The Passing of Todd Gitlin and Lessons Political and Spiritual
In gratitude for his writing and his spirit
[Todd at Bucknell, October 18, 2018]
I loved Todd Gitlin, who died February 5th after a brief illness, just a month after his 79th birthday, from the moment I met him, in the form of his books. I first encountered his writing when I was, like him, a man of the left, and my absorption into his perspective was effortless and nearly total. As a young radical with a vigorous interest in American cultural and political history, I was magnetically drawn to his wise, expressive style in telling stories of the formative battles of the hothouse of the political 1960s, in many of which he had directly participated.
I can still remember working my way through his profound and honest The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage for the first time, and comparing it to other works I had read on the topic, nearly all of which lined up pristinely and unself-consciously on one side or another of a clear, impermeable barrier separating them. Much of its power and its complexity comes from the fact that it is written by an insider, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), who notwithstanding his clear convictions nonetheless managed to get enough distance from the ground he occupied then to issue a report that could convince even skeptics and political opponents of its veracity. It is convincing because of Todd’s skillful ability to perform criticism and self-criticism at once, seamlessly and artfully. American institutions, in his account, had gone wrong in significant ways, and this would need to be addressed. But this failure would need to be addressed always in the spirit of the rightly venerated American democratic principle from which it had deviated, and when the critics themselves deviated from those sacred principles, they too had to be held to account. I greatly admired Todd’s fervent spirit to get things right, to engage in the game of politics not simply as a win-lose team sport, but as part of a collective effort to better bring the country into alignment with its original vision.
The same energy to turn the critical lens back on the left when needed that can be seen in the book on the ‘60s, published in the mid-1980s, could be seen in his Letters to a Young Activist a quarter century later. There, he cautioned his aspiring activist reader that “you can fall in love with your outrage.” He strenuously criticized those during the tumult of the ‘60s who did just that. His analysis of the Black Panther Party, the prototype black revolutionary organization that Black Lives Matter leaders claim as an inspiration, is wholly in tune with today’s critics of that later movement. The Panthers had “hijacked” a legitimate movement for racial reconciliation, and movement intellectuals had irresponsibly renounced their critical spirit to “stare…dumbfounded and thrilled” by the sensational and often criminal activities of Newton, Seale, Cleaver et al.
An argumentative key of The Whole World Is Watching, in which Todd described the mass media’s contribution to the nature and transformation of the ’60s youth movement, focused on the fact that in the mid-‘60s SDS had experienced a generational shift. The early SDS contingent—of which Todd was himself a member—were born just before or at the start of the Baby Boom. They were replaced by the so-called “Prairie Power” SDSers of the later Baby Boom. What had originally been a movement of radicals largely from the East Coast, intellectually oriented and bookish, substantially Jewish, and in careful dialogue with the Old Left even when they were critical became more Midwestern in origin, less Jewish, less motivated by theory and intellectual history, more populist, romantic, and reckless about direct action, and caustically and often vulgarly dismissive of the Old Left, and just about everything else. Todd classified the distinction in shorthand with a comment Mark Rudd, who would later become an important figure in the terrorist Weatherman outfit that emerged from the ashes of SDS, made to him in response to Todd’s advocacy for cautious, painstaking, careful political labor: “Organizing is another way of saying ‘go slow.’” Todd never varied from this stern commitment to avoid extremism and to pursue the movement’s goals through the means of tried and true democratic principle.
My politics eventually diverged from Todd’s, and significantly so, yet this changed nothing of my admiration for him. That he was a writer I adored and envied made the divergence in politics almost inconsequential. His passionate concern that moral ideals be evaluated by reference to fact and reality and his rejection of the shortcuts of extremism guaranteed that any ideological differences between us could not much diminish the deep ground of our agreements. A half century after the ‘60s reached a cataclysmic apogee in the assassinations and riots of 1968, I planned a symposium at the university where I am employed on the legacy of the ‘60s revolution. Even though much of the story I wanted to tell had to do with the negative consequences for contemporary America, Todd was the first person I thought to invite.
He was unapologetic during our public conversation at the symposium in his defense of the political work in which he had participated in that turbulent period, but that defense was tempered with his usual rigor, reason, and good humor. Above all else, it shone with his commitment to the deep American principles to which the thoughtful on all sides adhere and agree. He was clear about the need to keep the country’s discussion of its past and future open to all sincere participants, regardless of their ideological commitments, while acknowledging that an increasing segment of the intellectual class seemed to have turned against that spirit. When I told him, in the aftermath of his visit to Bucknell, that there had been an absurd effort by a small group of Woke leftist faculty here to attack the series of which his talk was a part as consisting of a stream of “right-wing speakers,” apparently having failed to notice that the kickoff event for the whole thing was a visit by a former president of SDS, his succinct response made me laugh out loud: “Of idiots there is no end.”
