Interview with Todd Gitlin – full version

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Todd Gitlin was president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1963-64, and helped organize the first national demonstration against the Vietnam War in 1965. He has written widely on politics and culture, with a special focus on media, including his seminal work, The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the Left (1980). His most recent book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street (2012). He is currently professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He visited Champaign-Urbana to give a MillerCom Lecture on campus on February 7, entitled “Social Media may be Media but they are not a Society.”

RE: Your talk yesterday was entitled “Social Media may be Media but they are not a Society.” What is or should be the role of media in a movement for progressive change, in your view? What role does “independent”—community and grass-roots—media have to play? Where does the mass or mainstream media fit in?

TG: Media are factors, they are forces; social movements have to be reasonably accurate or plausible in the way they size up the world in which they live, so one thing they have to understand is what to expect from media and how to cope with media. They have to have strategies to deal with media as they have to have strategies for dealing with constituents, with supporters, with antagonists, with police, with all kinds of social forces. The establishment media in any movement situation are very often ignorant of and/or scornful of the standing of the movement, they tend to think of movements as failed versions of something else—they should be parties, they should be organizations, they should be institutions, they don’t work very well as those. They’re often seen as the followings of individuals. So from the movement point of view one has to have very limited expectations of what the mainstream media are going to do for you. Sometimes the establishment media can also be enticed into doing some service, insofar as it’s possible to get some reasonably fair expectation of what the movement thinks, to have the movement’s own slogans and images detailed; for the movement to orchestrate or produce, in a theatrical sense, events in which the movement is cast as the good guys, and the brutal police are cast as the bad guys, that can be advantageous. And often there’s some room for maneuver: not all journalists are stamped from the same assembly line; even of the journalists that work for media institutions, not all are comparable, some are more reasonable than others. Generally, I think journalists should be taken seriously as interlocutors, and not viewed as the guilty and the enemy; they should be viewed as people who are doing a certain job which might at certain points be at odds with the movement but might at certain points be compatible. I don’t like the practice of assuming the journalists are in the pocket of the enemy, although obviously the plutocrats most likely own the enterprise that the journalist works for; but most newspapers don’t run from the top down. So I think journalists should be taken seriously as people to be encountered in an open way. But obviously also, every movement needs its own media; I don’t know how to say anything very general about that, except to say that media, whether the movement’s or other media, have to face up to who they’re in contact with, who they aim to be reading and hearing them, and it has to be plausible—and not plausible to some hypothetical interlocutor in the sky but to actual people who live on the ground here, in a particular place setting and a particular framework. The movement’s media can be more or less attractive, more or less compelling, more or less persuasive, but they’re indispensable, for the reason that the establishment media have another objective, they package stories in a way to increase circulation, they have a certain idea of what constitutes professionalism, and they have certain blind spots that are built into their social position.

RE: And social media?

TG: It’s so early in the history that I’m suspicious of anybody that claims to know what is the “essence” of social media. I often think about technologies—and we’re told with assurance that the essence of social media is democratic: what was the intrinsic power or function of radio in, say, 1921? It didn’t yet have an essence, it was an unfolding process, emergent, not just an emergent technology but an emergent set of social relations, so it’s the case that the emergent spirit or opportunities, openings of social media are still in the process of being arrayed. That said, it’s obvious that social media play a part in helping people who are disconnected and scattered acquire some imagery with which they can recognize themselves, and then coordinate activities; they are what they share, what they believe. They can be forms for distributing images that help people clarify what’s at stake: there’s that awful photo of the battered face of the young Egyptian who was murdered in Alexandria in 2010, who then became almost literally the poster boy for the website “We are all Khaled Sayid,” which then was transformed into a network that led to the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt in 2011. That was important—and there’s some tendency to exaggerate the importance of it, there had to be institutions on the ground, unions and soccer clubs, for example, that played a part in the uprising, there had to be face-to-face relations—but it is true that at times, and Egypt in early 2011 was one of those times, it happens in something of an unpredictable way, some social media phenomena become a repository of feeling and commitment and somehow are heartening and enlivening and/or arousing of disgust that stokes up and clarifies a social emotion, makes it more vivid, makes it more alive, makes people feel less isolated, less solitary, less doomed. I think all that is pretty obvious. Social media are not the originators, they’re not magical forces; they can magnify, they can transmute, they can contest, they can radiate symbols, they can do all kinds of valuable things—they are part of the mix of media.

