Print Reviews
The Intellectuals and the Flag
by Todd Gitlin
Columbia University Press (2006)
The Intellectuals and the Flag
6 / 10
Authors keep publishing their own explanation of why liberals just can't get any love on Election Day. Two of today's greatest political writers, E. J. Dionne and Kevin Phillips, apparently have stopped making keen, profound observations from afar and are now writing either blueprints for a Democratic resurgence (Dionne's Stand Up, Fight Back) or devastating condemnations of the W Regime (Phillips's American Dynasty, American Theocracy). All of these works, though, seem tainted by their too-impassioned pleas for change. Now, Todd Gitlin (who by now vies to be held in the same esteem as Dionne and Phillips, and even has the former's endorsement via promotional blurb) has weighed in with The Intellectuals and the Flag. The Media Studies professor at Columbia University led Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 60's, witnessed the group's downfall and self-destruction, then descended into academia. He emerged to publish the convincing, apologist The Whole World is Watching, the seminal The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and, more recently, Media Unlimited, which may draw obvious conclusions about society's media saturation but is profound nonetheless. Gitlin is still one of the best political observers around, but, like the most recent work of his peers, this book leaves clarity to be desired.

Outspoken for a lifetime, Todd Gitlin lays the brutal truth out for lefties in Intellectuals and the Flag. The book argues that "political thinking matters to the fate of American democracy." However, within a few words, he admits, "surely this sounds presumptuous… the criticism of established arrangements – which is the left's specialty – does not convince a critical mass of the populace to put the critics in charge… They see them as another upper crust: a 'new class' of 'limousine liberals' and 'cultural elitists.'" Regarding intellectuals and their conviction in leftist principles, Gitlin writes, "moral purity leaves them cold." The former SDS-er on Nader: "doomed and reckless;" on anti-globalization activists: "indifferen[t] to the reactions of the misguided and uncool multitude." New academic studies in the humanities: pointless and merely "metaphysical" instead of practical. Pretty bold words for a Media Studies teacher writing with a lot of big words, but this guy has decades of activist experience to back himself up.

After this searing introduction, the author explains that "this book consists of essays that I have written since 1988 and rewritten since 1988 and rewritten for this occasion to clarify… that intellectual life on the American left must recover from its main drift and transcend its accommodation to political defeat." About half what follows are essays that basically imply that two dead white sociologists and a lit critic were greater political assets than anything America has today. Most of the remaining half of the book argues that that both Postmodernist thought and Cultural Studies in today's universities damage the progressive left. Though they sound like the rantings of an old codger, the crazy thing is, these arguments are persuasive.
In three essays, Todd Gitlin professes the virtue of three mid-century intellectuals: David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and Irving Howe. The author is convincing, but this is an easy task. These three thinkers all came from the days of both prosperity and discontent; the time of the New Deal consensus; the cusp of liberalism's twilight years. Riesman dared to write that society was fundamentally changing; Mills criticized U.S. foreign policy; Howe wrote that it was one's duty to dissent. These are all things almost every contemporary Democrat takes for granted. Gitlin's next assertion, that Postmodernism and Cultural Studies restrict leftist activism, is more challenging yet rather persuasive. The author gives a fair history of Popular Culture Studies: "During precisely the years when the right held more political power for a longer stretch than at any other time in generations," academics created an entirely new field of study tracking subtle and overt forms of dissent in television, literature, music, and other cultural manifestations. Gitlin dismisses this school of thought as "the thirst for consolation." "However unfavorable the balance of political forces," he writes, "people succeed in living lives of vigorous resistance." The author objects to this paradigm, correctly so, by pointing out that deviant pop culture is a pathetic excuse for real-life political resistance.

There are a handful of complaints Intellectuals and the Flag deserves. Gitlin doesn't address recent books like Bowling Alone or Fast Food Nation; he could have at least credited them with changing Americans' opinions yet still revealed their flaws and limits. He also fails to commend the recent trend of faculty/Labor alliances on college campuses. His defense of Irving Howe, for keeping his literary and political lives separate, clearly contradicts his nearly unrelenting attack on postmodern art. Can't this form of expression coexist, in some forms, with Gitlin's own progressive views? Finally, the disparate parts of this book do not form a cohesive whole, and his call for politically active intellectuals remains nebulous. He gives no instruction and drafts no blueprint. Gitlin gets away with this by issuing an early disclaimer: this book is only a collection of works pointing towards an answer. In the end, this book is more like a rock band's compilation of B-sides. It's good, but for fans only; newbies should read Todd Gitlin's early hits first.
Posted by: CJ

Print Reviews (May 22nd, 2006)