builds to a bold conclusion: other people are capable of arousing disgust simply by virtue of being other and thereby threatening the illusion of a self-bounded, self-constituted self: “The closer you get to me without my consent or without readily discernible justification or excuse, the more alarming, dangerous, disgusting you become, even without considering your hygiene. … Contamination, pollution and the capacity to disgust are inherent in your youness. You are dangerous simply by being you and not me” (50-51). It may be useful to read this argument alongside Jonathan Dollimore's observation that forms of prejudice against people of a particular identity may be a defense against “an interconnectedness so radical that most societies believing in the Individual, Man and Human Nature have to disavow it.” Accordingly, “discrimination may operate not in spite of our sameness, but because of it; sameness, far from being what (e.g.) the racist or the homophobe simply fails to see—that which, when recognized, will disarm him or her (‘can't you see, we're all the same really, the same underneath?’)—can become the focus of racism and homophobia.”28

In the final chapters Miller considers how disgust enters into social and political hierarchies through a close reading of The Road to Wigan Pier, the book in which George Orwell, a middle class Englishman with socialist leanings, recounts his experiences living with the homeless. An insight Orwell culled from his journey into the slums and back streets of London was that no matter how much the bourgeoisie extolled the proletariat and trumpeted their egalitarian objectives, a fundamental revulsion remained for the working classes' personal and social habits. “The real secret of class distinctions in the West” writes Orwell, “the real reason why a European of bourgeois upbringing, even when he calls himself a Communist, cannot without a hard effort, think of a working man as his equal … is summed up in four frightful words. The lower classes smell” (qtd. in Miller, 240). Hierarchies backed by an embodied repulsion like disgust remain firm in the face of the most enlightened calls for solidarity. “Table manners,” Miller remarks, “are now sufficient to stop political movements dead in their tracks” (241-42).

Why should differences in hygiene or the sight of someone slurping their soup produce such a strong, visceral response in Orwell and his middle class peers—why did such sights not merely irritate or offend? Miller answers this in part by describing an encounter with a builder he hired to work on his house. As Miller returns home, the builder pauses to ask Miller's wife scornfully “Is he a teacher?” before continuing his work with marked indifference. Miller styles this attitude of barely suppressed derision “upward contempt” given that it is directed by those low in social hierarchies at those who are placed above them. The emotion that this encounter generated in Miller was quite different. The author felt disgust for the workman, for his tattoos and his ill-fitting jeans, and it is in exploring his own decidedly improper response that he clarifies for us how disgust operates politically. Miller's disgust is not prompted simply by the class trappings of the builder, but appears when the open contempt displayed by the workman threatens his superior status as a white collar professional. Disgust, then, is engendered less by “inferior” cultural practices than by the perception that the lowly are moving out of place to menace the position of the high. It was not until the advent of democratic principles that questioned the subordination of the working class, Miller observes, that the latter “began to reek seriously” (254). This answer returns us to the theme of the first half of the book. It is the commingling of things that should remain separate that most powerfully provokes disgust, the intermixing of death and generation, self and other, the high and the low.

Before considering the implications of this argument, it is worth stressing what Miller gains by organizing his inquiry to begin with an emotion rather than with an identity. By starting with disgust, Miller produces different maps of the polity and of the body. Instead of the routinely raced and sexed body, we have Miller's taxonomy of various body parts—skin, hair and orifices—in terms of the amount of disgust they are subject to, producing a kind of chart of the culturally charged “hot spots” on the body's surface. Tracking disgust across the body politic may similarly locate the social hot spots of contention, revealing which boundaries, by virtue of the disgust their crossing inspires, are felt to be most at risk. More than this, by beginning with disgust and ending with class, Miller foregrounds the potential discrepancy between the identifications that win our political and moral allegiance, and the identifications we live in practice. Orwell's story of a zeal for equality thwarted by a middle class upbringing is not a new story, but it is one that is not sufficiently registered in theory. Too often, everyday practices are viewed as the behavior that must be brought into line with the theoretical commitments one has made. Yet practice is often a way into (and out of) political allegiances, and not merely the labor that must commence after the idea has been embraced. Practices are themselves a mode of discovering, learning and revising, not simply the drudges that plod after theory, implementing its insights.

