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Todd Gitlin Z”L (1943-2022)

By TTN

We remember one of our colleagues at The Third Narrative.  This links to an archive of his writings posted at The Third Narrative website: https://thirdnarrative.org/author/todd-gitlin/.  And on July 9, 2021, he collaborated in a post critiquing Peter Beinart’s webinar interview with BDS founder Omar Barghouti: “Todd Gitlin on Beinart Interview of Barghouti.”

Prof. Peter Dreier of Occidental College wrote the following, with links to prominent tributes that were posted almost instantly, including  from TTN colleagues Mitchell Cohen and Eric Alterman:

Todd Gitlin, 79, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University,  died on Saturday. Todd was such an extraordinarily talented person that it is difficult to capture his essence and get the full measure of the man.  Below I’ve posted several obits  as well as tributes by people who knew Todd well in various aspects of his remarkable life. 

Todd was a prolific writer, a profound thinker, a progressive political activist, an outstanding teacher, and a respected and revered mentor to several generations of activists, writers, and scholars. He was a serious and influential public intellectual and scholar-activist. He wrote novels, poems, op-ed columns, political and cultural commentary, and scholarly (but well-written) books about movements and media, including  “Uptown,” “The Whole World is Watching,” “Inside Prime Time,” “The Twilight of Common Dreams,” “Intellectuals and the Flag,” and “Occupy Nation.”  His book “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage” – a combination of scholarly history and personal memoir – is the best book on the subject.

Gitlin in Chicago, summer of 1964. Photo courtesy of Stan Nadel.

From his college days onward, he was deeply  involved in the major movements of his time – opposition to nuclear weapons, Students for a Democratic Society and the anti-war movement,  community organizing among  poor whites in Chicago [see photo attached] (about which he wrote his book “Uptown”),  the  movement against South African apartheid (he led one of the first sit-ins on that issue), climate change and the campus-based movement to divest from fossil fuel corporations, and Occupy Wall Street and the battle to hold corporate America accountable to workers, consumers, and the environment. In recent years, he weighed in on the politics and tragedy of the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians and even wrote a book about it.

Todd was both a savvy intellectual street fighter and an elegant essayist, but always a man of personal decency (a mensch) and moral courage. He had a curious mind. Plus, he was very funny!  He was critical but never cynical. He never gave up hope that clear-eyed activism could make the world a better place. 

He earned his Ph.D. in sociology at UC-Berkeley and became what sociologists call a “participant observer.”  He didn’t just watch from the sidelines. He was always available to support and advise younger activists, even when he disagreed with them.

He was ready to speak at teach-ins, rallies, and conferences, to draft and spread open letters and petitions about numerous causes, to  participate in protests, and to write op-eds and essays on a moment’s notice if he felt the issue was urgent.  Only a few weeks before he died, he was still talking with other veteran activists about creating a Democracy Summer project to recruit college students and others to spend this summer working to challenge the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts – similar to the Freedom Summer project in the 1960s.

On Sunday, over 150 of Todd’s friends held a Zoom memorial, recounting stories about his brilliant mind, his warm friendship, and his indefatigable energy.  At that meeting, Bob Ross –  a retired Clark University sociologist who was Todd’s longtime friend (they went to Bronx High School of Science together and were leaders of SDS in the early 1960s) – said this about Todd: “He had, along with our departed comrade Tom [Hayden], but different from him too, the ability to look over the horizon – and report back – and act on what he saw.”  

Todd was a presence in the media (frequently a “talking head” in documentaries) and on picket lines. Perhaps his most famous comment, made in the 1990s about the so-called culture wars, was that while the Right was taking over the White House, the Left was “marching on the English Department.” He kept his eyes on the prize – the fight for democracy.  Last October, Todd, Jeffrey Isaac, and William Kristol (yes, politics can make strange bedfellows) circulated “An Open Letter in Defense of Democracy,” about the assault on democracy by Trump and his followers, and quickly recruits several dozen leading activists and intellectuals to sign it. When it came to challenging our country’s rising threat of fascism, Todd was willing to find allies and build coalitions wherever he could.

I was fortunate to know him since the 1970s, to coauthor an article with him, and to be part of two vibrant and contentious list-serves with him, where Todd was a frequent contributor. A few years ago we each wrote separate tributes to writer Clancy Sigal – mine in Huffington Post, his in The Yale Review. I hadn’t realized that we both loved Clancy’s novels and journalism, and we exchanged emails about our favorite Clancy writings. It felt good to learn that on this and many other matters, Todd was a kindred spirit.

Todd’s influence is so great that many people who are influenced by his ideas  don’t know his name. Every organizer and activist recognizes the  dilemma of trying to get media attention by engaging in various forms of protest. The media often focus on the protesters, not the issues they are protesting. Todd’s book, “The Whole World is Watching,” was the first systematic analysis of that dilemma, based on both his scholarly research and his experiences as an activist.

I encourage folks to Google Todd’s name and read some of his writings – from the 1960s to a few months ago.  He wrote for the NY Times, Dissent, American Prospect, The Washington Post, The Tablet, The Forward, the New Republic, USA Today, The NY Daily News, Salon, The Nation, and dozens of other publications.  You can find some of them on his website. It is sad to realize that he won’t be posting any more of his articles.

These articles provide a fuller picture of Todd. I’m sure much more will be written about him in the coming weeks and months. 

Michelle Goldberg, “Requiem for a Liberal Giant,” NY Times, February 7, 2022

Bob Kuttner, “Busy Being Born: The Odyssey of Todd Gitlin,” American Prospect, February 8, 2022

Michael Kazin, Brian Morton, Susie Linfield, Mitchell Cohen, Jo-Ann Mort, Jeffrey C. Isaac, and Kevin Mattson. “Todd Gitlin, 1943-2022,” Dissent, February 7, 2022  (This is a collection of remembrances of Todd by friends associated with Dissent magazine, where Todd was a frequent contributor).

Harrison Smith, “Todd Gitlin, Activist And Scholar Who Shaped and Chronicled the New Left, Dies at 79,” Washington Post, February 7, 2022 

Eric Alterman, “Todd Gitlin Told His Truth Everywhere He Went,” The Nation, February 8, 2022

Katharine Seelye, “Todd Gitlin, A Voice and Critic of the Left, Dies at 79,” NY Times, February 5, 2022

Jeffrey Isaac, “Todd Gitlin’s Work Against the Dark,” The New Republic, February 7, 2022

May his memory be a blessing.

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