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The Intellectuals and the Flag
The Intellectuals and the Flag
Todd Gitlin
Columbia University Press, 2005
192 pp., 105.00

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Allen C. Guelzo

Public Indecency

An intellectual and the flag.

In the days after September 11, 2001, Todd Gitlin did a strange thing: "My wife and I decided to hang an American flag from our terrace" in New York City. This hardly seems to have been a strange thing for a lot of other Americans. Commuting between Paoli and Princeton that fall, I saw flags festooning overpasses, flapping from car windows and antennae, even painted on bedsheets draped from houses. But it was strange for Gitlin, so strange that he was riveted by the spectacle of his own behavior. This, remember, was Todd Gitlin: one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society, chronicler of the Sixties, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia, and one of the poster boys for David Horowitz's "101 most dangerous academics in America." The only flag sds had ever revered was the North Vietnamese one. In 1969, Gitlin admits, "the American flag did not feel like my flag." And how could it, "when our people had committed genocide against the Indians, when the national history was enmeshed in slavery, when this experience of historic original sin ran deeper than any class solidarity, when it was what it meant to be American?"

And then, a few weeks later, Gitlin and his wife took the flag down. Between those two gestures lies the bulk of Gitlin's book, The Intellectuals and the Flag, and much of the agony of the American Left.

The American Left has always had difficulty understanding its own history, largely because there has never been anything you could call an American Right against which it could define itself. There was serious dissension about banks, corporations, and government sponsorship of commercial projects (road-building, canals, tariffs) throughout the decades between Jefferson and Lincoln. But apart from the American Tories and the most radical Calhounites, there was no serious American political movement in the early republic which dissented from liberal democracy or the premises of the Declaration of Independence or which thought monarchy was a good thing. Most of what passed for political debate was accusation and counter-accusation that someone was not taking democracy or the Declaration seriously enough.

As a result, there could be no American Left until liberalism itself had been defined as "the Right"—in other words, until Lockean liberalism and Jeffersonian democracy had ceased to be the gold standard and a completely different way of understanding social organization became a possibility. If the American Left needs a birthday to celebrate, it might be 1877 and the Homestead Strike; but a better candidate is the Pullman Strike of 1894, since Pullman was what thrust Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party onto front stage. The socialists of the fin-de-siècle—Debs, Daniel DeLeon, and "Big Bill" Haywood—still saw themselves as down-home American realists. But a vast amount of the energy which fueled the socialists, the Progressives, and even the New Dealers was the conviction that liberal democracy had failed at promoting a good society because it had mistakenly identified the primary needs of society as political ones, when the real needs were economic and social. Political equality was a sham in the absence of economic equality, and the liberal premise that political equality would foster equal economic access was dismissed as a clever attempt at giving a stone when what was asked for was bread. And with that consciousness, the real history of the American Left begins.

Not that the Left hadn't inadequacies of its own to explain. The most significant of these was the mysterious turn-out of the working classes to fight the European empires' wars in 1914 rather than to stage their own revolutions. This was a mystery which Gramsci and the Frankfurt Schoolers struggled to explain in terms of the success of capitalist cultural hegemony. Perhaps, then, it was not the rising of the workers which would achieve the rise of the Left, but a Leninist vanguard of some other sort. The Old Left had never had much use for vanguards, which usually took the form of intellectuals who had little commonality with the working class. But by the 1950s, the Old Left looked tired and unsuccessful, and so the turn to a new Left vanguard began.

Locating that vanguard did not turn out to be difficult. The 1930s witnessed a flood of émigré intellectuals from Europe to Britain and America, fleeing fascism. This exodus included the major lights of the European Left, who were grateful to find security and employment in American universities but appalled at how the rampant consumerism of American life had dulled the revolutionary edge of the American working class. It was not until they looked out over their classrooms—especially the classrooms swollen by the post-World War II democratization of American higher education—that the émigrés suddenly realized where the new vanguard would come from.1

Todd Gitlin entered Harvard in 1959 (as a math major), four years after Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization, three years after Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit and C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, and still in advance of Marcuse's most savage attack on liberal democracy in A Critique of Pure Tolerance (1965). In his elegant memoir, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), Gitlin remembered how it was at Harvard, rather than at the working-class barricades, that he was "swept up" into the New Left. In 1963, he became president of sds, the embodiment of the new student vanguard, with "the modest ambition of shaking America to its roots." Six years later, sds imploded into "screaming factions," and the New Left was as good as dead.2 Gitlin went on to take a master's degree in political science at the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in sociology from Berkeley, and in 1980 began chronicling the rise and fall of the New Left in The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left. He had published three further books (including The Sixties), lamenting the self-immolation of the New Left and the everywhere-triumph of the Right, and had been at work on a series of nostalgic essays about three of his intellectual heroes—David Reisman, Irving Howe and C. Wright Mills—when the jets flew into the Twin Towers.

