Letters to a Young Activist - A Review
By Kari Kunst
I set out to read “Letters to a Young Activist” with an open
mind, even though the title made me weary that I was in for a
long lecture. As a young person, I welcome new knowledge and
wisdom, but, I don’t need another lecture on what and how I
should or more likely should not do as an activist.
The first paragraph set the tone for the rest of the book:
"Let’s agree to overlook (maybe even enjoy) the absurdity that
joins us: 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."
With this Gitlin successfully alienated me and the majority of
his “young activist” audience with condescending and obviously
ignorant banter. This opening alone made me want to set down the
book. It seemed as if Gitlin was saying “You should listen to my
lecturing even though you couldn’t possibly understand it with
your young mind and I will pay lip service to your idealistic
and fantastical dreams.” Immediately I wondered who the target
audience for this book really is.
Gitlin shared some useful insights about the not so glamorous
struggles of the 1960’s anti-war movement. Including how it took
shape and the opposition the movement faced from mainstream
America. These facts often get left out when the media talks
about the 60’s. He also gave his young activist audience some
heartwarming though over heard statements about being the
“future” and not giving up.
Unfortunately, Gitlin shows surprisingly little knowledge or understanding of
the activist movements of today. The little he does care to
investigate falls in the realm of campus activism leaving out
some of the most exiting and inventive activist movements of
today simply because those involved are not of the privileged
class that can attend college or because they are too young.
It seems that Gitlin has no intention on starting a real
dialogue with young or new activists of today and instead is
writing these letters to relive and come to terms with his own
activist past. What comes is a series of letters that read as
letters of advice to his younger self, criticizing idealism and
radical politics. This book may be better titled as Letters To a
Young Democrat, for he warns us youngsters to settle for the
lesser evil and “…either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule
of the Republicans.” What ever happened to the idea of voting
your conscience or fighting for an end to the two party system
whose candidates are barley distinguishable from each other?
Gitlin called the idea of the formation of a truly radical party
as “narcissism wearing a cloak of ideals.” I don’t think that it
is selfish to want a government that truly speaks for the
people; in fact I think that is what democracy is meant to be.
It seems that Gitlin has become too cynical to accept the need
for a certain amount of hopeful idealism in any movement.
What Gitlin fails to see, even
though he claims that he does, is that new and young activists
of today have learned from the sixties, and we are using our
knowledge coupled with our idealism, to forge a new kind of
activism, one that crosses generational gaps and that works on
multiple levels at once; for policy changes within the system
and against the underlying and deeply rooted flaws that allow
for such policies to be implemented. These are movements were
older activists are at once imparting wisdom to and gaining
insights from younger and newer activists.
Maybe Gitlin cannot see this because he is not in touch with the
activist movement of today. He is an accomplished media critic
and historian but has separated himself form the very people who
he is looking to inform with this book. I would not recommend
this book to any young activist that I know unless I thought
they needed fatherly lecture on compromising their ideals, but I
might recommend it as great reading for any older former activist that
could use a nostalgic look at their youth.
Kari Kunst (20) is a student at
The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She
has been involved in several activist campaigns in Olympia and
Vancouver, Washington, and was The Freechild Project Education
Coordinator from 2002-2005.
Title: Letters to a Young Activist
Author: Todd Gitlin
Use this link to buy this book:
small percentage of each sale goes to support The Freechild
nonprofit community-building organization.