“The tragedy of the left is that, having achieved an unprecedented victory in helping stop an appalling war, it then proceeded to commit suicide.” So writes Todd Gitlin about the aftermath of the Vietnam War in The Intellectual and Flags, a collection of writings that calls upon intellectuals on the left to once again engage American public life and resist the trappings of knee-jerk negativism, intellectual fads, and political orthodoxy. In this interview he discusses the book and the state of the Left in the United Statea.
Todd Gitlin: The American left has squandered a good deal of moral capital in recent decades, and this has had unfortunate consequences both intellectually and politically. Much of the left ceded the flag and the aura of patriotism to the right. Intellectuals have largely been unhelpful in real politics. And 9/11 made it urgent that American intellectuals of the left take seriously all parts of this sentence: We are intellectuals, we are American, and we are on the left. It is wholly legitimate, indeed imperative to live up to the sometimes conflicting but always important parts of this task. Facing the complexities and contradictions of American history and American identity continues to be a moral and political challenge. It's a matter of moral exigency because a patriotic attachment to one's people is right. But it's also a matter of political practicality to win back the mantle of seriousness. One thing that entails is thinking big—thinking comprehensively about the nature and needs of America.
Q. Why did you choose David Riesman, C. Wright Mills and Irving Howe as the "exemplary intellectuals" to write individual essays about?
TG: All three were important to me when I was learning to think, read critically, and get my political legs in the early '60s. Riesman, a towering sociologist, was important to me personally—he was a faculty advisor to my first political group, Tocsin, a Harvard-Radcliffe peace operation. Mills I never met in the flesh, but his intellectual power and passion were inspirations to me starting in high school. Howe was someone I sometimes tangled with, though also learned from immensely, and later, in the '80s and early '90s, we were political allies and friends. Although the three were divergent by profession, politics and analytical stance, all aspired to a comprehensive but supple world view, and in particular a picture of the US as a whole. They all had large visions of intellectual work. One's duty was not to compile details, to write in the margins of knowledge, but to formulate, test, and rethink large ideas about how society operates and ought to. They all wrote well in different ways. They all aspired to be, and were, public intellectuals. They did not bury themselves in internecine fights amid the jargon thickets of the university.
Q: Why do you discuss only intellectuals of the left in your book?
TG: I'm writing chiefly about opportunities, quandaries, burdens, errors and dilemma as of intellectuals on the left—no apology for that. But I think my arguments ought also to be of interest to general readers who are uncommitted, and don't think of themselves on the left, but are curious about how things have developed at universities and so on in recent decades. Several chapters speak to general questions about the place of political ideas in the university curriculum, about the nature and travails of postmodernism and what has come to be called cultural studies. Regardless of politics, anyone in the social sciences should be thinking about some of the shortfalls and wrong turns of the last decades. The book is not just a present-day polemic; the title essay is about the left and patriotism and the ways we can apply political ideas to everyday life.
Q. What do you mean by liberal patriotism?
TG: Patriotism is love of country—which does not mean love of everything it does and everyone who runs it, nor does it mean insistence that the nation is God's most splendid work. Liberal patriotism emphasizes the egalitarian, democratic—in a word, liberal— side of American tradition. Concretely, liberal patriotism entails an ideal of national service, an attempt to equalize sacrifice in the necessary task of defeating a jihadist enemy. We need to curb the imperial ambition of the current leadership, but the country, all of us, have real enemies, and they have to be defeated.
Q: What does the left need to do to become relevant again?
TG:Politically, enter into the on-the-ground political process, as deformed or rigged or corrupt as it may be. This entails finding, running, and financing plausible candidates for local and national office. It entails creating and cooperating with ongoing machines for political work that don't just come into being at election time and dissolve the next morning. It entails recognizing that this is a vast complicated country and that the positions that are congenial on the upper west side of Manhattan or Berkeley may not play so well in New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin or New Hampshire, where millions of votes and scores of electoral votes are. Intellectually, the left needs to face and transcend the limits of much of its political thinking of the last thirty years: identity politics, cultural rebellion, and "theory."
Q: Has the left become lazy by being a party of opposition?
TG: In a word, yes. Especially in the academy, opposition is too easy. Tenure is a wonderful institution, overall, but it's also conducive to intellectual inertia and self-sequestration. When you have the luxury of not having to confront the full range of national sentiments, and their tangled history, intellectual arrogance comes naturally— and neither intellectually nor practically is it useful.
Q: Who are some of the bright young public intellectuals out there we should look to?
TG: I think well of the historian Kevin Mattson, the literary scholar Michael Bérubé, the blogger-historian Joshua Micah Marshall (with whom, I should disclose, I work at TPMcafe.com), and the journalist George Packer.