The United States is living in a state of emergency, one that has developed into an intellectual crisis in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Columbia University journalism and sociology professor Todd Gitlin said Tuesday at a Davenport College Master’s Tea.
Gitlin spoke to a group of approximately 20 students about his recently released book, “The Intellectuals and the Flag,” which discusses what he characterized as the political left’s strategic failure in addressing contemporary national issues. He elaborated on his feeling of frustration concerning what he views as liberals’ voluntary estrangement from the rest of the nation, citing their alleged rejection of patriotism as an example of this alienation.
“I think that the upshot is that patriotism is experienced by many people on the left as something of an embarrassment,” Gitlin said.
Gitlin said he thinks left-leaning individuals are now rejecting patriotism because they believe it forces them to identify with a larger group of Americans with whom they disagree and contradicts the spirit of cosmopolitanism that they espouse.
“The left sees itself as standing outside a country that does bad,” Gitlin said. “However, it is strategically disastrous to take this position as outsiders, since it is a concession to people who are not entitled to be the spokespersons of patriotism. It is a move against public life, public domain, public virtue and public-mindedness.”
In his 11 books and various articles published in venues such as The New York Times and The Nation, Gitlin draws from his varied life experiences in examining America’s political landscape. He has previously served as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and at New York University and has also spent a semester at Yale. In the 1960s, Gitlin also organized the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War while he served as the third president of the New Left protest organization Students for a Democratic Society.
In his talk, Gitlin also commented on the extensive gap that he said has formed between liberals and conservatives in the past half-century, pointing to the greater division of the left into diverse factions.
“The right is composed of two main forces: moralist social Christian groups and anti-tax small-government proponents,” he said. “The left has maybe seven forces: the residues of trade unionism, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays and lesbians, university types, environmentalists and feminists. To staple together seven is a lot harder than to staple together two.”
To solve the problem of political imbalance, Gitlin said, people on the left must realize that they are not obligated to be defensive about their patriotism. He cited a telephone call to a radio show on which he was a guest, quoting the listener as confessing, “I am a lifelong liberal, but I am a patriot.” Gitlin said his writings explore how this phenomenon came to pass, and how the left can mobilize and once again assume its place as a factor in the American political scene.
“There is currently a degree of intellectual paralysis, public fog, and collective and enthusiastic ignorance that defies comprehension,” Gitlin said.
Students said they found Gitlin’s views compelling and helpful in their assessment of the current state of liberalism.
“It’s good to hear a more radical perspective than I’m used to as a history student,” Sarah Boyette ’07 said. “Personally, I have trouble with the idea of patriotism, so this talk was very interesting.”
Jared Malsin ’07 said he hopes Gitlin will find a wider audience among university students because of the strength of his message.
“Gitlin is a thoughtful and incisive thinker about politics and activism,” Malsin said. “It could not be more important for students to think about the subjects that he writes about and to hear what he has to say.”
Gitlin is also the author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” and “The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left.”