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The Intellectuals and the Flag Paperback – May 15, 2007
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Gitlin's liberal patriotism is an affirmation of membership in our society and of participation in the American experiment. (Elbert Ventura Cleveland Plain Dealer)
What else could Gitlin do but resemble the greats? He's a force. (Tony Dokoupil New York Press)
If you are tired of a left politics assigned to the margins... buy this book. And then get to work. (Stewart Nusbaumer Intervention Magazine)
A blunt, frank analysis of the current state of the left. (Jim Agnew Jagnew.com)
Todd Gitlin's The Intellectuals and the Flag is illuminating. (Gerald Russello New York Sun)
His insights and perceptions strike me as succinct, on target, clear-eyed and revelatory. (Sam Coale Providence Journal)
Gitlin is certainly a thoughtful, intelligent, and important critic... Recommended. (Choice)
The Intellectuals and the Flag proves that social criticism of a high caliber has not completely disappeared from American public life. (Alan Wolfe Commonweal)
[A] valuable book, well worth reading and pondering. (Wilfred M. McClay Claremont Review of Books)
A particularly eloquent rendering of the inevitable and proper post-9/11 patriotism that affected the left no less than the right or center. (Chronicle of Higher Education)
About the Author
Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, B.A., Harvard; M.A., Michigan; Ph.D., Berkeley. Former professor, Culture, Journalism and Sociology, New York University; professor, sociology and director of Mass Communications, University of California, Berkeley; lecturer, Board of Community Studies, Santa Cruz; lecturer, New College, San Jose State; visiting professor, Yale, Ecole Des Hautes Etudes En Sciences Sociales (Paris), Iowa, Oslo (Norway), Wesleyan. Author, Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago (1970); Busy Being Born (1974); The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left (1981); Inside Prime Time (1983); The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987); Watching Television, editor (1987); The Murder of Albert Einstein (1992); The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars (1995); Sacrifice (1999); Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (2002); Letters to a Young Activist (2003). Recipient, Harold U. Ribalow Prize, 2000; Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Nonfiction Award. Research grants: MacArthur Foundation, Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California, National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship. Contributing writer, Mother Jones. Member editorial board, Dissent and The American Scholar.
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It occurs to me that at least on social issues, patriotism is naturally the domain of the liberals. After all, we liberals are the ones who focus on the common good. It is the conservatives who are more willing to be exclusive or even intolerant, shutting out part of our own society. It is the conservatives who are more willing to assign profits to themselves even at some cost to the greater good. It is the conservatives who boast about our Right to get tax breaks. We liberals are the ones who want to collect more taxes in order to improve our society.
Yes, we liberals are the ones who ought to be waving that flag around. We're the patriots. And sometimes, when we focus on social issues, we do just that, to the annoyance of those who disagree with us.
When it comes to foreign policy, it appears to work the other way around. Now, we liberals are the ones who can threaten to hurt our country in order to work for what we claim is the common good of the world. And it is conservatives who are suddenly willing to spend tax money ... on defense. And it is they who wave that flag, not us.
Overall, however, we liberals are the ones who are more leery of our own flag. Why is that? Are we ashamed of our country? As Todd Gitlin explains, sometimes we are. We've seen America behave badly at times. And we aren't so sure we want America's misdeeds to be in our name.
But Gitlin goes further than this. He discusses the two main problems liberals often have with patriotism. The first is individualism. We Americans love freedom. We liberals often view ourselves as loving freedom even more than others. We love freedom so much that we hesitate to give up some of that freedom to support (and follow the orders of) any government, even our own.
Of course, if we are unwilling to defend those freedoms, we'll lose them. If we are willing to defend our freedoms, we may need to join an army (or at least be patriotic in some manner) which restricts those freedoms. However, if we truly love freedom, we need to put up with these restrictions or we'll be unable to find a way to defend our country when it is attacked.
In any case, we liberals are scared to see unthinking support of all American policies. We don't want genuine deliberation spoiled by unreflective flag-waving. And that makes us hesitate to wave that flag.
The second problem is cosmopolitanism. Flag-waving just plain looks provincial to us. It makes us look unpopular to the community we really feel we belong in, namely international society. And it makes us appear intolerant and uncooperative.
Still, there is a serious problem that we liberals face. Gitlin sums it up by explaining that many on the left simply settle for condemning what we're doing, rather than coming up with plans for improvement. And that leaves many of us without a positive program to espouse.
