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A Novelist on the Progressive Left Everyone Should Read

Although a committed progressive, through his novels, Todd Gitlin hedges his commitments by both recognizing the limitations of his worldview and portraying the merits of his political adversaries. No matter one’s own views, Gitlin’s intellectual virtues and fairmindedness displayed in his work are deeply instructive.

The sociologist, media scholar, novelist, and public intellectual Todd Gitlin died in February of this year. The Opposition is his final book, barring the publication of any other posthumous work. He was editing the final proofs of this novel at the time of his death.

Gitlin wrote several novels in addition to his voluminous scholarly and public work, and when I learned of his passing, I read several of them seeking to fill out my sense of his worldview. It turns out that not only is this final novel a fitting summary statement of his rich, lifelong reflection on the meaning of the 1960s; it also offers a critique of the left that’s highly instructive for today’s political activists, perhaps even conservative ones. Although a committed progressive, through his novels Gitlin hedges his commitments by recognizing the limitations of his worldview and portraying the merits of his political adversaries. No matter one’s own views, Gitlin’s intellectual virtues and fair-mindedness displayed in his work are deeply instructive.

Who Is Todd Gitlin?

I loved Todd Gitlin 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. 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. Much of the power and complexity of The Sixties comes from the fact that it is written by an insider, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society. It is convincing because of Gitlin’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 his fellow critics themselves deviated from those sacred principles, they too had to be held to account.

The same energy to turn the critical lens back on the left, when needed, that can be seen in the book on the ’60s—which was published in the mid-1980s—could be seen in his Letters to a Young Activist a quarter century later. There, Gitlin 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. My politics eventually diverged from his, and significantly so, but my admiration for him didn’t at all diminish. His concern that moral ideals be evaluated by reference to fact and reality, and his rejection of extremism’s shortcuts, guaranteed that any ideological differences between us couldn’t overshadow our agreements.

 

Sixties Activism and the Religious Spirit

The Opposition, his recently published posthumous novel, begins in 1963 and follows several characters through the remainder of the decade, concluding with an account of how their lives turned out post-’60s. Like Gitlin’s other novels, it is in close contact with his own biographical experience. One can easily connect some of his characters to real historical persons who, like the book’s author, were involved in the left activism of that period.

There is a religious, especially Christian, spark at the heart of some of these characters’ motivations, and Gitlin portrays it sensitively and even affirmatively. The novel’s portrayal of some of the militants’ religious commitments hews closely to reality: the early spirit of ’60s activism—in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference under Martin Luther King, Jr., most obviously—was fundamentally influenced by a Christian worldview.

Gitlin’s reputational profile was as a staunchly secular democratic leftist, critical of the stupidities of the extremism now so common on today’s woke left, but at least as intolerant of religious conservatives’ moral posturing. Yet this novel and several others suggest he had a more nuanced view of religious conservatives: they indicate that he respected and owed much to the Judeo-Christian moral universe, which many on the contemporary left seem prepared to jettison entirely.

Take, for instance, The Opposition’s main character, Matt. His father is a minister, and Matt thinks often of Christ’s first disciples and attempts to translate some of their missionary zeal into his own life. After declaring himself a conscientious objector from the draft, he meditates on the first followers of Christ: “His mind drifted back to the Apostles. If they were alive, they would spend their days crammed into caravans, swapping stories, breaking bread, pleading their case, discussing the resurrection of Jesus, figuring out whom to recruit and how to approach the Gentiles—heartened on behalf of humanity.” He rereads the Gospels “not because he believed but because he wanted to see what it might feel like to have faith.”

Later in the novel, as Matt drives westward in search of fresh causes to champion, he meets a hitchhiker, a farm boy named Gerald, who is on his way to Cheyenne to say goodbye to his girlfriend before shipping off for Vietnam. Gerald is a devout Christian and a firm believer in the war. He takes a turn driving Matt’s car and, showing practical knowledge literary college graduates like Matt almost always lack, advises him to get the transmission looked at before tackling the Rockies. Matt likes Gerald and tries to get him to talk left-wing politics, but to no avail. Gerald cannot be made to understand the spirit of utopian rebellion that drives the anti-war movement. The conservative Christian kid clearly comes out the more admirable figure in this interaction, and even Matt recognizes it.

The Limits of the Sexual Revolution

Gitlin’s talent for intelligent self-criticism is also on display when he conveys the moral unseriousness of the sexual revolution in The Opposition. Though in his political writing he clearly had a position in the debate, Gitlin’s honest reporting in the novel is enough to reveal its unstable nature.

Valerie, Matt’s love interest, has a fully feminist politics, and she treats sexual relationships with the requisite superficiality. Sex for her is something profane in the original sense of the world—mundane, worldly, completely divorced from sacredness. She breaks up with Matt, whom she describes as another “notch on her freedom trail,” as she defines freedom as “the freedom to leave.” She sleeps around with a few others in the movement and ends up pregnant.

