Columbia University Press, 2006, 167 pages
Todd Gitlin explores the meaning of patriotism and advocates a stronger liberal patriotism.
For many Americans, the shock and horror of 9/11 dissipated within months, driven into the subconscious, replaced by the old trench thinking and its accompanying political combat. Some even enlisted the atrocity as a bogus rational for waging a senseless, immoral war in Iraq. Todd Gitlin, a former 1960s radical and president of Students for Democratic Society, today an esteemed professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, put the horror to better use.
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.
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."
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