John Pistelli

writer

Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Richard Rorty is a Pragmatist philosopher: he believes that ideas and actions should be judged on their effects rather than their metaphysical or ontological status. Don’t ask whether it’s true, whatever “it” may be, ask only if it works.

His late-twentieth-century advice to the American Left in this 1998 book, therefore, is to stop the sectarianism, ditch the Marxist scholasticism, and come together to effect the aims of an economically egalitarian and culturally liberal society. Essentialist identity politics, an excessive concern with reform vs. revolution, an overly pessimistic idea of America, and a focus on ideology-critique in arts criticism: all of these, according to Rorty, are a drag on the movement toward social justice. A movement that is all the more urgent, he explains, since globalization will exacerbate inequality and thereby make anti-democratic populist fervor inevitable. Because of this quite correct prediction, Rorty’s twenty-year-old book received renewed notoriety after Brexit/Trump.

This book’s most basic practical political contention is that the economic effects of globalization must be ameliorated within the nation-state to avoid fascist backlash. I agree with this. Which would have satisfied Rorty: he would say that this is all we really need to agree on, and that we can cheerfully agree to disagree on the rest.

And I do disagree with much of the rest. Pragmatism has always struck me as a basically dishonorable position, though I will get back to you when and if I read more William James. In general, though, how can philosophers, of all people, desist from the quest for the truth? Pragmatism lacks even the sublimity of Existentialism, which, while no less anti-foundational and anti-essentialist, at least posits the creation of authentic truths rather than just effects. As an anti-foundationalist, Rorty cannot explain why we should desire an egalitarian society. Nietzsche, I believe, pointed out that democratic values silently depend on the monotheistic presumption that we are all made in the image of and are equal in the eye of the Lord. What if this is true? It may not be, but the question, which seems to me so obvious, does not appear even to arise for Rorty.

As for Rorty’s attitude toward literature, I find it embarrassing. If you want national uplift, go to a baseball game. And if Whitman were only what Rorty makes of him, he would just be Carl Sandburg. I know that in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty cordons off, for the safety of all involved, the purely aesthetic (i.e., irony) from the movement toward social justice (i.e., solidarity), but in this book he calls for a literature of national purpose. He castigates Pynchon and cyberpunk and Silko for criticizing America without leaving open the potential for change once left by reformist novelists like Stowe or Sinclair. He demands that we put Emerson above Poe because the former lifts our mood with his vision of infinite possibility and the latter drags us down into Gothic questions about otherness and irrationality. What would he do with Melville or Faulkner, with Emily Dickinson? Or even with Emerson’s and Whitman’s own bad moods, their own ventures in Gothic decadence (“Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death, / And again death, death, death, death”)?

Finally, much as I have my own misgivings about Marxism and identity politics (but I repeat myself: when Marx said that one social class held the key to social transformation, he invented identity politics), Rorty seems almost comically averse to the idea of intractable objective differences of interest, even within the Left. Relatedly—in a “no coincidence, comrade” kind of way—Rorty’s autobiographical asides, his recollections of a childhood spent among anti-Stalinist upper-middle-class socialists, are a fascinating glimpse of an untold truth that people of my own disreputable (perhaps even “deplorable”) class/regional/family background find out when we go away to college but cannot really find a way to discuss without sounding like Hannity even though it’s true: much of the American Left is, by and large, a hereditary elite.

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Jasper Johns, Flag, 1954-5 (via MoMa)

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