From the Sixties to Occupy: A Conversation With Todd Gitlin (Part One)

Todd Gitlin, celebrated writer of one of the seminal history books on the sixties, has recently published a brilliant, dynamic history of the Occupy Wall Street movement entitled Occupy Nation: The Roots, The Spirit, and The Promises of Occupy Wall Street. This e-book, soon to be a paperback, provides a larger historical context for the movement, documents the successes and failures, and highlights the tensions and ambiguities of the movement. Gitlin tackles the exigent topics of leadership, demands, or lack thereof; the fear of political or cultural co-optation, and captures the spirit and ideals of Occupy Wall Street, all with a critical eye. In the final part of the book, Gitlin offers important and wise suggestions for the future of the movement. This book signifies the most complete and coherent account of Occupy Wall Street to date. Here, we talk to the generous Gitlin about his book, the movement, politics, cynicism, and everything under the sun.

How did this book come about? 

Well, I had been writing pieces about Occupy since close to the beginning of the movement. I first got interested at the end of September when the encampment had lasted for ten days or so, and within a couple of weeks I had done three pieces. The New York Times had asked me to write a piece about Occupy and the Tea Party. I was also already getting interview requests on the subject, as I tend to do when something strikes the nerve of some journalist as reminiscent of the sixties. I tend to be in their Rolodexes, or whatever database they use nowadays. Consequently, I started spending more time around OWS, and then as soon as my agent said, “Well, are you going to do a book?” I said of course, though oddly enough the possibility of a book at that time hadn’t occurred to me. I didn’t have to think twice, because the movement was so vigorous and seductive that it had already taken up a large position in my head. It wasn’t hard to put other projects to the side.

The book has a very strict tri-partite structure. Did you have a vision of what the book would look like when you began?

I never start any book with a very clear structure. With this book, I started with a series of notions and they crystallized at their own pace. I really just made it up as I went along. In the end, the structure wasn’t that complicated—or so it feels now that the book is done.
It could not have been easy to write a book about an unwieldy, sprawling, complex protest movement in action. Did you hesitate at all,.did you feel challenged or invigorated by the challenges?
All of the above: challenged, invigorated, perplexed at times, and incited. What particularly drew me to the book was that somewhere in the back of my mind I’d harbored a notion of writing a book quickly. Some ancient ambition of mine.  I liked the idea of disgorging, of living the writing of the book as a dynamic, intense experience. Yet, I had no hesitation at all about doing this despite the obvious challenges. A different question was would I be up for it. One never knows if you will be up to it, but I wanted to try.  Also, I was aware that the question of how to end it would be one of the biggest challenges. My editors were helpful with that question at an early stage. It was Cal Morgan’s notion that it would make sense to end the book on a prospective note. That is to say since there is always a future coming let’s take pains not to act as though we are writing a history, strictly a history, though there are historical components. So the book instead ends with oughts—my preferences as to how things should develop.

When you were writing the book, or even afterwards, what did you envision as the purpose of the book? Or perhaps in a more direct sense, to what audience where you writing?

I don’t often ask myself such precise questions about purposes, let alone answer them.  But I should also say that when I first heard that a protest was happening down near Wall Street, I didn’t really get it. I thought this was likely to be another evanescent drive-by movement. But once I saw what people were doing there, I felt, whether or not this sounds presumptuous, that I got it, that I understood what they were trying to accomplish. However, I was also aware how elusive the movement would seem to an outsider.  To someone who didn’t have the experience I had in and around politics, it would just seem odd. So my objective in the book was to explain Occupy in a common-sensical manner to some hypothetical reader who was curious and open-minded—not an insider, and not necessarily gung ho, neutral or favorably disposed, curious as to what this odd beast was. I believe I have the knack of making sense of something remote and translating it into a more common parlance.

