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VINE VOICEon September 26, 1999
Gitlin finds that the "common dream" of what it means to be an American deteriorated with the unraveling of the New Left of the 1960s and the ascendance of identity politics. But as a founder of the SDS he makes way too much of the New Left and the impact of their breakup on common dreams.
The formative bases of America: anti-monarchial and minimalist government and rough equality among land-owning, farming citizens have not been relevant since the Civil War. The advance of industrialism and the rise of huge, powerful private concerns ripped asunder that idyllic world. The Knights of Labor, the Populists, and the Socialists tried to mount challenges to these changes and really represent the only challenges to that new order. The union drives of the 30s and 40s were interested in getting a piece of the pie, not fundamental change.
The middle class and rich kids of the 60s that led the protests against the excesses of American foreign policy in Vietnam did serve as a useful corrective to the arrogance of the United States. But in no way did the 60s protest change the common dream. As Gitlin himself points out consumerism replaced citizenship as the American dream easily by the 1920s.
Gitlin is right to say that identity politics detracts from a common purpose. But the significance of those movements pale in comparison to the dominance of the corporate order in remaking and controlling the direction of the world and national orders. There is no Left or whomever that is being drowned out or replaced by identity voices.
This reviewer found Gitlin's book difficult to understand at times. He clearly wants a commons reestablished but one is left with a rather murky view of what that is or should be and how it will happen given no Left, identity politics, and global economic forces.
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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!
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on December 14, 2012
This is an uneven but in its own way courageous book. Todd Gitlin is an intellectual who was an idealistic activist in the 1960s left. He makes a case that the collective vision of the American left was dismantled by divisive identity politics. I have a few criticisms of the book, which I otherwise recommend.

Gitlin plows into the quagmire of American identity on rather slippery footing. Although there are some eloquent passages, there are also instances where he fails to negotiate this sensitive subject with much grace. As reviewers from various backgrounds and genders point out in so many words, there seems to be an aggrieved ego underlying parts of the book. Gitlin can lack finesse in dealing with opposing viewpoints to his own. There are passages where he makes assumptions that betray am absence of respect for the profound divergence of experience among different people in this country. This problem, in combination with the book's grandiose title, opens him to criticism. I found this uncomfortable and somewhat aggravating.

For instance, I wish Gitlin had acknowledged with greater clarity the reality that identity-based political struggles are an absolute necessity here. History clearly bears this out. Members of any U.S. minority are forced to form a separate group to struggle for a political voice on issues that impact them. (If they didn't do this then who exactly would take up their cause?) Gitlin doesn't seem to think today's identity-related political struggles are fully legitimate but they are very much so.

Having said this, I can recommend the book. I found it oddly moving to read. The premise is provocative and important. I think he has a serious point to make -- and that he is on target in pointing out the complicity of post-modernism. By looking at the dark side of identity politics, he asks us how we envision ourselves. This is a very good question. His book provokes you to think through your own ideas on how to answer it. And you realize that is not an easy task.

