Selected Articles by Todd Gitlin
“A Charter for the 99 Percent,” Dissent, Nov. 8, 2012
“The Unmentionable,” a talk on nuclear weapons and global destruction at 50th anniversary conference on Port Huron at the University of Michigan, Nov. 2, 2012:
The Unmentionable: The Bomb and Mass Violence
“A New Insurgency: The Port Huron Statement in Its Time and Ours”
University of Michigan
November 2, 2012
A spectre haunted Port Huron: the spectre of thermonuclear war. Not long after most of us had been born, the human situation had changed, changed utterly. From our generation onward, children were being born into a world that had the capacity to destroy itself. For the SDS founders and those who, like myself, read Tom’s draft before Port Huron and recognized ourselves in it, the new situation was arrestingly put in this single sentence: “Our work is guided by the sense that we may be the last generation in the experiment with living”—perhaps the most memorable of the document’s references to a fact that we had not chosen, namely that we were perched on the edge of an abyss. Here’s a longer sentence about the national paralysis in the face of immense danger: “The desperation of people threatened by forces about which they know little and of which they can say less; the cheerful emptiness of people ‘giving up’ all hope of changing things; the faceless ones polled by Gallup who listed ‘international affairs’ fourteenth on their list of ‘problems’ but who also expected thermonuclear war in the next few years: in these and other forms, Americans are in withdrawal from public life, from any collective effort at directing their own affairs.”
During the year 1962, the US detonated more than 90 nuclear weapons; the USSR, more than 30. While the Port Huron Statement was circulating, finding its final form, Nikita Khrushchev was ordering Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles to Cuba. When American intelligence spotted them, fifty years and change ago today, Kennedy ordered a blockade. He also blocked appeals from his inner circle for bombing and invasion, but of course no one knew that then. What we knew was that we were on the brink. There were pitifully small numbers opposed—and when they did turn out, furies were unleashed in violent counterdemonstrations. Here in Ann Arbor, 400 gathered by SDS and Women for Peace passed out a leaflet urging an end to what they called the “game of Chicken, with mankind on the bumpers”—which is, at that time and since, my favorite metaphor of the week. The demonstrators wanted the Russian missiles withdrawn, but also wanted the U. S. to guarantee Cuba’s safety (which, as it turned out, was the deal eventually worked out by Kennedy and Khrushchev to defuse the crisis). Six hundred students jeered at them, blocked their march, hurled eggs and stones. Afterward, many of the SDS leaders in Ann Arbor set out to demonstrate in Washington—I remember Tom, Casey, Dick and Mickey. Why not? Nobody had a better idea. From Cambridge, Robb Burlage, Maria Varela and I also drove down. We all picketed the White House—not a lot of people. We heard I. F. Stone warn that nuclear war could not be stopped. We were part of a small movement against the Bomb. Six months earlier, we had pulled 8000 demonstrators against the arms race and nuclear testing and bomb shelters—8000! We thought at the time that was a hell of a turnout.
Around the time we were all driving to Washington, none of us knew—nobody knew— that four Soviet submarines off the Florida coast were armed with nuclear-tipped torpedoes, which were targeted on American aircraft carriers. These submarines weren’t made for near-tropical temperatures of the south Atlantic. On one sub in particular, the air conditioning failed, and the temperatures over the course of days surpassed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The sailors were limited to one glass of water a day as, twelve American destroyers circled overhead, dropping depth charges. Unable to contact Moscow, the sub captain grew frantic. He thought that perhaps war had already broken out and that he should proceed to launch his Hiroshima-scale torpedo bomb at a nearby American carrier. He had the authority to order the launch. It would have been easy enough to accomplish his mission. It would be a simple matter of joining together two halves of a key—one in the captain’s possession, the other in the hand of the sub’s political officer. The two men were in agreement: hey should launch the torpedo. But the fleet commander, name of Vasili Arkhipov, was also on board. He was a cooler head. He said no. He said wait until we restore contact with Moscow and find out what’s what.
The small movement against the Bomb—which found a certain place in the Port Huron Statement—was dead right. We were realistic. Port Huron knew that something like the missile crisis was coming. We held to a double vision: there was the prospect of extinction, and there was also, alongside it, the emergence of a living resistance. I said before that the human situation had changed. Human nature had changed. Marx had talked about humanity having a “species being.” Now our species being entailed being a member of a species that had it, and has it, in its hands to annihilate itself. And to save itself. One Russian naval officer had the capacity to approve a decision to start what would almost certainly have flashed into a cycle of retaliation built into the supposed-to-be-foolproof scheme known by the antiseptic name of “deterrence,” into a nuclear war. Arkhipov stopped it.