I remember feeling part of the protests, but still often that they were very desultory or disconnected. There didn’t seem to be a coherent statement of what was going on. Your book, at least to me, speaks to insiders as well. Did you feel as if you were talking to insiders?

That’s actually a trickier question than at first blush. The insiders are not actually inside the whole thing, not that I am. No one can be, quite.  The whole movement is vast and sprawling, and confusing and in flux for any single observer. I remember at one point somebody I write about as a de facto leader, said to me, in early December, “I’m sure that 80 percent of what’s going on I don’t know about.” At another point, I was interviewing a woman who played an important part in the Zuccotti operation for months, and mentioned a story that was flying around on the Internet, concerning a certain Occupy videographer whose name kept coming up.  She said she never even heard of him.  Nobody has a God’s-eye view of this great blur of a movement.
We need to realize that it’s immense. It’s sprawling, there’s no headquarters, there is always a lot going on, so no one can possibly monitor the entirety. But to go back to your question of did I think I was also talking to and with insiders, the answer is yes. I presumed the privilege of addressing them, and I felt welcomed for doing so. Who is to say, after all, who exactly belongs and doesn’t belong?  I know there have been acrimonious disputes.  Some Occupy people said well, you can’t say that or do that (say, endorse a candidate) because this is not in keeping with the identity of Occupy. But since the movement has fuzzy boundaries, it inherently welcomes all interested parties. I am an interested party and I have my say. Obviously I care about doing it because I put a lot of effort into figuring out what the movement is and where it’s heading and ought to head.

To get back to your question, I thought it might be a service to fill in a multi-dimensional picture that an interested and sympathetic outsider would appreciate—someone who maybe would turn out not to be such an outsider after all. l also thought that it might be helpful to state what I see as some of the predicaments in such a way as to be as fair as possible—even, or especially, some people I cite whom I fairly heatedly disagree with. I wanted to give all of them their due.  But in truth, this wasn’t so hard, because I have a great deal of respect for what these people have pulled off, even those I disagree with about this or that.

The book finds you balancing many hats: academic, historian, protester, and critic. How did you find a balance between perhaps the more objective job of an academic historian and sociologist and the more subjective viewpoint of a sympathetic participant?

I don’t know about balance, but I like a big hat wardrobe.  First of all, I don’t disdain objectivity. I’m not detached, but I am as observant and comprehensive as I know how to be. Consequently, I record things as they come to me with the emphasis that I think they deserve. When I tried, for example, to reconstruct how this movement started, I collected a number of stories which didn’t completely agree with each other. The Adbusters story was already a received narrative, and others were off to the side. But I did what I’ve done in other researches. I tried to sort through an ensemble of versions, see where they dovetail and where they don’t. Often I didn’t have a dog in the fight and just tried to be fair to a range of arguments. And in fact, I tried to be fair all the way around.
In another similar sense, how did you balance the historical parts of the book and the parts that read more as a manifesto of sorts.

Before I thought of doing this book I actually had a conversation with a friend who edits a political magazine. We talked about writing a manifesto for the movement, in some sense—a short exhortational statement, an interpretation with teeth. I actually spent a few hours at it, but hated what I came up with. I couldn’t find the right stance or the right voice. Half-finished paragraphs just lay there, flat. I was writing snippets of sentences. It was all junk. It just would not stand up and move.

I haven’t reflected on why that effort failed, but it probably has something to do with the strain of avoiding one of two stances. One was that of the outside preacher who says, “Hey kids, this is what it means.” The other was that of the insider, i.e., here is the inside story. It obviously couldn’t and shouldn’t be that. Instead, it should have been obvious from the start that I needed to get closer to the movement to write about it.  What I ended up writing was what I needed to write. A manifesto wasn’t the right form. I didn’t like the idea of blaring trumpets. By writing descriptively, sometimes with greater distance and sometimes with less, I wanted to earn my ideas as to where the movement should go, not just slap them down as revealed truth.

