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Remembering Todd Gitlin, witness to 9/11

openDemocracy’s former North America editor has sadly died. Here, our co-founder remembers a dear friend, as we republish one of Todd’s best articles

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett James Curran
7 February 2022, 10.50am
Todd Gitlin, right, and Anthony Barnett in New York, November 2017
All rights reserved

In 2000, when openDemocracy was being planned by four of us in a garage in North London’s Tufnell Park, our first visitor was America’s Todd Gitlin. How he found out about us, I don’t know. But he invited himself. His eyes gleamed with warm delight at the ambition of our plans for a global site that would report and debate independent of corporate influence. We became good friends. This Friday night, 4-5 February, he closed those same bright eyes to sleep while recuperating from illness compounded by COVID and they shut forever.

Todd was an astonishingly prolific sociologist of the media, a novelist, activist, professor and a historian of the present. Like Susan Sontag, with whom he told me he’d had a brief liaison, he “inhaled books”.

Of the sixteen that he wrote himself, the most famous is his account of the Sixties ‘Years of Hope, Days of Rage’, written in 1987. He had been an early president of the SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, at the centre of the US New Left, and an organiser of the first protests against the Vietnam War. He wrote with the authority of a participant at the heart of the maelstrom. His last published book (a new novel is still to come) is ‘Occupy Nation’ published in 2012. It salutes the potential of Occupy Wall Street.

Throughout his life, he confronted what he called (in a 2016 interview with openDemocracy) “the conundrum of left-wing politics” – how can energy for change engage effectively with the politics of actual elections and outcomes? It made him unpopular with many on the Left as he spoke out against futile, self-righteous zeal. But he always called out plutocratic power as the main enemy of democratic change.

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For me, his most brilliant book is his 2002 ‘Media Unlimited’ a concise account of what he called “the media torrent”. You might think that you can choose what to read and watch. This is mistaken. We are surrounded by and live within a flow of information and attitudes that is narcissistic, self-referential, penetrates our emotions and is inescapable. And he developed this theory before social media.

It meant that, while passionate about political tactics and principles, his view was always informed by a command of the larger culture and its dangers. I benefited towards the end of last year when he corrected and improved chapters of ‘Taking Control!’ with speed and good humour. At the same time, he was forging alliances to preserve the US from Trump. Along with Jeffrey Isaac and William Kristol, he conceived an open letter to defend democracy, published simultaneously in The New Republic and The Bulwark, signed by “writers, academics, and political activists who have long disagreed about many things”.

He had not expected Trump to win the presidency and never anticipated to confront what Trumpism has now become. But Todd’s capacious intelligence was capable of reacting to surprise. When we launched in early 2001, Todd, along with James Curran and David Elstein, became the co-editors of openDemocracy’s ‘Media Strand’. (The strands were co-edited by distinguished unpaid advisers who did not agree with each other, it was not a model that lasted.) Later, he became North America editor. Above all, he wrote regularly and continuously and perhaps his most outstanding article for us was his third.

From the kitchen of his then apartment in Washington Square, you could see all of lower Manhattan. On the clear morning of 11 September 2001, he and his wife Laurel thought that the World Trade Centre was on fire until the second plane hit. I called him from London and before the end of the day, we published his response to the calamity. His humanity, exactness, wisdom and foreboding shine through. He called it ‘Is this Our Fate?’, we republish it below, as a memorial to the best of comrades.

One striking theme in the article expresses a defining aspect of Todd’s politics. He does not resile from the need for, as well as the inevitability of, an American strike back. The killers have to be killed. Unlike many of his fellow New Left activists, he endorsed military action by the United States if it was justified. At the same time, he condemns in advance what he dreads: that it will be used to widen the cycle of revenge. When, at the conclusion, he calls for “a focused military response – a precise one, not a revenge spasm, not an attack on a pharmaceutical factory” he is referring to Bill Clinton’s wiping out a medical facility in Sudan with cruise missiles four years before.

His presentiment was justified. Two years later I was with Todd in New York demonstrating against the US attack on Iraq the day after it was launched. As we set out, because London time is earlier, my older daughter returned from the London protest. Using the basic mobile phones of the time she texted me, “Best slogan, ‘Shocked but not Awed’”. We laughed with delight. Since then I always associate Todd with those words. He never lost his shock at the racism, barbarism and the dark side of America but he was never overawed by it or the work needed to defeat it.

Is This Our Fate? 11 September 2001

A fog of terrorism has settled on us – America, New York, everyone I know. Affliction by the phantasmagorical. Dull fear – fear of what’s already happened, fear of the future. More than anything, perhaps, disbelief – a disbelief so bleak and wobbly you can’t even believe in it.

Myself, I’ve been groping around in a fog since 9 this morning when my wife pointed out the window at the sickly yellow-brown smoke pluming eastward, one mile further downtown. A couple of minutes later, an explosion – the second one, I missed the first – and since then, we weave in and out of the unreal.

Staring into the unknown, we fall back on the aura of precedents – catastrophes felt so deeply in common they define the ground for a generation or more. Pearl Harbor, the marker in my parents’ lives and times. The Kennedy assassination, when the world went gravely strange, and we knew nothing would be the same. We were right. But of course we didn’t know the ways, not the half of them.

Just back from a walk around lower Manhattan. It’s the quietest Manhattan gets short of a blizzard. People stroll southward under an unnervingly blue sky, the kind of occasional blessing the city receives fall and spring, for all its mania, aggression, and preoccupation. People want to get the closest possible look at the sealed-off catastrophe blocks. Mostly, they look stunned. A few jokes, not many. Mobile phones, umbilical lines out to the world. Clusters of people in bars watching TV. Closer to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where the wounded from lower Manhattan are being taken, people cluster waiting for word about loved ones. A couple, on mobile phones, are weeping.

