Essay: Reading Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country” Published on Medium and Substack (and announcing The Clarity Factory)

Author’s note: this essay, in the works for around three months, is a work of evaluation, not advocacy, and so is probably much “tamer” than a lot of the material to be found on Lost Generation Philosopher. It is an attempt to reach out to that audience (if there is one). It is available on Medium and on Substack (where my publication will be called The Clarity Factory, in light of Wittgenstein’s off-cited remark that philosophy is “a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” and this calls for clarity about not just what words and phrases mean but how they are being used. The second, I hold, is probably more important these days than the first. After all, is “meaning” really anything other than a limited consensus on usage?

Why might someone find Richard Rorty interesting? One reason is because back in 2016 or thereabouts, a number of writers discovered Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America and claimed, convincingly, that Rorty predicted the rise of Donald Trump, or at least a Trumpian figure. When I checked this out, I found myself largely agreeing, even if not in every detail. Rorty was very circumspect on the matter, and all he could do was report on how things looked to be going in the 1990s; but was it not the neglect of the worsening economic status of working white men during the era of globalization combined with the gathering power of the culture of “diversity” — and the collapsing of the mainstream narratives about each courtesy of each person’s capacity to use the Internet — that paved “the route to Trumpism”?

In any event, a “teaser” selection from the essay:

A Rorty-esque view of Left versus Right.

Start with Rorty’s view of Left versus Right. His way of putting this is one I’d not seen before, and is far more interesting than a claim about who sat on which side of an assembly back in French Revolution days.

Realize that Left and Right as Rorty sees them are not competing sets of truth-claims about anything. Neither has “accurate representations.” The debate is over “which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forego” (p. 14). It will continue for as long as there exists both a politically active Right and a politically active Left.

Where Right and Left differ is in terms of what they see as problems to solve (p. 14). For:

the Right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been in better shape in the past. It sees the Left’s struggle for social justice as mere troublemaking, as utopian foolishness.

Keep in mind that this is how things might have looked back in 1997. The point: there are things Rightists want to keep in place, anchor-points which if it’s not broken don’t try and fix it is an appropriate injunction.

As for Leftists:

The Left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved. As the historian Nelson Lichtenstein has said, “All of America’s great reform movements, from the crusade against slavery to the labor upsurge in the 1930s, defined themselves as champions of a moral and patriotic nationalism, which they counterposed to the parochial and selfish elites, which stood athwart their vision of a virtuous society.”

Let’s frame this more clearly. Rorty’s distinction between Right and Left comes down to this:

The Right in general sees America’s greatest achievements as being in the past, made at the time of the country’s founding. It doesn’t need to see these achievements as perfect, just as having created “a more perfect Union.” The Right then struggles to hang onto the great achievement that was the American founding, warts and all. It is not and never has been Utopian (as Rightists might put it). Achievements, Rightists would argue, don’t have to be perfect; they just have to work better than alternatives. If the country has trended away from what seemed to work in favor of things that seem not to work (or not work as well), the Right agitates for preservation and restoration, even when accused of “trying to turn back the clock” (or these days, worse — much worse!).

The Right points to documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It observes that part of the latter’s uniqueness is its built-in means providing for its own adjustment over time, and that the difficulty of making adjustments was on purpose — so that change couldn’t be made frivolously and based on emotion-laden trends of a particular time or generation.

Right and Left have a deeper disagreement over human nature. The Right is pessimistic, because it sees human beings as inherently flawed and our societal prospects therefore limited. They will point to the authors of Constitution as having had no illusions about human nature, of explaining clearly the challenges in, e.g., Federalist 51. Concentrations of political power are inherently dangerous because they will be exploited. Divisions of powers are therefore necessary. They enabled adjustments of the document at the “edges,” accepting that limitations on human nature and knowledge apply to them as well. These aren’t points Rorty specifically makes as they fall outside his focus, but I think they are consistent with what he does say.

The Right, finally, tends to believe in meritocracy, at least as an ideal, in a world in which the best results are obtained if everybody can be encouraged and trained to pull their own economic weight. According to the Left, this is delusional, because we do not start in the same places. Claims to meritocracy are therefore deceptive and dishonest, because clearly, American has never been a meritocracy, never could be, never should be.

Why Rorty disdains the Right should be clear. By looking to the past the Right is inherently foundational. It sees our prospects as limited. The Left can acknowledge the importance of achievements made in the past as sources of national pride, without seeing them as closed repositories of absoluteness. The Left sees us as therefore able to experiment in the present in order to build a better future. History is open, not closed. Political actions taken in the present can and should be based on hope, not pessimism.

Two Lefts.

The Left thus sees our greatest achievements as in the future. We have not yet achieved our country, and the present is the scene of our struggles to do so. The Left tries to make progress. Thus the word progressive which many on the Left use as part of their self-identity. What are we progressing towards? A greatness we’ve yet to achieve, based on ideals of equality, peace, and social justice!

The past cannot provide us with a template for the future, because values change with increased enlightenment. Knowledge and know-how change. Leftists reject Rightist pessimism as nothing more than outmoded belief in Christian original sin. We have yet to discover what we can make of ourselves! The most important point is that the future is not a done deal. For this reason Rorty rejects classical Marxism no less than he does conservatism. Marxism was just another form of foundationalism. It posited rigid “laws” of history. Even if the Soviets and the Maoists hadn’t killed tens of millions of people in their pursuit of realizing those “laws” they would be unhelpful since they solve no situation-specific problems.

Rorty is far more interested in the different forms American Leftism has taken. He is severely critical of a Left that — he says — cannot achieve our country because it doesn’t find anything in America worth valuing. It has given up on national pride. A Cultural Left, as opposed to its predecessor the Reformist Left, has fallen into actual loathing of America. It mocks reform efforts as impossible even as it tries to “cancel” what the Right wants to preserve. America is too flawed to reform.

The Cultural Left, that is, sees “warts” no less than the Right — different ones. They are so serious that they force us to question the very legitimacy of America.

Progress, if it can be made at all, will be involve more canceling than achieving our country. (It is interesting that aspects of Rorty’s views also anticipate elements of what Rightists disdainfully call cancel culture.)

[To read the rest, go here.]

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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