Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaMust The Sins Of America S Past Poison Its Hope For The Future Lately The American Left, Withdrawing Into The Ivied Halls Of Academe To Rue The Nation S Shame, Has Answered Yes In Both Word And Deed In Achieving Our Country, One Of America S Foremost Philosophers Challenges This Lost Generation Of The Left To Understand The Role It Might Play In The Great Tradition Of Democratic Intellectual Labor That Started With Writers Like Walt Whitman And John DeweyHow Have National Pride And American Patriotism Come To Seem An Endorsement Of Atrocities From Slavery To The Slaughter Of Native Americans, From The Rape Of Ancient Forests To The Vietnam War Achieving Our Country Traces The Sources Of This Debilitating Mentality Of Shame In The Left, As Well As The Harm It Does To Its Proponents And To The Country At The Center Of This History Is The Conflict Between The Old Left And The New That Arose During The Vietnam War Era Richard Rorty Describes How The Paradoxical Victory Of The Antiwar Movement, Ushering In The Nixon Years, Encouraged A Disillusioned Generation Of Intellectuals To Pursue High Theory At The Expense Of Considering The Place Of Ideas In Our Common Life In This Turn To Theory, Rorty Sees A Retreat From The Secularism And Pragmatism Championed By Dewey And Whitman, And He Decries The Tendency Of The Heirs Of The New Left To Theorize About The United States From A Distance Instead Of Participating In The Civic Work Of Shaping Our National FutureIn The Absence Of A Vibrant, Active Left, The Views Of Intellectuals On The American Right Have Come To Dominate The Public Sphere This Galvanizing Book, Adapted From Rorty S Massey Lectures Of , Takes The First Step Toward Redressing The Imbalance In American Cultural Life By Rallying Those On The Left To The Civic Engagement And Inspiration Needed For Achieving Our Country

Richard Rorty 1931 2007 developed a distinctive and controversial brand of pragmatism that expressed itself along two main axes One is negative a critical diagnosis of what Rorty takes to be defining projects of modern philosophy The other is positive an attempt to show what intellectual culture might look like, once we free ourselves from the governing metaphors of mind and knowledge in which

[Epub] ❧ Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America ➛ Richard M. Rorty –
  • Paperback
  • 159 pages
  • Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
  • Richard M. Rorty
  • English
  • 05 October 2019
  • 9780674003125

10 thoughts on “Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

  1. says:

    This obscurer 1997 work of Rorty s has become popular after a three paragraph excerpt describing a book by Edward N Luttwak was posted on Twitter I quote M embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white collar workers themselves desperately afraid of being downsized are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.At that point, something will crack The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis novel It Can t Happen Here may then be played out For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg made Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion The words nigger and kike will once again be heard in the workplace All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.After all that, you ll probably want to see if Rorty wrote anything about sports scores or lottery numbers The broad outlines are immediate and clear after the events of November 8, 2016 rural voters have had their revenge against the contempt of the coastal elites and academics, and they don t give a damn about the establishment But prophecies, even if they are broadly right, leave the devil in the details This series of lectures by Rorty describes what he feels are prevailing trends in contemporary academia a sort of anemia among the intellectual left, which he feels is consumed in guilt and granular infighting instead of direct action, which in its granted, important and beneficial pursuit of identity politics, has either ignored or understated the role of grander unifying narratives in political campaigning If one says America was Never Great , in response to Make America Great Again , you may feel better about yourself or being morally right, but it does apparently not win elections This new message was not as remote or impractical as one may think Obama won his election on the backs of rural voters and the promise of sweeping change, even if he could not entirely fulfill it His hope as much as his curmudgeonly attitude allows is for a pragmatic combination of identity politics and economic reform, and referring to the United States as a work in progress, which is a uplifting narrative and a tougher competitor to the conservative narrative of decadence and decline Yet for all its assumed prescience, Rorty still misses some major circumstances about the world we live in now He does not, for one, see the 2008 economic crisis and what came after He has a chuckle at Frederic Jameson s use of the term late capitalism , but the international legal and economic systems which have existed in some form since 1945 are now facing their greatest existential risks, in the form of the Trump campaign s avowal to withdraw from this system He notes the effects of NAFTA, and he would probably say the same things about the TPP and TTIP, but the idea of such a long standing crisis is out of his reach Further, he misses something about America s plurality the waves of immigration which continued through the 1990s and into the 2000s, with Latinos gaining further prominence across the Southwest, and Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq, even if the former did not prove a decisive role in the electorate as previously thought in the polls Though some remain avowedly optimistic about their new place in America, as I do, there are still many others who do not who see something they need in Trump s promises about the wall They feel isolated and threatened by this new set of immigrants, strangers in a strange land Here, Rorty misses that point His critique and conception of the United States is an extrapolation of what he saw in the mid 1990s similar, yet different in some radical ways which he could not have guessed gay marriage legalization, the election of a black man to the office of the Presidency, the further rise of the internet and the spread of propaganda, and so on Still, there is much to ponder, and much to act on, in this critique He sees Dewey and Whitman as bases for a new America, one which is continually self improving, and I see a potential in realizing these ideas, if it ever seizes the opportunity.