Yet we might wonder, after this survey of the misanthropic expressions of disgust, where this leaves us with regard to coalition making. If class hierarchies may be powered by disgust, if other people carry an inherent potential or evoke disgust simply by being other and not self, how are connections, relationships of any kind ever made? And how are we to lift these impressively visceral barriers? Not that disgust is entirely incompatible with connection, a fact that surfaces in Miller's discussion of desire. Because disgust by definition bars us from looking at or even touching certain objects or people, it invests these creatures with all the allure of the forbidden on which desire depends. Translated into the social realm, the symbiosis of desire and disgust may shed light on the practice of “slumming,” the fascinations of rubbernecking, not to mention the kind of repelled fascination for the Orient exhibited by imperialist adventurers like Kipling and Lawrence. Of course, the intertwining of disgust with desire is hardly a good basis for sorties across identity lines, given that the desire to cross the line depends on the other remaining alluringly disgusting. However, Miller goes further. Disgust, he suggests, is not just compatible with desire, it may have a defining role in relationships of love. Entry into a love relationship requires a scaling back of disgust. Whether the loved one is a parent or partner, we tend to grant them special prerogatives to be disgusting and demand that they reciprocate. For Miller, it is precisely these special dispensations that help to confirm the uniqueness of the relationship, identifying it as love rather than something more casual.

Does this mean that the overcoming of a class prejudice might require political connections to take on the semblance of love? A strong version of this claim can surely not be supported. The definition of love depends in part on its remaining distinct from other kinds of relations. We could, however, speculate on the merits of understanding political relations to need a few of the traits that we routinely expect from personal affiliations. Consider that when a person chooses a love partner, we would not anticipate the choice to center exclusively on race or class (although such factors may certainly contribute), because a love relationship, we recognize, requires passion, commitment, and perhaps lifelong labor in close proximity. Yet we continue to talk as though political allegiances could be based solely on a racial identity or a sexual identity, even though such political relations, we recognize, require passion, commitment and very often lifelong labor in close proximity.

In sum, Miller's work offers an opportunity to apply the insights of culture to well-established foci of political attention such as class. Rather than simply abandoning cultural identity as Gitlin would have us do, one can choose to dig deeper into the complexities of identification in order to discover why certain cross-identity alliances are being made and why others seem unimaginable. One might use culture here to reinvent politics (rather than replace it) by allowing us to rethink the elements required of political versus personal connections. A discussion of the finely scaled and intricately overlapping sentiments that are in play in the political identifications and self-identifications we make are not matters likely to enter into the “sensible conversation” that Gitlin sought as a means of getting beyond identity politics. But perhaps they should be.


For Burke, identification was the most important political work a critical rhetor could perform. The task of identifying the ways in which discursive actors are rhetorically aligned with hegemonic forces, enrolled in armies they may be wholly unaware of having joined, was a necessary prelude to fashioning counterhegemonic perspectives.29 But identification, or in the current parlance “recognition” of our attachments to social groupings is a double-edged sword. Insofar as to “recognize” means to acknowledge something we have seen before, then the act of recognizing race, gender and the like, seems destined to hold us back from understanding more about how these identities work and in what contexts they are salient. Faulkner is a racist—enough said, because we know what that means. But do we? Does racism not have its own richly diverse repertoire of languages, degrees of intensity, varied rationales, emotions and memberships? An emphasis on recognition limits us to the fixed set of identities already salient to us. Christina Crosby has warned of the risks to theory when its subject matter is determined in advance. When theory is reduced to contemplating the facts that history already seems to have provided us with, “the relationship then between ‘the real’ and knowledge of the real, between ‘facts’ and theory, history and theory is occluded … theory becomes, as Althusser says, nothing but ‘historical methodology,’ a circularity in which only what is already known—differences, for example—can be seen.”30 So what might thinking differently about identity look like? How might we suspend the act of identification and permit what we do not know about identities to surface?