"To tell the truth, September 11, 2001, jammed my mental circuits," Gitlin confesses. And well it may have, for 9/11 was the first time in Gitlin's living memory that the United States had been clearly, unambiguously, and without the slightest warning the subject of an attack that made no strategic sense, made no distinctions between innocent or guilty (whatever "guilty" would have meant), and had no other purpose than to strike as savage a blow as possible at the United States. And at him. No matter how else Gitlin defined himself, the hijackers of 9/11 saw in him only another American, and if he had been in the Twin Towers that morning rather than a mile north around Columbia, the rejoicing on the part of the jihadists would have been no less gleeful.

But it was not fear at realizing that he was as much a target as the fund managers in the Towers which Gitlin was surprised to find welling up inside him. It was love. He walked the perimeter of the still-smoking ruins three days later, and "in those awful days I found people—and a people to whom I belonged." The volunteers who showed up from hundreds of miles away astounded Gitlin, both for who they were and what they engendered in him: "I loved these strangers… and didn't feel mawkish about it." He read about the passengers and crew of Flight 93, who preferred to smash their plane and themselves into the earth rather than allow it to be turned into a weapon against their country, and it suddenly "dawned on me that patriotism was the sum of such acts." Like Hawthorne's Dimmesdale, who came away from his almost-liberating reunion in the forest with Hester Prynne asking himself Can this be joy?, Todd Gitlin was left wondering whether he was, for the first time in his life, experiencing patriotism.

This was a difficult awakening, as many other men and women of the Left made clear in the months after 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. Once it was announced that the Bush Administration did not intend to treat 9/11 as police action but as war, the old instincts came back in like the tide. The day after the Twin Towers went down, Noam Chomsky declared that 9/11 was no worse than the Clinton administration's 1998 bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical factory. Susan Sontag chimed in with the observation that the real terrorists were "those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky." On October 1, The Nation insisted that the 9/11 was really about "US missiles smashing into Palestinian homes and US helicopters firing missiles into a Lebanese ambulance in 1996 and American shells crashing into a village called Qana and about a Lebanese militia—paid and uniformed by America's Israeli ally—hacking and raping and murdering their way through refugee camps."3 If Todd Gitlin had been overtaken by one instinct, much of the Left had been overcome by a very different one.

It became so appallingly noxious that some on the Left recoiled in horror. Christopher Hitchens attacked "loose talk about chickens coming home to roost" as "hateful garbage."4 Michael Walzer furiously attacked the mindless reach for "ideological apology." Terror was not the "last resort… of oppressed and embittered people who have run out of options"; terror, he argued, was actually the first resort of terrorists. "Many of us on the American liberal-left have spent the bulk of our political lives opposing the use of violence by the U.S. government," Walzer acknowledged, and unhappily, the habit of opposition had created a mentality in which "exaggerated and distorted descriptions of American wickedness" had been raised to a level of moral equivalence to terrorism.5 Eventually, Walzer threw his hands in the air, and in the spring of 2002, he angrily asked, "Can There Be a Decent Left?" For half a century, he lamented, "the cold war, imperial adventures in central America, Vietnam above all" had produced "a pervasive leftist view of the United States as global bully, rich, privileged, selfish hedonistic, and corrupt beyond remedy." It was a mentality which, Walzer concluded, was "stupid, overwrought, grossly inaccurate," and which sprang from four sources: (1) the inability to let go of Marxism, (2) cultivating an illusion of powerlessness and alienation which, in turn, excused "willful irresponsibility and ineffectiveness," (3) the "moral purism" of "blaming America first," which for the Left acts as an effort to "lift ourselves above the blameworthy (other) Americans… standing as a righteous minority," but also standing alone, isolated, unconnected and emotionally neutered, and (4) equating sympathy with the oppressed with silence and excuses when the "oppressed" turn out to be authoritarian brutes.

The result was that, by the time of 9/11, "Many left intellectuals" behaved "like internal aliens, refusing to identify with their fellow citizens, regarding any hint of patriotic feeling as politically incorrect."6 No wonder Todd Gitlin was so surprised at Todd Gitlin.

The people who best exemplify genuine communalism in its most radically participatory and democratic forms are precisely the people with the least tolerance for "grooving on anything."

But, of course, like Dimmesdale's joy, it did not last long, and explaining why is what consumes most of The Intellectuals and the Flag. It is not a long book, and two-thirds of it actually sails by without a word on 9/11. But the parts are not unconnected. The first section is composed mostly of the essays on Reisman, Howe, and Mills, whose significance for this moment, Gitlin explains, lies in their willingness to translate Left political critique into practical political engagement. Since the mid-1970s (Gitlin explains in the second section), the Left has been outmaneuvered by an alliance of wealthy conservative plutocrats and right-wing Christian fundamentalists and has retreated to the Last Stand Hill of the universities and postmodernism. As a result, the Right has ended up holding most of the cards in the media and politics, while the Left digs itself deeper into academic irrelevance, and the culture has sunk ever more deeply into individualism, consumerism, and self-absorption. Real democracy is about civic engagement, "a community of mutual aid, a mesh of social connections" in which we have "to curb our individual freedoms" in which we put aside private interests to "build up relationships with other citizens." (Not, one wants to add, about the self-aggrandizing individuals who populate the liberal democratic imagination, and who only grudgingly emerge from the Lockean state of nature for the furtherance and protection of individual interests.) Gitlin's task in the third and last section of the book would be, somehow, to connect the dots between the social democracy he lauded in Reisman, Howe, and Mills and the patriotic epiphany he had experienced after 9/11.

