A Review of Letters to a Young Activist

A review of Todd Gitlin's Letters to a Young Activist by Kari Kunst for The Freechild Project

I set out to read Letters to a Young Activist with an open mind, even though the title made me cringe – I thought I might be in for a long lecture. As a young person, I welcome new knowledge and wisdom, but, I don’t need another lecture on what and how I should or more likely should not do as an activist.

The first paragraph set the tone for the rest of the book:

“Let’s agree to overlook (maybe even enjoy) the absurdity that joins us: You agree to indulge my lecturing on matters I didn’t quite understand until I was older than you, and I make every effort to connect to your passions and objections- to take your arguments seriously, even though you’re too young to have had the experience I draw on.”


With this Gitlin successfully alienated me and the majority of his “young activist” audience with condescending and obviously ignorant banter. This opening alone made me want to set down the book. It seemed as if Gitlin was saying “You should listen to my lecturing even though you couldn’t possibly understand it with your young mind and I will pay lip service to your idealistic and fantastical dreams.” Immediately I wondered who the target audience for this book really is.

Gitlin shared some useful insights about the not so glamorous struggles of the 1960’s anti-war movement. Including how it took shape and the opposition the movement faced from mainstream America. These facts often get left out when the media talks about the 60’s. He also gave his young activist audience some heartwarming though over heard statements about being the “future” and not giving up.

Unfortunately, Gitlin shows surprisingly little knowledge or understanding of the activist movements of today. The little he does care to investigate falls in the realm of campus activism leaving out some of the most exiting and inventive activist movements of today simply because those involved are not of the privileged class that can attend college or because they are too young.

It seems that Gitlin has no intention on starting a real dialogue with young or new activists of today and instead is writing these letters to relive and come to terms with his own activist past. What comes is a series of letters that read as letters of advice to his younger self, criticizing idealism and radical politics. This book may be better titled as Letters To a Young Democrat, for he warns us youngsters to settle for the lesser evil and “…either vote Democratic, or submit to the rule of the Republicans.”

What ever happened to the idea of voting your conscience or fighting for an end to the two party system whose candidates are barley distinguishable from each other? Gitlin called the idea of the formation of a truly radical party as “narcissism wearing a cloak of ideals.” I don’t think that it is selfish to want a government that truly speaks for the people; in fact I think that is what democracy is meant to be. It seems that Gitlin has become too cynical to accept the need for a certain amount of hopeful idealism in any movement.

What Gitlin fails to see, even though he claims that he does, is that new and young activists of today have learned from the sixties, and we are using our knowledge coupled with our idealism, to forge a new kind of activism, one that crosses generational gaps and that works on multiple levels at once; for policy changes within the system and against the underlying and deeply rooted flaws that allow for such policies to be implemented. These are movements were older activists are at once imparting wisdom to and gaining insights from younger and newer activists.

Maybe Gitlin cannot see this because he is not in touch with the activist movement of today. He is an accomplished media critic and historian but has separated himself form the very people who he is looking to inform with this book. I would not recommend this book to any young activist that I know unless I thought they needed fatherly lecture on compromising their ideals, but I might recommend it as great reading for any older former activist that could use a nostalgic look at their youth.


Book Details

  • Title: Letters to a Young Activist
  • Author: Todd Gitlin
  • Publisher: Basic Books


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kari Kunst was a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington when she wrote this. She has been involved in several activist campaigns and was The Freechild Project Education Coordinator from 2002-2005.



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