Klein is the author of No Logo. This review first appeared
in the LA Times. For more articles/reviews by Naomi Klein,
go to www.nologo.com
* * * * * * * * *
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and reading the only book I had with
me, a review copy of Todd Gitlin's Letters to a Young Activist.
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 1960s, 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?
has little interest in tackling the big questions facing activists
today. His letters amount to little more than mushy 1960s, 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 we find in Gitlin's op-eds in the New York
Times, the Washington Post. Some decent rants, but
timeless wisdom this is not.
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 1960s, will take heart from
learning that "the 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."
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/essayist 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
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."
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.
never tires of reliving the internecine battles of the 1960s,
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.
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 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.
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.
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 1970s, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 'once were
warriors' but because they are still fighting today.
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."
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.