They weren’t supposed to be activists, the college students of 1963. After years of Eisenhower comfort and prosperity, they weren’t supposed to have anything to be active about. The class of ’63 “was on the trailing edge of what was called the silent generation,” writes leading ’60s activist Todd Gitlin in his latest book, “Letters to a Young Activist.” “The stereotype — we were timid, gray flannel-suited — was more right than wrong.”
So when the broadly popular Vietnam War broke out in earnest in 1964, the force of the statements made against it by radical student groups came as a shock — and to many people, suggested a shocking amount of hubris. At the end of 1965, one in three Americans thought students against the war had no right to demonstrate. At Kent State University in Ohio the same year, demonstrators were met by a crowd with rocks, not cheers. And although the anti-Vietnam War movement looms large in the way we imagine the 1960s now, “it wasn’t, in that imprecise and evasive cliché, an expression of the times,” according to Gitlin. “The times were profoundly polarized.”
Gitlin was the third president of the Students for a Democratic Society — a radical student group that would soon become synonymous with the anti-Vietnam War movement of the mid-’60s. Its influence on other student groups began to spread in 1962 with the publication of the “Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society,” which called upon its generation to act for civil rights and mobilize against the bomb. The first sit-ins and teach-ins of the ’60s were acts of fertility, says Gitlin, going beyond protest “to create, in the heart of the present, traces of a superior way of life.” But as the Vietnam War grew uglier, so too did the tactics used by the student movement. By 1969, looting and arson were acceptable tools of the militant left. The culmination of the ’60s — and end of SDS — were the Weathermen: bomb-building, shop-smashing militants who interspersed blowing up electrical towers with sex, drugs and talk of revolution. The angry violence tarred the entire antiwar movement. “No wonder we were despised even as the war we opposed was despised,” Gitlin writes.
Almost 40 years later, the United States is again fighting a protested war, and again a nation is polarized. But today’s activists need not make the same mistakes, says Gitlin, now a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University in New York. In “Letters to a Young Activist,” Gitlin offers advice culled from his own experience. “When my crowd was smart (which wasn’t always),” he writes, “we were pretty clear about where our indignation belonged and where to channel it … Our anger was most productive when (1) we had good arguments, (2) we stayed nonviolent, (3) we won a hearing from serious-minded insiders, and (4) we mobilized outside forces.”
Much of the book follows in a similarly practical tone. It should; “Letters to a Young Activist” is part of the “Art of Mentoring” series, based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.” Each book in the series — which also comprises “Letters to a Young Conservative” and “Letters to a Young Golfer,” among others — consists of letters that offer wise counsel to younger generations. Gitlin’s advice focuses on what he calls “practical activism” — how to channel ideals and outrage into actions that will get results in the world as it exists now. A successful campaign, he writes, must be pragmatic. “It does not simply express itself. It must make arguments and defeat contrary arguments … You want to change minds, so you don’t burn bridges.”
For Gitlin, the advisory style is something of a departure from his nine other books, which include “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.” Still, there are a few passages that echo his persona in real life, where he is known — and sometimes hated — for razor-sharp opinions rarely voiced by fellow liberals. He’s been especially excoriated for his critique of the Green Party, which he blames for the “catastrophe” of the Bush victory in 2000. “Underneath, what Nader voters really wanted was to vent their feelings,” he writes. “The purity of their feelings matters so much to them that they are still washing their hands of the consequences … This is narcissism wearing a cloak of ideals.”
In a recent interview with Salon, Gitlin expounded on his views of the Green Party, musing aloud about what a post-Nader left would look like. But his ire was not reserved for “unreconstructed” Greens alone — any “leftwing fundamentalist” was fair game. “ANSWER is a cult,” he said of the Stalinist-led antiwar coalition. “They’re impenetrable to people who don’t already have the code book.” Not even the common, confused Democrat who can’t understand why anyone voted for Bush escapes his criticism. “It’s a huge failure of imagination if someone can’t imagine why someone would support Bush,” he said, “since roughly half the population did.”
Harsh as some of his comments are, Gitlin’s focus on “practical politics” is something of a tough-love approach. “You’re right to burn with indignation about the policies streaming out of Washington. I do,” he writes. “But the important thing is not what we feel but what we do with what we feel … The activists of the Right are, above all, practical. They crave results.”
