Some philosophers are not safe to approach until one is quite certain they are dead. American neo-pragmatist Richard Rorty is one of them; like Jacob Marley, he is most assuredly and unequivocally dead. Five years in his grave and the man has lost little of his power to intimidate. The sheer breadth of Rorty’s oeuvre, and his willingness to engage with ideas that are generally viewed with resentment (or worse) in mainstream American academia, seem to inspire equal parts grudging admiration and bitter envy. What he does not seem to have inspired—at least, not yet—is any sustained attempt to come to grips with his foundational ideas and their underlying assumptions. This essay is an attempt to confront an aspect of his philosophical output that enables us to dig deep and see what strange philosophical ore waits to be mined.
I’d like to analyze some implications of Rorty’s remarkable work of political philosophy, Achieving Our Country. As we shall see, this short but important book operates on two layers. The topmost layer—the surface crust, if you will—is a fairly mundane essay on the American Left. Digging deeper, we see that Achieving Our Country is really about the nature—and, more controversially, the value—of truth.
Rorty proposes that the history of the Left in America can be broken down into two streams: the old Left (which he usually refers to as the “reformist” Left) and the new Left. He views the reformist Left as that movement—really, a collection of movements and campaigns—that flourished in the period from 1900 to the mid-1960s. The defining characteristic of the reformist Left was its focus upon enacting laws, regulations, and “reforms” intended to gradually reduce those aspects of social and economic inequality that affected the largest number of Americans. The old Left saw the American system as basically sound and good and viewed its task as nothing more revolutionary than polishing a few rusty knobs and oiling a few hinges. The value of the system as such was never called into question.
This reformist Left put in an enormous amount of tedious, dirty effort, and it accomplished a lot. No one can deny that when the old reformist leftists exited the stage (or, rather, were unceremoniously booted off), they left an America that was so much better than the America they found as to render it almost unrecognizable. But it needs to be said—and Rorty himself admits as much—“most of the direct beneficiaries of its initiatives were white males.” Women’s needs were dealt with in passing, if at all, and efforts to improve the lot of Americans of color were (at best) ignored. And as for homosexuals? They simply didn’t exist in the America of the old-school reformist Left. As Rorty puts it, “the pre-Sixties Left may seem as callous about the needs of oppressed groups as was the nation as a whole.” I think one can legitimately challenge his use of the word seem, but that is an avenue best left unexplored if we are to have any hope of covering the ground ahead of us.
So the sixties arrived with a combination of a bang and a whimper. The new Left arose full of piss and vinegar, determined not only to question everything but to bring everything crashing down. If the defining characteristic of the reformist Left was admiration for a flawed but perfectible nation, the defining characteristic of the new Left was a righteous indignation born of contempt for “the system” and an almost vengeful desire to overthrow it. Where the reformist Left thought in terms of “laws that needed to be passed,” the new Left thought in terms of “a culture that needed to be reinvented.” The myth of an America that could be achieved, which was “ubiquitous on the American Left prior to the Vietnam war,” was pushed aside by a new, young, angry Left—a Left with a whole new set of myths and aspirations.
What was lacking in the new Left, despite the kabuki “street theater” of the massive war protests, was any sense of fundamental solidarity. Members of the new Left and their assorted hangers-on may have come together for the intermittent rituals of the march and the protest, but beyond that they shared only the most tenuous of connections. They were, in a new and very radical sense, individuals. One no longer saw oneself as “a member of a community, as a citizen with civic responsibilities.” This lack of genuine solidarity and a solipsistic focus on hedonistic pursuits were emblematic of the rampant cult of “what makes me feel good is all that matters,” always present in American life as a low background noise but brought to full discordant volume in the sixties.