  2. says:

    Two people recommended this book a somewhat younger friend and my son in law Actually the friend gave it to me The idea behind today s recommendations of this book, which was published in 1998, is that it predicted the election of Trump or someone like him I recently got hold of an audio version of the book in its least expensive version, an mp3 CD from unless of course your library has it but mine didn t have the hard copy, much less any e versions , and that has enabled me to get it read The question is, did I know what I d heard Even with reference to the book, I wasn t sure The narration was workmanlike but overly idolized what was being read, in the manner of a student looking up to a teacher, so missed any irony or tongue in cheek parts, assuming they were there Plus, there were the occasional mispronunciations, such as Tillich ending in the ch sound instead of k At any rate, I let it wash over me, but it wasn t enough.Only when I was rereading did I become clearly aware of the subtitle Ha Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America Rorty died in 2007, but his book came to life following Trump s election, when we elites were trying to figure out what hit us Twenty years ago, Achieving Our Country had predicted that populist uprisings would imperil liberal democracies that the left behind working class would in a wave of resentment put a strongman who promised a remedy into office.That is not all He argued against a reflexive anti Americanism and in favor of American civic pride, for agency as opposed to spectatorship, campaigning and gaining power over protest, hope and exertion over condemnation and passivity James Baldwin over Elijah Muhammad There is an excellent discussion of the compatibility of civic pride with past mistakes, even barbarism in fact, the case for giving up the concept of sin in favor of a secular antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope, and regarding self loathing as a luxury which agents either individuals or nations cannot afford.He saw that already leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate.He saw that the left was already cannibalizing itself as the further left condemned the liberals Warning language has changed and often requires translation He already saw the pitfalls of identity politics, although that name for the phenomenon hadn t yet emerged as the winner.I find his overall presentation similar to Francis Fukuyama s Against Identity Politics in Foreign Affairs Responses and rejoinder here emphasis on agency as action vs spectatorship, purity, and blame is closely related to Timothy Snyder s concept of a politics of eternity view of the Left as good and the Right as bad seems to have very recently become antiquated, as suddenly it falls to the Center Left and Center Right to hold the fort against the illiberal extremes.His view of the persecution of the other as sadism also seems off target, as though it were just being done for fun, rather than having a dynamic behind it For current reading on the state of the Left, see this link, beginning with the three Paul Berman articles at the bottom of the page for me to rate, considering the translation issues, but either four stars or five

  3. says:

    This book would not have been satisfying to my 20 year old self, or my 25 year old self I would have mis read Rorty, as some people have, as an apologist for America I would have conflated his insistence on treating America as an unfinished democratic project with a legitimation or denial of the awful atrocities that have been carried out by America Some people mis read this book in those ways And I would have been one of those people until the last few years When I first read this book in 2008 I was ambivalent about Rorty s message, but now I find it inspiring, even if I don t agree with every single point he makes.I have come to believe that changing America into a just, kind, and generous place will require those of us working for social justice to offer Americans another way to be American much in the same way that men need new non patriarchal ways of being men and whites need to cultivate new identities as anti racist whites For America to change, leftists, progressives, and radicals need to offer substantive visions of what s possible for America They need to articulate America in precisely the way that Rorty is advocating for here Not to excuse what we are and have been, but to find a way out of the situation in which we find ourselves As much as I love Foucault and Butler and Derrida and find their books important and interesting and enlightening, Rorty s right when he says that they don t offer the kind of clear political vision that can animate a vigorous movement for social justice Further, he s smart to choose Dewey and Whitman for valorization, not only because of their important contributions to thinking about what America can and should be, but also because of their status as Americans Dewey and Whitman are Americans that demonstrate that identifying as American doesn t have to make you a nationalist, a nativist, or an idiot There are, within our history, examples out there for us of Americans committed to social justice and progress One thing we must do is start to valorize and turn to these Americans as the paradigmatic examples of what Americans can and should be Rorty makes this point in Achieving Our Country, and I couldn t agree with him regardless of the many minor points upon which we disagree.

  4. says:

    Not too long after the 2016 presidential election, a short passage from Richard Rorty s Achieving Our Country went viral on social media This amicable bulwark of the Old Left and purveyor of pragmatist philosophy had, so we were told, predicted the election of Donald Trump from beyond the grave It is worth citing the passage in full M embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported Around the same time, tey will realize that suburban white collar workers themselves desperately afraid of being downsized are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.At that point, something will crack The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for someone willing to assure them tat, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out Hocular contempt for women will come back into fashion All the resentment which badly educated American feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet. p 89 90 Rorty s ostensible soothsaying skills had the effect of catapulting Achieving Our Country a minor work that was seldom read in comparison with his epochal Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature 1979 to the top of every Leftist academic and journalist s reading list So high was demand for the book that it prompted Harvard University Press to reprint the book for the first time in nearly a decade All this media attention also led to vigorous discussion in debate among laypersons as is their wont, the Marxists and anarchists criticized Rorty s reformism and the Left Liberals and Social Democrats defended him In other words, the Left reproduced just the kind of puritanical infighting that Rorty claims has been dividing it since the 1960s, declining any kind of engagement with the Liberatarians, cultural conservatives, and alt right neo Nazis whose political adversaries they are, I am told, supposed to be Perhaps the most amusing aspect of this whole episode is that roughly everything that has been said about Rorty s book since its unlikely rise to fame has been incorrect starting with the very claim that earned it media attention in the first place What the above cited passage leaves out what is conveniently obscured by the well placed ellipsis at its start is that Rorty is not speaking in his own voice, but is rather giving his gloss on Edward Luttwak s The Endangered American Dream Rorty did not predict Trump s rise to power If anyone did, it is Luttwak and even then, this would be a dubious claim, for the diagnosis was apparently a common one Here it is worth citing another passage that immediately precedes the first Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are headed into a Weimar like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. p 89.So Luttwark s prediction merely serves as an example of a broader trend among social commentators With the mystique of Rorty s prophetic proclamations swept aside, the question that arises is if so many could see Trump s rise to power and the many dissatisfactions from which it was borne from a mile away, then why has the Left done so little to correct the deviations that were already, two decades ago, causing it to alienate the working class on whose support Sartre could still count in the 1950s and 1960s I have no answer to this, but it strikes me as a much fruitful line of inquiry than the in party quibbling that has occupied the Left of late Trumpian hubbub aside, Achieving Our Country is perfectly fine for what it is Rorty is the philosopher par excellence of the story, of the narrative Competition for political leadership, he maintains, is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation s self identity, and between differing symbols of its greatness p 4 His fear is that the Left in its identitarian variant has abandoned all symbols of greatness in other words, all national pride turning its back on electoral politics, and choosing instead to languish in a fruitless political spectatorialism The difference between early twentieth century leftist intellectuals and the majority of their contemporary counterparts is the difference between agents and spectators p 9 In his first lecture, Rorty tries to counter this trend by providing the Left with a new, useful narrative that could show it the way out of its spectatorial impasse According to the story he weaves, American Leftism has its roots in the writings of Dewey and Whitman On his view, what sets Dewey and Whitman s vision apart is its thoroughgoing secularism For both of these thinkers, there is no standard, not even a divine one, against which the decisions of a free people can be measured p 16 Their ideal of America was therefore thoroughly democratic national self understanding was not to refer to the will of a divine Creator, but to the democratically achieved consensus of free and equal human beings The result was to replace to divine knowledge of what is already real with social hope for what might become real p 18 From this perspective, the concept of progress loses its reference to any predetermined standards and becomes a matter of solving problems p 28 On the resulting picture, social organization has as its purpose the pragmatic goals of reducing suffering and creating larger, fuller, imaginative and daring individuals This, Rorty believes, can be achieved through a classless and casteless society the sort American leftists have spent the twentieth century trying to construct p 30 With these symbols of greatness in hand, Rorty hopes to give the contemporary Left the tools it needs to inscribe itself within a larger narrative through which to understand itself and in which to take pride Of course, this history is not without its blemishes But from the perspective of a thoroughly secularized national self understanding cleansed of any concept of sin, mortification and self flagellation are to be replaced with the sober consciousness that one cannot alter the past and the resolute hope to do better in the future p 32 The left by definition, is the party of hope p 14 In his second lecture, Rorty gives an account of what he calls the reformist Left i.e those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong and its eclipse by the New Left i.e by those who decided, around 1964, that it was no longer possible to work for social justice within the system p 43 His goal, here as elsewhere, is narrative in nature He aims to undercut the thoroughly unhelpful Marxist distinction between leftism and reformism, thereby giving both a common narrative and one hopes countering the pervasive trend toward sectarianism I t would be a bug help to American efforts for social justice if each new generation were able to think of itself as participating in a movement which has lasted for than a century, and has served human liberty well p 51 Rorty gives an account of the splintering of the American left during the 1960s over the Vietnam War and the rise of the so called New Left The latter movement which finds its contemporary expression in the identity politics that led you to shut down your Tumblr account turned its back on the reformist idea that substantial progress could be achieved within the institutions of the democratic constitutional state The New Leftists gradually became convinced that the Vetnam War, an the endless humiliation inflicted on African Americans, were clues to something deeply wrong with their country, and not just mistakes correctable by reforms p 66 Despite Rorty s clear ambivalence about this move, he gives each party its due, insisting that the honours should be evenly divided between the old, reformist left and the New Left of the Sixties p 71.In the third and final lecture, by far the most interesting of the three, Rorty presents his critique of the New Left and his plea for a reunification of the Left against the Right The cultural Left, he says, thinks about stigma than about money p 77 i ts principal enemy is a mind set rather than a set of economic arrangements p 79 As a result, it has very little in common with the reformist Left and its emphasis on remedying economic inequality via change in policy This is particularly worrying given that, since the rise of the cultural Left, globalization has led to increased economic inequality and insecurity This, Rorty worries, will open the way for right wing demagogues to take advantage of the growing gap between rich and poor And then the infamous predicton, which of course, is proving right pun somewhat intended the world over T his process is likely to culminate in a bottom up populist revolt p 83.The cultural Left, Rorty warns, does not have the tools to engage in national politics, and so to deal with the consequences of globalization To get the country to deal with those consequences, he says, the present cultural Left would have to transform itself by opening relations with the residue of the old reformist Left, and in particular with the labour unions It would have to talk much about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma p 91 He makes two proposals about how to achieve this transition The first is for the Left to kick its philosophy habit and put a moratorium on theory The second is for it to shed its semi conscious anti Americanism p 98 This latter means toning down the cultural Left s insistence on difference Only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a winning majority in national elections p 101 I find it hard to disagree with either Achieving Our Country is not a great work It is, as I said, perfectly fine for what it is Rorty s erudition is considerable His analyses are lucid if at points outdated, and his turns of phrase are infinitely quotable, even though his delivery is somewhat rambling These lectures should by rights have been relegated to the bookshelves of completists and graduate students And yet they have now acquired a strange sort of afterlife Ostensibly, this is because of Rorty s now famous prediction But I don t think that s the whole story I think that Rorty tells us exactly what so many of us want to hear right now and, importantly, what we think others need to hear As and of our peers are caught up in the blue wave that has been sweeping up the West for the past few years, and such extremist manifestations as the rise of the neo Nazi alt right and the election of Donald Trump are making themselves felt, several of us moderates have suspected that the excesses of identity politics are partially to blame for the widespread appeal of the Right to the general public, and in particular to the working classes Rorty not only gives voice to these suspicions, but diagnoses the underlying problems And to that extent, he also points the way to a solution.

