Rorty and us: Taking America back
I turn to Rorty (1931-2007) for clues as to how to confront crises that he didn’t live to see, but maybe aren’t so different from those he did. A man of the Left (his capitalization), a discerner of irony and a pragmatist, unwedded to any philosophical system — which is what both irony, always seeing or suspecting other sides to any story, and pragmatism imply — his interest is not in political theory but in the practical actions we can take to increase the life-chances of everybody, including their chances to refashion themselves using whatever bits of culture and opportunities they can grab. He has no patience for what people are calling “identity politics,” where somebody wraps him/herself in some commitment to an idealized group and tries to behave accordingly. I copied several provocative remarks to give them more thought; here’s one I especially liked, about one of Rorty’s political heroes, Martin Luther King, as an answer to “identity” fetishists: «King was not interested in African-American culture. He was interested in getting African-Americans the life-chances whites always had.»
More problematic, in an especially acute way in this age of Trump and “MAGA”, is his insistence that the Left should “wrap itself in the flag” if it hopes to practice “majoritarian politics.” Patriotism came naturally to the American left before the 1960s, but the Vietnam war, Watergate and a particular strain of Marxism convinced theoreticians of the New Left that America was hopelessly corrupt and unredeemable. Not satisfied with anything short of total revolution, they refused to do the work of “achieving” America, that is, making America live up to its founding and long-held promise of liberty and justice for all. Meanwhile, fortunately, other more pragmatic activists were taking the little steps, from integrating lunch counters to demanding equal pay for women and rights and respect for gays, to widen freedom.
Despite Trump and his “America first” slogan to cover up his profiteering, I’m convinced that Rorty is right in his insistence on patriotism — enlightened patriotism, that is, celebrating not the violence or military power but the libertarian values of America. Likewise in any country, because national pride is essential for self-respect and especially for a cohesive social movement and every country has its own powerful Left traditions, which is a kind of patriotism to build on.
This little book, or pamphlet, includes a quick introduction to the range of Rorty’s thought by the editors/interviewers. The interview took place in 1998, shortly after publication of Rorty’s book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, which I’ll be reading next.