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Venerable sage of the New Left, Todd Gitlin, in his new book, resembles nothing so much as the man who is trapped in a burning building and mistakenly believes that the whole world is being consumed by fire.  The subtitle of the book suffices to make this point, for who--outside of New York City where he works, and some other major metropolii--is truly being "overwhelmed" by media images and sounds?   Of course, Mr. Gitlin, as one of the primary spokesman for the baby-boomer generation, is long accustomed to viewing his own personal problems as indicative of a crisis for all mankind, so readers will hardly be surprised to find that a phenomenon, media saturation, that just barely affects most of our lives is here pronounced the defining characteristic of our culture.  But one is a bit surprised that Mr. Gitlin fails to acknowledge his own role in creating the problem and by his failure to grapple with how the problem could be remedied.  I say only "a bit", because the answers to the problem mostly lie in undoing the damage that Mr. Gitlin and his cohort have done to the culture, and it would take more moral fortitude than most of us are capable of summoning for Mr. Gitlin to admit that his life's work has been destructive, rather than productive, of the good life.

Mr. Gitlin is worried about the way that various forms of media and the consumer-oriented messages they carry have come to saturate modernity.  As a threshold matter, we should note that most of the torrent that he's speaking of us actually contained to a few major media markets.  It may well be true that as he wanders through his life he is subjected to everything from billboards to muzac to blasting radios to continuous television, but much of that is surely a function of living in the city.   Let him move to New Hampshire for a while, where many homes don't have cable, any given area only gets one newspaper, radio signals fade in and out, and there's seldom a sign in sight; he'd soon be yearning for a fix of easy access to mass media.

At any rate, Mr. Gitlin traces the origins of media saturation to two main springs :

    Unlimited media result from a fusion of economic expansion and individual desire...

For the first he bears no responsibility, since he has spent a lifetime in opposition to free-market capitalism.  He is correct though that we now have more leisure time than any humans have ever had before and many more extraordinarily inexpensive ways to entertain ourselves during that time.  Our ancestors might have been just as willing to anesthetize themselves with inane tv programs had they had the oppurtunity, but they had to devote much more of their time to simple survival and did not have the disposable income to waste on insipid brain candy.

On the other hand, where the second cause is concerned, the emphasis on and the indulgence of individual desires, Mr. Gitlin would do well to point the finger of blame at himself.  For what the various forms of media entertainment have become is really nothing more than a substitute for human companionship; and it was companionship in its many traditional forms--the shared community, the family, local clubs and organizations, etc.--that suffered the worst damage from the assaults of sixties radicals.  In their zeal to do away with the old patriarchal, corporatist, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Saxon institutions that dominated American society, they also did away with much of the social fabric that knit us together into a cohesive community of beings.

There's a phrase that Mr. Gitlin uses in passing to describe the solace that the media offers, it allows us "To feel accompanied by others not physically present..."  It would seem that the key to his book lies right there in that phrase as it raises the question : why are others no longer physically present in our lives?  How have we come to be so atomized?  And the answer, I would say, is that much of the blame lies with Mr. Gitlin and his ideological fellow travelers--the Old Left which sought to replace social structures with government programs and the New Left which attacked the moral foundations of these traditional social structures on the basis of racism, sexism, and the like.  Where once the nuclear and extended family was the norm, we are now left with families where the grandparents are in a nursing home, the parents are divorced and the one or two children are largely unsupervised.   Where people once gathered in churches, fraternal organizations, social clubs, Boy Scout meetings and the like--each of them exclusive and discriminatory in their own way, yet invaluable in providing a soocial setting for people of like interests to come together and interact--today, instead, far too many of us sit in otherwise empty rooms and watch tv by ourselves or surf the 'net or play Nintendo, or whatever.  We accompany each other so little these days, no wonder we seek out electronic companionship, even if just pictures and voices, to fill the emptiness of our lives.

