The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars

Todd Gitlin
New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995
294 pp., $25.00 hc

Henry Gonshak
Montana Tech-UM

I must confess that I opened my review copy of Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars with some hesitancy. Oh, no, I thought, not another book about the "P.C." debate. Fortunately though, The Twilight of Common Dreams does manage to say something new about America's divisive "culture wars." In lucid, trenchant prose, Gitlin criticizes the excesses and blindnesses of both pro- and anti-PC. zealots, concluding with a cure for what he sees as ailing the American left today.

As timely and eloquent as Gitlin's conclusion is, it also highlights the book's main flaw: while claiming to be addressing all sides in the culture wars, Gitlin really is speaking (albeit often quite critically) only to his fellow liberals. Contrary to the implications of the book's title, when Gitlin calls for the revival of "common dreams," he's actually referring not to the reuniting of America as a whole, but rather, more narrowly, to the reunification of the left, which he sees as fragmented by "multiculturalism" and "identity politics."

Consequently, a reader who doesn't share Gitlin's liberalism won't, I imagine, find his book particularly convincing or relevant, despite its attacks on left-wing P.C. In the preface, Gitlin tries to circumvent this problem by claiming that "the idea of the Left and the idea of America share a history...[as] the two great...ideas of the Enlightenment" (3). But he forgets that the right, too, traces many of its seminal ideas to major Enlightenment thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, John Locke and Adam Smith, while lauding as forbears such American founders as John Adams, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. Clearly, a conservative would sharply challenge Gitlin's notion that our democracy's founding principles are essentially left-wing.

Despite this serious defect, the book is still certainly worth reading. Gitlin greatly illuminates our culture wars, for example, by placing them in historical context. While some previous studies have traced their source to the countercultural ferment of the 1960s, The Twilight of American Dreams goes all the way back to our country's origins. America, Gitlin notes, is the one nation on earth composed almost entirely of immigrants. Not bound, like other nations, by a common ethnicity, all that unites us is a shared commitment to a set of ideas: human equality, individual rights, social justice. But to unify a culture only through ideas is a precarious process, to put it mildly, and from its inception, as Gitlin shows, America's social fabric has frayed. However, with the notable exception of the Civil War, Gitlin finds no historical precedent for the country's current lack of societal cohesion.

In trying to discover the root causes of our contemporary cultural disintegration, Gitlin turns, for most of the book, to the current scene, casting blame on both the left and right. Among other things, he chastises conservatives for their often hyperbolic rhetoric when decrying academic P.C. As an example, he cites George Will's remark, in a column appearing just after the Gulf War, that while Defense Secretary Dick Cheney confronted enemies abroad, his NEH-heading wife Lynne, in her role as "secretary of domestic defense," faced still more dangerous adversaries at home--implying, apparently, that left-wing American professors posed a greater threat to national security than Saddam Hussein. (186)

Gitlin finds conservatives remarkably successful in their push to incite public alarm over the alleged P.C. threat. For instance, while such anti-PC. tracts as Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal Education have become bestsellers, important books defending the university, such as The Politics of Liberal Education, or Gerald Graff's Beyond the Culture Wars, have never enjoyed broad, non-academic readerships. Yet, rather than claiming victory, the right keeps insisting that Western civilization remains on the edge of ruin. While Gitlin never explains this paradox, it's not hard to fathom. By overstating the dangers of academic P.C., and by defining the debate as a Manichean struggle of good versus evil, the right can depict itself as valiant, indispensable preservers of Western culture, devoid of sectarian motives.

Questioning such claims, Gitlin notes the selectivity of right-wing ire over suppressions of free speech. For example President Bush, speaking at the University of Michigan, denounced "the new intolerance" he saw sweeping America's campuses, but at the same time was backing a constitutional amendment to ban flag-burning (168). Regrettably, Gitlin says little about an even better example of right-wing hypocrisy: the fact that many conservatives, while fuming over left-wing P.C., have turned a blind eye to the intolerance of a far more powerful group, the religious right, whose stated pledge to transform America into (in Pat Robertson's words) a "Christian nation," by definition excludes from true citizenship anyone not Christian. Consider, for instance, William Bennett, who brands Stanford's curriculum changes as "a proposal to 'drop the West,'" while at the same time penning a glowing forward to the latest repressive diatribe by Ralph Reed, Robertson's right-hand man (173).

While viewing the right's anti-PC. campaign as exaggerated and partisan, Gitlin by no means considers it utterly false. (As an analyst of the American left, Gitlin is uniquely qualified, since, in his youth, he was a founding member, and later president, of Students for a Democratic Society.) The book's opening chapter, for example, describes in detail the furor that erupted in the Oakland public school system over a new standardized series of history textbooks--a tragi-comedy that exemplifies left-wing P.C. at its inquisitorial worst. The series' general editor was Gary Nash, a staunchly liberal UCLA history professor, who specifically designed the textbooks to focus on the historical contributions of America's minorities, and to document the nation's legacy of racial injustice, in contrast to past texts, which usually presented the authorized triumphalist, "Great Men" version of American history.

But Nash's efforts weren't good enough for many representatives of Oakland's multiple minorities: blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Native-Americans, Asians. To cite just one of a wealth of examples, a local group called CURE (Communities United Against Racism in Education), which submitted a list of criticisms that ran to eighty-five single-spaced pages, objected to a second-grade book's description of a Cambodian child playing in the snow in Boston, deeming it offensive since the boy couldn't have done so in Cambodia, because, CURE explained, it "never snows there" (10). The controversy climaxed in a raucous public meeting presided over by the hapless Nash, where defenders of the textbooks were shouted down by audience members crying "Put on a swastika," and "Shut up, white bitch" (24). The end result of the dispute was that, two years after the conflict began, Oakland's public schools still have no history textbooks.

Why, Gitlin asks, were community leaders wasting time and energy on this pointless witch hunt, while ignoring a genuine, indeed appalling threat to Oakland's schools: namely, the state and federal budget cuts that have gutted funding for public education? Because, he replies, having lost a belief in the possibility of sweeping social change that inspired earlier generations of left-wing activists, the agitators in Oakland had opted, instead, for the gratification provided by fighting battles they felt confident of wining, however purely symbolic the victory. For Gitlin, the Oakland dispute encapsulates all that's wrong with "identity politics" and "multiculturalism"--that is, the way these ideologies have splintered the left into insulated, squabbling, self-marginalized ghettos. As Gitlin sums it up in a memorable chapter, liberals have been busy "Marching on the English Department While the Right Took the White House."

The central problem facing America today, Gitlin contends, isn't race, gender, or sexual orientation (relevant as all those issues are), but class. The grimmest feature of contemporary American life, he maintains, is our nation's gap between rich and poor, rapidly widening into an abyss as a result of current Republican economic policies. At present, for example, the average corporate C.E.O. makes 149 times more money than the average factory worker, and a student from the wealthiest quarter of American families is 19 times more likely to earn a B.A. than is a student at the bottom (226 & 225). Yet, while economic injustice blights the land, the academic left obsesses over multicultural dogma. The solution, Gitlin concludes, is a revival of the old-fashioned, now discredited universalism that has driven liberalism since the days of Voltaire and Tom Paine, through an alliance of all those "have-nots" currently being crushed by the "Republican Revolution." As Gitlin puts it in the stirring call to arms that ends the book: "Enough bunkers! Enough of the perfection of differences! We ought to be building bridges" (237). I dearly hope the left is listening.

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