If we imagine identity as a sliding counter on a continuum stretching between culture and politics, then to date identity has been heavily tilted towards the culture end of that continuum. It is for this reason that Gitlin, defining culture narrowly, finds identity to be out of place in political arenas. However, identity and culture creep back in. Gitlin's quarrel proves to be less with identity per se, than with the threatened erosion of the identities he would conserve: America, and the Left. The contributors to Questions of Identity try a number of approaches designed to move identity closer to the political end of the continuum. In part, this effort involves looking past the racial, sexual and class identifications we recognize to new connections based on time and space that we may not have imagined. In part, the contributors show us that culture and politics are themselves in motion, terms that direct us to varying sets of practices and ideas. Finally, Miller's exploration of disgust shows us that culture still has much to teach us about how we do politics. Returning to the microcosm of daily interactions, his analysis of an emotion adds to our knowledge of how political identifications are enhanced or impeded, and suggests what we still need to understand about forming connections with other people in order to construct lasting, effective political alliances.

When Descartes enumerated the six primitive passions of the soul, he chose to deal first with the concept “wonder,” which he defined as “a sudden surprise of the soul causing it to consider with attention those objects which seem to it novel and unexpected.” Wonder was for Descartes the faculty that made philosophy and the sciences possible; those, he noted ominously, who lack this passion “are usually very ignorant.”31 Descartes's description of wonder as the kind of powerful surprise that can transfix the soul and immobilize the body reminds me of President Clinton, whose confident journey towards the familiar face of a united America appeared to be derailed by the sight of his audience, causing his rhetoric to circle and fixate on the insurmountable fact of diversity. In another context, Stephen Heath speculated that an attitude of wonder and the willingness to concede what is unknown, might be a necessary antidote to the will to power in knowledge.32 In the sphere of identity, one might posit that the willingness to be surprised by what one sees must be retained to balance the homogenizing force of a recognition. If “identity” is not to become a slogan foreclosing on future inquiry, then our capacity to bestow recognition must be paired with a readiness to withdraw it, putting identity back in question.


  1. Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1994) 25.

  2. President William Clinton, “Remarks by the President at University of California at San Diego Commencement,” 14 June 1997, online posting.

  3. Jenny Bourne, “Homelands of the Mind: Jewish Feminism and Identity Politics,” Race & Class 24 (1987): 1.

  4. Bourne 3.

  5. Jennifer Wicke, “Postmodern Identities and the Politics of the (Legal) Subject,” Boundary 2 19 (1992): 32. Note that Wicke is summarizing criticisms of postmodernist work, not endorsing them.

  6. George Will, “Literary Politics,” Newsweek 22 April 1991: 72; Frank Lentricchia, “Goodbye to All That: A Literary Critic Turns in His Badge.” Lingua Franca 6 (1996): 59-67.

  7. Nancy Fraser, “From Redistribution to Recognition? Dilemmas of Justice in a ‘Post-Socialist’ Age,” New Left Review 212 (1995): 68-93.

  8. Iris Young, “Unruly Categories: A Critique of Nancy Fraser's Dual Systems Theory,” New Left Review 222 (1997): 154.

  9. See, e.g., Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Motives (Berkeley: U of California P, 1950).

  10. John Bender and David E. Wellbery, eds., The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1992).

  11. Edwin Black, “Idioms of Social Identity,” Rhetorical Questions: Studies of Public Discourse (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992) 21-51.

  12. Richard Sennett, “The Rhetoric of Ethnic Identity,” The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice 205.

  13. For examples of feminist scholarship interrogating the essentialism of identity politics, see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference (New York: Routledge, 1989); Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1991); and a special issue of the journal Differences (1989) on essentialism. For work that tackles the dangers of dismissing identity altogether in an effort to be strictly antiessentialist, see Susan Bordo, “Feminism, Postmodernism, and Gender-Scepticism,” Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990) 133-56; Anthony K. Appiah, “African Identities,” Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics, ed. Linda J. Nicholson and Steven Seidman (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995) 103-15; and Tania Modleski, Feminism without Women (New York: Routledge, 1991). An introduction to work on the metaphoric status of “race” and the shifting communities it describes is Henry Louis Gates Jr., Race, Writing, and Difference (Chicago: U. of Chicago P, 1986). See also Kobena Mercer, “‘1968’: Periodizing postmodern politics and identity,” Cultural Studies, ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula A. Treichler (New York: Routledge, 1992) 424-37; and Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, “De Margin and De Centre,” Screen 29 (1988): 2-11.