RE: The IMC, including the Public i and radio station WRFU, are part of a network of grassroots media activists (FreePress, National Conference for Media Reform, etc.) that make media work central to building a movement. Is this, in your opinion, putting the cart before the horse? What is your opinion of media activism?

TG: I’ve thought for a long time that a component of any progressive movement should be media reform. It’s a grotesque distortion of democratic principle that small concentrations of capital can dominate vast arrays of media; and, moreover, it’s somewhere between immoral and illegal that resources developed with public investment and under the charter of public purpose in the United States—the Communications Act of 1934 which speaks of the responsibility of broadcasters to act in accord with the public interest, convenience and necessity—it’s grotesque that private owners get to make vast profits on the utilization of the airwaves which they do not own and for which they pay not one thin dime in license fees. So it goes without saying that all this is unjust and indefensible. That said, let’s not be naïve: the game is rigged, political institutions, political parties, political candidates who are beholden to network and other media owners are not going to embrace reformers who promise to undercut the profitability of those agencies, and so I think it’s highly unlikely that we can see reforms given the existing balance of political forces, so in my mind the greatest shortfall is not in our media, it’s in our tensile strength as a network of institutions and organizations who can actually show people that change can be arranged, that change can be done, that change is within reach. In opposition politics, we have a shortfall in strategic thinking and organization. We don’t have enough focus on issues which are important and, some of which at least, are winnable. If an opposition movement comes forward as a political force, it might then be able to pose some restrictions on the private employers of media, but not out of anybody’s goodwill but because a new political force exists.

RE: With the pressures on traditional print and investigative journalism, and the internet and its dominance on people’s attention, what do you see in the future of journalism/media?

TG: Well, journalism will struggle, as it has for most of its history. What we’ve come to think of as normal journalism is not very old, actually more of an exception than the norm. The norm has been a very partisan press, quite unruly, quite often slanderous and grotesque, distorted and committed to distortions. There was a period, basically the last century more or less, when the idea that it was a professional press and that journalism was a profession became normal, so now that that premise is breaking down: now that the control of those channels has weakened, has become diffused, it’s easier to think that there was a stable form of journalism that’s now being eroded. The stability was not so stable, that’s the first point. The second point, again allowing for the fact that a lot of the tendencies in journalism are not consolidated, not crystallized, is that there are obviously openings for all kinds of interesting phenomena, online and in other forms; there are different kinds of channels and information that open up, via YouTube, via community radio, via independent film, independent magazines, blogging, etc., all that is part of the mix. Now, none of that itself produces investigative journalism, none of it makes the established media irrelevant; it still matters to a politician to be exposed, to be challenged or pursued in the media, it still matters to corporations whether they’re seen to be malevolent or beneficent. You better believe that Wall Street cares about how it looks, because it wants to be not only rich but loved, so we’ve not gotten to the point where the image of anything in the established media is unimportant. That said, I think that the loss of local voice in the media, the weakening of what vitality there has been in the local press is real. The weakening of what were actually great and in many ways promising papers by cutthroat conglomerate maneuver, the damage that was done to the Los Angeles Times by a series of corporate takeovers, that matters; the intellectual and journalistic impoverishment of the Washington Post is disturbing; the Murdochization of the Wall Street Journal is disturbing; and I don’t yet see, and I’m not sure I can even begin to see, a glimmering of another sort of business model that can actually sustain an impressive and even trenchant and incisive journalism. Journalism was a lot more established five or six years ago, but it didn’t really do much to spot the financial bubble and to pinpoint routine maneuvers of the financial system which made for such instability and malfeasance. That was a healthier media system; now we have a weakened media system, and I’m not holding my breath for its ability to see what the more disguised or masked powers are up to. But what are you going to do? Journalism is what journalists make of it and what publics make of it, and journalism has to adapt to the fact that most people, partly for technological but partly for cultural reasons, seem to do fairly handily without journalism. They may want to turn on the weather report that tells them how the storm is bearing down on the community, but they seem to live with a foam of celebrity news and some hit-or-miss political observations and shallow gestures and slogans towards political reality—and terminology, like “fiscal cliff,” which is obscurantist and distracting. It’s not as though the public is unwilling to live with less information and less actionable information, so it’s not a happy landscape.