I was on an email list of friends and colleagues that Todd maintained from the time of his visit here in 2018 until his death. Only a week or so after he was hospitalized, a fact of which I was unaware at the time, I sent him a note that attests to how I thought of him. I had written something critical of some of the rhetoric on the right concerning COVID, after having a bit more than a year earlier publicly criticized with equal vigor the rhetoric on the same topic in some segments of the left. I told him I was having trouble finding interest in it at the sources typically interested in my work, and I suggested it was an indication of the growing difficulty of saying things outside of strict polar ideological boundaries. I knew, or strongly suspected in any event, that if anyone of my acquaintance would understand the feeling of being caught between ideological poles, it would be Todd.
Alas, I never got to hear his thoughts on this topic.
Lessons on How Not to Destroy One Another (and Ourselves) in Politics
Despite appearances to this point, this is not a eulogy for Todd Gitlin. I did not know him personally well or long enough for such an honor, and those who did so know him have attended admirably already to the task of praising this remarkable man. I write to relate two lessons Todd taught me, even though I do not make a claim to any intention on his part to teach me those things. I have spent a quarter century now pursuing the professorial calling, and the central thing I have learned over that time is that what teachers intend to teach and what students wind up learning from them are only very occasionally the same thing. Some of the most beautiful instruction seems to take place entirely behind the backs of both teachers and pupils.
I learned from Todd practical lessons about the importance of reaching out to those with whom we differ on important matters, in good will and brotherhood, even while we hold to the beliefs that separate us. When he visited my campus, he told two compelling stories on this theme to conclude our public interview. My colleague on stage, the sociologist of class and inequality Jennifer Silva, asked him a question about how to have conversations with those with whom we disagree, describing the fear of division and judgement that many on college campuses experience when they contemplate engaging with those who represent the highly intolerant, quasi-totalitarian woke orthodoxy. Todd described a scene at which he was present while visiting an inmate at Ryker’s Island. Another visitor began yelling at a prison official, then escalated to kicking chairs. “It was a scary moment,” he told the audience. A guard appeared, a muscular, imposing figure, and he approached the violent visitor. He stood in front of the angry man, calmly, confidently, and asked in a measured voice “How can we move this forward?” “It was a great moment, really memorable,” Todd remarked. He went on: “I’ve used that line since then…Even when I haven’t used it, I’ve thought it.” It was a splendid, real world example of how to endeavor to pursue productive dialogue even amid the most tumultuous disagreement.
He then told another story, this one of a candidate for Congress in New York City who, after a town meeting, was confronted by a voter strongly on the other side of the aisle. The two of them had a difficult but mutually respectful conversation in the parking lot afterward.
[E]ventually [the candidate] turned to the guy,” Todd noted, “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!”…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!”
It is hard for me, too, as for many of us. And it was tremendously affirming to hear one of my intellectual heroes admit frankly to the challenge, and to hear him reaffirm the imperative of the effort, even when we suspect its limitations in advance. Our country is in a time at which there are few cultural attitudes we need more than that encapsulated in the guard’s resolute but profoundly open-hearted question: “How can we move this forward?”
Spiritual Affirmations from Unexpected Places
The second lesson Todd taught me, of even greater profundity than the first, is that spiritual instruction sometimes comes shrouded, and from where you least expect it.
I knew nothing about Todd’s religious beliefs, nor even if he had any. I knew he was Jewish but had always presumed he must be the kind of secular Jew thoroughly detached from religious elements of that identity who is so commonly encountered on the American political left. I was aware that that he had closely considered the importance of religious discourse in politics in a wonderful book, The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election, he co-authored with an Israeli scholar, Liel Lebovitz. In it, the authors described having set out with an inclination to see the cultural tendency in the US and Israel as “a scourge” and with the motivation to “deflate it utterly, to apply all the sobriety and reason we could muster to overcome this historic misapprehension.” However, as the inquiry proceeded, they were surprised by what they found. American and Israeli understandings of the sacred chosenness of their national identities, unique among all others, give both peoples deep wellsprings of moral principle to make sense of their victories and, more crucially, to undertake corrections of their missteps. Civil religion in both lands, they came to understand, has productive uses, and may in fact be the vehicle for moving their two projects, and the rest of the globe, forward.