The missile crisis trauma led John F. Kennedy to conclude that the arms race dynamic needed to be dampened. He gave that stirring speech at American University the following June, calling for a test ban treaty, calling for “an end to the arms race,” and trying to think himself, and the country, out of the trap of endless Cold War confrontation. Relief! The prospect of nuclear war fell out of the headlines. And, in relief and hope and no small denial, it fell out of consciousness. Miraculously, the nuclear faceoff had gone away. And when, two years later, the war in Vietnam, well then, while some residual anti-nuclear movement continued, most of us became—rightly—obsessed with stopping a war that was not hypothetic but actual, for bombs of napalm and white phosphorus and so one were going off in actual time and burning the actual flesh of actual human beings.
Now we know that the human power to wreck the world has more than a single face. Thermonuclear war is one version. Filling the atmosphere with carbon and other heat-absorbing compounds is another, with the sort of natural consequences all too evident in my hometown earlier this week. Please note: Fifty years ago, it was just beginning to be understood that extinction could arrive in many vehicles. The movement against the Bomb understood one end of humanity’s new condition; Rachel Carson, whom Tom mentioned, understood another end. Silent Spring or nuclear winter—these were what stared us in the face if humanity didn’t get off the bumpers and get the lunatic drivers and their horrendous, annihilationist machines off the road.
The movement against the Bomb understood in its bones, as Port Huron did in its own way, that some crazy logic of modernity had led to the institutionalization of mass violence, earth-destroying power, and a live prospect of annihilation. We understood that the prevailing refusal to take this seriously was, as C. Wright Mills had written, “crackpot realism.” To refuse crackpot realism sometimes freaked us out more than a bit. It would surely have been more fun to be cheerful idiots. But here we are, and the nuclear missiles have outlasted Soviet Communism, and the missiles are still, by policy, poised, ever-ready to “launch on warning”—that is, before an actual enemy bomb goes off on our soil—and there is, as you may have noticed, a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States who identifies Russia as “America’s No. 1 geostrategic foe.”
We did what we could and it turned out that we contributed to something great, as Tom said last night. We weren’t gods and we weren’t omnipotent. It wasn’t for lack of trying that we failed to rid the earth of nuclear bombs. So the emergency of the earth writhing under human dominion goes on, even in ways we could not have imagined in 1962, and we have, once again, in Albert Camus’ great image, to bring everything we have and feel and know to the immense and necessary and beautiful work of rolling the rock of survival back up the hill.
“Un-American Activities,” review of Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives, Nieman Reports, Fall 2012
“On the Port Huron Statement,” NYU, April 12, 2012:
The Port Huron Statement was the clearest, most vivid and energetic articulation of an awakening: one of those great uprisings that are the crucibles of America struggling (against much violence and cruelty) to become itself—a commonwealth of free association and mutual aid.
The New Left wanted to make, out of the lonely crowd, the beloved community—the kernel of a moral awakening that would put intelligence to work in behalf of transcendent values and overcome as much human ugliness as possible.
This beloved community would be bound together in what Carl Oglesby would later call “brute love”—an association of free and struggling individuals joining together what an earlier president, Abraham Lincoln, called “the better angels of our nature.”
Brute love was distilled from a fierce chemical reaction (and I’m not just referring to controlled substances) which began with a revolt against racist evil and stupefaction, and developed into an intoxication with the vivid solidarities that are made possible, though never guaranteed, by democratic life.
The intoxication was stirred by a discovery of the bonds that could be forged from a conviction that big changes were not only necessary but possible.
The sense of necessity was both moral and intellectual. It’s interesting: There are not, in the Port Huron Statement, extraordinary insights into the crimes and failure and inequities of American society at the outset of the 1960s:
• white supremacy;
• the military-industrial contempt for human possibility;
• the grotesque brandishing of thermonuclear weapons in the Cold War;
• the triumph of empty labor; and so on.
The keen insight of the Port Huron Statement was that a life of shared value mattered—and that it could be lived in common—and that citizenship might matter and might, for some body of people, be practical. The name that was affixed to that insight was “participatory democracy.”
It was, I think, intended more as a principle of social life than as a way of holding meetings. It was not understood as an alternative to strategy or to the collective work of intellect, but as their fruition.
The genius of the Port Huron Statement, as it was structured, was placing its declaration of values up front. The movement would not be guided by interests but by values. It would not despise interests but it would insist that human life deserved to be less cruel and more lovely. The intimation that the world could be remade—starting right now and right here—this was the movement’s idea—all of the movement, as Linda Gordon points out in her paper, not just the white guys.
The movement’s idea was not utopian. Values were the starting point. They were not other-worldly. They were this-worldly. For some in the movement those values were spoken in an other-worldly spirit; for some not. It didn’t matter. All the eyes were on the prize.
SDS insisted that the people had to consent to their government, but more than consent—they should become a people, held together by what was best and most decent in them.