RE: For those that missed your talk, can you summarize your ideas on the way forward for Occupy, if any?

TG: I wrote a book called Occupy Nation where I tried to both describe and to analyze how this movement functioned. I think it had an enormous impact, an enormously tonic impact, on the political system. I think it reversed the drift to the right in the hegemony that was exercised by deficit hawks and the like. I think it helped restore the legitimacy of progressive thinking; I think it helped shore up reformist politicians, reformist strands, reformist threads in politicians, and changed the whole center of gravity. That said, when the encampments, which were the crucial crucible of the movement, were disbanded by the action of city officials and police, what gave the movement the chance to recruit, to set itself forward and become part of the national bulletin board, was eroded and was in fact exploded. And when you no longer have the encampments, then you no longer, it turned out, had the means of creating an enduring presence. So Occupy became a sort of folk myth, and as such, I want to underscore, did a whole lot of good. But it did not, was not capable of evolving toward some sort of enduring presence as a training center, a sort of self-education center and organized recruiting ground, a place where people who were curious could find out more about banks or about the global financial system, where those more or less friendly to these ideas could sign up for a whole range of activities, could find out next steps, could argue about strategy—all that was undercut, and the core movement, I think, succumbed to a kind of befuddlement, sectarian squabbling, and lost much of its presence in the public domain. I do think there are a number of continuations or attempts at continuations which are promising. There are alliances, both at the state level and nationally, for example the campaign for a so-called Robin Hood Tax on Wall Street transactions; campaigns against debt, campaigns locally against foreclosure, campaigns to install public financing of politics, campaigns for progressive taxation, all this sort of thing has some vitality, and has promise. I just don’t think we’re going to see a resurrection of the Occupy movement of Fall of 2011. It has discharged its political obligations rather well, and time has moved on.

RE: As someone who started out in the anti-war movement, what do you think of the anti-war movement, if there is such a thing, today in the United States?

TG: There are eruptions at Congressional hearings, there’s Code Pink, and there are other manifestations, and there’s focus on particularly vulnerable, particularly problematic practices like drone attacks, and so on. But I don’t get the sense of a movement that has a lot of growth possibility built in to it. The movement against the Iraq War and the movement against the maintenance and the expansion, the Surge, in the Afghanistan War, those have basically met with considerable success, in that there’s not much legitimacy left in those wars. and troops are on their way out. So even though there are objectionable practices that I think there’ll continue to be opposition to, I don’t get the sense of a movement that’s able to have much effect on military policy. Nor do I get the sense, and I think this is a serious lapse, of a vigorously, connected, strategically-minded movement to cut military spending, which is a serious shortfall on the landscape. Somehow the grotesque commitment of resources to being the biggest military—not just the biggest military in the world, but a bigger military than all the other militaries put together—and the continuing popularity of the military definition of security and the nonstop panic about Al Qaeda and the like: I don’t see a popular opposition to that mood—but I could be surprised.

RE: You supported the initial attack on Afghanistan following 9/11. What is your position today on the war on Afghanistan and the War on Terror as being prosecuted by the Obama administration?

TG: I think there’s a national right of self-defense, so I defended the initial attacks on Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban. I don’t retract that. But that mission was accomplished when Al Qaeda was driven out of Afghanistan, and since then there’s been no coherent strategy, not even a coherent objective. As much as I despise the Taliban and their works, I don’t think that what is basically an imperial force from the United States has any more legitimacy or prospects of success than the British or the Russians or for that matter Genghis Khan before them. I think it’s a wrongheaded enterprise. So I was against the Surge, and I wish the Obama administration were less impressed by the military romance of continuing war than they have been; I’ve been advocating withdrawal for a long time.

RE: And the War on Terror, drone strikes, Guantanamo?

