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A Conversation with Todd Gitlin
Think Tank Transcripts:A Conversation with Todd Gitlin
ANNOUNCER: 'Think Tank' has been made possible by Amgen, arecipient of the Presidential National Medal of Technology. Amgen,bringing better, healthier lives to people worldwide throughbiotechnology.
Additional funding is provided by the John M. Olin Foundation, theRandolph Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. On this edition of'Think Tank,' a report from the front lines of the culture wars. Wewill be talking with the former anti-war radical and now an astuteobserver of the American cultural scene, Todd Gitlin. In his newbook, he argues that multiculturalism and identity politics threatenthe vitality of American society, and he blames both conservativesand liberals.
A conversation with Todd Gitlin, next on 'Think Tank.'
Our guest, Todd Gitlin, was the president of the radical politicalorganization SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, in thehothouse years of 1963 and 1964. Subsequently, he was director of themass communications program at the University of California atBerkeley. Today Professor Gitlin teaches at New York University. Heis the author of six books, including the acclaimed, 'The Sixties:Years of Hope, Days of Rage.' His latest book is 'The Twilight ofCommon Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars.'
Welcome, Todd Gitlin. Let me begin with the question I like whenI'm promoting a new book: What is your book about?
MR. GITLIN: My book is about how it came to pass that the rightmarched on Washington and took a great deal of it while the left wasmarching on the English department. My book is about why America isobsessed with its national identity and why so many Americans thinkthat they have a separate identity. It's about why we have a skeweddebate in which the tradition of the left, which is to proclaim theunity of humanity, is a position that is barely on the screen.
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, you regard yourself and your history is thatof a man of the left.
MR. GITLIN: I do.
MR. WATTENBERG: How would you characterize what a man of the leftshould believe, in addition to the fact that he can believe any damnthing he wants, but how would you -- I mean, what is the generalitybehind the idea of being a man of the left?
MR. GITLIN: Well, there's a range, and I'll just state a couplethings that I hold to be self-evident. One of them is that a personof the left holds certain truths to be self-evident, and that amongthem are that all men are -- and women are endowed, entitled toinalienable rights, and that among them are life, liberty and thepursuit of happiness. That's not a bad first approximation to thevalues of the left.
MR. WATTENBERG: But I know some people on the right who wouldclaim the same sentence.
MR. GITLIN: Of course. And I would add, the question is whetherthey really have that commitment, but that's a discussion.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. GITLIN: Okay. The other thing that I think a person of theleft affirms is that values of solidarity, of social responsibility,of commitment to the common good are of great importance, and thatamong the most grievous forces that work against the realization ofthose values are the drastic inequalities in human society. Sosomebody on the left is committed to the undermining and oppositionto those inequalities.
MR. WATTENBERG: And you think the left now has taken their eye offthe ball. Is that more or less the idea?
MR. GITLIN: I think that many people, perhaps most on the left, orat least most who are visible, have gone down a path in which theyare obsessed with what differs between them and one -- one crowd andanother. They are more obsessed with what divides them than what theyhave in common with the rest of humanity.
MR. WATTENBERG: Who would these groups that engage in identitypolitics be, for specifics?
MR. GITLIN: Many of them are so-called racial or ethnicminorities, or groups who are organized around their narrow groupinterest. They're not all on the left, by the way. I mean, there'salso a right-wing version of identity politics, which is --
MR. WATTENBERG: I understand.
MR. GITLIN: -- obsessed with being white or being male orsomething like that. But the left-wing version of it takes an insightinto the fact that certain groups have historically been kept down,and then it overplays what they think ought to be done as a result,so that you get this obsession with being marginal, this obsessionwith rewriting history to make it look prettier. You get an obsessionwith skin color and other forms of difference rather than what thesociety needs in common.
MR. WATTENBERG: And you say there has been a role reversal, thatthe right wing has assumed the role of common politics, ofcommonality of American politics. I mean, it is the right wing thatis saying these days, we ought to judge a man by the content of hischaracter, not the color of his skin, which is what Martin LutherKing said, and the left wing that is saying, no, no, we ought tojudge a man by the color of his skin, not by the content of hischaracter. I mean, in effect.
MR. GITLIN: It's a very odd business. I quote in the book JosephDimestra (ph), the monarchist, writing in 1797 that there is no suchthing as a human being. He says, 'I've seen Frenchmen and Russiansand other members of nationalities, but I've never seen this creatureman.' He's completely scornful of the idea that there could be such athing as common humanity.
