Todd Gitlin Told His Truth Everywhere He Went

Todd Gitlin Told His Truth Everywhere He Went

Todd Gitlin Told His Truth Everywhere He Went

The writer and activist combined intellectual complexity and honesty with a lifelong commitment to liberal humanist values.


I met Todd Gitlin the weekend of October 17, 1987. It was the beginning of what would become a decades-long “beautiful friendship.” (We shared a favorite movie in Casablanca.) I can pin down the date because our meeting took place at the ridiculous Second Thoughts Conference in which apostate liberals and New Leftists were gathered to denounce their former selves and embrace the new right. It took place at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Washington, D.C., and was organized by left-wing Stalinists turned right-wing Stalinists David Horowitz and Peter Collier, with funding from a Christian conservative foundation led by the son of the far-right Alabama Senator Jeremiah Denton, together with the Bradley and Olin foundations. Funnily enough, it took place around the time that Ronald Reagan’s Iran/Contra plot was revealed and of the largest single drop in the stock market since 1929. These week’s events signaled the long-awaited end to the Reaganite hegemony these folks had gathered to celebrate.

I was just a cub reporter, there for Mother Jones, but Todd was there as a star. He was a former president of Students for a Democratic Society—he succeeded Tom Hayden—as well as the premier chronicler of the movement in his then-recently published masterful-but-critical history, The Sixties. The conference’s hosts badly wanted his endorsement. Todd did them the courtesy of taking them seriously. This was more than these clowns deserved, but it was a principle Todd lived by. A person could come up to him and pick an argument over Antonio Gramsci or Theodor Adorno, and Todd would stop walking and consider what was being said and reply thoughtfully. Speaking from the audience—he and the historian Michael Kazin were writing about the conference together for Tikkun—Todd proceeded to make the kind of subtle distinctions about the New Left’s legacy that every speaker at that conference had, for two days, refused to admit. His brief performance impressed me as much with its cool, calm delivery as it did with its erudition.

For the first few years of our friendship, I played the role of Todd’s student. I’m sure our mutual close friend Kazin recalls the wonderful dinner the three of us shared in 1993, not long before Todd’s 50th birthday at San Francisco’s venerable Fior d’Italia, where Todd explained to us why we should take Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History seriously, based on Todd’s own study of Hegel and Alexandre Kojève, the French Hegelian philosopher upon whom Fukuyama based his much-misunderstood argument. Here again was Todd at his best. He did not dismiss what was widely understood on the left as just another right-wing punditocracy talking point but located Fukuyama’s thesis in the history of thought and its relationship to politics. I have tried to emulate this quality ever since.

Todd was no less devoted to activism and organizing than he was to scholarship. This was harder than it looks. To be an honest intellectual, as I once heard Susan Sontag—another friend and fan of Todd’s—say, is to make distinctions. To be a successful activist, however, requires the elision of such distinctions in the name of movement unity. By the time he died in early February at 79, Todd was the veteran of more movements than most of us can remember hearing of. He spoke at rallies, in classrooms, at dinners, and cocktail parties, just as he published in scholarly sociological publications, on op-ed pages and obscure political websites, in underground zines, student newspapers, and, on occasion, these pages. (During presidential elections, he would auction off private meals to raise money for whoever was the least worst Democratic candidate.) He also wrote books of sociology, history, current events, advice to young activists, as well as poetry and fiction. Yeah, Todd had something to say about almost everything, and, as Kazin told The New York Times, he sometimes made his points rather testily. But in all these venues, he said the same things. He did not bastardize his views depending on the audience. He did not oversimplify. He made critical distinctions at rallies and spoke personally, from his heart, in graduate seminars. Whether the cause was to revive the 1930s’ labor/intellectual alliance, working to pressure his alma mater, Harvard, to divest from fossil fuels, or voicing his opposition to the academic boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement aimed at Israel, Todd told his complicated truth everywhere he went. It’s even there in his novels. (I can’t speak to the poetry.) It would have been all but impossible to agree with everything Todd said and wrote, but I submit that it would—or should—have been just as difficult not to respect it.

Todd’s legacy is larger than can be documented here. He deserves to be remembered not only for his writings about the ’60s but also for his pioneering media criticism and his early critique of academic and left-wing identity politics. It was way back in his 1995 book, The Twilight of Common Dreams, that he observed, “While the right has been busy taking the White House, the left has been marching on the English department.” But I would argue that his primary legacy rests in his ability to combine intellectual complexity and honesty with a lifelong commitment to liberal humanist values, applying all of these simultaneously to whatever collective malady we faced at that time. That and his gift for friendship: Bogart was a little off when he said as Rick Blaine that the “problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Little problems mattered to Todd, just as big ones did. And as his friends, admirers, and even his adversaries learned during Todd’s 60 some years of activism and argument, you could count on him whenever you wanted answers about either one.

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