TG: The notion of a War on Terror is idiotic, there’s no such thing as a war on a tactic. The Obama people don’t call it the War on Terror, they talk about the Long War, but to me it’s still incoherent. I understand the concept of a war against a state, and historically we know how wars end, there’s a surrender or there’s a bargain struck between the parties. What is war against a movement, which is essentially what Al Qaeda is, or what Al Qaeda and its allies are like? The notion of a war against a tactic is completely incoherent. I remember at one point early on, an early press conference, at the very beginning of the Iraq War, or even before it. Rumsfeld was asked how we’ll know when we’ve won this war. He said, we’ll have won this war when Americans feel safe. That’s ridiculous. First of all, Americans never feel safe, Americans always feel embattled and under siege; and secondly, you can’t judge either philosophically or juridically whether war is over on the basis of people’s mood, it’s just nonsense. I do think that the country has enemies, that Americans have enemies, and that there is some legitimacy to defending against them by proportionate means. But turning ourselves into a quivering fearful mass of cringers and hyperaggressive forces who impose a military definition on the problem, who are security-obsessed, is wrong. It’s wrong, dangerous and almost certainly self-defeating. I agreed with John Kerry actually, and he got holy hell for saying it, when he said something to the effect that Al Qaeda and its like were essentially a nuisance, but not a world-historical danger. They were far more of a danger in 2001 then they are now. But all this is to say, I think that there are real enemies that need to be confronted, with all kinds of soft power but also with the occasional use of force. But the obsessive and unstoppable chest-beating, world-mobilizing, base-building entrenchment of military force is wrong-headed.

RE: In the recent hearings on the President’s choice for new director of the CIA [John Brennan], the drone strikes have come into the news, as well as the legality of lethal strikes on US citizens. What is your position on the use of drone strikes by the Obama administration, and on Guantanamo and the military trials issue? If you are against, do you think there’s a basis for organizing citizen opposition on these issues?

TG: Well, Guantanamo should be closed, it should have been closed a long time ago. I think Obama genuinely did want to close Guantanamo, and was resisted by the states who didn’t want to take the prisoners, which I think is nuts, and he fought it and he still should fight it; but I understand there’s a political price to be paid, there are a lot of priorities and the administration’s judgment is that there’s something they need from the states, which they might forego if they insist on sending prisoners to maximum security prisons in certain states. That’s a political judgment, politics is ugly and you can’t always get what you want. As for drone strikes, it strikes me that they’ve become a kind of chillingly easy recourse: cost-effective, which the military and the intelligence services and the White House love, and obviously not as discriminating as they claim they’re trying to be. Also, I think, frequently immoral, and self-destructive. But I think the emphasis on drone strikes misses something: there are all kinds of means of war which are brutal and much to be avoided, and drone strikes are among those implements. There’s something so uncanny about drone strikes, and also fascinating to kids who’ve grown up on video games, so attention centers on drone strikes in disproportion to their actual significance. They’re actually not an immense portion of the military effort, and therefore I’d rather we had worked out more intelligent strategies for containing and where necessary killing Al Qaeda and its allies, without such reckless disregard of civilian life.

RE: You’ve written, in the essay “The Intellectuals and the Flag,” about putting out the flag after 9/11, and proposed the idea of ‘liberal patriotism.’ Can you elaborate more on what you mean by that?

