- Series: Art of Mentoring
- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Basic Books; 1 edition (April 10, 2003)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0465027385
- ISBN-13: 978-0465027385
- Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 8 customer reviews
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Letters to a Young Activist (Art of Mentoring) 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism, is a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, an influential radical '60s group, one of whose primary focuses was anti-Vietnam War activities. Although his stated intention is to provide a guide for future activists, Gitlin may find a more receptive audience among baby boomers who participated in the '60s antiwar protests and have struggled to extract meaning from their own history. While Gitlin tries hard to convince his target audience that he understands them and once felt as they now feel-angry, impatient, outraged and above all convinced of his own rightness-it is unclear whether they would embrace his conclusions any more than Gitlin's generation embraced the suggestions of the Old Left. Such a response might be unfortunate, as Gitlin, who writes earnestly and has a knack for aphoristic observations, has some unusual points. For example, he derides Ralph Nader's third-party run for president as "narcissism wearing a cloak of ideals." He also offers insightful observations on the need for both outsider activists and sympathetic insiders to make meaningful changes in public policy, the dangers of identity politics and the requirement that activists willingly seek and accept institutional power. He eloquently argues for the need to resist the temptation of violence. On more than one occasion, however, Gitlin's prose is abstract and convoluted, verging on the overwrought. He also sometimes loses control of his metaphors ("when guilt and rage slip their leash, they murder the future in the name of an unsalvageable past"). By and large, though, this is a generous and well-meaning book, which may interest aging activists and, perhaps, the young audience at which it is aimed.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Gitlin, Columbia University journalism professor and former president of the 1960s activist group Students for a Democratic Society, offers encouragement and cautionary notes to current-day activists. Written in the form of a personal letter to today's idealists, Gitlin's book concedes a focus on liberal causes, noting that the conservative impulse is to avoid change even when it is for the good: "no noise, no improvement." Looking back on his own experiences, Gitlin ponders those principles that have guided his own political actions and acknowledges the ponderous shadow that 1960s activism casts over the current generation. He encourages steadfastness, historical perspective, idealism tinged with realism, and faith. In separate chapters, all interspersed with recollections from the 1960s protest movements, Gitlin focuses on the character and discipline needed to sustain social movements, the need for compromise and tempering anger, and how to maintain patriotism and democratic ideals and continue to agitate for social justice. For former and current activists, this is a thoughtful and philosophical look at the personal delight and social efficacy of activism. Vanessa Bush
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
I was never an activist during the 60s - by the time I was old enough to get out in the streets, the activism had degenerated into factional infighting, and it was clear that the Left was intent on killing itself in a purification rite before it would bother crossing swords with any real adversary. So I was a hedonistic hippie instead, and also bothered to get great grades in school, where I did join protests, but only if they didn't cut into my nookie time and my stoning time. Thenceforth, I went through Law School, passed the Bar, and practiced.
I did bring some of the idealism of the 60s with me, but not by becoming a docrinaire libertarian lawyer, just by letting the wholistic healthy attitudes of the bygone days permeate my practice. I retired from the Bar after about 12 years, it really wasn't good for me to be an adversarial professional, even though I did some aspects of it very well, including three winning briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court. Maybe I was activist enough, in my way.
"Letters" is a well organised series of mini-treatises, each tightly focussed on a tightly - defined theme. There are Letters about self-perception, about taking a stance, about one's setting in the world, and about what might be appropriate expectations for the results of one's activism. Here's a man who has "been there and done that", but he does not condescend - rather he commiserates. He does not pontificate, rather he relates his feelings about having seen the limitations of the viewpoints of himself and those around him, and gives to the reader the wish that they will learn from both the successes and failures of his generation, that the new group may truly stand on their shoulders, and thus be as giants in the struggle to get some good done in this world.
It is very much about "this world" that Gitlin writes. Not only generally about this world, but about being American, being an activist for social and political good, and being in the present day reality. He is an avowed "anti-anti-American", though himself a founder of the SDS, he hung out the American Flag at his New York house in the days following "9-11". Whilst lamenting the squandered opportunities that the U.S.A. had to hand in the weeks and months after those events, he seeks to spur on the new activists to greater achievements whilst cautioning them against many of the dead-end-streets available, the distractions, the freeloaders and those who would hijack an activists movement and sap their energies.
Gitlin writes in a familiar, almost folksy tone, reminiscent of a relaxed afternoon conversation in comfortable surroundings. Whilst sometimes circuituous in getting to a point, or neglecting to reach a conclusion in a clear manner, he gets his message across in a manner that's at once experienced, learned and of heartfelt urgency. With the reader's progress through the Letters, there is greater clarity to the writing, or else one simply becomes accustomed to his style, so it reads more smoothly and seems more focussed and clear.
I appreciated reading this contribution to the series "The Art of Mentoring", and hope that it has a positive place in the libraries of activists, both now and in the future. If I had been minded towards a life of activism, I would see great value in these hard-won lessons, and would value these Letters as though they'd been written - or spoken - directly to me.
©2006 David C.P. Leland
With eloquence and insight, former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) president Todd Gitlin imparts to the younger generation the wisdom acquired over five decades of activism. His LETTERS TO A YOUNG ACTIVIST is both a celebration of the joy and necessity of social change and a cautionary note regarding the traps of nihilism, black-and-white thinking, and self-righteous purity.
For those young people who despair that the era of dramatic social change is over, Gitlin offers some valuable perspective. In reflecting on the Sixties--for many of today's activists, an idealized decade that dwarfs everything since--Gitlin reminds the reader that the decade was as traumatic as it was exhilarating. Crucially, he also points out that "The Sixties" didn't simply explode out of thin air; the social movements that characterized the time emerged slowly, amid much initial opposition.
Gitlin urges young activists to remain passionate and playful, but also to think strategically and be mindful of the consequences of their words and actions. LETTERS has the feel of a friendly yet animated chat, and Gitlin's advice never approaches condescension. As an activist who has experienced frustration and burnout, I found this book to be a reminder of why I became an activist in the first place.