And, he suggests, the left has much to learn from them.
Gitlin spoke with Salon by telephone earlier this month from his office at Columbia University.
First of all, is there anything the antiwar movement as a whole could have done to prevent the Iraq war?
I don’t think so. I think this is something the Bush administration set out to do right after 9/11, and I don’t think any tactical or strategic variations could have interfered with it.
Did you protest?
Yes. I was in several marches. I was in the big New York march, other rallies. I wrote and spoke against the war.
This country became so polarized over the war, so divided along the lines of what David Brooks would call the red and the blue states, that we have become alien to each other. I have friends who absolutely cannot conceive of why anyone in Minnesota would be pro-war, or pro-Bush. How do we bridge that divide?
Well, I’ve lived most of my life in New York and California, but I did spend four years in the Midwest, and I recommend it to someone who’s been strictly coastal.
But it’s a huge failure of imagination if someone can’t imagine why someone would support Bush. Since roughly half the population did.
OK, but it’s a very common failure of the imagination…
[Laughing] I know it is! But everybody on the left should go listen to Republicans and try to figure out what makes them tick. This is across-the-board advice. I would tell people, “Good God, most people are not like you!” I’m reminded of people in 1972 in Manhattan who said, “Jesus, but I didn’t know anyone who voted for Nixon.” Wake up! Parochialism is never a platform for understanding, and this is another kind of parochialism. One can understand and not understand.
This also requires understanding people who don’t make sense: to understand, for example, how 50 percent of the population could be convinced that there was Iraqi involvement in 9/11. That’s rationalist heresy.
Do you think the generation of ’60s-era progressives have done a good job passing their wisdom and practice down to the next generation?
Probably not. But “generation” is an unwieldy entity. It’s not generations that learn. But it is networks and groupings and circles, and those that came out of the ’60s haven’t for a long time functioned as such. There’s no return address.
Is there a modern equivalent of Students for a Democratic Society? I’m wondering how you’d compare SDS to ANSWER, MoveOn…
It’s apples and prickly pears. I mean, ANSWER is a cult. It’s a tightly organized sect that operates in the shadows and tries to bull its way into power. SDS was a much more open and democratic organization — at least until the bitter end. Couldn’t be more different.
Yet ANSWER is the group most strongly associated with the Iraqi antiwar protests…
ANSWER was originally the movement against the war, but I think they were superseded. ANSWER couldn’t bring themselves to criticize Saddam Hussein. They seemed to believe that any use of American power, anywhere, under any circumstances, was illegitimate and imperial … The sort of fanaticism they displayed did allow them to jump forward getting permits for protests and so forth, but it also very quickly limited the support they received, which is why other people started organizing other networks, which then did mobilize the largest demonstrations: for example, the one in New York, which was not done by ANSWER — though they were standing there with signs trying to look like they had. In reality it was United for Peace and Justice.
There’s no question that sectarian groups can accomplish very specific objectives in a big hurry. What they’re not good at doing is moving public opinion, or moving the real political forces.
So it sounds like ANSWER would be more comparable to the Weathermen, if anything…
The history is inverted, but yes, the spirit is similar in that they, like the Weathermen, talk a sort of abstract language which doesn’t make sense to anyone not standing in their immediate circle. It’s a jargon that only sounds plausible if you take it as an emotional rant. They’re not only speaking impractically about the world, but they’re also impenetrable to people who don’t already have the code book.
It’s this abstractedness which I think marks them both. They’re talking about a world that’s unrecognizable to most people.
What about MoveOn?
Also tightly organized, but also hospitable to ideas from its membership. I think MoveOn is an extraordinary achievement, but it’s not really a membership organization — though maybe it’s quietly in the process of becoming one. I don’t know. If I get an e-mail from MoveOn, am I a member?
SDS was a much more ambitious phenomenon, maybe indecently so, but it had the hope of becoming a sort of “ideological home,” as opposed to being simply action oriented. But MoveOn is absolutely brilliant for its setting.
So there’s no modern equivalent at all.
No, absolutely not. There hasn’t been anything like it.