Gitlin then describes in detail the process of procuring an illegal abortion. The entire episode is detached from the serious moral character of the matter. It is just about finding someone to perform the procedure, driving to the city (Carterville, Pennsylvania) where the doctor willing to break the law is located, and undergoing the process. The abortionist is portrayed in heroic terms, Gitlin’s only lapse from his objective ethnographic technique here. But the reader still has no difficulty discerning the meagerness of Valerie’s view of the act. She reflects on the oddness of her own lack of moral concern about it, only once, and fleetingly: “Valerie thought: I should be feeling terrible, but I don’t. What’s wrong with me?” Enough of a more traditional ethic is still in her to make her realize, at least viscerally if not intellectually, the derangement of her current perspective. But it is not enough to move her back to normalcy.

Toward the end of the novel, when Matt seeks a renewing of their relationship, she coldly tells him that “they did not live in a world where relationships endured.” Gitlin portrays the sexual liberation movement of the ’60s in its true colors of invitation to perversity and moral superficiality.

 

Generation Gap

Gitlin gives us a crystallized summary of the generation gap in an exchange between Matt and his parents on the war in Vietnam. Here, too, the novelist is honest and broad-minded enough not to reduce the dialogue to his own preference and instead to give real breathing room to both positions. And it is Matt who gets the worst of it, sounding naively idealistic on the dismal human fact of war. “The United States of America sets fire to peasants,” he accuses. His father’s response comes from a place sadder, deeper, and more realistic than Matt’s youthful idealism: “All war is terrible. . . . And you know what? . . . We did that in Japan! We did it in Germany! We burned down whole cities! Awful, terrible things! And they had to be done!”

Matt’s mother ties the government’s authority to make decisions of war to parental power. On some matters, one defers to authority because one is not capable of deciding reasonably. Her husband compellingly completes the argument:

Do you know what happens when everyone takes it upon himself to decide for himself when he’s going to listen to his father and when he’s going to turn his head and go on about his own business because he thinks he knows better? You have small children walking onto the train tracks just because they get the idea into their head. They see a butterfly or something. It’s pretty. The next thing you know . . . they’re gone. Boom. You have misrule. You have chaos.

As Matt continues to argue with them, he is reminded that he has the life he has because of the two people with whom he is arguing. Later he sits alone and thinks, in his still hyperbolic and deluded simplicity, of “this monstrosity of a nation.” He realizes he will not be able to convince millions like his parents to believe what he believes and is forced to contend with the stubbornness of political pluralism. Though the exchange does not move Matt’s position much, the reader is struck by Gitlin’s way of narrating the encounter.

This Is the End

The dramatic denouement of the novel comes when Matt makes plans to flee the U.S. and the draft for Montreal. He makes contact again with Valerie and asks her to come with him. Before she can give him an answer (Matt strongly suspects she will refuse, and the reader has plenty of evidence of her character to support that guess), they are stopped by police for a faulty brake light. The police ask for IDs and Matt makes a run for it. He is fatally struck by an oncoming car.

It is a terrible outcome, and the novel leaves the reader understanding that the same is true of the trajectory of the ’60s opposition. Gitlin reminds us that it was only the incompetence of the extremists, and the competence of their police adversaries, that prevented much more mayhem and human loss. While several Weathermen were accidentally blowing themselves up in a Manhattan townhouse in 1970, others in another city had planted two bombs intended to murder hundreds of police officers. Fortunately, both were discovered before detonating. It is a scandal that this kind of fact is not on page one of every history of the ’60s movement, and Gitlin merits great credit for unblinkingly including it in his account.

 

Another of the youthful radicals, Sally, offers a fitting conclusion for the novel in her reflection years later: “One of the problems smart people have is they don’t know when they’re not being smart.”

From beyond the grave, a former leader in the ’60s movement gives us a cautionary tale about its meaning and its consequences in contemporary American culture. Gitlin was no ally of Christianity, but he recognized religious conservatives’ practical competence and civic-mindedness, virtues today’s woke often overlook. And in intuiting the heavy tolls the sexual revolution has placed on the young, Gitlin was prescient about something today’s left largely fails to see. Gitlin was also realistic about the need to contend with the existence of and challenges posed by political disagreement, something his contemporaries and today’s left seem anxious to override. Most significantly, amid his staunchly progressive commitments, he was willing to acknowledge the wisdom of his predecessors and see the insurmountable limits of revolutionary idealism.

Both in the ’60s and today, Gitlin’s work provides a vivid portrayal of the left, mixed with a heavy dose of realism, that is edifying for all his readers—no matter their own beliefs.

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