If the United States is to have a meaningful future as a country, we need a common dream. I would add that it should be a dream which carries a common respect for all people. A decade after Gitlin wrote this book, we see how divisiveness can be cynically exploited. It has been used to promote endless wars and obstruct fundamental human rights progress at home. As distasteful as I found the author's approach to the subject at times, one thing we share is a deep concern regarding the future of this country.
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on July 14, 1997
It ill-behooves an author to devote too much time to rebutting ignorant pseudo-reviews by people who show no signs of having read the books they pop off about, but in this case I cannot help but note that my book contains lengthy discussions and arguments on the subjects of American history, textbooks, demographics, and philosophy. I would hope the book would be taken seriously by fair-minded readers
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on April 24, 1998
As someone who was born in the year 1968, I have seen the seemingly endless fall of the left and it has dishartened me deeply. The dreams of several generations now are nothing more then faded dreams. This book gives a convincing discription to the process of the left's self induced irelevancy.
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on March 21, 2001
As an "activist"--whatever that means--for years, I grew increasingly disillusioned with Left Wing fantasies. For what or whom are we struggling? Do we know what "they" want, or are we passing our middle-class fantasies onto people who're busy trying to make a living and live in an imperfect world? Or making hay off of them by developing organizations and bureaucracies, while simultaneously complaining about such things as "hierarchical" and "oppressive"?
At the time, incidentally, I worked in civil rights law, in a bureaucracy the effectiveness of which was, shall I say, impeachable. Hence some of the disillusionment.
Then I read this. It seems that Californians were debating over textbooks for social studies and history. The author, and others, anticipated that the "right" would be most vocal in their comments on proposed textbooks. "Why isn't there more about St. Joe McCarthy? Why so much about those satanic hippies in the 1960s?" We've all heard the diatribes. Well, it turned out the the left was more vocal. Becoming parodies of themselves, "progressives" all over were claiming the texts didn't include enough references to black, homosexual, working class women (to partake of a comic phrase of many years ago). The concept of which I learned--and which has continually amused me since--is IDENTITY POLITICS!
Indeed, it's a symptom of what went wrong with the direction the 60s were taking us: we're all victims now. And if not, we're oppressors.
Ultimately, it's led to post-modernism, the "academic left" and other schools of contemporary comedy, and other travesties on which volumes have been written.
Do you want to understand what identity politics means? Or why the left is its own worst enemy? Read this fine volume.
And read other Gitlin too. He's grown up. That's more than I can say of some of his contemporaries of approaching 40 years ago.
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on June 25, 2001
I applaud this book because it provides a good analysis of how various culture wars has diverted attention away from the TRUE issues of numerous inequalities within existing social power structures. Instead of coming together as a whole, there is a large tendency to fragment into small groups and accuse each other of hearsay. Thus the emergence of hyphenated Americans and separate agendas!! The elites love this because the focus is not on them. They enjoy watching those towards the bottom fighting amongst themselves while they continue to accumulate more wealth and power. We're killing ourselves here! We need to see the commonalties of all our "victimizations" and realize who the true enemy is. Only then is there a chance for social change.
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on May 30, 2001
Todd Gitlin has written a much needed book. I hope for an update soon. There is no question that today's "left" is really not "left" at all - it's just wacky! Gitlin is arguing for a TRUE that focuses on the evils of capitalism and the gulf between the rich and poor. Gitlin wonders what happened to the left that challenged the moneyed class. Instead, today's "left" is all about race, sexual preference, (add the latest "Transgendered" rights), all of these culture wars caught up in Identity Politics and having no interest at all in fighting the class issues of the haves and have nots based on CLASS. Today's left is consumed with their own particular victimizations, rather than as a member of a class that is being oppressed for THAT larger reason. The "left" of today (or what's left of it) MUST wake-up to the realization that they are turning potentially hundreds of thousands of possible progresssives away with way-out "in the ozones" cultural absurdities. Not all, mind you, some such as race have to always play a large role in the fight. However, the left is so splintered into fragments, each fighting their own little corner of the culture wars, that one has to wonder if the idea of progressive and/or socialist unity is impossible. There is NO way all these disparate groups can come together as long as they are trashing white folks just for being white and insisting on absurd things like reperations,.....I just realized, I could go on and on. You get the idea. Gitlin is right on-target and only needs to update this or write another book - as this Identity Politics business that runs off all potential progressives who might join us on CLASS issues and concentration of wealth issues and corporate abuse issues and labor issues erodes the ever smaller foundation of what TRUE "left" there is. Good book!
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on July 1, 1999
I have to agree with most of the other reviewers here. Mr. Gitlin seems to have taken the conservative tether and fallen in love with it. The cliches alone are distracting, but why do white male pseudo-leftists still write this way? Give me a more radical and transgressive writer like Patricia Williams or Judy Chicago, but don't give me this!
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on April 28, 1997
Unimaginative, shallow and formulaic book by Todd Gitlin who, despite his inability to critically examine his own past (see his book on the 60's, or better yet, just read it in the bookstore) presumes to prescribe for the rest of us. Fun though, to see if you can catch the same old discredited leftwing assumptions which are trotted out and presented as fresh: (eg: "To recognize diversity, more than diversity is needed. The "commons"s (emphasis added) is needed". So, Todd, you'd take away our cultural property, too? Don't waste your time with this one
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