  14. Liz Bondi, “Locating Identity Politics,” Place and the Politics of Identity, ed. Michael Keith and Steve Pile (New York: Routledge, 1993) 97.

  15. Queer politics celebrates vagrancy and a mission to interfere in many of the sedimented frames of identity politics. According to Michael Warner, “For both academics and activists, ‘queer’ gets a critical edge by defining itself against the normal rather than heterosexual, and normal includes normal business in the academy.” Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1993) xxvi.

  16. See, for example, Donna Haraway's widely cited essay that critiques attempts to infer a politics or an epistemology from a framework of gender or class, exclusively. Donna Haraway, “Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-108.

  17. David Simpson, “The Cult of ‘Conversation’,” Raritan 16 (1997): 75-85.

  18. Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 by Michel Foucault, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980) 190.

  19. Paul Gilroy, Small Acts: Thoughts on the Politics of Black Culture (New York: Serpent's Tail, 1993) 23-29.

  20. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: U of California P, 1990) 22.

  21. For an introduction to work on space and identity, see Michael Keith and Steve Pile eds., Place and the Politics of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1993).

  22. Arjun Appadurai, “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Economy,” The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993) 269-96.

  23. Bhabha's example is Charles Taylor's casual exclusion of “partial cultures” from his discussion of multiculturalism, confining his attention to cultures that have animated societies over long periods of time. See Charles Taylor, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984) 66.

  24. Refocusing inquiry on “identification” also places Stuart Hall squarely in Burkean territory. The dialogue that this paper invites between cultural studies and rhetoric might begin with a fuller exploration of this term which appears central to both fields. For further examples of rhetorical approaches to identity, see Christine Oravec, “Kenneth Burke's Concept of Association and the Complexity of Identity,” The Legacy of Kenneth Burke, ed. Herbert W. Simons and Trevor Melia (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1984) 174-95; Michael C. McGee, “In Search of ‘the People’: A Rhetorical Alternative,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 61 (1975): 235-49; Philip Wander, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory,” Central States Speech Journal 35 (1984): 197-216; Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the People Québécois,Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (1987): 133-50; and, most recently, Barbara Biesecker, Addressing Postmodernity: Kenneth Burke, Rhetoric, and a Theory of Social Change (Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1997) esp. 40-51.

  25. Jean Laplanche and J. B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: W. W. Norton, 1973) 205-6.

  26. Cherríe Moraga, “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, ed. Teresa de Lauretis (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1986) 184.

  27. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987) 62.

  28. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 229.

  29. Frank Lentricchia, Criticism and Social Change (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983) 148-50.

  30. Christina Crosby, “Dealing with Differences,” Feminists Theorize the Political, ed. Judith Butler and Jean W. Scott (New York: Routledge, 1992) 136-37.

  31. René Descartes, Descartes' Philosophical Writings, trans. Norman Kemp Smith (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1952) 308-11.

  32. Stephen Heath, “Male Feminism,” Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Routledge, 1987) 29-30.

Nicola Evans is Assistant Professor in the Department of Speech Communication, Indiana University, Bloomington. The author is greatly indebted to John Lucaites for his critiques of earlier drafts of this paper, and thanks Diana Pritchard and Leslie Jarmon, for many helpful comments. A special thanks also to the students who took part in a seminar on identity politics and poetics at the Department of Speech Communication, 1995-96.

Steve Weinberg (review date 21 March 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946

SOURCE: Weinberg, Steve. “Don't Touch that Dial.” Christian Science Monitor (21 March 2002): 17.

[In the following review of Media Unlimited, Weinberg recounts Gitlin's various approaches to dealing with media saturation.]

Almost all the nonjournalists I know complain about how the media portray their neighborhood, city, state, nation, or planet in a distorted way. Yet those same complainants quote information from the media all the time, as if it were accurate. How else, for example, do most of us know anything about the US military pursuit of Osama bin Laden, except through the media?