TG: I think people feel bonded to others in a whole lot of ways, and one of the central ways of the modern world is that they feel themselves to be members of nations. And from a feeling of membership in a nation they derive a sense of strength and collectivity, which is obviously potentially very dangerous and can lead to grotesque overestimation of one’s moral excellence, but it’s also a human element. So to ask of people that they relinquish a claim on the nation and the cultural protection, the sense of belonging that historical membership in a nation affords, because nationalism is potentially dangerous, I think is a sort of grandstand gesture which doesn’t engage the world in which most people live. My reaction after September 11 was that there were these people out there who were trying to kill Americans—they also killed a lot of people who weren’t Americans, but that was incidental, collateral damage—so Americans I think were reasonable in affirming they would endure, and I felt that among them, in all kinds of ways. Not only as an American but as a human being, as an adherent of the Left and the values of the Left in which human life is of immense value. And I resented the fact that patriotism had been claimed by people with a savage and blind and abusive relation to American values, that the country had been in a sense hijacked by people whose America is not the one that I feel attached to. America has always been, from its founding, a “mixed curse,” as my old friend Andy Kopkind once put it, having been founded in empire building and slavery. But it was also the creation of something with another potential, a democratic potential. America still has meaning despite everything, as an illustration of some of the possibilities of human freedom, so I don’t have any problem affirming progressive values or calling attention to the ways in which the values of American political culture are my values, and putting up the flag was a simple way. I was saying all kinds of things, writing all kinds of things, and from the very beginning was opposing the stupid, Bush-like reaction to the attacks; but to do so in the name of America rather than in the name of some sort of abstract adherence struck me as—well, it’s not something I debated within myself: it’s automatic, I feel attachment to my fellow countrymen and women, that simple, and I still adhere to that. At the same time, I think that you’re playing with dynamite when you’re playing with love of country, and you’re at risk of getting lazy and sloppy and succumbing to a kind of mindless fervor, and I acutely feel that, I’m wary of that propensity. So I think there are a lot of strengths, of values in life, which have to be affirmed but also have to be contained, because when they get out of hand they’re dangerous.

RE: How does this fit with the idea of US progressives as part of a global movement, including the Arab Spring and other efforts that seem to be directed against US policy or US imperialism? Is internationalism, international solidarity still important, and especially with elements or movements like the so-called Arab Street that would see in our flag a symbol of everything that is oppressive—how would you negotiate that?

TG: I was a great enthusiast of the movements in Tunisia and Egypt and then in Libya. Obviously as we see from the denouements there was a whole lot that was not worked out. Was it a good idea to overthrow Ben Ali and Mubarak and Qaddafi? Absolutely. Have these movements achieved the values of the Left? No way. I don’t think that anti-Americanism is by itself a value. I think that actually it can be kind of a cheap substitute for a value, and I object heartily to the notion that anyone who declares themselves opposed to American Empire is therefore a friend. There were those on the Left who saw the Al Qaeda attacks as a kind of, maybe somewhat overdrawn misinterpretation, but still an affiliation with anti-imperialism, and that struck me as not only idiotic factually but also missing something centrally. America has damaged a lot of countries, and yet it wasn’t Salvadorans or Nicaraguans or Chileans who were bombing lower Manhattan. Because those who had been crushed by America had themselves affirmed values which were the values of the Left, and I don’t have any trouble affiliating with that honorable anti-imperialism. But not everything goes when you’ve been attacked by another country, and America is not the Great Satan, and those who oppose America by all means are not necessarily admirable, and sometimes they are enemies of the values of the Left. Islamism is inimical to the values of the Left. The idea that one should have warm feelings for nations, leaders, factions, parties who believe that women are inferior or that any social group is inferior, the notion that they are somehow forces of the Left strikes me as grotesque. What to do about them is another question. I’m not calling for all-out war—but I don’t think there is such a thing as a global Left. I want to choose my friends on the basis of how I assess them and not on the basis that they’re the enemy of my enemy, that to me is a no-brainer. And how it can be that people on the Left can blithely sign on with political forces like Hamas and Hezbollah which are outrightly genocidal, or Hugo Chavez, who has no qualms about anti-Semitism, on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Those are not my politics, I find that unconscionable, and I don’t affiliate with that Left, in fact I don’t see why it’s the Left. I don’t see how the Left can feel at home with those who want to jam women into burqas or drive the Jews into the sea.

RE: In a debate with Naomi Klein some years ago on Democracy Now, around the question of whether to demonstrate in the streets at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, you expressed that people should be focusing on the November election rather than be on the convention. There was some element also in your talk that seemed to be advocating more moderate tactics that do not alienate mainstream opinion, as opposed to dramatic and divisive street actions. What is your view of a strong contrarian moral stance and the idea of resistance in politics, and also what about nonviolent direct action?