By the way, the movement already has numerous manifestoes.  There is first of all the much neglected Declaration of the Occupation of New York, passed by the General Assembly though barely if at all mentioned in mainstream media. And you can find numerous statements of principle  printed in the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Many are flying around. A manifesto is a valuable form, because somebody is thumping the table and trying to manifest something. I was trying to do something else. To get my mind around the movement and also make it manifest to itself.

Part of the importance of your book seems to lie in the historical context you provide for the background of the Occupy movement, did you feel that this type of historical understanding was and is lacking in today’s generation?

You’re talking to someone who’s been teaching for 40 plus years. I started teaching, not yet as a full time teacher, in a university job in 1970. The sixties, by then, were already shrouded in mists of inaccessibility. So part of this lack of historical mindedness is American normality. The memory hole. The other side of which is American present mindedness. There are strengths to this present-mindedness. Sometimes there are benefits to ignorance in that you are not imprisoned by the sense that everything has already been done. Which I think is a problem that attaches to the sixties because there are so many hazy, rainbow, 3-d, compilation tapes that circulate about what the sixties were, so that a lot of people think they understand something about it, but don’t.

That said, the advantages of feeling fresh wear thin, and then you become aware, or ought to become aware that the world isn’t new. I was struck once, years ago, when writing about the sixties, about something Sartre wrote about his generation. “We thought the world was new because we were new in the world.” He was talking about the 1920s.  No, sorry. It doesn’t work that way. So it’s a given that you walk into a conversation that began before you arrived, whereas Americans do live in this big fat present. Wikipedia substitutes for some other sort of shared memory. So be it, but I do believe that historical context is essential.

In your book you note that you’ve seen, in the past 30 years a generational cynicism, especially towards politics. You also note that OWS has begun to turn this tide. Where did the cynicism come from, and what can we do about it?

Well, your generation didn’t invent cynicism. There’s an element of popular culture that entails mockery of  the pieties of the moment, whatever they are. In my time, we referred to that humor as sick humor. It was full of disavowal and dismissal. Here’s my general theory of cynicism. It’s an armor against disappointment. It’s a stance of detachment that protects a person against harm, against anticipated harm. Ultimately it is rather tedious. If the whole world is speaking to you in cynicism, if all the voices are matched up in a spirit of disavowal, then I think you are playing on a limited number of keys. You are not hearing the full music of life.

This is my general view about life. Living under the cloud of cynicism is living in another zone of uniformity, it’s living under a lid. It’s not really interesting. I understand it, of course. I remember in 1968, early 1968, when a friend from SDS says to me, “This is the first time I’ve seen you not being cynical.” I was not a true believer, even as I was immersed in the New Left. So I understand cynicism. I just find it unhelpful.

But even from your story, you still felt cynical, but while you were taking protest actions, most of us just feel cynical and don’t do anything with it or about it. What can we do?

Well, this is an existential choice. How do you want to define yourself? What happened in the sixties was that some critical mass of people decided to get serious about living their lives in the light of possibility. It was an experimental attitude. What is wonderful about the Occupy movement is that there is, once again, this grand experiment. “Let’s get off the couch and stop grousing and let’s try this.” I try to see this movement at its best—and it’s not always its best—as a sort of Deweyian self education project.
I somehow smelled that early on. I got the sense of people paying attention to their experience and looking at it closely. That’s not always true, and not true for everyone. But there’s a good deal of it. That’s what you want in a movement. To me that’s pragmatism in the original American sense, William James’s sense.  That is what it is about. It allows for a growing, dynamic movement. It’s also the right way to live, i.e. not by someone’s manual or guidebook, but with a proper attention to what’s in play here at this moment, with these materials, built on an appraisal of what the forces are right now. I find all of this very important to combat cynicism. So in that sense, one has to be leery of getting trapped in history, because the materials and circumstances are different and cynicism always contends that nothing can change.  At the same time, there’s no real self-awareness without attention to history.

