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Letters to a Young Activist

Letters to a Young Activist

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by Todd Gitlin

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"Be original. See what happens." So Todd Gitlin advises the young mind burning to take action to right the wrongs of the world but also looking for bearings, understanding, direction, and practical examples.In Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin looks back at his eventful life, recalling his experience as president of the formidable Students for a Democratic


"Be original. See what happens." So Todd Gitlin advises the young mind burning to take action to right the wrongs of the world but also looking for bearings, understanding, direction, and practical examples.In Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin looks back at his eventful life, recalling his experience as president of the formidable Students for a Democratic Society in the '60s, contemplating the spirit of activism, and arriving at some principles of action to guide the passion and energy of those wishing to do good. He considers the three complementary motives of duty, love, and adventure, and reflects on the changing nature of idealism and how righteous action requires realistic as well as idealistic thinking. And he looks forward to an uncertain future that is nevertheless full of possibility, a future where patriotism and intelligent skepticism are not mutually exclusive.Gitlin invites the young activist to enter imaginatively into some of the dilemmas, moral and practical, of being a modern citizen--the dilemmas that affect not only the problems of what to think but also the problems of what to love and how to live.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
In Letters to a Young Activist, Gitlin, now a professor himself, of sociology and journalism at Columbia, tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the next generation of reformers. These thoughtful, humane essays on issues like idealism, identity politics and the legacy of the 60's merit an audience beyond the campuses and coffee shops. Gitlin's intellectual style is nimble and open-minded, the antithesis of pedantic. — David Greenberg
Publishers Weekly
Gitlin, a Columbia University professor of sociology and journalism, is a former president of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, an influential radical '60s group, one of whose primary focuses was anti-Vietnam War activities. Although his stated intention is to provide a guide for future activists, Gitlin may find a more receptive audience among baby boomers who participated in the '60s antiwar protests and have struggled to extract meaning from their own history. While Gitlin tries hard to convince his target audience that he understands them and once felt as they now feel-angry, impatient, outraged and above all convinced of his own rightness-it is unclear whether they would embrace his conclusions any more than Gitlin's generation embraced the suggestions of the Old Left. Such a response might be unfortunate, as Gitlin, who writes earnestly and has a knack for aphoristic observations, has some unusual points. For example, he derides Ralph Nader's third-party run for president as "narcissism wearing a cloak of ideals." He also offers insightful observations on the need for both outsider activists and sympathetic insiders to make meaningful changes in public policy, the dangers of identity politics and the requirement that activists willingly seek and accept institutional power. He eloquently argues for the need to resist the temptation of violence. On more than one occasion, however, Gitlin's prose is abstract and convoluted, verging on the overwrought. He also sometimes loses control of his metaphors ("when guilt and rage slip their leash, they murder the future in the name of an unsalvageable past"). By and large, though, this is a generous and well-meaning book, which may interest aging activists and, perhaps, the young audience at which it is aimed. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, a significant personal account of the era, Gitlin (journalism & sociology, Columbia Univ.) here draws on five decades as a political activist to offer a series of letters to an unnamed would-be activist. The letters are thoughtful essays rather than pieces of personal correspondence. Gitlin is at his best when he applies the successes and failures of Sixties activism to a post-9/11 world. He notes that liberal activism figured prominently in abolishing slavery and in legislating social security, a federal minimum wage, and civil rights laws. He notes, however, that the Right has become the dominant political force over the last three decades because it has taken more seriously than the Left the importance of being involved in the political process. Gitlin concludes with good advice for activists in these uncertain times: recognize that murderous terrorist attacks are not a justifiable response to previous American foreign policy failings and that patriotism does not mean obedience to government. Instead, it requires a shared willingness to sacrifice and a healthy skepticism of presidential policies. Recommended for public libraries as a complement to Dinesh D'Souza's Letters to a Young Conservative.-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A rumination on experience and the spirit of political militancy from longtime activist and media gadfly Gitlin (Journalism & Sociology/Columbia Univ.; Media Unlimited, 2002, etc.). So, he asks the recipient of these well-framed reflections, you would like "to do something useful against the crimes and sins, the starvation and massacre, torture and terror, ecological damage, disease, bigotry, the suppression of castes (women and racial groups among them), a whole multitude of oppressions"? Good, says Gitlin: any time is a good time to change the world, and don't forget to smile, to sing, to bring the garlic, and to invite the prankster of possibilities. Don't forget strategy and duty (respectful to all, obsequious to none), or love, that brittle substance full of philosophical and psychological thickets, or adventure. These are not simply words for Gitlin, but life forces, and he trundles out all manner of experience with a vibrant handful of anti-establishment movements to illustrate the various themes he is getting at: the novelty of each historical situation; the critical balance of spontaneity and tactic; the need to be suspicious of power and yet recognize its ability to do good, to fight while realizing that you can't always get what you want. Act as a citizen demanding social equality while staging "farce, pranks, surrealism on stilts," he advises. "Do good by having fun. Get away with it." Gitlin points out the potholes in the road--the market for bravado, the backfires of rage, the inevitable face plants--as he suggests ways to go about assuming our responsibility for political action in a time of "gluttony, glibness, mediocrity, and evasion," with a wary eye on the lookout forperverse consequences. If you don't agree with what he happens to be saying at the moment, well and good: "Only in autocracy is doubt a breach of decorum." None of this is prescriptive, but inspiring and darkly ironic. Be reasonable, Gitlin urges: ask the impossible. Good, provocative stuff: thinking, decent, inclusive.

Product Details

Basic Books
Publication date:
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
File size:
263 KB
Age Range:
13 - 18 Years

Meet the Author

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and the chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of fourteen books, including most recently the novel Undying and The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election. He is a regular contributor to the New Republic and TPMcafe.com, and has written for outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Nation and Harper's.

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Letters to a Young Activist 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is politics with attitude, presented by a former sixties activist who has plenty of sincerity and passion, though he has a somewhat convoluted writing style. Todd Gitlin ¿ the former president of Students for a Democratic Society, the SDS ¿ has a great deal to say, much of it worthwhile, though couched in nostalgic reminiscence of his youthful activism. Given that, former sixties protestors may find more here than current rightist young idealists. His observations on the faults of the Left and the strength of the Right are, if not original, stimulating. He does draw potentially useful lessons from the sixties, as seen through his prism of leftist activism and leadership. We recommend this fast, historic and forward-looking read. In these turbulent times, Gitlin encourages participation, discourages violence and believes the individual can still make a difference. Who could quarrel with that?