A friend calls from Brooklyn. She left the windows open when she left to work in Manhattan this morning. Now there’s ash all over her flat.

After politics, violence

“This is profound,” a neighbor I’d never met said to me in the elevator this afternoon. More profound than Pearl Harbor, perhaps. That was war, armed force against armed force. America wasn’t supposed to be vulnerable. For my parents’ generation, Pearl Harbor cracked the old mystique, that old colonial fancy that the oceans were safety walls. The mystique grew back, but in attenuated form. In the 1960s, a lunatic fringe – not such a narrow fringe, actually – feared the Viet Cong would be landing on the beaches of San Diego if they weren’t stopped. That was crazy! Now the most fanciful anticipations of terror cannot be dismissed as crazy. Dire anticipations will be normal, now. This is our fate, now. This is part of the trauma we suffered and will continue to suffer.

On TV – how can we live our catastrophes without TV? – the same images burn into the brain, dozens, scores of times, past the point of banality. The networks compete for the most lurid amateur videos, which remind us of disaster movies. (Shouldn’t the digital quality be better by now?)

But here’s one piece of good news: in the media, though there’s some talk that war has been declared – strange, unprecedented war, but the term is hard to resist – there’s refreshingly little jingoism. It’s a relief to hear the mantra: no one knows who is responsible. Officials, news anchors, and terrorism experts alike are careful not to exaggerate what they know about who committed these mass murders. (As I write, Mayor Giuliani, who’s never been better, warns against blaming whole ethnic or racial groups.) There are hints and guesses about Osama bid Laden, but disaster relief is the main subject. Politicians are pompous, no big surprise, but the networks learned not to repeat their egregious rush to judgment after the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when they started out blaming Muslims.

To identify America with freedom is to echo the blindness of the killers

Enough of the good news. There’s a perverse abuse of language in play from Washington officials. Disturbingly and repeatedly, they have been talking about freedom – freedom under attack. Bush spoke this way on TV tonight. This is pure ideology. It obscures the nature of violence and buries it in abstraction. The attacks were on human beings and, indeed, on a civilization. To identify America with freedom is to echo the blindness of the killers.

Outrage is simmering under the ashes. The murderers, if they can be found, will be murdered. This is not a political response but it will be an irresistible one. As the Israeli writer Nissim Calderon, who’s visiting in New York this week, wrote recently about the unending Israel-Palestinian disaster, politics is yielding to symbolism. Demands are not being made; war is being made. Symbolism doesn’t win. Symbolism doesn’t calculate. Symbolism invites symbolism. As Hannah Arendt said, violence is what happens when politics fail. Somewhere, mass murderers decided that America – or is it capitalism? Western civilization? Or the Great Satan? – had to be brought down. For them, it is the intolerable It, a system, a machine, already a dead thing. To kill this dead thing is no big deal. For this great pleasure, they die with joy in their hearts.

After terror, what?

And the White House incumbent has until now seemed to think that the US could afford to secede from the world, encase itself in a missile defense bubble, disengage from the Middle East and let the world hang! Whether they have the wisdom to think otherwise now – well, these are not deep thinkers. Intellectual numbness is their normal state. Evidently, I am not optimistic.

“Terrorism” is a more precise word than sometimes grasped. It’s an ism, a belief – in terror. Some fierce rationalists refuse to confront the fact that there are people willing to die to terrify whole populations. That willingness, even eagerness, brooks no arguments. As best I understand this mentality, it’s a belief that kicks in on the far other side of arguments. It asks for a focused military response – a precise one, not a revenge spasm, not an attack on a pharmaceutical factory, but an action that distinguishes killers from civilians. No easy matter. Nothing to rush into.

And then?

Tonight, grief abides.

James Curran adds:

Todd Gitlin will be remembered as a leader of the radical student movement in 1960s America, and subsequently as a political analyst. His book about the American radical Left, 'The Whole World is Watching' (2003), has been cited in over 10,000 publications, making it a super-classic. He went on to regret in subsequent influential books and essays the way in which the rise of identity politics fragmented the Left.

He was also a star of second-generation media studies. I first came across his name in a brilliant 1978 academic journal essay in which he attacked the dominant effects tradition of American media research. He went on to write the best ever study of American network TV, 'Inside Prime Time' (1994). Based on interviews and case studies, he revealed the way in which makers of prime-time TV stick to tried-and-tested formulae, offer a prettified and distorted image of reality, while also seeking to catch the tide of change. I get my graduate students to read it as a model of good research. Part of its attraction is that it is very well written. His eloquence also made him a charismatic teacher (as I witnessed first-hand when I sat in on his PhD class).

Todd Gitlin also played a prominent role in the early history of the pioneer website openDemocracy. He wrote in New York a prescient article on the evening of the 9/11 attacks, arguing for a measured response rather than a spasm of rage. It was the first piece in the website’s new debate, ‘Is Terror the New Cold War?' The debate helped win the modest e-zine, recently born out of a Tufnell Park garage, a substantial American and international audience.

Its inspirational editor, Anthony Barnett, had earlier persuaded Todd Gitlin, me and a distinguished, right-wing broadcaster, David Elstein, to be volunteer editors of openDemocracy’s media section. I can’t remember us ever having a cross word principally because Todd was so full of energy and good will that we were carried along in his wake.

Working with him introduced me to another side of his character. He was a collector of people, intensely sociable, with a network of friends in different countries.

It is such a pity that this clever, idealistic, gregarious person is no longer here to make incisive political comments, analyse new media developments and pass on irresistible gossip.

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