And the view of the left then was that people are capable ofreason, that all people are capable of arriving at some idea of thecommon interest. Well, today it's very fashionable, not only inuniversities, to affirm that only people of the same exact type asyou, whatever exactly that means, can think about you and your needsand your history, and so on.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is this --
MR. GITLIN: And some people on the right affirm that it's possiblefor everybody to aspire to the same good and to arrive at the truth.To me, this is a very curious and very important reversal, and a bigmistake for the left.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why do you sound like me? I mean, you're supposedto -- that's the point I'm supposed to be making. You as a man of theleft are supposed to be making the point that that's not so. I meanthat something is very strange.
MR. GITLIN: Well, I call them as I see them. I mean --
MR. WATTENBERG: I understand.
MR. GITLIN: -- I don't mind disagreeing with anybody, or agreeing.
MR. WATTENBERG: Tell us the story about what -- you begin yourbook with a very fascinating chapter about what happened in Oakland,California, about the school textbooks. Could you just sort of putthat in a capsule for us, because it sort of sets the tone of yourargument, I thought.
MR. GITLIN: It's a curious thing. Over the last few years, fundsfor education in California have been slashed. It's been a bigslash-and-burn operation. And fees in the universities and collegeshave gone up, and classrooms are bigger, and so on. And you wouldthink that since the left cares about the condition of publiceducation, that this would be the issue that would be driving thepassions of people on the left in California with respect toeducation.
But in fact, the big issue that divided people and came to publicattention in the early '90s in California was the objections by agroup of minority spokespersons, objections to a new set of textbookson the grounds that they were racist or insufficiently multicultural,when in fact they were the most multicultural textbooks that anybodyhad ever seen. They were written primarily by the same historianthat's been attacked more recently by conservatives for being muchtoo multicultural and for driving white males -- MR. WATTENBERG: Thisis Gary Nash.
MR. GITLIN: This is Gary Nash of UCLA.
MR. WATTENBERG: He was the man in charge of writing the historystandards.
MR. GITLIN: One of them, yes. The major one.
MR. WATTENBERG: He was, I think, the top man. I actuallyinterviewed him when all that came about. Those history standardswere denounced by the United States Senate by a vote of 99 to 1 asbeing sort of a history of victimology in America and not telling thebasic successful story of America, notwithstanding all its flaws.
And you talk in your book, when you talk about us and them, youare putting you and Gary Nash and Ronald Reagan in the same us, andthe them has now become these strident multiculturalists of the left.Is that correct?
MR. GITLIN: Well, Reagan in the sense that I take Reagan seriouslyas a political alliance maker. I think that Reagan in the '70s andthe '80s understood that the mission in politics is to create apolitical majority. I think that's a habit of mine that people on theleft has lost track of.
I support Gary Nash's idea of trying to find a way of tellingAmerican history, which is a story, which is a story of recognizableAmerican values at work against enemies domestic and foreign. And Ithink they did an honorable job, not perfect, but an honorable job attrying to find a way of telling that story so that it was also astory of all the upheavals and all the voices and experiences ofAmerican society.
MR. WATTENBERG: Why is this particular form of left-wing identitymulticulturalism, why is it bad?
MR. GITLIN: It's a lot easier to organize your crowd. I made, youknow, a half joke before about marching on the English department,but I don't just mean it as a joke. It's a lot easier to form yourcommunity among people who look like you, to beat up on the peoplewho are closest to you, than it is to break out of your zone and tofederate with people who are unlike you and to try to develop andnegotiate in a messy way, which is the democratic way, some sort ofcollective interest.
It's much easier to do the simple thing. And I think that manypeople took the path of least resistance. Again, it was based on realexperience that people had that, you know, that women had beenmistreated in schools and certainly that blacks and other non-whites,so-called minorities had. But then this insight and experience tendto curdle. What's necessary at one moment to get attention then getsfossilized and becomes a constituency, becomes, you know, an anthemthat people have to rally around. And then it develops its ownmomentum, you know.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is it just -- I guess we would agree it istactically bad for people trying to -- in your case, trying toorganize the left and to find allies and confederates, to go off intothe funny farm. I mean, it's certainly -- that's my characterization,not yours --
MR. GITLIN: Indeed.
MR. WATTENBERG: -- that it is certainly tactically unwise. But isit substantively wrong also?
MR. GITLIN: Yeah. I think it's philosophically shallow becausepeople are different. I mean, they have different languages,experiences, customs, et cetera. I mean, all that is true. That's apartial truth. You know, much danger, much damage is done by peoplewho inflame a partial truth into a whole truth.
The partial truth is that people have different needs and thatthey deserve dignity, that if somebody wants to have the capacity tospeak a certain language, fine. I don't have any objection if theambulance drivers also speak Chinese so they can help people inChinatown. But at the same time, what's being downplayed is theunderstanding that we're not, after all, of different species. Thereis one race. We're not talking about Martians and Venusians here.We're talking about human beings. And human beings have commonobligations and common experiences, and even the people who clamorabout how different they are tend to do it in the same language andtend to try to convince other people that they're right.
