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The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars Paperback – November 15, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
Taking on both the multiculturalists and their critics, Gitlin argues that the "culture wars" are undermining the common ground of American society.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The author, a well-known cultural critic and author of The Sixties (1987), focuses on the politics of textbook adoption in Oakland, California, in the early 1990s. He sees this process as a microcosm of the ways in which the public debate of issues generates more heat than light. The textbooks under consideration, written by a well-known multiculturalist and former leftist activist, were attacked as racist; the charges, made by people who were former activists themselves, were accompanied by a level of acrimony and rage out of all proportion to the subject at hand. Meanwhile, Gitlin notes, the larger issue, the fact that state funding of education has been repeatedly slashed, goes undebated. Widening his discussion, Gitlin goes on to talk about the decline of the Left, whose preoccupation with the needs of select "identities" and "cultures" has caused the movement to squander its energy on petty turf wars. He also argues that the Right, formerly associated with privileged interests, now claims to speak for the common good and has parlayed this image into considerable political clout. Gitlin calls for a return to consensus building in this lucid, eloquent, and persuasive book, which seeks to move us out of the current climate of bitterness and hypersensitivity and toward a more reasoned debate of our most pressing social problems. Joanne Wilkinson --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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.
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.