Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is widely known for his role in the 1960s student movement as president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While Gitlin has written extensively on the media, the culture wars, and the New Left, in his most recent book he returns to the topic of student activism. Gitlin’s Letters to a Young Activist is the latest addition to "The Art of Mentoring" series inspired by Rainer Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
In Letters to a Young Activist, Gitlin emulates Rilke, addressing eleven didactic messages to the next generation of young activists. Gitlin’s topics, which range from "Patriotism without Embarrassment" to the "Burden of History," are bolstered by his extensive knowledge of fields including sociology, media studies, and history. The strength of the collection, however, lies in Gitlin’s willingness to set theory aside, reflect on personal experience, and speak directly to the reader. As Gitlin explains in the letter "On Duty, Love and Adventure, or Some Leaps of Faith,"
I will draw on a strong kind of knowledge that lacks the pleasing click of a theoretical box well constructed. This isn’t book learning. . . . This knowledge is plainer, more homely, and more practical, I hope (you be the judge), more useful and, I think, more true. (p. 2)
Gitlin offers the young activist advice on the art of political protest in his letter, "On Idealism and Right Action." He begins with an incisive critique of the media’s portrayal of the 1960s student movement, which he deems overly simplistic and distorted (p. 47). This has resulted, he insists, in a misunderstanding of activism that can be reduced to a familiar script: "Lights! Camera! Cops! Dissolve to Viet Cong flags flapping in the breeze to the soundtrack of ‘Street Fighting Man!’" (p. 47). Gitlin inspires the young activist with a personal story about the 1964 Free Speech Movement and a spontaneous sit-in at the University of California, Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, but he sternly warns that such acts cannot be blindly emulated. Gitlin instead advises the young activist that "the timing must be right, the tactic, apt. Originality counts. One size does not fit all" (p. 54).
Gitlin urges the young activist to act in ways that are creative and constructive. For example, Gitlin accepts use of violence for self-protection, but scorns those who embrace it as a tenable means of protest. Gitlin speaks from personal experience as president of SDS when he urges the young activist to be vigilant against infiltration by extremist groups like the Weathermen. In his reflection on the events of 1969, he describes "the Weathermen faction — speaking a Maoist-Guevaraist mishmash" successfully dismantling SDS, the student movement’s largest organization. Gitlin reminds the young activist that "a hundred people can start a riot even if ten thousand are wholly nonviolent" (p. 60). Moreover, he insists, the violent minority will always garner the media’s attention. To counter this, Gitlin tells the young activist to "be alert to the novelty of your historical situation. When you search for right action, be original. . . . Overcome the inertia of repetition." Lastly, he urges, "Put something on the earth that wasn’t there before" (p. 60).
Gitlin recognizes that the "Left and left of center" will likely be the audience for his letters (p. 2). Nevertheless, he does not avoid challenging the ideologies and beliefs widely held by members of this group. For example, in his eighth letter, "On Rendering unto Identity No More than Identity Is Due," Gitlin criticizes what he sees as the political orthodoxy that pervades college campuses. In particular, Gitlin warns the young activist away from identity politics, which, he states, "have the allure that the grand narrative of Marxism once enjoyed" (p. 126). Gitlin characterizes identity politics as a "conservative move" that balkanizes the Left into interest groups and "detracts from mobilizing for overarching goals" like universal health care and a better education system (p. 131). Gitlin urges the young activist to see the world in all its complexity and, to this end, commands young activists to "get off campus. . . . It’s not only good for your sense of reality, it’s good for your politics" (p. 131). Gitlin unequivocally endorses the importance of experiences that propel the student beyond the classroom. He writes, "Get to know people who don’t spend their days monitoring petty slights or working out theoretical positions. . . . Let the world shake you up — in other words, educate you" (p. 132).
Gitlin’s Letters to a Young Activist is based on a lifetime of experience, and the advice he offers is both politically and personally instructive. Moreover, Gitlin’s letters are artful examples of persuasive writing. As a result, they linger with the reader and demand to be reread.
J. de F.