In other words, there's a kind of hypocrisy here in this hysteriaabout difference because after all, people are making arguments andtrying to convince each other, right? So they actually are in acommon conversation that they should acknowledge as such.
MR. WATTENBERG: When and why did the conservatives come to take onthe mantle of the defenders of the common culture?
MR. GITLIN: It's a tragedy of the late '60s, and I say it's atragedy rather than a crime, because it's a case of something thatwas magnificent, namely, the civil rights movement, reaching a pointat which a significant number of its partisans felt that they had toaccentuate what differentiated blacks from the rest of America. Now,that need not have led to disaster had it not been, in my view, forthe Vietnam war, which distracted Johnson from the great work of theGreat Society, and the collapse of what you could call a sort ofecumenical liberalism, which was sometimes represented by Johnson, orcould have been represented by Bobby Kennedy. That collapsed, and thewars between liberals and radicals helped destroy both of them aspolitical forces.
MR. WATTENBERG: And at that time, you were a radical, not aliberal.
MR. GITLIN: Correct. Correct.
MR. WATTENBERG: And now you are a liberal, not a radical?
MR. GITLIN: I don't know what it means to be a radical today. Imean I --
MR. WATTENBERG: They're your terms. I mean --
MR. GITLIN: Well -- well, I don't know. I mean, my views about thecontrol of capital I guess are radical. I believe that it's a seriousproblem for governments to figure -- any governments, by the way --to figure out how you can benefit a whole population when you havethis -- the most powerful force in the world is just free to dashabout and wreak havoc. I think that you need radical measures tocontrol those, so I'm a radical in that sense. To me, that's theessence of the radical tradition. It's a question of whether the mostpowerful force in the world is free to simply gallivant about beingpowerful without being publicly harnessed.
MR. WATTENBERG: The most powerful force being the force ofcapital?
MR. GITLIN: Capital, yes. To me that's the differentiation point.If you believe that capital has too much power and you believe thatthere need to be democratic controls on that power, then you're aradical, in my book. Being radical has nothing to do with howmulticultural you are or how -- or anything like that. Being radicalhas nothing to do with whether you support or oppose affirmativeaction. To me, a lot of the issues that are being debated today areshallow and relatively inconsequential issues. Again, it's a tragedythat an issue like affirmative action, where not that much is eithergained or lost by anybody, but it's symbolically inflamed. You know,affirmative action when it was first articulated by Johnson and otherpeople in the left wing of the Democratic Party in the late '60s wasmeant to be one reform among a whole package of reforms which wouldin ensemble create jobs, would raise the floor, would raiseguaranteed income, et cetera.
When you eliminate all those other things, which we've been doingin recent years because we don't like the government and we don'tlike a lot of programs -- welfare and public housing, and so on --and we don't even have a goal anymore of full employment, when you doaway with all those things and you have a more or less continuousghettoized population that's tearing itself to ribbons and you simplyrely on affirmative action to do the work of compensating for theawful history of race in America, then what do you get? You get awar, a zero-sum game between the whites who are least prosperousfighting with other people who are not prosperous over who gets to bea fireman or who gets into a college. And, you know, win or lose,what you have here is this tremendous squabble over very scarceresources among people who can ill afford to be confronting eachother in this way.
MR. WATTENBERG: Are you an angry white male?
MR. GITLIN: Yeah, but I'm not angry at the same people a lot ofother white males are. I don't much like the category.
MR. WATTENBERG: I mean, they're angry at the left also, and you'reangry at the left.
MR. GITLIN: Yeah, but not for the same --
MR. WATTENBERG: You're angry at the left. No, they are angry atthis multicultural silliness and this zero-sum mentality and thiskind of trashing America, and you're angry at the same thing. So whydo you call yourself a leftist?
MR. GITLIN: Well, I'm not an angry --
MR. WATTENBERG: We were talking before the show. In five years,you're going to be where I am. You're going to be in theneo-conservative center.
MR. GITLIN: You know, the neo -- things have moved so far to theright that the neo-conservative center is, you know --
MR. WATTENBERG: How could things have moved to the right ifconservatives now say that we ought to be paying attention to thecontent of their character, adopting -- this is a big myth inAmerican politics that things have moved to the right. I mean, whathas happened is, among other things, that conservatives have movedleftward toward the center on a lot of issues, including race andinternationalism and a whole lot of things.
MR. GITLIN: Let me answer your question first be we lose it aboutwhy the angry white men are wrong. They're right to observe thattheir position, many of them, is tenuous. Their jobs are tenuous,their sense of mastery is, you know, undermined. A lot of these guysare recoiling against feminism. And anytime you have a great socialupheaval, as you had in the Sixties, you're going to have a recoil.