Invocations of "community" always take us back (as they are intended) to the front-porch, town-meeting neighborhood of yesteryear, the kind of world Christopher Lasch described in his last book when he said that "self-governing communities, not individuals, are the basic units of democratic society."7 It is a kind of rhetoric which I have some difficulty crediting fully, since so much of the actual track record of the Left, from the Beats on forward, has looked surprisingly like an all-consuming obsession with the autonomous individual and scorn for front-porch, town-meeting life. Except that in this case, the individualism is cultural and moral, not political or, for that matter, very economic. (Marcuse, after all, had begun his critique of capitalist society by urging an attack on its Protestant-ethic foundations, and once the New Left's foot was planted in the bucket of culture, it never got it out). Perhaps Todd Gitlin lived in a different Sixties in Cambridge, Ann Arbor, and Berkeley, but my experience of the New Left and sds was that the new student vanguard wanted to escape the bonds of community, not embrace them. As Susan Sontag put it in 1969, "America is a cancerous society" which will only cure itself by "Rock, grass, better orgasms, freaky clothes, grooving on nature—really grooving on anything"; such liberation "unfits, maladapts a person for the American way of life," and that, Sontag believed, was a consummation devoutly to be wished.8

So the New Left, while it had the feel of Esau, spoke with the voice of Jacob; it was the voice, as Allan Bloom tellingly remarked, of the bourgeoisie needing to feel that it was not the bourgeoisie after all but rather a bohemian élite yearning for "dangerous experiments with the unlimited."9 By contrast, the people who best exemplify genuine communalism in its most radically participatory and democratic forms are precisely the people with the least tolerance for "grooving on anything"—the Amish, the Dokhoubors, and their spiritual kin. Bohemian (as well as Lockean) individualism will not sit comfortably beside social democracy. And to the extent that patriotism extends any further than sentimentality and in the direction of imposing real community responsibilities, the New Left always feared and resented it. Edmund Burke once said that "men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites." That is precisely what a long line of the New Left, from Norman Mailer to Bernadette Dohrn, showed no "disposition" to do. "To live our patriotism," Gitlin admits, "we would have… to overcome—selectively—some of the automatic revulsion we feel about laying aside for of our freedoms in the name of a higher duty. To be honest, it isn't clear to me how much of my own initiative I would gladly surrender for the common good."

Points for honesty, Todd, but no cigar. In the end, Gitlin took down his flag. It was too much, he explains, to see the Patriot Act dispose of civil liberties (although I am not sure how many Black Marias Gitlin has counted rolling through Manhattan), too much to see a "lazy ne'er-do-well, this duty-shirking know-nothing who deceived and hustled his way to power" in the Oval Office, too much to see "a supine media" bending over backwards to accommodate "apocalyptic Christians and anti-tax fanatics" (and what bubble must Gitlin live in, that he imagines "the media" to be even slightly accommodating to "apocalyptic Christians"). We now know how much automatic revulsion is actually required before Gitlin junks the "common good," and it doesn't seem to be much.

Can there be a decent Left? Walzer thought this would only happen (a) if the Left stopped turning the world into a cheap economic melodrama and went back to the 18th-century basics of "secular enlightenment, human rights, and democratic government," (b) if it stopped regarding "good bourgeois values… like temperance, moderation, and cleanliness" as the enemy of "radical politics or incisive social criticism," and (c) if it would, for once, treat other Americans as fellow citizens ("We can be as critical as we like, but these are people whose fate we share"). It is a hopeful sign that 9/11 could shake Todd Gitlin free to consider these possibilities seriously. But it is not encouraging that even such a catastrophe could only shake Gitlin free for a little while.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and director of the Civil War Era Studies program at Gettysburg College. He is at work on a book about the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858.

1. John Patrick Diggins, The Rise and Fall of the American Left (Norton, 1992), pp. 218-238.

2. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (Bantam, 1987), pp. 2-5.

3. Peter Beinart," Fault Lines," The New Republic (October 1, 2001); Gregg Easterbrook, "Profiles in Courage," The New Republic (online edition, October 2, 2001); Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Two Years of Gibberish," Prospect (September 2003).

4. Christopher Hitchens, "Against Rationalization," Minority Report (October 8, 2001).

5. Michael Walzer, "Excusing Terror," The American Prospect (October 22, 2001).

6. Michael Walzer, "Can There Be A Decent Left?" Dissent (Spring 2002).

7. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 1995), p. 8.

8. Susan Sontag, "Some Thoughts on the Right Way (for us) to Love the Cuban Revolution," Ramparts (April 1969).

9. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1987), p. 78.

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