This predicament is heightened by the failure of so many nonjournalists (and many journalists, as well) to distinguish among the thousands of media outlets. Lumping together the CBS Evening News, the Washington Post, the Columbia Missourian,The Nation magazine, the National Review magazine, the Oprah Winfrey talk show, MTV, ESPN, NPR's All Things Considered,, and a website sponsored by special forces veterans in a discussion of the media is absurd. Yet many otherwise intelligent individuals do just that.

Now comes Todd Gitlin, a commentator on the media, with a book [Media Unlimited] (itself part of the media mix) that hopes to change the terms of the discussion. Gitlin thinks broadly, as suggested by his New York University professorship in “culture, journalism, and sociology.” He tells us that he once tried to explain the place of the media in the contemporary world by writing articles and books about the rise of happy-talk news; coverage of specific wars; portrayals of gays and ethnic minorities; the impact of media mergers; and images of O. J. Simpson, Monica Lewinsky, and the Princess of Wales.

“Each time,” Gitlin says, “I started with a subject of some currency and hoped to see it as part of a whole field.”

Sounds sensible, yes? For a long time, Gitlin thought so, too. But a parable about a customs officer observing a suspected smuggler helped refocus his attention. Each time the suspect pulled into the border station, the officer searched the truck for contraband. He never found anything. Finally, nearing retirement, the customs officer said, “I'm leaving now; I swear to you I can do you no harm. Won't you please tell me what you've been smuggling?” The driver responded, “Trucks.”

Gitlin says that a similar truth eluded him and others discussing the media. The commentators look for the contraband (distortion, inaccuracy, political agendas, greed, etc.) but miss the truck, “the immensity of the experience of media, the sheer quantity of attention paid, the devotions and rituals that absorb our time and resources.”

“The obvious but hard-to-grasp truth,” Gitlin asserts, “is that living with the media is today one of the main things human beings do.”

How to grasp the enormous impact of media supersaturation should be the topic of the day, Gitlin now believes. He does not offer a prescription for sanity. Rather, he provides an analysis of the various approaches that individuals adopt to keep from drowning in a media-filled world:

  • • The fan focuses on celebrities from Britney Spears to Tom Brokaw. Stars are by consensus already popular, so the fan chooses a conservative approach, focusing on people famous by consensus. The fan's world is emotional, visceral, tied to the fame of the celebrities. Fans are not interested in carving out lives of their own; they can live vicariously instead.
  • • The content critic is the mirror image of the fan. As Gitlin explains, “Where the fan works by affirmation, the content critic works by aversion.” Fans gravitate toward what they admire. Content critics stay away from what they find distasteful. A white supremacist, for instance, might stay away from television programs featuring African-Americans.
  • • The paranoid believes that “they” are subtly programming the masses to follow as sheep. So the paranoid tries to screen out all media images thought to contribute to control.
  • • The exhibitionist glories in media exposure by, say, setting up a website with suggestive photographs, calling in every day to a radio talk show, or waving at every camera in view. As Gitlin says, “Commanding the attention of spectators, the exhibitionist achieves some exemption from the anonymity of the [media] torrent, some power apparently without risk.”
  • • The ironist “surfs with ease and without commitment, amused, and amused to be amused. He or she can enjoy the spectacle on two levels at once, or alternate between them—as a faux-naïf fan (who always liked the smile of that faded star) and as a knowing insider (who knows that the faded star started touring again because she was broke).”
  • • The jammer wants to show that an individual can stand up to the media, can alter images and thus, in some way, redistribute power. Jammers try to interrupt business as usual, unfurling a banner with a contrary political message in the midst of a campaign rally or hacking into a bank's security system.
  • • The secessionist turns away, refusing to watch TV, buy a cellphone, or use e-mail.
  • • The abolitionist wants to rid society of mass media, asserting that the tranquilizing effect is wrecking the human spirit and introducing ennui into a democratic system of governance.

Gitlin isn't interested in ranking these approaches, though he clearly regards some as more responsible than others. What he wants is to inspire a fundamentally different assessment of the way we live.

“I propose that we stop—and imagine the whole phenomenon freshly, taking the media seriously as more than a cornucopia of wondrous gadgets or a collection of social problems, but as a central condition of an entire way of life. Perhaps if we step away and stare at the whole, we will know what we want to do about it besides change channels.”


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