An Eye-Opener by ... Todd Gitlin

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

I just encountered a rather alarming article from The Chronicle of Higher Education in which Todd Gitlin, a leftist intellectual (an author and professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University), almost hits the nail squarely on the lead when he considers the subject matter summarized by its title, "The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Left." (Or he perhaps he does, but fails to apply his conclusions to his own thinking....)

I'll briefly consider in turn his nearly-profound point, how he failed to see the light, and what I found so alarming about the article -- namely the total intellectual collapse Gitlin chronicles.

Gitlin has a stunningly good paragraph at the end of his essay that mirrors the larger point I made in a recent blog post on "The Left as Religion" -- that the left has abandoned reason in favor of faith.

[Timothy] Brennan [a professor of comparative literature, cultural studies, and English at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities] is right that the academic left is nowhere today. It matters more to David Horowitz than to anyone else. The reason is that its faith-based politics has crashed and burned. It specializes in detraction. It offers no plausible picture of the world. Such spontaneous movements as do crop up in America -- like the current immigrant demonstrations -- do not emerge from the campus left. Neither do reformers' intermittent attempts to eject the party of plutocracy and fundamentalism from power, to win universal health care, to protect the planet from further convulsions, to enlarge the rights of the least privileged. If more academics deigned to work toward reforms, they might contribute ideas about taxes, education, trade, employment, investment, foreign policy, and security from jihadists. But the academic left is too busy guarding the flame of nullification. They think they can fortify themselves with vigilance. In truth, their curses are gestures of helplessness. [bold added]
Wow! I haven't seen such a frank assessment of the state of the left from a leftist in a long time, if ever -- and I am drawing a blank on that "ever" part. But even within that paragraph, we see the seeds of Gitlin's failure to completely nail his point home. These seeds take the form of the euphemism "universal health care" -- which means "socialized medicine", itself a euphemism for: "enslavement of physicians".

And Gitlin's thinking gets choked from the fully-grown weeds earlier in his essay when he levels what should be a blistering attack against George Bush's anti-intellectualism.
Conservative pundits apologize for [Bush]. According to his rapturous chronicler, Fred Barnes (Rebel-in-Chief), early in 2005, Bush devoured Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear, which maintains that global warming is a scientific fraud, and met with Crichton at the White House for an hour. They were, Barnes writes, "in near-total agreement." Meanwhile, the great straight-talking hope of the ruling party makes ready to traipse off to Jerry Falwell's university, while another leading candidate for the presidency, a medical doctor, diagnoses a brain-damaged patient from a family videotape. Nor is the reign of fantasy limited to the titular leaders. One year ago, 79 percent of Republicans (and 37 percent of Democrats) still believed that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction when the war began, according to public-opinion experts Yaeli Bloch-Elkon and Robert Y. Shapiro.
But claims that global warming -- if it is indeed occurring -- is caused by human activity are scientifically controversial, and it is foolhardy (not to mention immoral) to base public policy upon such claims. And plenty of evidence that there had been WMDs in Iraq has turned up since our invasion. Such untenable positions as Gitlin himself holds not only severely compromise any of his valid criticisms of Bush -- by undercutting the case that any are rational criticisms -- but they also reveal that Gitlin suffers from the same disease that he has diagnosed in his intellectual spawn.

And so, we are treated to the following astounding example of how the bad premises of leftism have driven out the good. Todd Gitlin, like some pot-smoking, irresponsible hippie who somehow still has some modicum of sense left, seems to become aware of his intellectual offspring for the first time in a decade and gasps when he sees how they have turned out after having him (or at least intellectuals like him) as an example to emulate.
Where Brennan writes a muffled prose, Eric Lott comes out blasting. Intellectuals who want "social-democratic reform" stand for "little more than political complacency with a relatively youthful face." He wants to "take out bourgeois thinkers," and he doesn't mean on dates. They, or we, are guilty of "crimes." They commit "treason against the left, if not indeed against the very vocation of the intellectual." Perhaps the person Professor Lott wants to take out is Ann Coulter.

Enamored of his gestures of virulence, Professor Lott is at pains to add that he has nothing against treason, mind you. What he wants is a "better treason" ....

Like George W. Bush, Professor Lott doesn't "do nuance." He has reissued one of the oldest, stalest stories in the annals of left-wing heresy-sniffing. It goes like this: Marx's "old mole" of "the revolution" is eternally burrowing upward toward the light, whatever obstacles "boomer-liberal nation-love" throws in its way. But misleaders slow it down. What Professor Lott calls "new social movements" (i.e., movements some 30 or 40 years old now), like "blacks, Chicanos, gays, lesbians, women, the disabled, and the working class" ... "any one of these movements is liable to engage a dominant social formation at one of its weak points and spark a fire that will earn widespread solidarities." Professor Lott awaits the bracing whiff of a cleansing conflagration in that revolutionary morning. In the meantime: "I smell boomer blood."

It's hard to get on Professor Lott's left side unless one sticks with the uncontaminated "everyday resistances and activisms of many stripes all across the country," which are his only hope. "The New Black Intellectuals," by contrast -- Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, et al. -- are "too often at ease with the compromises of liberalism," guilty of "a sometimes ingenuous faith in the educability of white Americans" -- which, were it so, makes one wonder how the African-American minority is ever to improve anything. Sociologists like Mary Waters, historians like David Hollinger, critics like Ross Posnock and Stanley Crouch, philosophers like K. Anthony Appiah -- all who challenge fixed notions of ethnic purity -- are members of what Professor Lott considers (no compliment) "the color-blind club." Even so "great" a multiculturalist historian of American literature as Eric Sundquist has signed on to "the devil of liberal nationalism," a.k.a. "Americanism," a.k.a. "a logical bourgeois result of the bourgeois, albeit black, nationalism Sundquist espouses." There's no thought-crime Lott cannot charge by sprinkling a "bourgeois" or two on his sentences. [bold added]

Gitlin, the man who said, "[D]issenting intellectuals might gain some traction by standing for reason," but yet indulges his own articles of faith is, fundamentally of the same cloth as Brennan. Brennan simply indulges other articles of faith, including the notion that the "bourgeoise" (i.e., those he disagrees with) ought to be "taken out" because they lack "educatabilty".

Whatever you might say about Gitlin, he is absolutely right on two counts: (1) The left is dying (at least) -- as an opponent of the religious right -- as a consequence of an orgy of blind faith. (2) Dissenting intellectuals can "gain some traction by standing for reason".

But if Todd Gitlin is the voice of reason from the academic left, it is clear that these "dissenting intellectuals" will not originate from the left any time soon.

-- CAV

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