Political movements on the liberal and left side of the spectrum often suffer from a born-yesterday syndrome, behaving as though they were spontaneously generated, without parentage, like a new Adam, as though utterly liberated from constraints of the past. Bursting recently on to the political scene with enormous energy and enthusiasm, and proliferating far and wide on the Internet, the so-called “netroots” activists often proudly claim to be a wholly new phenomenon. The innovative character of the Internet contributes to the sensation of novelty. Even the 1990s, much less preceding decades, are ignored or dismissed as irrelevant to the heated controversies of the present. Like almost everything else, this blithe attitude, too, has a past. In the 1960s, many activists rejected the wisdom of elders because it seemed to be the tarnished product of ancient battles of the old left and the Cold War. Now, people with hard-won experience in social and political movements and who have grappled with the questions that perplex modern day activists remain unknown to or unacknowledged by those that might profit most from them.
Ladies and gentlemen, Todd Gitlin. Perhaps you have read one of his thought-provoking commentaries or groundbreaking books. Todd is not only one of the most notable activists of our time but also a model of the kind of public intellectual frequently bemoaned to be lacking on the scene. Engaged yet skeptical, he is intellectually honest, rigorously analytical, and a shining example of open and tough mindedness.
Todd is one of the great teachers, on the faculty of the Columbia University School of Journalism, and we are all his students. Long ago, he originated the concept of how mainstream media “frames” events, political leaders and movements for its own purposes, fostering stereotypes and false narratives. In his book, “The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left,” he discussed the media treatment of the New Left and its effect in highlighting its most extreme elements, elevating certain characters into celebrities, and isolating public understanding of the movement as a response to official policy on the Vietnam War.
In his subsequent “Inside Prime Time,” during the 1980s, after the rise of Reagan and the dominance of the right, Todd entered into the world of TV entertainment, writing one of the most provocative studies on how network TV programming was then produced, focusing on the then exceptional TV drama, “Hill Street Blues,” a show that defied the conventions of conservative kitsch that even today prevail in mass culture. Then, before the true emergence of the Internet as a cultural and political force, in his book, “Media Unlimited,” Todd described the dizzying over-saturation of media that creates political and psychological confusion and chaos and demands “navigational styles.” Here, he seemed almost to be begging for the development of a new media to provide guidance to the old.
But Todd is hardly a mere academic. Before the current generation stampeded on to the stage, he organized, walked the streets and spoke eloquently at rallies. In 1963, Todd was elected president of Students for a Democratic Society. At the crest of the liberalism of the 1960s, before the fall, SDS’s slogan for the 1964 election was “Part of the Way With LBJ.” A year after Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory, Todd led the first demonstration against the Vietnam War. Just as Hillary Clinton was writing her senior thesis at Wellesley on Saul Alinsky and decades before Barack Obama joined an Alinsky community organizing group, Todd moved to Chicago, to a poor white neighborhood, to explore as an organizer the potential of a biracial movement of the underclass, writing his analysis of the mixed results in “Uptown.”
Everyone, but everyone, should read Todd’s classic work, “The Sixties: Years of Hope and Days of Rage,” his extraordinary, invaluable and essential account of the movements and events whose legacy still imprints the present. No activist should proceed without having it in his or her backpack. “The Sixties” is exhilarating, inspirational, depressing, and cautionary. Todd writes vividly, thinks hard and learns lessons.
In the 1990s, as the battle lines were drawn between the Clinton presidency and the Gingrich led Republican Congress, Todd produced “The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars.” In this prescient work, Todd analyzed the attack by the right on the public interest and common good and sensed the coming assault of the impeachment trial, the crescendo of the culture war.