If this analysis of what's gone wrong is accurate, then it is easy to see why Mr. Gitlin avoids it and steers clear of the solutions that logically flow from it.  For reversing this tide of isolation would require things like : ending subsidies for warehousing the old; returning social services to churches and private charities; encouraging marriage and childbirth; making divorce more difficult to obtain; allowing private organizations to define their own membership rules, even if that means they may discriminate against some people; and so on and so forth.  It means returning to a way of life where we were forced to depend on one another and did, where those who accompanied us through the day were actually flesh and blood and physically present.  It means reconstituting the very institutions--family, church, community--that the Old Left, unwittingly, and the New Left, intentionally, spent all their energy destroying in the latter half of the 20th Century.  If you want folks to shut off the media torrent, first you need to make sure that there will be other human beings in the room to provide them with companionship and entertainment alternatives when they do.  If you aren't willing to face that truth, and it appears Mr. Gitlin is not, then I'm afraid you're just adding to the sound and the fury.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (C-)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -NYU - Department of Journalism - Faculty
    -opendemocracy.net (North American editor)
    -BOOK SITE : Media Unlimited : The Torrent of Sounds and Images in Modern Life by Todd Gitlin (Henry Holt)
    -DISCUSSION : of Media Unlimited with James Fallows (Atlantic Unbound, April 2002)
    -ESSAY : The Liberal Arts in an Age of Info-Glut (Todd Gitlin, Chronicle of Higher Education)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter of Sacrifice by Todd Gitlin
    -ESSAY : Cranking the Axis of Evil (Todd Gitlin, February 2002, opendemocracy)
    -ESSAY : Blaming America First : Why are some on the left, who rightly demand sympathy for victims around the world, so quick to dismiss American suffering? (Todd Gitlin, January/February 2002, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY : Question Authority During War (Todd Gitlin, 11/11/01, LA Times)
    -ESSAY :  Liberal Activists Finding Themselves Caught Between a Flag and a Hard Place (Todd Gitlin, October 28, 2001, San Jose Mercury News)
    -ESSAY : The ordinariness of American feelings (Todd Gitlin, 10 October 2001, opendemocracy)
    -ESSAY : The impossible peace : We are stretched on a moral rack, argues Todd Gitlin, who believes Congress has failed to ask essential questions on the ends and means of war (September 23, 2001, The Observer)
    -ESSAY : Pushovers of the press : The media elite are reviewing Henry Kissinger's latest tome with their usual fawning gullibility. Best not to mention those bony hands reaching out from the grave. (Todd Gitlin, 07/03/01, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Back to the civil rights barricades : What's at stake in Florida is nothing less than the right to vote and to have it count. And once again an angry, elitist GOP is on the wrong side. (Todd Gitlin, 12/04/00, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Survivor: the art of betrayal : What will tomorrow night's climax reveal about the cannibal in all of us? (Todd Gitlin, August 22, 2000, Globe & Mail)
    -ESSAY : Much ado about Chandra Levy (Todd Gitlin, 7/24/01, CS Monitor)
    -ESSAY : Pride before the fall : Ralph Nader told his supporters to cast a vote they could be proud of. How do you spell H-U-B-R-I-S? (Todd Gitlin, 11/08/00, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Unsafe in any state : Ralph Nader's campaign is reckless, its justifications specious and its consequences possibly irreparable. But it does allow fundamentalist leftists to keep living in their dream world. (Todd Gitlin [10/28/00, Salon)
    -ESSAY : It's the stupidity, stupid : George W. Bush's constant gaffes and mental lapses reflect the luxurious laziness of a scion who's never had to work hard at anything. And the media elite has graciously awarded him a Gentleman's C. (Todd Gitlin [10/24/00, Salon)
