A eulogy for Todd Gitlin
Sociologist, media scholar, public intellectual, activist, and just a great writer and a really good guy
[We’re on spring break this week, and I’m going to use the time to try to chop into a pile of things that is getting so large that it’s threatening to fall over on top of me, so at this point I’m thinking things will be light here for the week, and I just might take the whole week off and come back on 3/21. Maybe I’ll change my mind tomorrow. Maybe not.
I did want to put this up as a brief statement on the death of Todd Gitlin, which I learned about only last Friday. He died early last month but, again, I am in such effective retreat from any kind of news other than what shows up in my email that I missed it then. He and his work occupy a very important part of my own intellectual history, and he was someone I admired tremendously not only when my politics more or less coincided with his but also after I had left the left, so I’m going to try to write my way through some of that in a more elaborated way this coming week.
For now, here is the response to a question posed to Todd during a 2018 Bucknell visit at my invitation. The occasion was a colloquium on the legacy of the 1960s. (The whole interview can be found in this book). I find it a beautiful and optimistic statement of the possibility—the necessity, really—of meaningful and sincere dialogue between the opposing sides in the contemporary American political divide, however deep the divide sometimes seems and however impossible it somehow appears for us to find ways to talk to one another…]
[my then-Bucknell colleague Jennifer Silva posed the following question to Todd]: I am thinking about the idea of America as a conversation and it reminds me of many of my students, some of whom are here, who think that conversation has become impossible and that even on campus they feel like their relationships with people who don't think like them are hostile and they feel division and judgement. How does one begin this conversation even at this very local level on campus?
Todd Gitlin: I do not think it’s easy and I don't think I’m especially good at it. There is something of a therapeutic notion that it can be helpful, at least for certain conversational purposes, to say “OK, let's put aside what we disagree about and concentrate for a moment on what we agree about, then we’ll find out whether we’re Americans here together. Let's take a look at this.” I think that's a worthy exercise.
I want to tell a story, something that just popped into my mind. We were talking before at dinner about prisons. I had some remarkable experiences a few years ago. I went to visit a prisoner, a political prisoner I would call her, at Riker’s Island, the big prison island in New York City. And on one of these occasions, I was waiting to see this young woman who had been arrested and beaten and then charged with felonious assault on a policeman. There was a visitor on the other side of the room who was yelling at a prison official, really scurrilous, profane, harsh, vicious and seemed quite menacing, and then he came out of that part of the room and started charging around and kicking chairs and pounding lockers. It was a scary moment. Then there appeared a guard, he was an officer, I’d guess. He was wearing a white uniform. A striking looking man, short, but very stocky, big shoulders. He was black and the troublemaking, angry guy was also black. The guard walked up to the troublemaking guy and stood there, as if to say, “You can't yell me away,” and finally the guy subsided for a minute and the guard looked at him and he said, “How can we move this forward?” For me, it was a great moment, really memorable. And the guy cooled out! First of all, you didn't want to attack this guy lightly. He was husky and looked muscular. But I’ve used that line since then. In family fights, I’ve used it. Even when I haven't used it, I’ve thought it. It’s always a good question to ask.
I’ll tell you another story I just heard the other night. I went to a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 19th Congressional District, which is where I vote. His name is Antonio Delgado, and he's black. He's running against an incumbent Republican. He told the following story. The night before, he’d been at a town meeting in the town of Kinderhook, which is up near Albany on the Hudson River, and he had a big crowd, but as he was entering he saw there was a big flatbed truck parked out in front. It had two huge American flags on it and a sign that said “Trump.” The guy was there. He went in, he did the rally, Delgado left. When he left, the parking lot had emptied out, except this guy was still there with his flatbed truck. Delgado was walking across the parking lot to get to his car, and the guy yelled out to him. He said, “Hey Delgado, come over here!” Delgado said, “I didn't really know what this was, but OK.” Delgado’s a big guy, it should be said. He went over to him and the guy wanted to give him a piece of his mind. He said, “I wanna tell you my story.” His story was something like Roger Adams’ story [ATR: Jen had earlier told Todd a story from her own research in central PA with underclass whites, based on a guy with the pseudonym Roger Adams]. This guy had lost his small business when the financial meltdown took place. His house was under water. His life had turned very bad. And Delgado engaged him in conversation. He said on some things they could agree, on some things they disagreed. But he said it was a serious conversation and I gather it went on for quite some time and eventually Delgado turned to the guy and he said, “So, let me ask you: are you gonna vote for me?” And the guy said, “I’m gonna think about it.” And I thought, “Well, this is really impressive!” Delgado is actually a natural politician, but that's a politician in the highest sense. Somebody that appreciates the opportunity to have a conversation, which means also sometimes listening to things that you hate and trying to figure out how to relate to them.
I don't think anybody can write a manual about how to have a political conversation, but I like such moments when people encounter each other and think that there's value even in a clear expression of divergent views. It doesn't have to come to a happy ending, but it's valuable insofar as it is itself a rich human experience.
I’m talking myself into it now. Why is it so hard for me? This is my better self speaking!