I knew too that in the wake of 9/11 Todd had written in poetic and politically euphoric terms of American civil religious solidarity. He excoriated those on the far left such as Noam Chomsky, who, even when the rubble of the towers was still smoking, blamed the US for the attack. He talked of the simple emotional expression of the act of flying an American flag outside his New York City apartment. He evinced his disappointment with colleagues who disdained such pure communal and civil religious assertion of identity and unity in the name of a bloodless criticism devoid of the requisite patriotic love for compatriots who had just died innocently at the hands of assassins who desired the death of us all.
But I had not suspected there was still richer such material in some of his other writing. At breakfast the morning after his appearance in the symposium, I told Todd unguardedly how much I was enjoying his novel Undying, which I had begun reading along with my rereading of several of his other books in preparation for his visit. It tells the story of a philosophy professor in New York, a scholar of Nietzsche, who is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes treatment, all the while reflecting anxiously on his mortality. It was also a novel about the rebirthed relationship of an intellectually distant father and a wandering, alienated daughter. And it was a moral tale of the precious necessity for a thinking, feeling person to accept oppositions, challenges, enemies—and not only to accept them, but to love them.
Undying’s protagonist, Alan Meister, is diagnosed with lymphoma in the immediate aftermath of George Bush’s reelection in 2004. As he begins treatment and faces his own morality, he learns that his estranged daughter is pregnant. The father, who was a one-night stand, is out of the picture, but Natasha has decided to have the child. Meister asks her if she’s sure, to which she replies: “Absolutely. A closed question. It’s not a question.”
The possible death looming for Meister is juxtaposed throughout the novel to the new life his daughter is bringing forth. Meister notes his daughter’s physical transformation with the pregnancy (“Her skin takes on that translucent look of women in Renaissance paintings”) and then describes a young couple standing on the sidewalk kissing, a baby carriage next to them. After walking several blocks more, he turns to look at them again, and they are still locked in that embrace, a symbol of the eternal generative power of love.
Near the end of the novel, in a passage I had not yet read when I mentioned the book to Todd, as Meister realizes he has been cured, and thinking of the coming birth of his grandchild and of his renewed relationship to Natasha, he tidily sums up the emotional content of the novel. In this, his most vulnerable and joyous moment, Meister, a scholar of Nietzsche, I remind you, who is accused in the novel of being a too obsequious disciple of that fated philosopher by his wife, euphorically speaks in the language not of Thus Spake Zarathustra or Beyond Good and Evil, but of the Book of Genesis:
“Generation, generate, generous—the etymology is proof that we replenish ourselves and so the human race throws itself into time immemorial and unending—Beget, by God, be God, begin the beguine—Joy floods the room, joy in my bones, reckless joy, joy of the blood, joy of the heart, joy circulating to places beyond my probably healthy lymph.”
Todd dedicated Undying to a child, a boy who is now a high school student. I could not definitively verify this, but my suspicion based on some poking about online is that the boy is Todd’s grandchild. And he is the child Natasha carries in the novel.
After I learned of Todd’s death, I read another of his novels. Sacrifice features similar reflection on the efforts of a New York intellectual to carve out a moral, ultimately spiritual project from secular materials. In this case, the central character is a psychoanalyst rather than a philosopher, and Freud rather than Nietzsche is the chief intellectual figure on whom he relies. But here, as in Undying, and in this book still more profoundly, Judeo-Christian principles are the motivating force driving the outcome of the narrative.
The protagonist Chester Garland has authored several books that directly reflect on Jewish religious tradition and figures and the ways in which they can or cannot be made sense of in secular psychoanalytic terms. As in Undying, intergenerational familial relationships are central in Sacrifice. Garland’s estranged son endeavors to understand his father’s trajectory and the nature of their apparently failed relationship after his death. The eternal religious question of the nature of love and our connection to eternity emerges.
The father’s relationship with his son was distant, and the son cannot but wonder in what ways that psychoanalyst father’s attempt to write his way through the archetypal Judeo-Christian father-son relationship of Abraham and Issac in his most important book might constitute an effort to make up for his own paternal failures. The son learns, in reading his father’s journal after his death, of the personal shockwaves that led him to abandon his family. Garland had a brief affair with a Czech immigrant in Paris, a woman with a young son Garland came to love as his own child. But the affair ended abruptly when Garland caused an accident that left his lover’s son permanently disabled.
Garland feels tremendous culpability for this accident. Though he knows he did not intend to hurt the boy, it was solely his action that caused the harm. His son Paul comes to recognize from this terrible event that his father’s fallenness must be accepted as the frailty of all life, as emblematic of the moral struggle all of us face in a world that eludes our desires and intentions and presents us with insolubly complex realities. All we can do in such a world, Paul comes to understand, is try as best we can to adhere to the good. Chester Garland, in his familial and professional lives, had succeeded on this ground: “His father took broken lives, including his own, and did what he could.”
