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The Strongman-Elect

"Something will crack." As the New York Times has just pointed out, the late Richard Rorty wrote in 1998 about a increasingly disenchanted American working class ultimately turning to a strongman. That strongman, some now believe, is embodied by Trump. We asked Michael Bérubé—who studied with Rorty and wrote the introduction to a brand new book of Rorty lectures, Philosophy as Poetry—for his thoughts on the great philosopher's political prescience. His thoughtful answer is below...


So now that Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country has become the surprise smash hit of 2016, thanks to its prescient sense that disaffected white voters would turn to a strongman who promises to heal all their postindustrial ills, I thought I might go back and look at why I didn’t like the book very much eighteen years ago, when I wrote a 3000-word review essay on it for Tikkun. Some excerpts from that review:

"Despite its brevity (three lectures, one hundred pages), the book is broadly ambitious and deeply conflicted.  Appropriately, both its ambitions and its conflicts find their strongest expression in Rorty's analysis of (and attempt to repair) the schism that has produced the "two lefts" of American politics in the 1990s– the left that aspires to analyze culture (Rorty’s “cultural left”), and the left that aspires to carry out public policy (Rorty’s “reformist left”). Unlike all too many books that simply blame academic cultural-left elites for the decline of the Left since 1968, Achieving Our Country does its best to give the cultural left its due; but since Rorty tends to see cultural politics simply as a distraction from “real” politics, the book’s rhetorical strategies sometimes run counter to its explicit political goals, and Rorty thereby repeatedly runs the risk of exacerbating the divisions he had sincerely set out to transcend....

"Achieving Our Country is most divisive precisely when it's most concerned with repairing the damage to the post-Vietnam American left. The problem with the discourse of the "two lefts"– the phrase is Eric Alterman's, but the analysis is ubiquitous– is ... that it construes leftist thought as a zero-sum game in which the academic/cultural left is not the counterpart to the public-policy left but its antithesis. Reading polemics on the two lefts, one is sometimes tempted to think that the United States would have passed a national health-care plan, implemented a family-leave policy, and abolished "right-to-work" laws if only we left-liberals in the humanities hadn't been wasting our time writing books on cultural hybridity and popular music.

"And Rorty is often tempted to think this way, as the opening salvo of Achieving Our Country suggests: '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. They are spending energy which should be directed at proposing new laws on discussing topics as remote from the country's needs as were [Henry] Adams' musings on the Virgin and the Dynamo.' The passage features everything that's regrettable in the discourse of the two lefts: the disparagement of cultural politics as unreal politics; the dismissal of abstract intellectual 'musings' on things like symbols of historical change (which is what that Virgin-and-Dynamo blather was all about); and not least, the incendiary accusation that the members of the cultural left have been 'collaborating'– unwittingly, one hopes– with their opposite numbers in the Christian Coalition. The charge is almost certain to provoke the counter-allegation that the soi-disant 'real politics' left simply discounts every form of cultural activism that doesn't pertain to white men, and thus we will be back where we started, with two polarized lefts....

"To put this another way, the cultural conditions in which gays and lesbians, or people with disabilities, or ethnic minorities live in the United States can be dehumanizing in ways that have nothing to do with taxation, federal spending, private investment, and the minimum wage, even though strategies of dehumanization may have broad implications for the distribution of goods; and surely any Left worthy of the name should mount opposition to strategies of dehumanization without regard to their economic implications. Indeed, there need be no contradiction between 'passing laws' and 'making cultural issues central to public debate,' as our national debates over abortion, gay marriage, and hate crimes legislation amply demonstrate.

"In his best moments, Richard Rorty knows all this perfectly well, and even tries valiantly to imagine a set of terms that will reconcile redistributive politics with recognition politics. In his third lecture, especially, he speaks of the necessity of opposing both selfishness (through what Nancy Fraser would call a politics of redistribution) and sadism (through Fraser's politics of recognition). Where the opponents of sadism talk about stigma, says Rorty, the opponents of selfishness talk mainly about money. This is a fair enough description of the two fronts on which an activist left should work, and on these fronts Rorty gives the cultural left high marks for its successes in fighting social stigmata and sadism: 'The American academy has done as much to overcome sadism during the past thirty years as it did to overcome selfishness in the previous seventy.  Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call "politically correct" has made our country a far better place. American leftist academics have a lot to be proud of. Their conservative critics, who have no remedies to propose either for American sadism or for American selfishness, have a great deal to be ashamed of.' The distance between this characterization of "political correctness" and that of Rorty's nearest political colleagues, Paul Berman and the late Irving Howe, is quite striking– and one important instance of Rorty's attempts to reconcile the two lefts while maintaining primary allegiance to a politics of redistribution.....

'It is as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time,' Rorty notes, 'as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.'  If Rorty is right about this, it would seem to follow that a cogent and capacious American left should handle both initiatives at once; but only eight pages later, Rorty reverts once again to zero-sum thinking, advising that the cultural left will 'have to talk much more about money, even at the cost of talking less about stigma' (my emphasis)."  

Well, I hope you see why I say that the book is deeply conflicted.

All that said, however, it really can’t be denied that we are now living in the strongman-elect dystopia that Rorty predicted; indeed, we are even seeing a deluge of essays and op-eds that read as if they were recycled from the 1990s, blaming liberal-left academics for not attending sufficiently to the grievances of white men.

But there’s another passage that jumps out at me from the pages of Achieving Our Country, in which Rorty notes that the forces of economic globalization have produced, “as a byproduct, an agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism.” Rorty means this as a kind of self-indictment, insofar as the beneficiaries of that cosmopolitanism are exclusively members of the professional-managerial class of intellectuals and technocrats. He captured this cosmopolitan elite in an image I’ve never forgotten: “Platoons of vital young entrepreneurs fill the front cabins of transoceanic jets, while the back cabins are weighted down with paunchy professors like myself, zipping off to interdisciplinary conferences held in pleasant places. But this newly-acquired cultural cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty-five percent of Americans.”

One reason I remember that passage is that I read it a couple of days before bumping into Rorty himself– at an interdisciplinary conference held at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I did not fail to mention the passage to him. And I think we are also living in that world, the world Rorty foresaw when he wrote that in the post-strongman era, "the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.... All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet."

It is safe to say, I think, that a good chuck of that resentment is directed not at the vital young entrepreneurs in business class but at the paunchy professors in coach, regardless of whether they cheered or criticized Achieving Our Country.

Philosophy as Poetry, the latest collection of Richard Rorty's lectures, with an introduction by Michael Bérubé, is available now.


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