TG: I don’t see what the demonstrations at the 2004 Convention accomplished. New Yorkers didn’t like the Republican Party being there, didn’t like the Republican Party. Was anybody persuaded one iota to change their view of what America needed because there were people in the streets around Madison Square Garden? I’d like to see some evidence of that, I’m kind of reality-based about these things. It seemed to be a misapplication of energy, it still seems to be. In general, I don’t advocate either militancy or moderation, whatever exactly that is, for its own sake, I see actions as intentional, they have an aspect which is expressive of people’s strong feelings, but not everything you feel is capable of being focused into a form of political action that actually stands a reasonable chance of actually making changes. I’m not interested in expression, we have theater for that. Theater is an element of politics, but I’m interested actually in persuading people that there’s a better way of life, and sometimes militant tactics, nonviolent I would add, are of great value; they have to be thought out and people have to learn from their successes and failures. So neither moderation or militancy is itself a virtue; many do make a fetish of the appearance of actions without actually thinking out what the actions are designed to demonstrate, who is likely to be turned or impressed, who is likely to be offended? For a movement to harden itself into a prickly band of full-timers who are wholly saved is not a contribution to politics, to me that’s more a sort of theological declaration. Sometimes people in the Occupy movement got worked up about whether they were revolutionary or anarchist or reformist; to me those discussions are more symbolic of stances than useful as ways of arriving at difficult decisions about what to do. I don’t believe in a foreign policy that is determined by looking strong, and I don’t believe in radical movement-building which is governed by an appearance of being militant: to me they’re equally empty as gestures. In other words, I believe that when we act in the world, we’re obliged to take most seriously, to bring our best intelligence, our best judgment to the question of what is a sensible form of action, of ‘right action’ as the Buddhists say. Right action is a matter of judgment, always. I do think though that everything that was achieved positively in the movements of the last 50 years in the United States was achieved through nonviolent action. It’s hard for me to think of an exception. There is an interesting argument that some reforms became possible because of the fear of riots. Riots of course were not intentional action, they erupted, they were not anybody’s strategy, and there may be some truth to the claim about the reformist value of riots (note: at a time of much greater prosperity), but there was also a very high price to be paid. Leaving that to the side, I think with almost no exceptions what was achieved by the Civil Rights movement, by the anti-war movement, by the Women’s movement, by the gay movement, by movements for disability rights and all kinds of other just causes has been accomplished by nonviolent direct action, that’s the center of things. That, to me, is a historical judgment, we can argue about the history of it, we can argue about the facts, but we should be arguing about it not theologically, but on the basis of trying to come to conclusions about experience.

RE: So do you see a role for civil disobedience in the current context?

TG: Sure, civil disobedience is a wonderful instrument, if it’s properly designed. Blocking the corrupt activity of banks, blocking the deployment of illicit force through nonviolent action, obstructing the workings of institutions that have discredited themselves but are still left standing through nonviolent action, all that is central to the enlivening of democratic life. Without those means we do not get progress, period. But it’s also possible to design actions badly, so one should learn to design them better, and part of better means don’t make enemies you don’t have to make, don’t make it easy for people who don’t like your looks to figure that they have more in common with Wall Street bankers than with you. Draw the lines differently.

RE: Last question, and you’ve mentioned a few issues already, but what do you see as the key issues to build a progressive movement around in the coming months and years?

TG: I think that what the Occupy movement rightly surfaced was that there was great revulsion against the hijacking of our semi-democracy by plutocrats, so the whole range of issues that have to do with the liberation of politics from the hegemony of capital are important: public financing of elections, reinforcing the progressivity of taxes, breaking up these too-big-to-fail banks. I think that the Green thrust is important for obvious reasons. Expelling fossil fuel residues into the atmosphere is idiotic of course and will do us no good; stopping the reliance on fossil fuels is very important, and there’s a place for civil disobedience in that too. Reversing the denial of climate change is important, demonstrating against military usurpation of resources, trying to improve democratic rights like the right to vote rather than damaging people’s ability to vote is important. Our constitutional system is almost hopelessly indebted to anti-democratic principle, and the concentration of money in politics makes it extremely difficult to accommodate democratic hopes in almost every sector. But I don’t want to so much make a list as to call attention to what I think are the core issues: the enlargement of democratic possibility, the curbing of the powers of capital, those are to me the center of the politics of the Left.

RE: Thank you very much for speaking with me and the readers of the Public i.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.
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