Loyal Opposition

The Intellectuals and the Flag

Todd Gitlin

Columbia University Press, $24.95, 192 pp.

Every time I read something by Todd Gitlin, I realize again how much he and I have in common. We are roughly the same age and grew up Jewish. We were once both activists on the left (although Gitlin became president of Students for a Democratic Society while I never joined much of anything), and have since shifted, not to the right, but to a more moderate liberalism. Each of us has taught sociology, and both of us, unhappy with the professional direction of the field, try to practice social science in the spirit of David Riesman (The Lonely Crowd) and C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite). Indeed, both of us have written introductions for two of Mills’s classic texts.

Having read The Intellectuals and the Flag, I realize that we have one more thing in common: we both love the United States and despair of the man who currently serves as its president. The 1960s, which did so much to shape Gitlin (and me), were not years in which love of country was an easy emotion to summon. Assassinations, a botched war in Vietnam, urban conflagration, Spiro Agnew-none represented America at its best. Gitlin, and again I, watched as the New Left and the Black Panther Party, reacting to the turbulence of that time, lavished praise on totalitarian dictators and became apologists for violence. We saw extremism, and we were shocked by it.

Then the oddest thing happened. As we grew older and left behind some of the passions of the sixties, increasingly we came to appreciate an America that stood for liberty and could even, at times, promote equality. It is not that we were wild about such centrist Democratic presidents as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, but we knew that they were about the best we could hope for in a country that had also elected Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. An America capable of choosing the sincere Carter or the brilliantly frustrating Clinton was a society in which one could at least feel a strong sense of belonging.

What a surprise, then, to witness the return of extremist politics-only this time in the form of the New Right. Sometimes, indeed, it is literally those to the left of us in the 1960s who have moved to the right of us today. Gitlin and I had belonged to a leftist-oriented study group in Berkeley a couple of decades ago, and one of the other members was David Horowitz (Left Illusions), who would go on to become a fire-breathing conservative zealot. Horowitz perfectly captures the spirit that dominates so much of the Republican Party these days: a Len-in-ist-inspired conviction that the end justifies the means, a willingness to accuse those with whom one disagrees of hating America, a contempt for moderation and compromise, and a zeal to divide the world into good and evil, with good, needless to say, always on your own side.

It did not have to be that way. The Intellectuals and the Flag is structured around Gitlin’s experiences after September 11: living not far from the World Trade Center, Gitlin and his wife displayed a flag outside their apartment and this show of patriotism in turn made it into the New York Times when a reporter discovered it. Somewhat new to public expressions of patriotism, Gitlin reflects on its meaning and significance. Patriotism, he writes, is “unnerving” because it asks you to commit yourself to loyalties larger than yourself. If you believe in universal values such as social justice, moreover, you will experience a conflict between patriotism and justice when your country acts in an arrogant and imperial way. The best part of Gitlin’s book, which consists of many of the essays he has written in recent years, are his reflections on patriotism, especially his persuasive argument that love of one’s country ought to be accompanied by an egalitarian love of one’s countrymen. Neither Gitlin nor I can ever forget how we reacted instinctively to September 11, certain that our country, and thus our innocent countrymen, was attacked in the most brutal way by a real enemy against whom war had to be waged. We loved our country, and we loved being in love with our country.

George W. Bush is a difficult man to love. Gitlin is not sure whether Bush’s failed policies in Iraq and the polarization upon which he relies are due to deliberate lying or simple incompetence, but Gitlin has few doubts about the consequences. “I felt again,” he writes, “the old anger and shame at being attached to a nation-my nation-ruled by runaway bullies, indifferent to principle, playing fast and loose with the truth, their lives manifesting supreme loyalty to private (though government-slathered) interests yet quick to lecture dissenters about the merits of patriotism.”

Bush has not (yet) spawned an antiwar movement anything like the one that grew during the war in Vietnam. But there are a few signs of leftist revival visible around the country, and Gitlin, who likes to dissent from dissent, warns the American Left against any retreat into the violent and fantasy-driven politics of the 1960s and 1970s. For this task, he calls on the help of the social critics of an earlier time, especially Riesman, Mills, and the literary critic Irving Howe. At a time when “sociological writing has all the public appeal of molecular biology” (no doubt an unfair slap at molecular biology), it is both helpful and somewhat depressing to be reminded of a time when social scientists were more concerned with truth than tenure. Gitlin, at least in my opinion, is especially good on Mills, a writer I find a bit too self-righteous, even arrogant. But I was persuaded by Gitlin’s argument that Mills’s great contribution to social science was his ability to take institutional life seriously. We live at a time when the Right denigrates government and everyone else talks of personal liberation; Mills, in contrast, looked carefully at how big institutions actually worked. We lack at the present time scholars and intellectuals who can take their readers inside the corporation and the Pentagon as Mills did.

If the Left is going to be more effective in the future than it was in the past, it will also have to put behind it a certain academic faddism. Gitlin is not kind to postmodernism, “Frankfurt-style futilitarianism,” and other attempts by left-leaning scholars to develop jargon-filled theories that both reify power and reinforce powerlessness. Just as patriotism requires that we restrain our focus on the self, academic theorists, rather than positing utopias that have nothing to do with reality, ought to develop ways in which our freedoms can be reconciled with the limits we require to protect the environment, to allow one group to resist domination by another, and to permit all individuals to be protected against unfair or unwanted domination.

Gitlin’s book is more a manifesto than a work of philosophical reflection, and so he does not answer eternal questions about the individual’s role in society. Still, like a good social scientist and social critic, he wrestles with them on nearly every page.

The similarities between Gitlin and me never end; one of the chapters in this book comes from an edited collection on political education and the modern university to which I also contributed a chapter. Still, we are not identical twins. I would say, and I think he would agree, that he remains more of a 1960s person than I do. On many of the issues he discusses, his positions are slightly more to the left than my own. But there are few people with whom I feel such a strong sense of identification and from whom I have learned so much. The Intellectuals and the Flag proves that social criticism of a high caliber has not completely disappeared from American public life.

Published in the 2006-03-24 issue: 

Alan Wolfe’s most recent book is At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.

Also by this author
The Roads to Modernity

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