Sure, we want to present an alternative to those appear to us to be "faith-based, inclined to be impervious toward evidence, and tilted toward moral absolutism." But as the author shows, quite a few of us on the left appear to be just as faith-based, impervious to evidence, and tilted toward moral absolutism as the extremists on the far right. What we really need is an alternative to both of these extremes. And those who always condemn America but refuse to condemn fanatical terrorists are not providing us with that alternative.
Ideally, we want to come up with an intelligent and positive program that will improve society. And we want to remove some counterproductive ideas from our platforms. Of course, if we fail to do that, we'll probably alarm so many voters that we won't be given the opportunity to accomplish anything, whether it is of value or not.
I recommend this book.
Living just north of the World Trade Center, inhaling the acrid air containing the remains of the fallen buildings -- New Yorkers would eventually realize that the foul air also contained human remains -- Gitlin set about to rethink his political ideas and reassess how to revitalize the left. That is what tragedies should do: overwhelming grief should lead to serious rethinking. Instead of simply escaping the pain or worse exploiting the horror, Gitlin challenged the orthodoxies. What being patriotic means? What patriotism means for liberals? Is U.S. military intervention always bad? What is good about America? The result is his engaging, and courageous The Intellectuals and the Flag.
"This might," the 1960s icon writes in the introduction, "be a healthy time for an intellectual renaissance. The nation is deeply troubled, and for all cant about optimism and faith, much of the nation knows it is troubled."
An intellectual renaissance on the left is not going to be easy, Gitlin makes clear. The political left is essentially bankrupt; Marxism and postmodernism are exhausted. A right-wing coalition of plutocrats and fundamentalist Christians has controlled the politics of the nation for three decades.
In a previous book, Letters to a Young Activist (2003), Gitlin laid out what practical efforts liberals needed to undertake to regain political superiority. The Intellectuals and the Flag places an intellectual foundation under those practical efforts. The objective of the book, the author writes, is "to contribute to a new start for intellectual life on the left."
In this timely and lucidly written book, the professor begins with a survey of three intellectuals who in the 1950s were his personal models: David Riesman, C. Wright Mills, and Irving Howe. Then he examines the negative effects of postmodern thinking, the anti-political of Cultural Studies, and the values of media, citizenship, and higher education. The final section, the title essay, "The Flag and the Flag," is where Gitlin explores what most readers are most interested in: how did we get into this political mess?
"The tragedy of the left is that, having achieved an unprecedented victory in helping stop an appalling war, it then proceeded to commit suicide."
The left played a major role in ending the Vietnam War, but it also paid a heavy price. Immersed in the horror of Vietnam, day after day, year after year, too many of us developed an unbalanced, lopsided view of our country. We acquired an overly negative evaluation of America.
"But the hatred of a bad war, in what was evidently a pattern of bad wars -- though none so bad as Vietnam -- turned us inside out. It inflamed our hearts. You can hate your country in such a way that the hatred becomes fundamental."
In the wake of the Vietnam War, political leftists tended to immerse themselves in either radical individualism -- often devoid of politics -- or cosmopolitanism with a global perspective. This, it seems to me, left an opening on the national level that the right-wing, beginning during the era of Ronald Reagan, exploited successfully.
To return to political prominence, Gitlin stresses the left must end its knee-jerk slamming of America. It must stop being a mirror opposite of the right-wing that views America as always righteous. We need a patriotic left that "stands between Cheney and Chomsky," he quotes Michael Tomasky. We need to love our country, but love it for what we value. We need a liberal patriotism, not the right's patriotism of closed-minded obedience, not their patriotism of only symbolism, but patriotism that is open-minded and action oriented. And that means we need to be open to what in the past we automatically rejected.
"Post-Vietnam liberals have an opening now, freed of our sixties flag anxiety and our automatic rejection of the use of force. To live out a democratic pride, not a slavish surrogate, we badly need liberal patriotism, robust and uncowed."
Now is the time for liberals to reconnect with their nation, to celebrate its ideals while continuing to criticize its shortcomings, a liberal patriotism that says we will make sacrifices for our country because we love what is good about America.
"It is time for the patriotism of mutual aid, not just symbolic displays, not catechisms or self-congratulations. It is time to diminish the gap between the nation we love and the justice we also love. It is time for the real America to stand up."
And so Todd Gitlin, a major antiwar voice during the Vietnam War, an insightful and broadminded writer during Bush's Iraq War, calls upon the American left to embrace their country to make it the reality that we want America to be. If you are tired of a left politics assigned to the political margin, if you are tired of the status quo that paved the wave for George Bush and the Iraq War, buy this book. And then get to work.