  5. says:

    Argues Left has sold out the working class poor by focusing on the politics of sex and identity He s right, but fails to convince me, at least that we can t care equally for both.

  6. says:

    With the goal of inspiring a resurgent political Left in America, Rorty fails beautifully at uniting every historical left of center school of thought and action into a single moral community A fascinating read, in that I ve never before had moments of such passionate agreement and vehement disagreement stumble over each other, often multiple times in the course of a few pages Rorty s societal priorities are commendable, but his pragmatic push for good old fashioned reforms and renewed patriotism on the Left seem insufficient at a time both 20 years ago and even so today when global capitalism has both the first and final say on what is politically reasonable, achievable, and even thinkable Pace the pragmatic Rorty, I m inclined to agree with Richard Falk, speaking on Palestine and channeling Edward Said, Slavoj Zizek, and Alain Badiou, that the realm of the feasiblecannot address the challenges confronting people existing in circumstances of oppression, occupation and servitude From their perspective, a dedication to what seems impossible from a realistic viewpoint is, in truth, the only realism with emancipatory potential.

  7. says:

    This a short book about how the American Left turned from trade unions, labor rights and protecting the poor to nowadays cultural or identity politics, focusing on symbolic violence and such The author argues that unless the Left recovers and starts working for social reform, this will lead to very shitty situation and he kinda predicts the rise of a Trump like figure the nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.He deplores the fact that the Left seems incapable of defending both the economically vulnerable and the minority groups and criticizes the futile intellectualism of current Leftist thinkers For Rorty, as interesting and smart the likes of Foucault are, they are completely useless when it comes to action and practice In his opinion, postmodernist thinkers are too busy debunking the past and nitpicking the present and have nothing to say about the future He is against academic detachment, objectivity and dryness He wants hope and romanticism so that philosophers and social scientists could use their brains to actually improve society While he admits that the New Leftists have indeed unveiled some systemic discrimination mechanisms and that political correctness has increased respect towards women and minority groups, he thinks is benefits the super rich elite As long as activists and intellectuals argue about stuff like symbolic violence, the super rich continue calling the shots unchalleged where it matters economy Although today everyone feels entitled to make an Orwell analogy, Rorty has one which is actually competent the rich cosmopolitan elites will be the Inner Party, while the bourgeois intellectuals and politicians will be the Outer Party The job of people like us will be to make sure that the decisions made by the Inner Party are carried out smoothly and efficiently It will be in the interest of the international super rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy For they need people who can pretend to be the political class of each of the individual nation states For the sake of keeping the proles quiet, the super rich will have to keep up the pretense that national politics might someday make a difference Since economic decisions are their prerogative, it will en courage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to specialize in cultural issues The aim will be to keep the minds of the proles elsewhere to keep the bottom 75 percent of Americans and the bottom 95 percent of the world s population busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with debates about sexual s If the proles can be distracted from their own despair by media created pseudo events, including the occasional brief and bloody war, the super rich will have little to fear Rorty draws on Dewey to argue in favor of national pride, he asks intellectuals to be proud of their country and, basically, instead of bitching and moaning to start dreaming and working for a better future He wants those in humanities and social sciences to argue less about how the past or the present and about how the future should be And to learn bloody economics.

