By Richard Rorty
Book Review by Jack Nichols Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America by Richard Rorty, Harvard University Press, 1998, 159 pp., cloth $18.95
Not hanging much around academics, I'd never—till last summer-- heard about the seething campus popularity of Richard Rorty of the University of Virginia, a living philosopher reared in a family of thinkers, of futurists and strategists.
Philosophy professor David Hall of the University of Texas, and the author of an acclaimed critical work about Rorty, says: "Few contemporary thinkers own the paradoxical presence of Richard Rorty. Panned by the reviewing establishments of New York and London, Rorty's erudite and rather demanding works are selling in quantities large enough to suggest that many of the same philosophical colleagues who scorn him are crawling under their covers late at night, armed with flashlights, avidly pouring over the pages of his books."
I'm happy to say that Rorty's an American thinker I've been waiting for—one who's managed—finally-- to throw effective neutron word-bombs into the domains of the Academe, causing smug department professor-protectors of philosophy as a bore to scatter silently.
Yes, philosophy in our time, because of how its been taught, or because a conservative priesthood has established its own snooty rulings, has been a subject that, unfortunately, has evoked little enthusiasm from students mystified by its jargon and fearful of its reputed impracticality. Now, however, the Rorty craze has introduced new clarity to an otherwise obscure discipline.
Both The Nation and The New York Times have recently discussed Richard Rorty in impressive terms, and, glory glory, in his new book, Achieving Our Country, Rorty celebrates Walt Whitman, America's gay Poet of Democracy on whose shoulder Rorty himself partially stands—his other foot on the American philosopher whose pragmatism Rorty expands and, oddly, who he knew socially in his youth: John Dewey.
Flipping through Achieving Our Country, I'm made happy at how Rorty un-self-consciously mentions gay and lesbian liberation as a natural part of those present developments he considers progressive.
Yes, Rorty amply salutes the Walt Whitman I zealously promulgated in the 60s and early 70s—in books, essays, and finally, in a plenary speech delivered on my 35th birthday at the 26th Annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado.
Rorty writes that "Whitman's hopes…began to be realized only in the youth culture of the 1960s. Whitman would have been delighted, Rorty says, by the kind of "casual, friendly copulation which is insouciant about the heterosexual-homosexual distinction."
Rorty's new book is principally a critique of the American Left. He wants the Left to work out a noble destiny, but he sees it too often, as I do, floundering, weak on the political front, paralyzed by pessimistic purists and dogma-peddlers, devolving into an association of cultural carpers who unwittingly cooperate with the greedy Right by allowing themselves to agonize over matters which have little to do with achieving—even piecemeal—the kind of increasingly ideal society of which we can be proud.
"The cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addition to being centers of genuinely original scholarship, the new academic programs have done what they were, semi-consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society. Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two thirds of the century. The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks, is very different from what is was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Americans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better than it was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as "politically correct" has made America a much more civilized society than it was thirty years ago."
Still Rorty is unhappy that the Left has become what he calls "spectatorial and retrospective." He argues that its old alliance—that between unions and intellectuals broke down in the course of the Sixties and "began to sink into resigned spectatorship."
Leftists in the academy, he charges, "have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate. They are spending energy," he says, "discussing topics very remote from their country's needs. The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms."
Such criticism as Rorty hurls at the Left shouldn't be mistaken as an abandoning of the ideals for which the Left has traditionally stood, namely societies marked by wide social caring rather, than as with the Right, pushing only for the survival of the so-called economically fittest. Rorty, bringing his new pragmatism to bear on the matter, has simply laid out a plan to revitalize Leftist politics.
Though I've never been a member of political organizations on the Left, I've watched in dismay how gay leftists in the past have shot themselves in the foot. Purist infighting rather than cooperative ventures marked too many of their interchanges. Too many, noting their calls for purism have gone unheeded, take to promoting cynicism about America's prospects, a cynicism that saps their energies to engage in a more creative/cooperative struggle.
The Blame Game must go, says Rorty. "It would be a good idea," he writes:
"to stop asking when it was unforgivably late, or unforgivably early to have left the Communist Party. We should also stop asking when it was too late or too early to have come out against the Vietnam War. A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Adams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurter and John L. Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice. They will be seen as having been 'on the Left'. The difference between these people and men like Calvin Coolidge, Irving Babbit, T.S. Eliot, Robert Taft, and William Buckley will be far clearer than any of the quarrels which once divided them among themselves."
Like individuals, nations, writes Rorty, must learn to put their mistakes—their low points—behind them and, as a result, to seize each piecemeal chance to create a better future. That this is not being done is a fact Rorty effectively addresses:
"In America, at the end of the twentieth century, few inspiring images and stories are being proffered. The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture is a simple-minded militaristic chauvinism. But such chauvinism is overshadowed by a widespread sense that national pride is no longer appropriate. In both popular and elite culture, most descriptions of what America will be like in the twenty-first century are written in tones either of self-mockery or of self-disgust."
An end to self-mockery and disgust won't come, Rorty points out, unless pride outweighs shame. He says:
"The need for this sort of (prideful) involvement remains even for those who, like myself, hope that the United States of America will someday yield up sovereignty to what Tennyson called "the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World."
Rorty maps out a workable and critically sound route for Leftist success. This reviewer foresees his Achieving Our Country as an historic milestone, a book that will talk back to us ever so many centuries hence.
Clear of jargon and dogmatic cant and filled with practical inspiration and insight, Achieving Our Country is a must on the shelf of anyone who cares about helping to bring into existence the civilized society.