    -ESSAY :  How Our Crowd Got Lonely (Todd Gitlin,  January 9, 2000, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : A LOOK AT . . . The AOL Deal : FEARED: It's All About Eyeballs, Baby (Todd Gitlin, January 16, 2000, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY : The great straddler : Free trader President Clinton veers left in Seattle. But will his finesse be enough to keep Al Gore's Democratic Party intact? (Todd Gitlin, 12/03/99, Salon)
    -ESSAY : The End of the Absolute No (Todd Gitlin, September/October 1999, Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY :  Disappearing Ink (Todd Gitlin, September 10, 1999, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : The Uncivil Society (Todd Gitlin, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Boomerang : Why baby boomers hate Bill Clinton -- and themselves (Todd Gitlin, 05/27/96, Salon)
    -ESSAY :  Imagebusters (Todd Gitlin, December 1, 1994, American Prospect)
    -TRIBUTE : C. Wright Mills, Free Radical (Todd Gitlin)
    -REVIEW : of  Blinded by the Right by David Brock (Todd Gitlin, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right by Lisa McGirr and Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus by Rick Perlstein (Todd Gitlin, Boston Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. By Doug Rossinow (Todd Gitlin, Journal of American History)
    -REVIEW : of THE HORIZONTAL SOCIETY By Lawrence M. Friedman (Todd Gitlin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of QUENTIN TARANTINO The Man and His Movies. By Jami Bernard, QUENTIN TARANTINO Shooting From the Hip. By Wensley Clarkson and QUENTIN TARANTINO The Cinema of Cool. By Jeff Dawson. (Todd Gitlin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of On Beauty and Being Just by Elaine Scarry (Todd Gitlin, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of K. Anthony Appiah and Amy Gutmann, Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race (Todd Gitlin, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of The Paradox of American Democracy by John B. Judis (Todd Gitlin, Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of PARTING FROM PHANTOMS: Selected Writings, 1990-1994.  By Christa Wolf (Todd Gitlin, The Nation)
    -REVIEW : of TANGLED MEMORIES: The Vietnam War, the AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering. By Marita Sturken (Todd Gitlin, NY Times Book Review)
    -AUDIO DISCUSSION : ROUNDTABLE: SHOULD ACTIVISTS BE ORGANIZING AGAINST THE WAR ON AFGHANISTAN? (Democracy Now!, 11/07/01)
    -DISCUSSION : Lowering the Bar : Are we living in an age of tabloid journalism? Media correspondent Terence Smith and guests address this question and assess the media's performance in the Clinton-Lewinsky matter. (Online Newshour, February 3, 1999)
    -ESSAY : The Year of Dreaming Dangerously : This is the 30th anniversary of a series of tumultuous events that shaped a generation. To understand the activists of the '60s, you have to revisit 1968 and consider what it was like to those who lived through it. (STEPHEN TALBOT, July 1998, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Repressed memory syndrome : The legendary year 1968 stills hold the baby-boom generation in thrall -- but it was actually the pinnacle of anti-democratic narcissism. (David Horowitz, 08/31/98, Salon)
    -Salon Directory : stories by Todd Gitlin
    -ARCHIVES : Articles by Todd Gitlin from The American Prospect
    -The New York Review of Books: Todd Gitlin
    -SLATE BOOKCLUB : Media Unlimited by Todd Gitlin (Sarah Lyall and Nell Minow, Slate)
    -REVIEW : of  MEDIA UNLIMITED: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives  By Todd Gitlin (JEFFREY SCHEUER, LA Times)
    -REVIEW : of Media Unlimited (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW : of Media Unlimited (Steve Weinberg, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Media Unlimited (Paul McLeary, Flak)
    -REVIEW : of The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars by Todd Gitlin (Phillip E. Johnson, Books & Culture)
    -REVIEW : of Twilight of Common Dreams (Brett Grainger, Sojourners)
    -REVIEW : of  SACRIFICE By Todd Gitlin (Judith Dunford, NY Times Book Review)

GENERAL :
    -ARCHIVES : Mass Media & Journalism (PopMatters)
    -ESSAY : Which god has failed (Paul Hollander, The New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of Howard Brick. Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (J. David Hoeveler, American Historical Review)

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