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Demonstrated Ideals

Review of Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin, Basic Books: 174 pp.,$22.50

Two years ago, I was invited to the South Australian desert to meet a group of Aboriginal elders who were fighting a radioactive waste dump on their land. I went to Coober Pedy expecting to be bombarded with alarming facts about toxic waste leaking into groundwater, cancer risks and the half-life of radium. Something else happened instead. Immediately upon my arrival, I was scooped up by a group of young environmentalists who dressed like "Mad Max" characters and took me camping.

For five nights we slept by a bonfire on the cracked red earth under the stars. During the days they showed me secret sources of fresh water, plants used for bush medicines, hidden eucalyptus-lined rivers where the kangaroos come to drink. It was amazingly beautiful, but by the third day I started getting restless. When, I asked 22-year-old Nina Brown, were we going to get down to work? She replied that the senior Aboriginal women, who called themselves the Kupa Piti Kungka Tjuta, had taught her that before you can fight, you have to know what you are fighting for.

I learned two lessons from that experience. The first was the one Nina intended for me to learn: We activists, whether grass-roots organizers, researchers or theorists, tend to hop from one atrocity to the next — sweatshops, poisons, sickness, war — until we are pickled in horrors. Gradually, our beliefs, rather than flowing from love for what we are protecting or building, start to flow from more dangerous sources: rage and bitterness.

The second lesson had to do with the importance of mentoring. Effective political activism may not be a science, but it is a skill, one that needs to be shared among generations and cultures. Here I was, absorbing ancient wisdom from a woman eight years younger than me. She learned it because she found herself in a culture that had a powerful oral tradition, and a group of women in their 80s had patiently taken the time to pass it on to her.

I thought about Nina when the bombs started falling on Baghdad. On the day the war began, I found myself in another red desert, this one in Patagonia, in southern Argentina. We were there filming a documentary, and our hotel didn't have Internet access or English-language news. For two bleak days, I alternated between watching Wolf Blitzer dubbed into Spanish on CNN en Espanol and reading the only book I had with me, a review copy of Todd Gitlin's "Letters to a Young Activist."

I turned to the book in desperation, not only as a reprieve from el Blitzer but also in the hope that the author, a wonderful media critic and accomplished historian, would provide some clue as to how those of us who are opposed to this war might confront the deadly explosions on TV. In the '60s, as president of Students for a Democratic Society, Gitlin was part of a movement that played a role in ending the Vietnam War. Now, with "Letters to a Young Activist," he promises to pass on those lessons to the generation that is fighting new wars, and the economic agendas behind them, on the streets of New York and San Francisco.

And we activists, the young and not so, certainly do need advice, both practical and philosophical, not just about how to stop future attacks like the one we just witnessed in Iraq but about how to build genuinely broad-based, effective movements. How, for instance, do we balance the need to fight global atrocities with the need to build hopeful alternatives? How do we offer meaningful international solidarity without ending up supporting either religious or nationalist extremism? How do we deal with escalating attacks on our right to dissent, from mass arrests of activists to infiltration of our organizations?

Gitlin, sadly, has little interest in tackling the big questions facing activists today. His letters amount to little more than mushy Sixties 101 nostalgia and nasty, one-sided attacks on everyone who has ever disagreed with him. The Black Panthers and the Weathermen get blamed for the collapse of public support for the civil rights and antiwar movements. Ralph Nader and the Greens couldn't possibly have had any principled reasons for not working to elect Al Gore. And Noam Chomsky's insistence on connecting the Sept. 11 attacks to past U.S. foreign policy is nothing more than pathological anti-Americanism. And on and on. Familiar stuff. In fact, it is the very same stuff anyone who has read Gitlin's op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post and this newspaper will have already read. Some decent rants, but timeless wisdom this is not.

That said, there is useful information here about the unglamorous reality of building the anti-Vietnam War movement. Young activists, reared on rosy Hollywood versions of the '60s, will take heart from learning that "[t]he first national demonstration against the war in Vietnam, in Washington D.C., April 17, 1965, numbered 25,000 which felt huge" and that in 1969, 52% of Americans thought antiwar activists had "no right to demonstrate."

But those looking for a serious dialogue between two generations of activists will be deeply disappointed. If Gitlin had been able to resist the urge to obsessively score political points — slamming the left for political correctness, vanguardism, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism — his material could have been shaped into a probing discussion about ways to resist left-wing fundamentalism. Like Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, Gitlin might have written introspectively about the painful process of letting go of the ideological certainties of a dogmatic youth and learning to listen and question. Like Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, he might have explored the co-dependent similarities among religious, political and market fundamentalisms. Instead, Gitlin merely bookends his grudge matches with dime-store advice to stay open-minded and tolerant while displaying neither quality in his attacks on his many political foes.

In a book composed of 11 discreet letters, Gitlin begins each with "Dear _____ " but who, one wonders, is the _____ Gitlin has in mind? It's hard to imagine any self-respecting young radical sifting through these letters without eventually occupying Gitlin's office at Columbia University in protest against such patronizing comments as: "You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn't quite understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objections to take your arguments seriously, even though you're too young to have had the experience I draw on."

