Stephen Metcalf’s long disquisition about late philosopher Richard Rorty is promising. Unfortunately, it does not quite deliver. I do not believe that Metcalf is at fault. Trying to remain true to Rorty’s thought he muddles the issues. This means that Rorty muddled the issues.
In any event Rorty, who died ten years ago, has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance for having predicted this:
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. . . . Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen.
Obviously, this made Rorty look like a prophet. Similarly, Scott Adams of Dilbert fame claimed to be a prophet for having predicted the election of Donald Trump. Someone will have to figure out how thinkers like Rorty, who had no truck with facts or reality, should be extolled when one of his predictions seems to have come true.
Rorty was correct to see that the people of the country would not long tolerate handing their freedom over to a guardian class of philosopher kings.
While no one can predict what will happen when Donald Trump becomes president, but we already know that the guardian class has declared all-out war against him. Yet, we also know that a number of his senior appointments are not beholden either to party or to ideology. Some of them have already shown clearly independent thinking about the issues and questions. And, dare I say, precious few of them look like the kinds of people who needed the job or who are likely to kowtow to the White House.
In a nation is divided by ideology it is not a terrible thing to have competent executives running cabinet departments. And it is surely better than having such departments run by grandstanding senators like Marco Rubio. Or incompetent senators like HRC.
Anyway, Metcalf went back to the source of the Rorty quotation and discovered that the philosopher was inveighing against a tendency on the political left to disassociate itself from patriotism and national pride. One can easily conjure the image of Colin Kaepernick disrespecting the national anthem and the American flag… with the support of Democrats ranging from the president to Jane Sanders. So, clearly Rorty’s point is even more salient today.
It was not, of course, original… even in 2007. One notes in passing that Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued the point at length in his 1992 book, The Disuniting of America. I need not tell you that Schlesinger was not a right wing ideologue.
Metcalf summarizes the thrust of Rorty’s book:
It is, instead, a book about the left’s tragic loss of national pride. “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement,” Rorty writes in the book’s opening sentence, before describing in grim detail how the democratic optimism, however qualified, of Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and James Baldwin has been abandoned in favor of what he calls a “blasé” and “spectatorial” left.
Yet, Rorty wants to restore national pride while at the same time he wants to retain political correctness, whose purpose is to undermine national pride on the grounds that it was built on a foundation of oppression.
Metcalf explains Rorty’s point:
Rorty, in “Achieving Our Country,” shows unqualified admiration for the expansion of academic syllabi to include nonwhite and non-male authors, and describes such efforts as one means of awakening students to the “humiliation which previous generations of Americans have inflicted on their fellow citizens.” He adds, without reservation, “Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call ‘politically correct’ has made our country a far better place.”
Rorty objected to ethnic diversity on the ground that it left out class distinctions. This suggests that, as something of an unreconstructed Marxist, he would have preferred to see the nation divided by class. This message might have played well to the peanut gallery in the lecture hall, but it otherwise has no real resonance. It shows its proponent to have had a very limited knowledge of the real world.
Of course, Rorty was working within the university system and had to suck up to the powers that be, the guardian class that was running those places. Thus, he had to be for and against the same thing at the same time. Otherwise his reputation would have been tarred.
For a sane liberal approach to the problem, we counterpoint the words of Arthur Schlesinger. In no particular order:
Let us by all means teach black history, African history, women’s history, Hispanic history, Asian history. But let us teach them as history, not as filiopietistic commemoration. The purpose of history is to promote not group self-esteem, but understanding of the world and the past, dispassionate analysis, judgment, and perspective, respect for divergent cultures and traditions, and unflinching protection for those unifying ideas of tolerance, democracy, and human rights that make free historical inquiry possible.
The rising cult of ethnicity was a symptom of decreasing confidence in the American future.
But in general one senses a certain inauthenticity in saddling public schools with the mission of convincing children of the beauties of their particular ethnic origins. Ethnic subcultures, if they had genuine vitality, would be sufficiently instilled in children by family, church, and community. It is surely not the office of the public school to promote artificial ethnic chauvinism.
Schlesinger saw danger in tribalism:
Events each day demonstrate the fragility of national cohesion. Everywhere you look, tribalism is the cause of the breaking of nations.
Finally, Schlesinger quoted Theodore Roosevelt:
The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities…
Credit to TR, one of the best writers to hold the office of the presidency, for the phrase: “a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”
Meanwhile, back with Rorty, the American philosopher did not aim his ire at identity politics or the free-market right—as though these are even remotely the same—but at cultural decadence. In that he was certainly prescient.
The principal object of Rorty’s derision was neither identity politics nor the rise of an ignoble free-market right but a peculiar form of decadence, which his larger intellectual project aimed to counter.
Being a philosopher, Rorty was less concerned with hooking up and binge drinking as he was with Nietzschean decadence, embodied especially in Michel Foucault. After all, Nietzsche regaled us with stories of the god Dionysius, and we know that today’s college students seriously worship that god in their ritual called: Spring Break.
Anyway Foucault qualifies as decadent, for defending gay rights on the streets of Paris while also praising the Ayatollahs in Iran at a time when they were treating homosexuality as a capital crime, punishable by death.
Metcalf explains the point:
But his [Rorty’s] loathing of the academic left was neither shy nor gentle. The “Foucauldian” left, he writes in “Achieving Our Country,” “represents an unfortunate regression to the Marxist obsession with scientific rigor.” In the specific case of Foucault, this involved locating the “ubiquitous specter” known as “power” everywhere, and conceding that we are without agency in its presence. “To step into the intellectual world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce,” he writes.
Foucault saw the machinations of power everywhere. It’s a big idea, offered up by a big thinker.
And yet, there is more to the story of academic decadence. The academic left has also fallen prey to the Siren Song of deconstruction, that literary-philosophical practice that is closely akin to the pogrom. Surely, the champions of deconstruction, whose progenitor was the Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger, deserve some credit for the rise of Brown Shirts on America’s campuses. They might even deserve more credit than Foucault.
Strangely enough—I will take Metcalf’s word on this because I have no interest in rereading Rorty this morning—Rorty thought that the solution to these great philosophical problems was therapy, specifically psychoanalytic therapy:
The most philosophical way to abandon them was therapeutically: one could relive the philosophical past the same way an analysand relives her emotional past. By drawing, inch by agonizing inch, an unconscious pattern to the surface, one might discard it forever.
Obviously, Rorty was peddling a fictional account of Freudian treatment, one that never worked in clinical practice and that likely does not work for philosophy either. In fact, the reliance on psychoanalysis, the search for an emotional catharsis— if that was what he wanted, why not just attend a Greek tragedy—can do nothing more than confuse issues.
Rorty's lucubrations amount to nothing more than a retreat from the dire obligation to look at the reality of the situation. They cause people to withdraw into the fortress of the academy and mistake it for the mind.