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Todd Gitlin,
Professor of Journalism and Sociology

Where were you when the World Trade Center was attacked five years ago, and can you tell us your thoughts when you first heard the news?
I was in my apartment in Washington Square Village, a mile or so from Ground Zero, about to teach my first class of the semester.  (I was then at NYU.)  As best I can remember, my very first thought, after hearing of the first crash, was not profound—I thought simply that such an event was uncanny. My wife and younger stepson went downstairs and saw the second attack. I heard the second one and, equally unprofound, thought this was no accident, probably a terror attack. By the time I came out of class, the towers had collapsed, and I do remember thinking, with much consternation, that George W. Bush was not the president we needed at that moment.

You recently released a book of essays, The Intellectuals and the Flag, several of which you wrote in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Could you summarize the book’s main points?
Principally, I argue that the left needs to be straightforwardly patriotic; that real patriotism has to do with a great deal more than the symbolism of the flag, but (as George Orwell understood) with attachment to a national tradition and values; that patriotism, in this sense, is to be distinguished from aggressive nationalism of the Bush variety; that the affirmation of a national tradition is properly the business of the left, some of whose members (what I call the fundamentalist left) have made the drastic error of thinking that America is the root of all evil; that, like three intellectual exemplars to whom I devote essays—David Riesman, C. Wright Mills and Irving Howe—the left should be comprehensive in its positive ideas for the country and not simply stand on the sidelines mocking; and that the academic left has in many ways defaulted on the need for an affirmative vision.

In your view, has 9/11 proved to be a watershed event—five years on, are intellectuals on the left more engaged, or are they still in the political wilderness? If the latter, what further measures should be taken?
Bush's illicit victory in 2000 ushered in a political emergency. The attacks of 9/11 would have constituted an emergency for the country in any event, requiring a serious national mobilization for self-protection. But Bush's transmutation of justified force in Afghanistan into the crazy expedition in Iraq compounded the emergency. Many intellectuals came to appreciate this, and the mobilization of energies against Bush in 2004 was promising. While some are still thrashing around in the political wilderness, continuing the spirit of their myopic embrace of the Nader campaigns, many more, I think, are well along in the process of coming to grips with a politics monopolized by a single ruinous party.  What's required is the discipline and intelligence of long-distance runners. 

I sense a growing realism. What exactly ought to be done with it is, of course, a complicated question to which my short answer is:  channel movement-style energies to the project of building a practical opposition party. I'm just finishing a book on this subject.

Back to Five Years Since 9/11


AT ISSUE is a series of features in The Record and on the web, intended to gather viewpoints from faculty and staff on current news topics.

Published: Aug 25, 2006
Last modified: Sep 29, 2006