What becomes clear is that poor _____ is not a real person at all but a fading memory of Gitlin's younger self. These are words of advice from Gitlin the elder to Gitlin the younger: Don't opt out of electoral politics, he counsels. Vote for the lesser of two evils. Don't fight the power. Find friends on the inside. Don't aim for revolution. Shoot for achievable reforms. Fair enough. But if Gitlin had followed this advice in 1964, he wouldn't have been president of SDS at all: He would have been president of the Young Democrats.

While Gitlin never tires of reliving the internecine battles of the '60s, he displays a shocking lack of curiosity about today's young activists and the movements that animate them. In his quick and dismissive glance at the placards at globalization protests, he misses the most interesting aspect of the left today: how much young activists have learned from the '60s. For starters, there are no Todd Gitlins in today's globalization and antiwar movements, no easily identifiable movement generals or kingpins. Today's movements are significantly less vulnerable to co-optation and repression because they disperse power through broad webs of smallish grass-roots groups and nongovernmental organizations. So while more than 10 million people participated in peace marches around the world on Feb. 15, most people would be hard-pressed to name a single person who "led" the demonstrations.

Claiming to "hear traces of the old recklessness in some of the globalization protests," Gitlin cautions young activists against the dangers of fetishizing terrorist guerrilla armies and leftist tyrants. Of course the left will never be entirely free of sectarians ready to pledge their allegiance to the latest anti-imperialist megalomaniac, but Gitlin seems unaware of how few fans the likes of Robert Mugabe and Osama bin Laden have among today's young activists. The movements that genuinely inspire global solidarity clearly reject authoritarianism and terrorism while embracing both direct action and deep internal democracy. Consider groups like the Landless People's Movement of Brazil, whose members cut down fences and occupy unused land for their farms. Or the Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee in South Africa, which fights the epidemic of power and water cutoffs by reconnecting severed pipes and electrical wires. These do-it-yourself social movements have emerged as a kind of activist "third way," an alternative both to the purely symbolic dissent of demonstrations and the suicidal impulse of armed aggression, and their members are exercising their rights throughout the world.

The true faces of modern activism belong to people like the late Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American "human shield" whose young body was crushed by a bulldozer in Gaza last month. Corrie wasn't in the occupied territories to give comfort to suicide bombers; she was standing with the nonviolent International Solidarity Movement trying to keep a Palestinian family home from being demolished.

In Argentina, many of the young people fighting the neo-liberal policies that have bankrupted this country are children of leftist activists who were "disappeared" during the military dictatorship of 1976-'83. They talk openly about their determination to continue their parents' political fight for socialism but by different means. Rather than attacking military barracks, they squat on abandoned land and build bakeries and homes; rather than planning their actions in secret, they hold open assemblies on street corners; rather than insisting on ideological purity, they value democratic decision-making above all. Plenty of older activists, the lucky ones who survived the terror of the '70s, have joined these movements, speaking enthusiastically of learning from people half their age, of feeling freed of the ideological prisons of their pasts, of having a second chance to get it right.

If Gitlin is aware of these kinds of intergenerational exchanges, this evolution in activist theory and practice, he doesn't let on.

So we must wonder: Is Gitlin still an activist? Daniel Boulud, who wrote "Letters to a Young Chef" (part of the same Basic Books series) is, after all, still a chef. And Dinesh D'Souza, who wrote "Letters to a Young Conservative," is, God help us, a die-hard neo-conservative. But Gitlin? Once an activist, he seems today more of an activist-ologist. He may still be utterly committed to his progressive beliefs, but when he discusses the challenges confronting today's movements for peace and social justice, he sets himself apart, perhaps on the grounds that changing the world is young people's business, a student thing, not quite appropriate for a tenured professor.

This distance, more than anything else, will prevent "Letters to a Young Activist" from speaking to the readers it hopes to address. Today's activists recognize the limitations of generational politics. All of us — young, old, middle-aged — have seen the way the '60s exhortation of "don't trust anyone over 30" isolated college-age idealists from their communities and families and know that the focus on youth as a source of radicalism puts a "best before" date on struggles that take lifetimes of commitment.

Today's activists aren't making the same mistake. The goal is not to build a self-enclosed youth movement. It's something far more ambitious: a genuinely multinational, multiethnic, multigenerational and multi-class challenge to the logic of global capitalism itself.

High school and university students are building this movement side by side with veterans of the civil rights, feminist, labor and antiwar movements — people like Howard Zinn, Starhawk, Eduardo Galeano, Vandana Shiva and Tom Hayden, to name just a few. These are inexhaustible activists whose mentoring is valued not because they were warriors once but because they are still fighting today.

In their last e-mail exchange, Corrie's father tells her how proud he is of her work in Gaza but confesses that he wishes someone else's daughter was facing down those bulldozers: "You may say (have said) that it is wrong for me to stick my head in the sand." Rachel responds both as a daughter and, touchingly, as a fellow activist. "Don't worry about me too much.... Thanks also for stepping up your [U.S.-Iraq] anti-war work. I know it is not easy to do, and probably much more difficult where you are than where I am."

It's a tiny, heartbreaking glimpse of the spirit of today's movements: a father and daughter, both wise and unwise, writing to each other with honesty and humility about trying to change the world. Now that's the book I'd like to read.

This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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