_The Opposition_ and What They Opposed
A review of Todd Gitlin's novel on the activism of the 1960s
[Establishment vs. Anti-establishment in the streets of Chicago, August 1968]
The review of Todd Gitlin’s final book that I mentioned recently is now up at Public Discourse.
Below is a slightly longer version, with some discussion of the novel’s treatment of the black radicalism of the period that was edited out to get the PD version under the required word count.
The sociologist, media scholar, novelist, and public intellectual Todd Gitlin died in February of this year. The Opposition will be his final book barring the publication of other posthumous work. He was editing the final proofs of this novel at his death.
I have long been an avid reader of Gitlin’s sociological and political writing, and I got to know him personally just briefly in the last few years of his life. I admired him greatly, even though our politics were quite different. He wrote several novels in addition to his voluminous scholarly and public work, and, when I learned of his passing, I read several of them seeking to fill out my sense of his worldview. I knew he was working on The Opposition and hoped it would see the light of day, even if in an incomplete state, despite his death.
It turns out that the novel is a fitting summary statement of his rich reflection over the years on the meaning of the 1960s.
Sixties Activism and the Religious Spirit
The Opposition begins in 1963 and follows several characters through the remainder of the decade, concluding with an account of how their lives turned post-‘60s. Like Gitlin’s other novels, it is in close contact with his own biographical experience, and it is not at all difficult to make connections between some of his characters and real historical persons who, like the book’s author, were involved in the left activism of that period.
Gitlin does a superb job weaving complexity and contradiction into these characters, and this certainly must have been the reality among ‘60s youth activists. One wonders sometimes if contemporary young radicals have the same vibrant inner lives, as the simple-mindedness of some of their public statements suggests something else. Yet it is good to remember that the outward demeanor of many in the ‘60s was also brusque and unsophisticated, so one can hope.
There is a religious spark at the heart of some of these characters’ motivations, and Gitlin portrays it sensitively and even affirmatively. The early spirit of ‘60s activism—in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King Jr., most obviously—was fundamentally influenced by a Christian worldview, so the novel hews close to reality here.
Gitlin’s reputational profile was as a staunchly secular democratic leftist, critical of the stupidities of the woke extremism now so common on the left, but at least as intolerant of some of the position-taking of religious conservatives. Yet in his fiction one finds material to complicate this view of him. This novel and several others he wrote reveal how much he respected and owed to the Judeo-Christian moral universe that much of the contemporary left is prepared to jettison in its entirety.
The Opposition’s main character is Matt. His father is a minister, and Matt thinks often of Christ’s first disciples and attempts to translate some of their sense of mission into his own life. After declaring as a conscientious objector for the draft, he meditates intriguingly on the relationship: “His mind drifted back to the Apostles. If they were alive, they would spend their days crammed into caravans, swapping stories, breaking bread, pleading their case, discussing the resurrection of Jesus, figuring out whom to recruit and how to approach the Gentiles—heartened on behalf of humanity.” He rereads the Gospels “not because he believed but because he wanted to see what it might feel like to have faith.”
Later in the novel, as Matt drives westward in search of fresh activist opportunities, he meets a hitchhiker, a farm boy named Gerald, who is on his way to Cheyenne to say goodbye to his girlfriend before shipping off for Vietnam. Gerald is a devout Christian and a firm believer in the war. He takes a turn driving Matt’s car and, showing the practical knowledge well-read college graduates like Matt almost always lack, advises him to get the transmission looked at before tackling the Rockies. Matt likes Gerald and tries to get him to talk left-wing politics, but it is to no avail. Gerald cannot be made to understand the spirit of naive utopian rebellion that drives the antiwar movement. The conservative Christian kid clearly comes out the more admirable figure in this interaction, and even Matt recognizes it.
The Limits of the Sexual Revolution
Gitlin communicates the moral unseriousness of the sexual revolution in bold print, without explicitly taking a side. Honest reportage is enough to reveal its unstable nature, and the writer paints it authentically.
Valerie, Matt’s love interest, has a fully feminist politics of the body, and she treats sexual relationships with the requisite superficiality. Sex for her is something profane in the original sense of the world—mundane, worldly, completely separated from sacredness. She breaks up with Matt, whom she describes as another “notch on her freedom trail,” as she defines freedom as “the freedom to leave.” She sleeps around with a few others in the movement, including Wyatt, who later turns out to be a police informant, and ends up pregnant.
Gitlin then describes in detail the process of procuring an illegal abortion. The entire episode is, in the consideration of those involved, detached from the serious moral issue at hand. It is just a matter of making the right contact, driving to the city (Carterville, Pennsylvania) where the doctor willing to break the law is located, and undergoing the process. The abortionist is portrayed in heroic terms, Gitlin’s only lapse from his objective ethnographic technique here. But the reader still has no difficulty discerning the meagerness of Valerie’s view of the act. She reflects on the depth of this decision, or on the oddness of her own lack of moral concern about it, only once, and only fleetingly: “Valerie thought: I should be feeling terrible, but I don’t. What’s wrong with me?” Enough of the old culture is still in her to make her realize, at least viscerally if not intellectually, the derangement of her current perspective. But it is not enough to move her back to normalcy. Toward the end of the novel, when Matt seeks a renewing of their relationship, she coldly tells him that “they did not live in a world where relationships endured.”