In the nature of such things, the new Left evolved. Those who felt that “the system” needed to be brought down eventually graduated from college, did their postgraduate work, and got their PhDs. And then—one could have almost seen it coming—they became academics. Rorty reserves what seems to be a special contempt for these radicals-turned-professors; as a lifelong member in good standing of academia himself, Rorty would have had endless opportunity to study them in their natural habitat. He rips into these academic leftists with even greater scorn than he has shown (in Achieving Our Country and elsewhere) for Marxists. Rorty at least gives Marxism credit for having actually implemented its grand visions, though to universally catastrophic effect. The metaphysical pretensions and ingrown, hermetic mutterings of the Academy are, in Rorty’s view, corrosive to the larger society and dangerous to the common good. They are in turn poisonous and silly; they have “no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus.” The new Left has been reduced to a gaggle of aging academics writing only for each other about things that no one else cares about.
Strangely enough, Rorty is not too concerned about the current state of affairs. He believes—or writes as if he believes—that the American Left has run into nothing more serious than a speed bump and that it can regain its former momentum if “each new generation were able to think of itself as participating in a movement which has lasted for more than a century, and has served humankind well.” Rorty seems to be suffering from a vague nostalgia for a relevant and vigorous reformist Left that perhaps never existed in anything like the form he imagines. Enamored of the visionary rhetoric of Walt Whitman and John Dewey, Rorty believes that if the new Left and the reformist Left simply rallied in typical can-do American fashion, everything would sort itself out. But when it comes to practical steps and a meaningful framework, Rorty reveals a disturbing naiveté. Amazingly, he tells us that all that’s really needed to revitalize and energize the progressive Left in America is for more Americans to read books. He is quite serious about this. Specifically, they should be reading philosophy, novels, and poetry. Apparently, devouring the Great Books and forming literary “discussion circles” is just the ticket to get the Left chugging along again. The informed reader, encountering this, will be drawn up short. Really? In this sad new age of cultural (and, increasingly, actual) illiteracy, Americans can “achieve their country” by reading Jane Eyre, The Iliad, and The Critique of Pure Reason? I love the great classic literature of the West as much as anyone (more than most, I’d wager), but the presuppositions that inform this proposed project stagger the imagination. Rorty, not even aware of the degree of elitism he reveals, tells us that if we fail in this project, “all the resentments which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” Though he wrote this in the late 1990s, Rorty cannot have been unaware that this blowback from the “badly educated” was already well underway.
Such ideas, while alarming and a little bit sad, are not the real problem with Rorty’s prescription for Achieving Our Country. The basic issue, and the source of so much potential danger, is his assertion that the truth-value of any of our various American myths is irrelevant. Rorty has no interest in whether any of his uplifting stories about Whitman and Dewey and the power of great literature to revive and invigorate the Left have a single drop of truth in them. Rorty assures us that “we can still be old-fashioned reformist liberals even if, like Dewey, we give up the correspondence theory of truth and start treating moral and scientific beliefs as tools for achieving greater human happiness.” Give Rorty his due: as an admirer of Nietzsche’s famous perspectivism, he openly draws the inevitable conclusion and states it without shame or equivocation. We are free to manufacture whatever edifying myths will most contribute to “achieving our country,” and there is no reason to worry about whether they are true or not because “calling a story ‘mythical’ or ‘ideological’ would be meaningful only if such stories could be contrasted with an ‘objective’ story.” The disciplines of history and philosophy can now be safely ignored, because “stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity”: the historian as poet; the philosopher as rhetorician. Thinking like this cannot help but lead us to that bleak endgame described by Camus, where there is no meaningful distinction between comforting the afflicted in a leper colony and stoking the crematorium fires in the death camps. Our choices are nothing more than a matter of what “stories” we prefer, after all.
My problem with the Richard Rorty that we encounter in Achieving Our Country is the problem that all thinking Americans—indeed, all thinking human beings—should have with him. I find it offensive that America’s foremost twentieth-century philosopher tried to tell us, with a straight face, that it doesn’t matter if something is true as long as it inspires people to do better, act better, and be better Americans. Rorty has promoted and defended—with a philosophical finesse all the more dangerous for its power and subtlety—two of the most toxic ideas that postmodernity has given us: that the truth does not exist and that even if it does, it really doesn’t matter very much. One wishes that Rorty had spent less time among those academics he despised so much and more time out among those human beings who are engaged in the hard, practical, reality-based work of building a more sane and humane world.