  8. says:

    If you are at all wondering how the hell 2016 happened and align even slightly left of political center, I urge you to take a look at this short book of lectures Philosopher Richard Rorty offers some fairly amazing explanatory and predictive insights about our current American political reality.I first learned of Achieving Our Country when a paragraph from the book circulated on social media last month and even made its way into the New Yorker which almost miraculously predicted the rise of Donald Trump I immediately ran to the shelves of the research library I work at only to find every copy of this somewhat obscure book was already checked out, so I borrowed the last copy from another library I now see what the clamor is about.Rorty is a thinker raised by parents who were members of the New York socialist intelligentsia of the 1920s and 30s These were socialist workers who were pragmatic but also opponents of Stalinism and the dark side of communism This biography is important as it builds the framework for how he describes the split of the American left circa 1964 with the rise of Vietnam War opposition.Rorty makes a distinction between a Reform Left vs a New Left or progressive left vs cultural left This new left rose in prominence as a reaction to the horrors of Vietnam The rationale of breaking from the leftist old guard was that 1 since the Vietnam war was horrific, and 2 the U.S was fighting communism, then 3 communism must hold some value This is in direct conflict with the reform left who were raised on economic justice but saw the genocidal tragedies of Stalin s communism The new left, in his description, has evolved into overly theoretical anti Americanism as a result of this.He is admittedly critical of the cultural left for abandoning pragmatic tools of workers economic justice in favor of elitist imagination about abstract concepts of power He laments the irrelevance of Whitman and Dewey in favor of Foucault and Derrida He keeps everything grounded in real world problems of workers wages and economic disparity.If you re curious about why identity politics are currently center stage, or why the super rich are capitalizing on populist rage, or why notions of social justice are now couched in highly jargonized terms that seem to dismiss working class concerns, or why the left seems to hate the country they live in, take a look at this book.Spoiler alert He gives advice on how to unify the left He suggests toning down critical theory, having a non jingoistic pride in America that works for everyone, reaching out to trade unions again, and avoiding the traps set by the super rich that seek to divide American workers along ethnic, racial, and religious lines.American pride, he argues, should be like a healthy ego If you love yourself too much you become arrogant and aggressive to others If you hate yourself too much you become despondent and useless The left needs a nudge in the direction of pride in country to help create a plan for real justice.

  9. says:

    This wasnt initially the book i wanted to read by Rorty, but a cultural left caught my attention I will not explain too much the content It s basically about the advantages and disadvantages of the American left both reformist left and the new left , and it is also about a longing for an American that reduces sadism and which take care of its people Isn t that what we all want from our government, eh What I really liked about this book is the simplicity of the wording of ideas, and the complexity of ideas Rorty is able to communicate a heavy idea in few words and in a simple way, and that made me appreciate this book, even if I usually don t like reading such topics.