You note in your book that there is an omnipresent worry of media co-optation of the symbols and ideas of the Occupy movement, do you worry about this?

Look, it’s inevitable. The culture is spongy, especially since the sixties. This is how a consumer culture works. It appropriates, it goes fishing, it finds something out there, and then cooks it up in some fashion that can be sold back to people. You might as well pound at the waves and tell them to go away. If you think capitalism is to be taken seriously not only as an economic but also a cultural system then you are not going to get it to change by denouncing its main purposes. They are in the poaching business.

I think to be fearful to the point of clenched paranoia about co-optation is to misjudge the strength of the movement. The movement if it is real, will of course be co-opted, because there is a co-option industry. This is what they do. Jeremy Lin comes along and in the next minute thousands of people are selling his t-shirts. I think that’s it’s actually infantile to protest co-optation. What troubles me more is the fearfulness underneath the protestation, which is predicated on the assumption that we are weak and they are omnipotent, and that just isn’t true.

    This also happened in the sixties. There was this notorious ad that ran in underground newspapers in ’68, a full page ad taken out by Columbia records – “The man can’t bust our music”—and we were all horrified by it. We learned subsequently that the ad proved so irritating to the FBI that they actually went to the company and succeeded in quashing it. It never ran again. The FBI didn’t want money going into the underground press. This ad featured some hippie chick and a black guy with an afro, so of course it was insulting, demeaning, and ridiculous, but you are only truly demeaned when you feel fragile. I think that’s a huge mistake. While I was working on the  Occupy book and even since then, there have been these flaming wars in OWS list-servs about “the danger of co-optation,” as if when the 99Spring coalition (which includes MoveOn, unions, et al.) offers nonviolent training to thousands of activists the White House is plotting to neuter the movement. So it goes. You try to change a society in the society that you live in. If you try to change it from above with proclamations as if conjuring up a new people, to paraphrase Brecht (“dissolve the people and elect a new one”), then you are not doing changing the world, you are building castles in the air.

Many of the problems you highlight in the movement: co-optation, leaderlesness, a lack of demands seem to stem from a tension between questions of authenticity and pragmatism, or to put it in another way between the realm of conceptual purity and a dirtier reality. Where do you see these tensions going, and what are the downsides to an obsession with the true spirit of Occupy?

Well, now we get to the quite vexing question of what is the “it” of the movement. We fall into this singular pronoun for convenience sake, but there are networks that operate quite independently of each other. We saw a large panoply out on May Day. The mainstream media have a police blotter mentality, so they feature arrests.  But there were tens of thousands of people in the streets. I think the multiplicity of the movement, which was a strength, is conceivably an obstacle at this point. The movement has to grow beyond its initial, natural constituents. These are, to oversimplify, the countercultural, young, relatively freewheeling, unattached people, who are into the total spirit of the movement. That constituency is probably not much bigger than the numbers that have already been amassed.

In the meantime, there are millions of other people who are more conventional in their approach to life, older, more staid, more married, with children, and who revolt against the damage that the plutocrats and their government enablers have done to their lives. The participatory life of the Occupy core is remote from their concerns. There must be a place for them in an expanded movement, or in what I think of as a full service movement. There are many more of these people who are not yet represented by Occupy.  I call them the outer movement.  They are the majority of “the 99 percent” and they are crucial to Occupy’s development.