In an earlier episode, just before Valerie discovers her pregnancy, a local women’s activist network in which she’s involved collapses because the working class woman Charlotte who is its central player catches her boyfriend Carlos sleeping with her young daughter and leaves the movement. Here is the sexual liberation movement of the ‘60s in its true colors of invitation to moral superficiality.
Generation Gap: The Parents Know More
Gitlin gives us a crystallized summary of the generation gap in an exchange between Matt and his parents on the war in Vietnam. Here, too, the novelist is honest and literarily broad-minded enough not to reduce the dialogue to his own preference and instead to give real breathing room to both positions. And it is Matt who gets the worst of it, sounding naively idealistic on the dismal human fact of war. “The United States of America sets fire to peasants,” he accuses. His father’s response comes from a place sadder, deeper, and more realistic than Matt’s youthful idealism: “All war is terrible…And you know what?...We did that in Japan! We did it in Germany! We burned down whole cities! Awful, terrible things! And they had to be done!”
Matt’s mother ties the government’s authority to make decisions of war to parental power. On some matters, one defers to authority because one is not capable of deciding reasonably. Her husband compellingly completes the argument: “Do you know what happens when everyone takes it upon himself to decide for himself when he’s going to listen to his father and when he’s going to turn his head and go on about his own business because he thinks he knows better? You have small children walking onto the train tracks just because they get the idea into their head. They see a butterfly or something. It’s pretty. The next thing you know…they’re gone. Boom. You have misrule. You have chaos.”
Matt attempts another challenge, and he is reminded that he has the life he has because of the two people with whom he is arguing.
Later he sits alone and thinks, in his still hyperbolic and deluded simplicity, of “this monstrosity of a nation” and realizes he will not be able to convince millions like his parents to believe what he believes.
The Powerlessness of Black Power and Other Revolutionary Radicalisms
The Civil Rights Movement and its descent into Black Power are rendered with nuanced care in The Opposition. There is legitimate moral outrage over black mistreatment, and this easily leads to unbounded anger and the openness to violence, which will predictably handicap the effort to fix the original problem. Gitlin cites Stokely Carmichael’s famous Black Power speech, and we follow Melissa as she listens. She nods in agreement at Carmichael’s adamant “I ain’t goin’ to jail no more!” but then recognizes with horror the wrong turn when he goes on to talk of burning down Mississippi courthouses.
The emergence of murderous violence in the ‘60s radicals is sketched with great critical acuity by the author. In an exchange over tactics at the Chicago Democratic convention, Ronnie and Terry lay out, respectively the suicidal revolutionary and the left reformist positions. Terry tells him that the crazed rioters in the streets in Chicago are helping to elect Richard Nixon and perhaps George Wallace. Ronnie sees no difference in any of the available candidates and envisions their movement as the sacrificial lamb that will be necessary to bring on the revolution: “We’re supposed to shriek—” going falsetto now “—Ooh, George Wallace, how scary!…We’d better be nice boys and girls or the bogeyman is gonna get us! That’s…[s]urrender talk. Look, the Vietnamese lose territory all the time—until they win…They have the long view. They think in centuries…[I]f that’s what it takes, let us be the sacrifice.”
Later, Terry tells Marcia that the slogan of the new Weatherman group she and Ronnie admire should be “Crazy power to crazy people.”
This is the End
The dramatic denouement of the novel comes when Matt makes plans to flee the US and the draft for Montreal. He makes contact again with Valerie and asks her to come with him. Before she can give him an answer (Matt strongly suspects she will refuse, and the reader has plenty of evidence of her character to support that guess), they are stopped by police for a faulty brake light. The police ask for IDs and Matt makes a run for it. He is fatally struck by an oncoming car.
It is a terrible outcome, and the novel leaves the reader understanding that the same is true of the trajectory of the ‘60s opposition. Gitlin reminds us that it was only the incompetence of the extremists, and the competence of their police adversaries, that prevented much more mayhem and human loss. While several Weathermen were accidentally blowing themselves up in a Manhattan townhouse in 1970, others in another city had planted two bombs intended to murder hundreds of police officers. Fortunately, both were discovered before detonating. It is a scandal that this kind of fact is not on page 1 of every history of the ‘60s movement, and Gitlin merits great credit for unblinkingly including it in his account.
Another of the youthful radicals, Sally, offers a fitting conclusion for the novel in her reflection years later: “One of the problems smart people have is they don’t know when they’re not being smart.”
I do not suggest that this reading of the novel is the only one possible, or even that it would have been one of the preferred readings of its author, and certainly not in his more purely political activist/public intellectual moments. But that it is one of the readings that can plausibly be made of the book is a testimony to the great openness and the writerly talent of the late Todd Gitlin. From beyond the grave, a former leader in the ‘60s movement gives us a cautionary tale about its meaning and its consequences in contemporary American culture.
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