In today’s circumstances, the minute anybody tried to do something like that they would automatically be pulled apart by identity groups and by big fights about priorities, and I think it might be fairly nightmarish. But I do think there needs to be some kind of coordination of people who want to do practical politics on the left — emphasis on the word practical. The Green Party is a misguided attempt at that machinery. I mean if the Green Party wasn’t obsessed with autonomy, and if it had set out to become a force in the Democratic Party, it would I think have been useful.
Speaking of the Green Party, you’ve made some really strong statements about them in the past. What’s your take on 2004?
I don’t know. Last I saw, they’re debating it, Nader’s meeting with people asking if he should run, and I don’t pretend to understand their organization. But almost everywhere I went on my book tour I met both unreconstructed Greens as well as people who had rethought the strategy as a result of the calamity that came crashing down on our heads in the 2000 election.
It’s obviously a lot harder now to make the case that there’s no difference between the parties. I think it was a foolish case in the first place, but today all you have to do is say the words “John Ashcroft,” “war in Iraq,” to make it very, very difficult to make the claim that this is exactly what Al Gore would have done or even close to it. But there is a phenomenon in politics — and the left isn’t any more exempt from it than the right — of cognitive dissonance, in which you bend the world, you hypnotize yourself into seeing the world in such a way as to make it unnecessary for you to rethink your first premises.
So just as George Bush may well think that he found weapons of mass destruction, and most Americans think that there were Iraqis involved in 9/11, you’ll find Greens who desperately cling to a falsehood about political reality which makes it unnecessary to rethink their premises.
OK, but when I talk to Greens they say, “Well, if the Democrats ever included our issues, we’d be Democrat, but if not we need our own candidate.” And when they’re not making that argument they say the problem is the Electoral College, that if we just had runoff voting everything would be jake.
Well, yeah, the problem is that the U.S. is located between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and if they’d only move it to the center of Europe things would be different. And if my grandmother had wheels she’d be a bicycle. [Laughs.]
It’s always stupefying to encounter fundamentalists of any stripe, people who have built a protective shield around their minds. People who are impervious to practicality, who don’t learn from experience, are always dangerous. And now we know them by their fruits.
Some people say we have to be nicer to them — I’m not especially nice, as you can hear, on the subject.
I’ve also run into people who’ve thought it out themselves, because they weren’t impractical. They performed an experiment in 2000, and the experiment turned out to be catastrophic. And they picked themselves up and moved on. It seems to me that if the evidence around you isn’t sufficient to tell you made a gigantic mistake, then I’m really at a loss.
But speaking practically, you can make the case that the Republicans do a much better job than the Democrats at including their extremists.
You bet! They’ve turned a lot over to them. But theirs are tremendously disciplined, and they turn out to vote. They don’t bolt from the Republican Party. I give an example in the book about the earlier history of the right wing in Southern California. Thinking that they were about to break through and win control of the party in the early ’60s, they then lost the gubernatorial nomination contest, and some of them were ready to bolt to a third party. And they were talked out of it by their financial backers, on the grounds that they should be practical. And they stuck around long enough to nominate Goldwater, and although he was clobbered, that campaign launched the career of Ronald Reagan. Because they care deeply about power, they were persuaded to be practical.
And that’s the crucial difference. If you shudder at the thought of power, you don’t belong in politics. You can’t emote your way to power, you can’t moralize your way, you have to strategize your way to power. The right has produced leadership between the saints and the politicos, people like Ralph Reed and Pat Robertson, people who can harness the spirit without ever turning their backs on the prospect of real political power. And it got them a long way. They’re still there, and they’re central.
And the result is that the Republican Party now has 30-40 years of experience of holding their crazies with the promise of rewards — either at the judiciary level, or making inroads on abortion, or walking the line on gay issues and so on. They’ve been able to distribute enough goodies to keep them loyal. They’ve also produced generations of politicians, like Bush himself — not to mention Bush’s brain, Karl Rove — who know how to dance between these worlds and keep everybody reasonably content.
While the left is always ready for carnivorous action against one of its leaders. They’re always ready to shred a standard-bearer if he or she fails to deliver the maximum. They’re very quick to send somebody out the safe house of sainthood, because they’ve let them down.
Why do you think that is? I’m wondering if there’s not a deeper ideological difference between the conservatives and liberals that would make the left carnivorous and the right not.