There was a penetrating hope that breathed between the lines of this remarkable document. Within the lines, there were a lot of intellectual puzzles that the Port Huron Statement could not solve. No one has since. They may not be capable of solution. For example: What if most people do not want, at least not so much, to make the decisions at affect their lives? Shall we then disband the people and convene another one?
But the Port Huron Statement did not say: Follow us from Point A to Point Z. It said: Here we are, a bunch of people, “raised in at least modest comfort,” who are going to make the effort to live lives we are not ashamed of, in order to live in a country we are not ashamed of. And that was a very great thing.
At the same time, we are all well aware of what we could not accomplish in the movements of that time. And that is why we ought to be refreshing the language of values, and reawakening the awakening, and acquainting and reacquainting ourselves with our better angels.
I mean not just ourselves, the core of a movement and its passions. I mean also the vast outer movement. Just as there was a conspicuous ‘60s, the one recorded in the photogenic confrontations and iconic images of courage and horror, there was also a subterranean ‘60s—less well known but just as important. The core American values of the New Left ignited many millions of people who did not necessarily subscribe to the movement’s very doctrine and whim and style. Around kitchen tables and in their private nights they went beyond asking: What should the world be? They asked themselves, and asked each other: What should I do?
That subterranean movement, I suspect, is again or still, at work among us. So too is the aboveground movement, reawakening the awakening, reminding ourselves of our better angels.
What a crazy idea for a crazy country, which is no less a crazy country, though a differently crazy country, than it was half a century ago, in 1962. You can trace a line from then to now. It’s not a straight line but a sinuous one, full of lurches, surprises, chasms, and leaps.
Today’s Occupy movement, I think, holds open the promise of a renewal, another great awakening, that moves us further along the long and winding road toward a more respectful and less cruel society, one which conserves the earth (and is therefore in an honest sense “conservative”) and takes seriously, again, the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
[This text slightly improved from the hastier and more illegible version I read from.]
Recent articles about Occupy Wall Street:
“The Left Declares Its Independence,” The New York Times, Sunday Review, Oct. 9, 2011
“Occupy Wall Street Is Chaotic, Romantic, and Utopian–and That’s a Good Thing,” The New Republic online, Oct. 18, 2011
“New York City, Oct. 19: The Sense of a Movement,” Los Angeles Review of Books
An American Jew lives and rages with Israel, Dissent, Spring 2011
“My Vietnam,” Chronicle Review, March 20, 2011
“The Incoherent Left,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Chronicle Review, January 23, 2011
“Everything Is Data But Data Isn’t Everything,” The New Republic online, Dec. 7, 2010
“Many Ways to Be a Jewish State,” The New Republic online, Nov. 15, 2010
“An Existential Threat,” Ha’aretz, Oct. 29, 2010
“Tne New Jewish Mission: Feeling the Shcckwaves from Israel,” Columbia Spectator, Oct. 14, 2010
“A Counterproductive Call to Boycott Israel’s Universities” (with Nissim Calderon), The New Republic online, October 11, 2010
“Chosen” (with Liel Leibovitz), Tablet, September 22, 2010
“Damning a Whole Generation to Make a Policy Point,” The Atlantic online, September 22, 2010
“Don’t Turn the Deficit into ‘The Passion of the Boomers,’” The Atlantic online, September 22, 2010
“This Manichaean Moment,” The New Republic online, September 21, 2010
“The idea of sacred land has long resonated” (with Liel Leibovitz), Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday Currents section, September 12, 2010
“Middle East Peace Talks, and the Problem of Land” (with Liel Leibovitz), Los Angeles Times Opinion Section, September 5, 2010
“The Never-Ending Mosque Story, Cont’d.,” Dissent online, September 3, 2010
“The Subversive Theology Of Imam Rauf (Cont’d.),” The New Republic online, August 24, 2010
“American Values and the Ground Zero Mosque,” The New Republic online, August 13, 2010
“The Virtue of Warmed-Over Rehash,” The New York Republic online, July 31, 2010
“Least Bad Options,” The New Republic online, July 16, 2010
“Confessions of an Epistemological Skeptic,” The New Republic online, July 1, 2010
“The Uses of Half-True Alarms,” review of Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, The New Republic online, June 7, 2010
“The Centrality of Jewish Chosenness” (with Liel Leibovitz), Tablet, June 7, 2010
“Mind Games: Can neuroscience explain the crisis in news?” Columbia Journalism Review online
