Achieving Our Country?

Our first reading assignment in this summer's Poli Rhet course, a collection of recorded lectures by the Pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty called Achieving Our Country, was a breath of fresh air for this writer, disillusioned as he is by both the more-republican-than-thou New Democrats and the insatiable postmodern victims in the Academic Left.

What does Rorty give us? First, he defines and embraces the supremacy of leftism: social justice, rather than unlimited choice, leads to true human liberty. He unabashedly embraces the secular humanism of Dewey and Whitman as something uniquely American: a god of process (democracy) rather than product (state of grace).

Rorty wants us to have pride in this American ideal. The healthy individual can imagine something they'd rather die than do, but having done it, they chose to continue living. They elect redemption rather than eternal contemplation of sin. Similarly, we can deplore American mistakes without hating our country. (I loathe -- publicly -- the small-minded on the right who insist that almost any criticism of American motives or acts implies a lack of patriotism.)

Rorty describes the long pre-60s history of the reformist, anti-communist Left, which paid more attention to economic injustice (Rorty uses the term "selfishness") than cultural issues surrounding the treatment of Others ("sadism"). He says Vietnam split the left into the radical (and thus utopian) Left, which, seeing no possibility of utopia, retreats into pessimistic carping and mere "cultural libertarianism" (a reviewer's words).

And he critiques the new, academic left as remote, impossible to please because it's just as idealistic as the god-haunted right. Both supplant pragmatism with idealism.

His critics argue that if he is a pragmatist (ideas are judged by the effectiveness of the actions they inspire), he cannot judge the Left to be a good idea, given its failures. However, he does argue that the cultural (new, academic) left has had remarkable successes in reduction of sadism just as the old left made gains against selfishness. Is the post-60s shift to the academic left a temporary stumbling block that may be pragmatically overcome (I think this is what Rorty would argue), or does it truly condemn leftism?

For action, he favors "campaigns" over "movements" - the pragmatic application of specific reform efforts that can be seen to have closure.

The book rejuvenated me, despite its detractors (see below), who do raise good points. It reiterates the frequently ignored economic aspects of leftism vs. the merely cultural, a point also well made in Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? It provides a vigorous, positive, and distinctly nationalistic Americanism that's even more stirring than our current exportation of "freedoms" at gunpoint and the cultural and economic imperialism (and IMO decidedly unAmerican forces) of corporate globalism. It makes me question my pretenses of hippiedom and think more about Beatniks, linthead agitators, and pissed-off railroad workers.

For some thoughtful (if occasionally rather transparently ideological) reactions, see Kevin Mattson, "Having His Cake and Eating it too: Rorty on the Revitalization of the Left" Negations, Winter 1998 and David Gordon, "Deconstructing Rorty," Mises Review, Summer 1998. There's also a review and a huge list of Rorty-related links on this page at the "Brothers Judd" website from January 2002.

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