Strange Bedfellow

Out of Left Field

Richard Rorty’s call for a new popular front.

One does not ordinarily expect a slim volume written by an academic philosopher and published by a university press to cause widespread consternation on the right. But for some reason, Richard Rorty’s new book, Achieving Our Country, which is based on a series of lectures delivered last year at Harvard, seems to be having that effect. Writing in Newsweek, George Will commented last week that the book “radiates contempt for the country.” (Perhaps more to the point, it radiates.) And in the most recent issue of the Weekly Standard, David Brooks contends that the book’s criticism of the left is merely the latest in a succession of moves designed to advance the author’s academic career. Brooks accuses Rorty of being a “pseudo-deviant” who poses as a critic of academic radicals while really congratulating them.

You’d think high-minded conservatives would approve of Richard Rorty at some level, even if they disagree with him. He is, after all, a philosopher who writes good English prose in defense of the 100 percent American philosophy of pragmatism. Rorty has no truck with campus PC and is by all reports a humane, thoughtful, and decent man, not the kind of self-promoter or manipulative careerist Brooks posits. Achieving Our Country tells members of what Rorty calls the “cultural left” to come down from their postmodernist ivory tower and think about how to make the country they live in a better place. Rorty says radical academicians should wipe that sophistical smirk off their faces, lose their mocking disdain for America, and view it more as their progressive ancestors did: as a great, problem-filled country that must be brought into closer alignment with its ideals.

Isn’t this the kind of loyal opposition right-wingers are supposed to want? The harsh response to Rorty may have something to do with his penchant for gratuitous, con-baiting asides, such as the one in which he absurdly states that “we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.” In the course of the book, Rorty sets even liberal teeth on edge with such outlandish statements, though they are usually contradicted in more sober moments. (He thinks the Cold War was necessary and that Reagan was correct to call the Soviet Union an “evil empire.”) But I think that what really alarms the right about Rorty is not his moments of rhetorical excess but rather the buried fear that the left might one day wake up and take his advice. If the alienated theorists of academe transformed themselves into a Rortyan left–a unified, engaged, and patriotic left–conservative columnists could run dry of material in a matter of weeks.

It wouldn’t be good news for Republican politicians, either, if the left listened to Rorty and joined a common crusade for social betterment. His book argues not only that academic leftists, the heirs to the ‘60s New Left, need to become pro-American but also that they need to quit knocking heads with the heirs to the Old Left–the Cold War liberals–and vice versa. Rorty wants to draw a curtain over the distinction between liberals and leftists. We should all forget about our past conflicts, he says, and realize that we were always on the same side, more or less. “It would be a good idea to stop asking when it was unforgivably late, or unforgivably early, to have left the Communist Party,” Rorty writes. “A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurther and John L. Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice.”

Some on the right may fear the emergence of a new left-liberal Popular Front that looks up to all these ancestors. Conservatives achieved a general unity despite their wide differences during the Reagan years, and they might think the left is capable of doing the same thing. But what Rorty proposes is still several decades away, at least. Disagreements on the left are far more ingrained–and more meaningful–than he seems to fathom. But even if they were to magically vanish overnight, they aren’t about to dissolve in favor of anything resembling Rorty’s agenda. His political platform, a kind of Swedish model democratic socialism couched in extracts from Whitman and Dewey, is about as likely to sweep the country at this point as freemasonry or theosophy.

In trying to persuade lefties of various stripes to quit fighting, Rorty borrows a strategy from pragmatist philosophy. He takes questions that he doesn’t find useful to his cause–such as who was correct about Vietnam or about the Cold War–and rules them out of order. They aren’t helpful to us in moving forward, so there is no point in discussing them. But the issues that have split the American left in this century were not the expression of narcissistic small differences. They represented fundamental splits–between supporters of constitutional democracy and its opponents, between friends and enemies of human rights, between people who believe in limited government and those who want an overweening state. Arthur Schlesinger and Angela Davis were not on the same side, even in the most general way. For Rorty to brush aside even these conflicts as the nuances of ancient history is both crude and an offense to those liberals who were on the right side. In constructing an inclusive tradition of the American left, he would undermine the sound tradition of the American left. Rorty, who comes from a distinguished family of progressives and anti-communist left intellectuals, ought to know better.

But even if these old battles somehow were to cease to seem relevant, which they might to a generation raised in a world without communism, it is hard to imagine a revival of interest in the kind of democratic-socialist program Rorty sees as the essence of national betterment. Though he is at his most vague on the subject of actual policy, one gathers that what he wants is a kind of economic third way: A government that redistributes wealth through the tax system while providing uniform social benefits, such as health care and pensions. Unions should be more powerful, corporations less so. It’s the dull-but-worthy program of Dissent magazine, circa 1967. Think of Bulworth without the rhymes. Rorty believes that it is merely the greed of the wealthy that prevents the country from solving all its problems. They want to keep their money for themselves! And navel-gazing literary critics let them get away with it!

Personally, I don’t think that what stands in the way of Rorty’s utopia is the failure of Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton to endorse it. It’s that there’s not enough caffeine in America–and that the whole world is in retreat from all forms of socialism and semi-socialism. Rorty writes about politics as if he’d been holding out in a small cave without newspapers for the past several decades. He has not gleaned anything from the experience that the Atlantic democracies have had in governing themselves over the past 30 years, or from their rather mixed record in dealing with social ills. Nor does he consider the possibility that markets might be effective in dealing with some social problems. Conservatives can quit fretting. Liberals might be out of it, but we’re not about to start taking cues from a peacenik philosophy prof. who’s still chasing after the Swedish model.

If you missed Rorty’s slap at George Will, click.