“The Age of Tackiness,” review of Francis Wheen, Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia, The New Republic online, The Book, March 17, 2010
“The New America,” review of Ha Jin, A Good Fall, The New Republic online, The Book, January 21, 2010
“Demonstrations at CEO Mansions? Ho Hum,” Columbia Journalism Review online, October 5, 2009, http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/demonstrations_at_ceo_mansions.php/ (with Peter Dreier)
“Journalism’s Many Crises,” openDemocracy, May 21, 2009
“I. F. Stone, Journalist—and Spy?” review of D. D. Guttenplan, American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone, and John Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America; The American Prospect, June 2009
“Freedom’s Untidy: Democracy Promotion and Its Discontents,” review of G. John Ikenberry, Thomas J. Knock, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Tony Smith, The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century, World Affairs Journal, Spring 2009
“And That’s The Way It Was,” The New Republic online, July 17, 2009
“Choosing Our Better History,” Social Science Research Council, “The Immanent Frame,” June 1, 2009
“Left Is Right: Bernard-Henri Lévi and the Left,” Democracy, Winter 2009
“Do Less Harm: The Lesser Evil of Non-Intervention,” World Affairs Journal, Summer 2008
“World War V: My Battle with Norman Podhoretz,” The New Republic, October 8, 2007
“The New Liberal Agenda,” Chronicle of Higher Education online, September 5, 2007
“Schwulst und Propaganda,” Die Tageszeitung (Berlin), August 25, 2007
“Raider Without a Cause,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2007
“The Patriot: Richard Rorty Was a Philosopher Who Hated Philosophy — And a Lefty Who Loved His Country,” Boston Globe,” June 17, 2007
“The Media Served the Murderer’s Purpose,” San Jose Mercury News, April 22, 2007
“War Protests See Key Contrasts,” Omaha World-Herald, February 4, 2007, p. 9B
“Paraphrasing the ’60s,” Los Angeles Times, January 27, 2007
“Big Tent. Big Plans?” Mother Jones, January-February 2007,
In the Land of Lost Men, No One Asks for Direction
( review of Charlie LeDuff, US Guys)
New York Times, February 1, 2007
Times Out of Joint
The American Prospect, December 2006
Democratic Dilemmas: The Party and the Movements
Dissent, Fall 2006
We Answer to the Name of Liberals (with Bruce Ackerman)
The American Prospect, November 2006
All the President’s Pets
(review of Eric Boehlert, Lapdogs)
The American Prospect, July 2006
Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 23, 2006
The Self-Inflicted Wounds of the Academic Left
Chronicle Review, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 2006
The urge to purge
Los Angeles Times Sunday Current, April 9, 2006
All the President’s Friends
The American Prospect, January 2006
Neil Bush: No Billy Carter
TPMcafe.com, December 5, 2005
Welcome the Prosecutor!
TPMcafe.com, November 27, 2005
How Bad are the Media in Iraq?
TPMcafe.com, November 25, 2005
The Authority of Anti-Authority
opendemocracy.net, November 16, 2005
Deliverance for Democrats?
Salon.com, November 2, 2005
The War Movement and the Antiwar Movement
TPMcafe.com, October 18, 2005
Thomas Schelling and Refusing to Play
TPMcafe.com, October 12, 2005
Notes on the Capital of the 21st Century
TPMcafe.com, October 4, 2005
Who Gives a Flying Flag?
The American Prospect, September 2005
Bush at Bay
The Observer (London), September 4, 2005
Tompaine.com, August 30, 2005
Fundamentals and Interests: An Open Letter to Thomas Frank
TMPCafe.com, July 26, 2005
MIA: News of Prison Toll
The Nation, July 4, 2005
Where Have All the Anti-warriors Gone?
Tompaine.com, May 2, 2005
Permission to Speak Freely
Mother Jones, March-April 2005
Hello, Henhouse? Fox Calling
American Prospect, April 2005
A Gathering Swarm
Mother Jones, January-February 2005
Swifter than Truth
The American Prospect, November 2004,
The Great Media Breakdown
Mother Jones, November-December 2004
The American Prospect online, October 15, 2004
A Skull In Varanasi, A Head in Baghdad
The American Scholar, September 2004
Salon.com, August 24, 2004
No Bush, No Chicago ’68
The Nation, August 30-September 6, 2004
(with John Passacantando)
It Was a Very Bad Year
The American Prospect, July 2004
Culture War, Round 3077
The American Prospect, January 2004
Brooks No Argument
The American Prospect, October 2003
How to be radical: An interview with Todd Gitlin and George Monbiot
opendemocracy.net, September 5, 2003
Signs of a Pulse
American Prospect, September 2003
Embed or In Bed?
The American Prospect, June 2003
Lincoln Center Theater Review, Spring 2003
The Pro-War Post
The American Prospect, April 2003
From Put-Down to Catch-Up: The News and the Antiwar Movement
The American Prospect, March 2003
We Disport. We Decide
The American Prospect, February 2003
America’s Age of Empire: The Bush Doctrine
Mother Jones, January-February 2003