Sunday, January 8, 2006

Q&A Todd Gitlin: Patriot acts


Originally appeared in the Boston Globe

The onetime president of SDS calls on liberals of his generation to embrace an older form of patriotism

By Harvey Blume

IN 1963, Todd Gitlin was president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the main vehicle for student activism during the '60s. Gitlin's landmark account of those years, "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" (1987), along with seven other books--including his 1999 novel, "Sacrifice"--and innumerable shorter pieces, constitute engagé writing at its best. What you get from Gitlin is the convergence of a deep political culture with a sharp sense of urgency.

You'll find both in the title chapter of his new book, "The Intellectuals and the Flag" (Columbia). Gitlin calls for liberals who came of age, as he did, during the war in Vietnam, to get over their aversion to the stars and stripes. Post-9/11 America, in his view, not only allows for but requires a strong dose of liberal patriotism.

Now a professor of journalism at Columbia University, Gitlin's own version of that patriotism is instructive. By the end of the '60s, as the war in Vietnam continued to escalate, SDS disintegrated into opposing factions. Burn-out and extremism were common responses. Gitlin avoided both by drawing on an older tradition of radicalism, exemplified by the sociologists C. Wright Mills and David Riesman and the literary critic Irving Howe. In the new book, Gitlin shows that despite vast differences among them, these thinkers could make trenchant criticisms of the United States without succumbing to anti-Americanism. Gitlin believes this ability--the absence of which, he argues, fatally disfigures the work of Noam Chomsky, among others--is an essential ingredient of the patriotism he stands for.

While Gitlin vehemently opposed the invasion of Iraq, he does not believe that "bring the troops home!"--the key slogan of Vietnam-era protests--is automatically transferable to Iraq now. Gitlin's is a patriotism that does not dodge complexity.

IDEAS: You opposed the invasion of Iraq, but you're not convinced that a Vietnam-style solution--withdrawal--makes sense?

GITLIN: True. With respect to Vietnam, we always knew that it was a matter of when, not if, with respect to America withdrawal--a question of how many Vietnamese would still be alive. But the Iraq situation is different. It's a measure of the awfulness of administration policy that none of the outcomes are pretty or predictable. And I take the point that once you go in, you're not morally entitled to simply walk away.

IDEAS: You inveigh against what you call left-wing fundamentalism in the book. Why?

GITLIN: I'm talking about people who always have one answer to the mysteries of the world: Namely, find the American dogs, they've done it again. There's a tremendous intellectual laziness to this position. It's automatic thinking--much of it coming out of Cambridge, Mass., by the way--that evades the turmoil and confusion of the world. It's an intellectual cheat.

IDEAS: But what power does left-wing fundamentalism have to change anything?

GITLIN: No political power. But it does have obstructive power. It interferes with a thought process we would benefit from.

The reason I contrast left-wing fundamentalists with Howe, Riesman, and Mills, is that those guys all aspired to a large view of how America works. They were very much living in this country. The fundamentalist left lives in the stratosphere; it's a stratosphere left.

IDEAS: You maintain that liberals, in effect, have their own version of Vietnam Syndrome, the belief that America can never be right to resort to force.

GITLIN: The left developed an anti-patriotic melodrama in the '60s, but should have learned since that there are occasions that fall outside that story, times in which the impulse to intervene is not a matter of extending American power. That was true in Kosovo. Had we gone in, it would have been true of Rwanda. What makes intervention in Darfur extremely unlikely is the commitment in Iraq; we don't have much of an army left.

IDEAS: When you discuss citizenship, why does the word "sacrifice" comes up so often?

GITLIN: Citizenship, yeah. I'm old-fashioned in thinking there are citizenly virtues which amount to moral virtues, which can't be shunted aside, and for which there is no magic solvent, like the Internet, which presumably would enable me to conduct my politics without ever leaving my chair.

I spent a couple of weeks lecturing in China this fall. In most audiences there were a few students who had a passionate need to know how the world goes. They took seriously that they had an obligation to save China. I speak to a lot of audiences in the States, and don't see that kind of desire and commitment, which is what brought me into the student movement in the first place. In our time, it's the right that has been able to mobilize it.

But it's a long pull. The people who set out to reinvent the right in the early '60s were eventually rewarded, but it took them 20 years.

IDEAS: "Sacrifice" also happens to be the title of your only novel.

GITLIN: As you know from that book, I'm fascinated by the Abraham-Isaac story, by Abraham's appalling willingness to sacrifice his son. That's the dark side of sacrifice.

Sacrifice means to make sacred. In a secular way, I preserve the majesty of the idea, but warn against taking it literally. If we render something sacred by destroying it, we've defeated ourselves. The serious person becomes a fanatic, and the fanatic becomes a murderer. It's a theme that I picked up from Camus when I was a teenager. It's the holy people who are most dangerous.

Harvey Blume is a freelance writer based in Cambridge.


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