Left Behind

A review of The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars,
by Todd Gitlin (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt) 294 pp. $25.00 [Published in Books and Culture, Sept/Oct 1996]


Phillip E. Johnson

Todd Gitlin begins his book on our current culture war by recounting the absurd Oakland (Calif.) school textbook battle of 1992. He presents this spectacle as a paradigmatic example of the retreat of the Left from universalism and its descent into tribalist irrationalism.

The State Board of Education had approved for local adoption a new series of social science textbooks for kindergarten through 8th grade. The books were written and edited for Houghton Mifflin by a group of consultants headed by U.C.L.A. history professor Gary Nash, a leftist of the same stripe as Todd Gitlin. The series was on the whole proudly multiculturalist, placing great emphasis on the positive contributions of indigenous people and minority races and the crimes that were committed against them.

No one would have been surprised if the textbooks had been denounced by Rush Limbaugh and Lynne Cheney, but on this occasion the cultural right was silent. When the minority-dominated Oakland School Board considered purchasing the books, however, the public hearing was packed with racial demagogues of the Left, who searched out isolated passages that could be interpreted as offensive. The most aggressive attacker was a professor of ethnic studies from San Francisco State University. She appeared with a platoon of her students, who probably received academic credit for this laboratory experiment in agitprop. Gitlin quotes another long-time white leftist as remarking that the attackers "would have spoken in the same vein if the authors [of the textbooks] had been George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Bull Connor." Why not? George Wallace and Gary Nash are both white.

In the end the series was rejected, and Oakland teachers went into the next school year without any social science textbooks at all. What was tragic about this orgy of racialist symbol-mongering, according to Gitlin, was that it occurred while the public schools were grossly underfinanced and amid "a stupefying degree of inequality in American society and, in particular, among African Americans." Instead of organizing against "rock-bottom inequalities and racial discrimination," however, the activists of identity politics chose to fight "real and imagined symbols of insult."

Gitlin, a Berkeley sociologist who recently moved to New York University, was a founding member of what used to be called the "New Left." This was the energetic student movement of the late 1960's that opposed the Vietnam war and racism, while glorifying a personal hedonism based on "sex and drugs and rock- and-roll." Critics of the Sixties Left (it can hardly be called "new" today) see it as a self-indulgent and self-righteous Children's Crusade that began with some correct insights -- Martin Luther King was right on civil rights and Lyndon Johnson was wrong on Vietnam -- but then went haywire about everything else. The main theoretical contribution of the Sixties Left was "participatory democracy," a recipe for anarchy that destroyed every organization that put it into practice. Its continuing legacy is the suffocating piety known as "political correctness."

Unrepentant veterans like Gitlin admit that something went terribly wrong, but they maintain that the Sixties Left was founded upon a noble vision of universal equality which they would love to recapture. That seems impossible, however, because critics and nostalgic veterans alike agree that, for better or worse, the Left today is hopelessly fragmented. Gitlin goes so far as to say that "Today it is the Right that speaks a language of commonalities. Its rhetoric of global markets and universal freedoms has something of the old universalist ring. To be on the Left, meanwhile, is to doubt that one can speak of humanity at all."

In place of a unified humanity, today's Left celebrates what sociologists call an "identity politics" of discrete groups pursuing their own goals. The principal groups are racial minorities, feminists, and gays, with some others like environmentalists and disabled people as associate members. The chant on the campuses excoriates not capitalism but "racism, sexism, and homophobia." The class enemy is no longer the millionaire or the militarist, but the infamous straight white male, including even straight white male sociology professors who plead in extenuation their long record of marching in support of Left causes. Understandably, Todd Gitlin is not comfortable with a Left whose idea of fighting racism and sexism is to typecast people like himself as oppressors.

If, as Gitlin charges, the Left has abandoned the universalist ideal of socialism and substituted a self-defeating tribalism that cedes the high moral ground to the market- worshippers, what is the remedy? Gitlin knows very well that the activists of identity politics will not change their course in response to the pleadings, however eloquent, of a straight white male academic who feels left out. Rebuilding after a political catastrophe requires actions, probably drastic ones. Gitlin consistently refuses to follow through on the obvious implications of his own analysis, however, probably because by doing so he would instantly reclassify himself as a neoconservative. I will point out just two examples.

First, should changes be made in government policies that actively encourage identity politics? Gitlin reports that the census employs a system of racial categorization "that is rigid to a degree that astounds (and horrifies) many people outside the United States, especially in countries like Canada, Mexico, and France, which have banned the collecting of racial statistics." New racial categories are added from time to time "as a result of political pressure from groups seeking to maximize their representation in public life." The categories affirm the basis for identity politics and provide "a tactic for garnering resources." Remember that professor of ethnic studies and her student shock troops.

In short, identity politics flourishes in part because government policies encourage and subsidize it. Gitlin's narrative clearly implies that those foreigners are right to be horrified. Should we, then, do as the foreigners do, and stop classifying people on the basis of rigid racial categories? Gitlin must be familiar with current proposals to allow people to classify themselves on the census as "multiracial," but he avoids the subject. He does not say whether the legal system should attempt to return to Martin Luther King's principle -- now quoted mainly by conservatives -- that people should be judged not by their race but by the content of their character. Liberals usually defend distributing benefits by race as a temporary meaure, to be abandoned when racism has been sufficiently reduced, but that is senseless if the racial entitlements are worsening the very conditions they are supposed to be curing. I surmise that, while he cannot endorse moving towards a color- blind legal system and still call himself a Leftist, Gitlin would not be displeased if the Right were to take that step and incur the blame.

Second, should disillusioned Leftists reconsider their hostility to traditional religion, and even see religion as a promising basis for a universalist politics of human equality? Gitlin has a nostalgic chapter on Marxism, which he correctly describes as "a theology without God." He refers to theistic religion only dismissively, however, implying the usual Left prejudice that a serious interest in God is inherently reactionary. Gitlin also dismisses out of hand the theory that one important cause of social pathology is the breakdown of the traditional family, a circumstance that is linked to the abandonment of religious morality.

The allure of Marxism was that it bridged the fact-value distinction, painting a total picture of reality in which a passionate social utopianism seemed to be backed by a hard-headed materialist science. Marxism is now moribund not only because of its spectacular failures in practice, but because its theory does not address the issues that preoccupy the contemporary Left. Who goes to Marx for guidance on gay marriage or the evils of Eurocentrism? The doctrine that economics is the base and culture the superstructure, like the doctrine that justice should be color-blind, is more often found on the Wall Street Journal editorial page than in the radical journals. Even Leftist economists appreciate the utility of free markets for creating wealth, and Gitlin concedes that the international nature of the economy makes it impossible for a national government to redistribute wealth drastically without provoking a disastrous flight of capital. The only Presidential candidate in 1996 who did not support market internationalism was Pat Buchanan.

What the Left plainly needs is a new theology, with or without God. Gitlin makes clear what the elements of such a theology must be. It must provide a universal vision that inspires people to regard themselves as fundamentally united, despite their differing social circumstances and cultural experiences. It must provide a basis for an objective rationality of both fact and value, refuting the current Left doctrine that "objectivity is only another word for white male subjectivity." It must reject the market-oriented notion that individual gratification is the purpose of life, by providing a higher purpose. It must provide a reason for the economic winners to be generous and compassionate, and for the losers to strive to become as productive as they are able.

Where is such a theology to be found? I could offer a suggestion, but I don't think Todd Gitlin wants to hear it.