ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY: LEFTIST THOUGHT IN TWENTIETH-CENTURY AMERICA
By Richard Rorty
Harvard University Press
144 pp., $18.95
Once, old-fashioned liberals viewed the federal government as a friend to the underdog: a guarantor of civil rights, safety in the workplace, clean air and water, national parks and wilderness. Yet ever since the late 1960s, many people from all parts of the political spectrum have come to see government as the enemy.
By the late 1970s, more than a few Democrats as well as most Republicans were busily deregulating and privatizing, part of the new nostrum that government could do nothing right. Meanwhile, the "tenured radicals" of the academic left devoted themselves to "cultural" issues, such as minority and women's studies, political correctness, and multiculturalism.
Among the more promising developments on the political-cultural scene of late have been attempts by various left-wing intellectuals to reexamine and redefine the meaning of liberalism. Todd Gitlin's "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars" (Owlet) made the case for bidding farewell to identity-group politics and returning to the time-honored liberal dream of the common good.
Similar concerns are voiced by Richard Rorty in "Achieving Our Country; Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America," a succinct, stimulating, crisply written book based on the author's lectures at the William E. Massey Sr. Lectures on the History of American Civilization in 1997.
Rorty proposes a return to the liberal values that animated American reform movements for the first two-thirds of this century: from the long struggle of labor unions to obtain better conditions for workers, to the efforts of leaders like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson to redistribute the nation's wealth more equitably.
Rorty even sympathizes with the aims of the cultural left. He believes that their emphasis on matters of race, gender, and culture is responsible for diminishing the various kinds of cruelty, contempt, and bigotry to which women, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, Latinos, and others were all too often subjected.
But in the meantime, the gap between rich and poor has widened, labor unions have lost support, and the growth of a global economy has further undermined the average person's job security and standard of living.
Rorty, like Gitlin, rebukes the cultural left for ignoring these economic issues. He also accuses them of purveying an intellectual climate antithetical to activism: a sort of latter-day Henry Adams-style pessimism based on the belief that American history has been one long shameful tale of imperialism, oppression, corruption, and hypocrisy. To believe this, he contends, is to believe there is no point in participating in the political process.
"A contemporary American student," he laments, "may well emerge from college less convinced that her country has a future than when she entered."
Although Rorty is an academic philosopher, in this book, addressed to the general reader, he employs clear, vigorous language that makes reading a pleasure rather than a chore.
"The cultural Left," he dryly notes, "has a vision of America in which the white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the voting to be done by members of previously victimized groups, people who have somehow come into possession of more foresight and imagination than the selfish suburbanites. These formerly oppressed and newly powerful people are expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were diabolical. If I shared this expectation, I too would want to live under this new dispensation. Since I see no reason to share it, I think the Left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy."
"Achieving Our Country" is not without its flaws. Although he is a liberal anticommunist, Rorty is too willing to condone the polemics of Marxist literary critics.
In his zeal to rally and educate the left, he makes little effort to understand the varieties of political thinking on the right. And finally, as a philosopher, he adheres to the position that there's no such thing as objective truth - even though it has become fairly well evident by now that such an outlook has helped nourish the cynicism he so dislikes.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.