In a long passage, Gitlin describes the experience Garland, a secular Jew, had of God while on a French train. He had intended to take a day trip to Chartres, to see the medieval cathedral there, but had boarded the wrong train and wound up heading in the wrong direction, to an unknown town, his original plan dashed. Spontaneously, he decides to accept the new trajectory, and it is while on it that he meets Milena, the Czech woman who becomes his lover. After having made the decision to be carried by his mistake toward a destination he does not know, he writes:
“I leaned back and canceled my debt to the past. Just like that, I wrote it off. Just like that, it released me. What did it matter that I had made mistakes? That was my nature…Everything in my mind converged…I heard the words “God is here.”…There was no doubt that I had heard those words…They resounded. A power in the third person, the more-than-personal person, revealed itself in this way: God-is-here…God is not words or concepts. God is the essence…The true God is nothing of which you have any idea. The word “God” is an ash of the original Holiness…[T]hat God, the First Cause, the Ground of All Being, the Bottom of Things, was with me.”
It is after his experience in Paris, which led to his divorce and estrangement from his family, that Garland took it upon himself to work through some of the most important familial narratives in the Book of Genesis. Garland meditated long on the relationship of Old Testament fathers and sons from Abraham down to Jacob and Esau, in an effort to work through his own relationship to sons—including the boy he so grievously injured in France—and to investigate what can seem from the human perspective to be the inscrutability of God.
“What does God want?” Garland writes, “The God who demands loyalty is the same God Who judges that torture is wrong, and puts up with it, and commands us to stop it.” As Abraham was prepared to carry out the atrocity of sacrificing Isaac, Isaac accepted the trickery of Jacob and the robbing of the blessing he intended for Esau, his favored son. What appear two terrible fatherly injustices are remade by God’s plan into important affirmations of His covenant with the people of Abraham and Isaac. Gitlin’s Chester Garland takes his place in this line of fathers.
Todd’s novels are hardly a mere distraction from his more widely appreciated writing as a social scientist and public intellectual. They demonstrate authentic literary flare, descriptive acuity, and an ability to communicate complex philosophical themes in dramatic aesthetic form. The Opposition, which will be published in June as his final novel, is his effort to capture what he called the “way of life” of the ‘60s activist during that fulminating time. I cannot wait to read it, and I trust that it will teach me things about the experience of that time that few other people are capable of communicating.
But the value of his novels for me is grander than the merely literary. I return to the accident of spiritual pedagogy. The abruptness of Todd’s departure from this world shocked me, as it certainly must have done to others among his friends and acquaintances, and I was inconsolably sad over it for some days after I heard the news. Then I began looking back through his books, and I came again upon the passage in Undying that I cite above. After reading Sacrifice, a great calm came over me as I bore witness to Chester Garland’s faltering but authentic pursuit of the holy. I was moved and heartened to see how much questions of the human experience of God had motivated Todd, in the fiction in which he was most free to express himself most fully. I felt a message had been communicated to me, a message about Todd if not necessarily from him, and about me too. Something accidental but undeniable in his writing. Perhaps not an accident, but rather something articulated elsewhere than in the minds of readers and writers.
In a conversation I had with him the night of his talk at Bucknell, we talked among other topics about consciousness and the mind. Would science finally be able to unravel the mystery of our awareness of our existence, of our ability to reflect on our place in the world? Would it reduce our minds to the material entity that is the brain? I noted that this is the endgame of atheism, it seems clear, and as some atheist public intellectuals today straightforwardly and enthusiastically proclaim. What other destination could such a belief system have? It seemed, I went on, the logical and necessary conclusion of a rationalist and materialist commitment of the sort that one finds in most atheism. I was paraphrasing, in retrospect, ideas I had then recently been perusing as part of a book project on which I was working, but I think too I was trying to sound out his view on this important matter.
He refused to accept that we could be so understood. Science was a great, good thing, but this would be unsolvable, he believed, or at least it would prove far more difficult than we could imagine even in our most sophisticated scientific stance, because something about us remains irreducible.
Something irreducible. I cannot but read Meister and Garland—novelistic versions of Todd Gitlin, I think it clear—as proposing a definition of that something, and one that is perfectly consistent with the principles of the two faiths that are the primary spiritual heritage of the society into which Todd and I were born.
If Todd proves right, and we are so irreducible, it will be a wondrous thing. For it will mean there is a chance that Todd goes on, and that I might one day meet him again.
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