Todd Gitlin's Work Against the DarkBreaking News
tags: New Left, 1960s, SDS, radical history, Students For a Democratic Society
Jeffrey C. Isaac is the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Todd Gitlin was an extraordinary man.
A sociologist, cultural critic, journalist, a poet and novelist, an activist and intellectual, Todd lived a truly world historical life, and he was respected, admired, and loved by many. And now he is missed by many.
Todd was my friend.
I first learned of him in the mid-1970s as a Queens College undergraduate assigned to read Kirkpatrick Sales’s classic 1973 book SDS, one of the first accounts of the U.S. student movement of the 1960s. Long before I met Todd in person, I “knew” him, a major figure in contemporary history, as a legend and a hero. I encountered him again in the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student and he a just-tenured Berkeley professor, this time through his dissertation-turned-book, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media and the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Now Todd was not simply a political hero but a scholarly role model, blending critical theory and incisive political commentary in an exemplary way.
I only met Todd in person sometime in the 1990s, after he had moved back to his native ground of New York City, teaching at NYU and living downtown. I was back in the city for a visit from Indiana to attend a Dissent board meeting. I interacted with him at the meeting and then grabbed a few beers with him and some others afterward. That was the start of our friendship. Over the years, I would often see him when I returned to the city. We would communicate from time to time about our common political and intellectual interests, especially our shared love of Albert Camus, but also our increasingly similar views about the state of the left and the challenges facing democracy. I was an avid reader of Todd’s political writing during this time, his many essays and especially his books: the prescient The Twilight of Common Dreams (1995); Letters to a Young Activist (2003), a terrific book that I was so happy to discover in the hands of my then-teenage daughter Lisi; and The Intellectuals and the Flag (2006).
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