So one -- I mean, one has to sympathize with the people who are inrecoil because, for the most part, they're not people who had easylives. For the most part, they're people whose lives were difficult,and now they're feeling their horizons have shrunk, that the futuredoesn't look very good. And in the meantime, there's somebody who hassomewhat less than they do who's beating up on them and telling themthat they're the enemy. And they say the hell with it, you know. Theydon't want to be demonized. And I sympathize. I don't think theyshould be demonized.
MR. WATTENBERG: Is it fair to say that some on the left today, ifnot un-American, are anti-American?
MR. GITLIN: First of all, I don't think there really is a left.You know, if a left believes in commonality, then I don't think therequite is one. But among the people who are tabbed as the left today,I think there are people who are insufficiently appreciative ofcertain of the virtues of American dreams, including the virtue ofintegration, the virtue of diversity, a word that's much used, butinsufficiently valued. I think there are people who are obsessed bytheir difference from others and by their rancor about victimization.I think that's all a big mistake.
You know, Americans are founded on the idea that, you know,somewhere out there is them, they who are doing it to us, you know.We're the little guys. The big guys took over. It's the king, it'sthe kaiser, it's somebody else. You know, that's what's unified usfor a large part of our history, that -- you know, that we'revictims. We don't want to be, but -- and you know, during much ofthis time, Americans feel like victims of circumstance.
You know, I think paradoxically, it's because Americans think thatpeople should be totally free -- 'Don't tread on me,' 'Live free ordie,' and so on -- that when things go wrong, we thrash around, youknow, looking for malevolent forces who are conspiring against us,because we should be -- we should all be free and happy and kickingwith delight and --
MR. WATTENBERG: Do you believe that that is one of the greatglories of American civilization, the amount of human liberty andfreedom?
MR. GITLIN: Of course, but you pay a price for it, which is thatwhen people aren't free, when people feel in danger or feel crowdedor et cetera, they start looking for them. MR. WATTENBERG: Why didthey go down this road? I mean, why did they go this peculiardefinition of multiculturalism? I mean, we are a multiculturalsociety. I have no particular argument about that. You can get thatout of the census reports. But why did they put this special spin onit?
MR. GITLIN: A whole lot of bad moves took place in the lateSixties. And while I wouldn't want to say this was the only reason, Ireally do think that the Vietnam war was shattering to the judgmentand the equanimity of many people on the left. I think that it ledthem to an overwrought rejection of the liberal tradition, both theNew Deal version of the liberal tradition and the tolerant version ofthe liberal tradition. It placed a premium on a kind of blind rage.The revolutionary style which started heating up in the late Sixties,which was delusional -- there was no revolutionary situation andrevolutions are not picnics --
MR. WATTENBERG: Did you know that at the time?
MR. GITLIN: Yeah.
MR. WATTENBERG: That there was no revolution?
MR. GITLIN: Oh, yeah. But, you know, it was very hard to be clearabout that, and there were -- you know, there were reasons whyeverything else seemed to be failing. So you had a lot of smartpeople acting less than -- less smart than they knew how to be.
MR. WATTENBERG: Here is your book, 'The Twilight of CommonDreams.' I would really recommend it to viewers. It's a verythoughtful examination of the current situation in America. What areyour solutions?
MR. GITLIN: I'm not -- I don't have my program to unfurl. Mysolution is a mentality, and the mentality is to look for the framingof public issues in such a way as to create a sense of the commonhuman bond rather than the sense of warring tribes. I think if one'scommitment is to that principle, to that mentality, then a lot ofdisputes will remain, a lot of arguments are legitimate about thispolicy or that policy, but the philosophical underpinning would be inplace, and the philosophical underpinning would be a commitment tothe common humanity.
MR. WATTENBERG: Given this internecine cannibalism that's going onon the left, is there a future for the left?
MR. GITLIN: This depends on whether the left decides that it wantsto be a political force that federates people. If the left is has theconviction that it's, you know, that it's nothing more than the sumof a lot of little shards, then that's what it's going to be, a heap,and it's not going to be on the charts.
MR. WATTENBERG: What's your guess? MR. GITLIN: I'm neither -- youknow, Henry Kissinger said one thing I like when he was asked at onepoint during the peace talks whether he was optimistic orpessimistic. He said, 'I'm 'mistic.'
MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you very much for joining us, Doctor.
MR. GITLIN: Thank you, Ben.
MR. WATTENBERG: And thank you. Please send your comments andquestions to: New River Media, 1150 17th Street, NW, Suite 1050,Washington, DC, 20036. Or we can be reached via e-mail email@example.com.
For 'Think Tank,' I'm Ben Wattenberg.
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