Todd’s deconstruction of the collapse of the Washington press corps during the impeachment drama was unflinching, precise and thorough. Before its disgraceful complicity with the administration of George W. Bush, Todd dissected in the Washington Monthly the media’s “Starr struck” complicity with the right-wing prosecutor. His conclusion, though he could not know it, forecast worse to come from the mainstream media:
Barry Goldwater, were he alive, would bask in prophetic glory. In 1961, he proposed to chop off the Eastern Seaboard. Today, no axe would be required, for the Washington-New York media brain stem has cut itself loose from the rest of the country by its own hand. For the better part of a year, watchdogs and pundits have nipped at the presidential underwear, exposed it, analyzed it, and in the process stained themselves. The Washington news establishment’s investment in the tawdry story has contributed to the nation’s disinvestment in them – disgust, anger, and a limp feeling that the national weal has been abducted by aliens.
Public anger at the press is the good news – the only good news during the months of this miserable spectacle that brought back the pillory and the stocks as instruments of jurisprudence, permitted a Javertian prosecutor to paralyze democratic government, and turned American politics and journalism into an international joke, or worse.
Just after the terrible terrorist attacks of September 11, Todd, like I did, and many Americans, instinctively and defiantly hung flags on our front porches. In that moment, partisanship faded deeply into the background. Tragically, George W. Bush abused and exploited the opportunity for national unity for narrow political advantage and war in Iraq. Todd’s book on the quandaries of the left, still afflicted with “suicidal” tendencies unlearned from the 1960s, and the corruption of the right and the Bush administration, “The Intellectuals and the Flag,” remains especially pertinent for an election year. Here, Todd counters Bush, Cheney, Rove, et al as those who do not represent true patrotism post-September 11:
“The era that began on September 11, 2001, would be a superb time to crack the jingoists’ claim to a monopoly of patriotic virtue…. Post-Vietnam liberals have an opening now, freed of our sixties flag anxiety and our automatic rejection fo the use of force. To live out a democratic pride, not a slavish surrogate, we badly need liberal patriotism, robust and uncowed… Patriotism, as always, remains to be lived.”
Now, in his new book, “The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals,” Todd distills the themes of a lifetime and shapes them into an analysis for the coming election campaign. In it, he describes the Republican Party, under the aegis of Rove, and how its “brutal efficiencies” have yoked the conservative movement to a disciplined political machine. After describing the history of the right and its relation to the GOP, and the particular messianic appeal and manipulations of George W. Bush, Todd turns his attention to the Democrats.
He has interviewed many of the leading figures of the “netroots” movement in his effort to figure out the potential beneficial relationship of this new factor to a revived Democratic Party. Todd’s view is tempered by his experience:
“In heaven, possibly, ideals speak for themselves—from their lips directly into the hearts of lesser beings. But on Earth ideals require translation, namely, action… The need for means is the requirement exacted by an unforgiving world, and in this requirement, and the possibility it creates of a fatal mismatch between ends and means, lies the taproot of political tragedy. Ideals are the necessary motives of practical action, but ideals without wherewithal are pipe dreams, and even worse, ideals yoked to the wrong means are likely as not to turn into nightmares.”
But Todd is the opposite of a pessimist. He is constantly seeking a path, using paradox and irony, and above all experience, through the wilderness. “Like movement conservatives of an earlier stripe, liberal activists would often rather be right than be president,” he writes. Yet both movement and party, activists and politicians, are necessary to each other, despite their tensions:
“I have been arguing that parties and movements are both indispensable and always to some degree uneasy with each other, for they work by opposing principles: movements aim to force or midwife something transcendent—something not-yet-existent—into existence, to convert energy into mass, say, while parties get results by converting existing mass into energy…. One short answer to the question of what happened to American politics after the sixties is that the right harnessed its movement to its party while the left did not do the equivalent.”
In his conclusion, Todd sets out the stakes we now face:
“If movements and party builders can make themselves at home in the big tent, if independents get off the rise they were taken on, if keen and honest Republicans keep cutting and running, the bullies can be defeated in time, as they were nourished in time. To keep the right corralled inside its stagnant, largely Confederate, base, and to keep order among the unruly populace inside the tent—all this is not the work of a single election, of a single movement, or of a wish or a wing or a prayer, but of generations.”
And a conversation with Todd Gitlin, on the Firedoglake Book Salon, is one small step in this long march.