Friday, October 05, 2007

The Gen Without a Country

[posted by Callimachus]

Todd Gitlin has the unenviable position of criticizing the modern American left while remaining among it. He was among those who called out Michael Moore on "Fahrenheit 911," for instance. It doesn't take kindly to such things and if purges were possible in this culture, he would have gone down the drain long ago.

His new book likely won't improve his standing. But it does seem to offer food for thought, as his writings usually do. And the reviewer, Wilfred M. McClay, here adds morsels of his own.

[Todd Gitlin] provides an honest account of the reasons for his generation's disenchantment with patriotism—an account that helps explain why, even now, the term almost never escapes the lips even of mainstream liberal Democrats without being prefaced by the indignant words "impugning" and "my." For Gitlin's generation, the "generation for whom ‘the war' meant Vietnam and perhaps always will," it could be said that the "most powerful public emotion in our lives was rejecting patriotism." Patriotism became viewed as, at best, a pretext, and at worst, an abandonment of thought itself. It became of interest only in so far as it entered into calculations of political advantage. Far from being a sentiment that one might feel with genuine warmth and intelligent affection, it was merely a talisman, which, if used at all, served chiefly to neutralize its usefulness as a weapon in the hands of others, by making it into a strictly personal preference that others were forbidden to question: "my" patriotism.

It may be that this state of affairs will continue, at least for a certain segment of Gitlin's generation. One reason the Iraq war has been so galvanizing to that segment is that it offered badly needed reconfirmation of the very premises around which they had built their adult lives. And let it be said that those premises are not completely cockeyed. The claims of the nation-state should never be regarded as absolute and all-encompassing. To do so would violate the nature of the American experiment itself, which understands government as accountable to higher imperatives, which we express in various ways: in the language of natural rights, for example, or of "one nation under God." The possibility of dissent against the nation for the sake of the nation is built into that formulation. The dissenters are right about that.