  10. says:

    Richard Rorty, The Promise of American Life, and American PatriotismI read Richard Rorty s 1998 book, Achieving Our Country as a result of two dovetailing considerations First, I had the good fortune to participate in a philosophy conference on the subject Metaphysics and Political Thought , and several speakers presented insightful papers about Rorty Second, I had recently read a novel written in a sharply satirical, angry style offering a broad postmodern criticism of the United States and its history I reacted strongly and negatively to the book and I knew that Rorty 1931 2007 had criticized other novels with the detached, angry critique of America similar to the book I had read I wanted to read what Rorty had to say in Achieving Our Country This short, eloquently written book is based upon the three Massey Lectures Rorty gave in 1997 at Harvard University together with two earlier lectures on similar themes.This book has become famous because a passage in the third lecture, The Cultural Left , appears to presage the factors leading to the election of Donald Trump to the presidency The passage is indeed remarkable, but I felt the need to dig below the surface to consider not merely Trump but the considerations which made him possible The angry, divisive politics in the United States, including in Rorty s account cultural politics on the left is not free from blame.The opening lecture in the book American National Pride Whitman and Dewey is important to what the book is about than is the possible picture of Trump Rorty begins his lecture with the same feeling of discontent I expressed at the outset of this review with two critically well received novels that had drawn a picture of an irredeemably evil United States employing tropes familiar from many books and from popular and intellectual culture Rorty criticizes this sort of literature as depriving readers of a sense of hope and purpose in the meaning of America Hope and purpose and their lack by their nature are for nationals and individuals the product of imagination and myth making rather than an alleged dispassionate analysis of facts Rorty wants to find meaning and hope and promise in American life He looks to the poet Walt Whitman and the philosopher John Dewey as his primary sources with discussions as well of the Progressive early 20th Century writer,Herbert Croly, William James, and the German idealist philosopher Hegel He sees the criticism resulting from an attitude of detachment and disengagement with America that he finds partial and unjustified Rorty looks to leftist activism as practiced in America from the late 19th century through the early 1960s as a source of hope He finds the New Left that became prevalent in the 1960s soon devolved into a broad cultural critique of America rather than an attempt to work to bring about change where change was possible Rorty finds the basic value of America lies in its secularism which sees creating the good as within the capacity of the people acting for themselves as opposed to responding to clerics or other worldly religious or philosophical beliefs The New Left with its opposition to the War in Vietnam and its cultural critiques of America brought back a sense of sin into American life which Rorty deplores Prior to the late 1960s, the Left had substantive, realizable political aims More importantly, the Left was ardently patriotic and loved the United States for its promise if not fully for its actuality This patriotism, together with secularism, are the most fundamental insights in Rorty s book In the remaining two Massey Lectures Rorty fleshes out his distinction between the New Left and its predecessors Among other things, the lectures include some moving autobiographical reflections together with a great deal of philosophical, anti philosophical and cultural writing As with so much of Rorty, this book is a mix Rorty writes as an individual committed to left with Progressive politics He is eloquent in support of what he sees the Left has achieved for American life, including the accomplishments of the New Left which he also incisively critiques Rorty has little use for conservatism of any stripe I think his book would be stronger if he integrated his insights with some of the insights of people coming at political questions from a non Leftist perspective I see no reason why this could not be done.I love the way Rorty talks about philosophers such as Dewey and James and poets such as Whitman Rorty has a love hate relationship with philosophy and metaphysics and many academic philosophers have mixed responses to Rorty I see Rorty as a philosopher in spite of himself I admire Rorty for the courage of his secularism, which I largely share Again, I think his position could be stated with somewhat openness to sources not fully secular.This book is not so much an advance criticism of President Trump as it is a warning of how the United States was losing a sense of itself and of confidence in its possibilities and of what Rorty sees as the United States truly exceptional character the first society to be formed as an experiment on a secular model The book is partial because, even with its critique of the New Left it appears to read out conservative Americans and that is unnecessary and unjustified Still in its optimism, sense of meaning, and celebration of Whitman, Dewey, and Lincoln, among others, Rorty s book offers an excellent guide to the spirit of the United States and to the recapturing of something of the American dream and of what Herbert Croly described in his famous Progressive book of 1909 as The Promise of American Life.Robin Friedman

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