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Post Mods Kill New Left with Assist from New Right
on February 11, 2002
Written in the mid-90s when the "culture wars" were at their height, Gitlin's history of how the wars began in the Left, how conservatives fanned the flames and in the confusion consolidated their claim on the average American, seems somehow remote now. What with all politicians now running for the center, and the latest war (on terrorism) acting as a yet another national "unifier," the flames of the culture wars appear to have been stamped out by all the rushing, marching feet. Appearances are deceiving though. It's my guess the embers are still smoldering, and that a little poking and stirring will re-ignite the blaze.
In this book, Gitlin�s strategy is to try to lower the heat of the culture wars through a "pox on both their houses" retelling of its genesis and most important battles. His attempt to shed light on the destructive effects of identity politics as practiced by the Left and distorted by the right feels forthright and balanced. There�s a good summary of the influence of various thinkers on the academic Left: Foucalt, Derrida, Horkheimer, Adorno, all of whom attacked the Enlightenment project in varying degrees, ushering in the era of "relativism." Also, he anticipates much of the ad hominen counter-Enlightenment criticism to be heaped on him by Lefty reviewers � e.g., he�s an old white male liberal academic Jewish prof out of touch with the latest radical twist on of those white male French guys, who still believes there can be a Left, and liberal and progressive causes worth fighting for. In other words, he does not agree with one of his graduate students who told him there is "no such thing as truth � there are only truth effects." (Gitlin nicely points out that anti-Enlightenment types still use the ground rules established by the Enlightenment to attack the Enlightenment).
He starts the book with a first hand report on the difficulties of getting a new textbook series approved in Oakland, CA, which serves to demonstrate on a practical level the effect of post-modernist theory. Identity politics, that hydra-headed hyphenating monster (Japanese-Americans, African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, etc.) kicked up so much dust that Oakland didn�t succeed in adopting any textbooks for at least two years. By contrast, the conservatives who protested were easy to mollify: some minor revisions mentioning creationism and they were fine. The hyphenates major complaint? The textbooks didn�t treat their various victimologies fully enough. Or that their stories were not told with enough obsequiousness and guilt. The textbooks themselves, in trying to anticipate such criticisms, broke up the main narrative with a multi-media look, and multi-perspectivist story-telling strategy.
Less balanced is his description of how the false crisis of P(olitical) C(orrectness) was created in think tanks fueled by conservative money men (Olin, Heritage, etc.), spread by D�Souza and others, and promulgated through the media to whom it was cynically and successfully pitched as a story of "free speech denied." But then, Gitlin couldn�t have "balanced" this chapter in the Culture War because the Left, ambushed by the conservatives, couldn�t recover fast enough, and never had a chance to tell its side of the story in any meaningful way. It was an upside-down time when conservatives got to call liberals anti free-speech and McCarthy-like. Those free speech loving conservative anti-PC warriors were suddenly keeping America safe for good old-fashioned race-baiting, gender intolerance and just plain good ol� hate! I know they helped me see how wrong to be anti-anti-woman, anti-anti-Semitic, anti-racist, and anti-fascist.
Eventually this latest semi-real war against terrorism will die out and we'll see the usual rancor return. In fact, the lack of a budget consensus now is a welcome step in that direction!