Yes, distrust of authority. Which is obviously not a problem for the right, because they’re authoritarian. I think it’s about that simple.
Let’s say the Democratic Party does find a way to enfold the Greens, Green issues. What does a post-Nader left look like?
First of all, it’s ecumenical. A post-Nader left would have to incorporate hardheaded people of different ethnicities, regions, some absolutely opposed to the war in Iraq, some opposed to certain aspects only. Everyone who was committed to rising above the circular firing squad, including on domestic issues.
Some would be deficit hawks, some would want socialized medicine. It would have to include people from major organizations, certainly the AFL-CIO and NAACP. It would include people who recognize that to do successful politics in Missouri, let alone Alabama, is going to require a different political orientation than doing it in Vermont or Massachusetts. But there would have to be a rock-bottom underpinning that the privatizing, rightwing, anti-feminist, anti-gay attitudes of the Republicans are wrong. And a new center would have to form, not just a political center but a center of energy in which the corporate church and the corporate right don’t get to rule. It’s a tall order, but I think a necessary one.
Do you think that’s likely to happen?
There is some sense now that people are in that mood now. If you look at the MoveOn poll, one of the questions they asked was: “Which of the candidates are you prepared to support, if he or she is the nominee?” And a very high percentage said, “Anybody.” Anybody who could beat George Bush. I think that’s the right sentiment for the moment, because the reality of this moment is that unless Bush is defeated, most of the objectives of every group I just mentioned are going to be in the ditch. It is a united-front moment. And a lot of people are clearly in that mood. So that’s auspicious.
But the post-Nader left would also have to have a focus on security. The Republicans are the people who failed to prevent 9/11, and that should not be forgotten. This is a time to be with the police and firefighters, and there are some on the left who might bridle at being in coalition with the police, but those differences need to be superseded.
The post-Nader left needs to be a patriotic left, and should be indignant at the thought that the corporate rich who are lining their pockets and keeping their kids out of the armed service are the real patriots and we’re the outsiders. I think they’re the outsiders, and we’re the patriots, and we should be proud of it.
Speaking of patriotism, I’ve talked to several people who went into something of a patriotic funk on July 4th, who watched the fireworks and said they just felt sad that this was not the democracy they wanted, this was not the America they loved. How should they channel those feelings?
You have to be incremental. You have to do something every day which is both practical and forward-looking so that you don’t throw up your hands. I talk to a lot of people who are in the throw-up-your-hands mood. Many people who look upon the direction of this country with horror are in that mood.
But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you look upon the right as invincible, then this is more likely to become the future. Karl Rove, etc. — these people are not geniuses, they make mistakes, they could have very easily lost the 2000 election. They could have been defeated in a number of the 2002 elections if the Democrats had had some gonads, and there seem to be Democrats who have learned that lesson, too. The right thing to do is to do the best you can and not to be obsessed with the consequences, many of which will be unknown for a considerable amount of time.
And again this is something the Republicans have understood. The right felt for decades that they were in the wilderness, that the country had become communist. [William] Buckley, when he started the National Review, wrote in an editorial something to the effect that history has rolled over us and all we can do is leap up and try to thwart it and shout “Stop!” That’s an admirable attitude. I’ve never been one who thought accomplishing anything was going to be terribly easy. Many of the reforms of the ’60s — for example, the civil rights movement — were no picnic, God knows.
History moves in fits and starts, like tectonic plates.
What advice do you have for activists now?
Movements need to be inventive. The MoveOn people are inventive. Who knows what kinds of other invention will come to pass?
Living in your moment, not trying to impose old language, old tactics, on a different reality. The best organizers are the ones who can size up the world and find the apt thing to do. So people do move history in that manner, and you can’t anticipate who’s going to.
There’s a lot of vitality in sectoral movements — environmentalists, gays, some unions, civil libertarians and others. I wouldn’t be surprised if the energies that ought to follow don’t have to do with starting up new constituencies, but with federating, multiplying the energies, of things that are already going. But I don’t know how those federations would look. Sometimes a charismatic leader makes a difference. Sometimes some local movement like living-wage, sweatshop protests, will do it.
But what people need are victories. A lot of mileage could accrue from leveraging these groupings not just into more protests but into on-the-ground victories. And circulate these victories. And this is always possible.