Skip navigation
College Quarterly
Spring 1996 - Volume 3 Number 3
The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars
Todd Gitlin
New York: Metropolitan Books, 1995
Reviewed by Allan A. MacKinnon

As a new millennium approaches, opinions on the state of the planet range from smug neo-conservative musings on the “end of history,” through Robert D. Kaplan's gloomy “coming anarchy,” to the almost sunny optimism of Canada's own Gwynne Dyer about the future of “global culture.” The diversity of views seems to be a function of how one interprets the worldwide collision of opposing centripetal and centrifugal forces. For every Bosnia or Rwanda, there appears a European Union or a new multinational trade agreement. As Russian troops blast Chechen villages, Russia talks of joining NATO. What is going on?

In The Twilight of Common Dreams, Todd Gitlin's focus is on the U.S.A., not the planet, and while some of his topics are somewhat parochial (Berkeley politics, the furor over revised history schoolbooks in California, etc.), his timely and insightful analysis has implications that go far beyond U.S. borders. Gitlin's main concern is with the ascendancy of the political Right and the fragmentation of the Left. He is well-placed to comment, for his own leftist credentials are impeccable. A former president of the Students for a Democratic Society, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and a veteran of sixteen years teaching sociology at Berkeley, Gitlin brings a rich personal history to his subject.

The main thesis of The Twilight of Common Dreams is that the Right and the Left have essentially reversed themselves. Whereas the Right formerly stood for the privileged few (mainly rich, white males) and the Left spoke for universality on behalf of the dispossessed masses (the Internationale and all that), now it is the Right that employs the rhetoric of the common good while the Left appears lost in a maze of ever unfolding select and politically defining social categories. “Americans,” he says, “are obsessed today with their racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual identities.”

While Gitlin is clearly aware of changing demographics and supplies convincing statistics on the “coloring of America,” he deplores the fractious politics that have followed. “Identity politics,” he writes, “is a very bad turn, a detour into quicksand ...” His concern mirrors that of Jean Bethke Elshtain's brilliant 1993 Massey lectures, Democracy on Trial. Both see identity politics and the oppressive political correctness which accompanies it as threats to democracy itself.

Gitlin's concern, however, is not only with the viability of representative democracy, but also with the possibility of the Left ever winning power. In a democracy, power is achieved by those who can win the support of voting majorities or, at least, pluralities. Pondering why there are “so many people attached to their marginality,” he laments that: “If there is no people, only peoples, there is no Left.” One look at the electoral failure of Jesse Jackson's “Rainbow Coalition” should provide a sufficiently convincing demonstration of this.

In my opinion, Gitlin may be chided for spending too much time attempting to defuse the overreactions of right-wingers to the PC (politically correct, rather than Progressive Conservative) movement on campus. Of course, Dinesh D'Souza, Roger Kimball, Irving Kristol and others have exaggerated PC follies. But what Gitlin calls “The Recoil” (a term reminiscent of “The Backlash,” a label applied somewhat indiscriminately to even constructive critiques of feminism) is not limited to people on the Right. As an old traditional leftist and a casualty of the PC wars myself, I have little sympathy for the Gingrich crowd nor with their Canadian counterparts, but reading John Fekete's Moral Panic, I am struck by how often PC targets are people normally associated with the Left. As one astute journalist observed, following the fiasco in the University of British Columbia's Political Science department, the debate is not between the Left and the Right, but between “the left and the lefter than thou.”

To his credit, however, having properly lambasted the shrill extremes of the Right, Gitlin is equitably severe in his analysis of the malaise on the Left. One chapter heading sums it up: “Marching on the English Department while the Right took the White House.” Disdaining the currently fashionable cult of unreason, he dares to defend the Enlightenment and he belittles “culture as surrogate politics, campus as surrogate world”. “Cant comforts,” he observes, but it cannot replace thinking. Unusual among current critical sociologists, he rejects Foucault, nihilistic postmodernism and the narrow subjectivism of “perspective” approaches to “truth.” Whether or not one agrees with him, the issues at stake and their importance have rarely been as lucidly examined.

In his attempts to express the limits of a relativistic identity politics, Gitlin personalizes: “To a passerby or a census-taker, I am white. To an anti-Semite, I am simply a Jew. To a German Jew I may be one of the ostjuden; to Sephardim, an Ashkenazi Jew, secular. To a right-wing Zionist, an apostate, or no Jew at all.” So who is he? What is his identity? He doesn't say so, but I expect he might agree-he's a mensch, a fellow human being.

Must, then, the twilight of common dreams turn to night? Or do we share enough commonality-men and women, gay and straight, white and coloured, rich and poor-to share common dreams? “Enough bunkers!” he concludes. “Enough of the perfection of differences! We ought to be building bridges.”

In the 60s, the late Abbie Hoffman might have urged us to “steal this book!” For penetrating insights into the confusion of the 90s, I say: Read this book!

Al MacKinnon taught psychology for 20 years at the University College of the Cariboo before being “outed” by the vigilant PC movement. He now starves and writes bad verse in a lakeside cabin in the interior of British Columbia.