    If Occupy people—the people who were camping and those who remain in working groups—don’t articulate plausible programs and strategy, someone else will and should. Maybe it will be the coalition of groups that formed under the rubric of 99 Spring, who led the training workshops for May Day.  Maybe it will be 99 solidarity, a website which is trying to focus, to coalesce around a short list of ideals and principles to fight for in the short and middle run.  (I should disclose that I am part of that group.)
Most Americans don’t like politics, or even political discussion. There are a thousand things they would rather do than politics. So the burden on a movement that wants to be a mass movement is to be, in their eyes, something, congenial and readily comprehensible. There’s a lot of talk these days about transparency.  The movement badly needs this. But actual living transparency is not accomplished by weird meetings where people wiggle their fingers. Such meetings are only welcoming to the core.  I remember a meeting of the direct action working group in November, where various strategic notions were being set out. A man said:  “I’m a working dad, I live in Brooklyn, I go home at night, and it’s going to be a weird movement if you have to be a homeless kid to participate.”. No one really engaged him, but he represents a lot of people. I don’t consider it co-optation to engage him.  I consider it addressing people where they are. Every real movement does that.

Can you explain this further?   

This is my own political experience speaking here, which requires an autobiographical aside. My own political activism didn’t come from family tradition. In my sophomore year in college I saw a sign for an anti-nuclear weapons rally. It registered with me partly because I’d been seduced into an interest in this issue, and left-wing politics generally, by a girlfriend. Be that as it may, I then discovered that all these friends of mine were planning to go— independently. It was one of these moments when you realize something is in the air. The next day I am wearing a button they distributed at the rally, and wearing it at lunch, and this guy comes up to me and says, let’s have lunch. He’s a senior, I’m a sophomore, I’m impressed. It turns out that he is one of the organizers of a new peace group on the campus. It’s called Tocsin, French for alarm bell.  Very Harvard, right?  Well of course it’s sounds Harvard—Harvard’s where they’re trying to organize!  He describes to me their approach.

What I didn’t understand at the time, because I had no experience in political groups, was that he and his colleagues succeeded because they understood the mentality of Harvard students. The prevailing mentality then was buttoned-down. If Kennedy was their hero, it wasn’t for his passion but for his coolness—in the sense of low-temperature. They figured out that Harvard is not the place for a moralistic harangue, or a prophetic attempt to shake people to their existential roots. Rather, you need to draw people into doing something that is congenial to their style. If the dominant culture at the time is don’t fuck with me individualism, you set up a group that caters to and activates that spirit. They had set up a group that took almost no positions—we wanted the US to take unilateral initiatives to defuse the arms race.  We didn’t make more than rudimentary demands.  Mainly what we were saying to the campus was, Pay attention to the issues.  This is important. Let’s get smart and go to work. The emphasis was not on the platform, but rather on putting people to work, in effect creating working groups of the sort that have become familiar in Occupy.

    In contrast, it was only later that I learned that the previous year, when I was a freshman, there had been an attempt to organize a chapter of the Student Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, which was then a national peace group. It utterly flopped. I might have been the ideal sort of recruit, but I didn’t even notice them.  I would have seen them as shrill, shrieking, conventional lefties and ideologues. They didn’t hear the music of the moment. That’s a long way around to saying that a good organizer is someone who is attentive to the here and now, the place, the moment. That means sizing up the people around you. Which essentially goes to say that the most ingenious movements can appraise the people well.

So, in essence, Occupy needs to learn how to cast a wider net?

Well, I would like to think we’re in a growth period, at least potentially, and growth periods are always difficult. We are often changing gears, and patching together new alliances, and if you are really genuinely attentive to the moment then you will see what works for what and when. You are doing hard-headed analysis with a certain detachment. “What are we trying to do, how did we do, and where do we go from here?” You can’t just do something because it just feels great. I remember at the next meeting in DAWG, somebody said, “When I hear the term general strike I feel like I’ve seen the face of God.” That’s a theological statement, not an organizer’s statement.

In a similar vein, by the way, though I think it’s dandy that Americans have rejoined the global May Day ritual—only appropriate in that it came from America in 1886—exaggerating the significance of the May Day protests comes from an inner need. Most Americans don’t especially care if they are part of an international ritual called May Day. Rather, the kind of education they need is not the history of May Day, but rather what do we do about plutocrats and controlling them, how do we enlarge democracy? That’s what the movement’s education ought to address.

[Continued in Part Two.]

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