Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty

This short book from 1998 by the philosopher Richard Rorty gained attention recently because of this passage:

… members 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 non-suburban 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. …

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. … All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet [89-90].

Given our recent election, that sounds right in some respects. I’d make a few points, however. Democratic politicians have tried to increase wages for the working class and keep more jobs at home but have run into strong Republican opposition; it’s unlikely that 40 years of gains for various minorities (and for women) are unlikely to be wiped out any time soon; and the “strong man” we currently have isn’t actually strong, was rejected by most voters and is already highly unpopular. 

But the real focus of Rorty’s book is leftist thought in the 20th century. He draws a distinction between the “reformist” left and the “cultural” left. America’s left wing was dedicated to reform from the 19th century up until the 1960s.  Left-wing politicians, labor leaders, activists and intellectuals saw the United States as a land of promise. Rorty cites Walt Whitman and John Dewey as two proponents of this basically pro-American point of view. They were aware of many problems but believed those problems could be addressed through incremental reforms, eventually resulting in a country that lived up to its ideals. In Rorty’s words, they were dedicated to “achieving our country”. 

Rorty argues that the left lost its faith in America’s promise in reaction to the Vietnam War. Incremental reform was no longer enough. It was wasted effort, because America was too far gone. American culture needed to be remade. “The people” needed to take control in revolutionary fashion. Rorty says left-wing intellectuals began to focus on “the system” instead of fighting for specific reforms. In addition, too much emphasis was put on what’s now called “identity” politics:

To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster. 

Rorty concludes that we should admit America’s faults but see ourselves as agents rather than spectators:

Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour work week, Women’s Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement…. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

Whitman and Dewey … wanted to put shared utopian dreams – dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society – in the place of knowledge of God’s Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still be strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman’s and Dewey’s dreams.

I think that Rorty, spending his days in academia, over-emphasized the intellectual left-wing at the expense of the politicians and activists who continued to fight for reform in the late 20th century and continue fighting today. But the book was still worth reading for its analysis of Whitman’s and Dewey’s political ideals and the distinction Rorty draws between the reformist and the cultural left.

Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein

Abraham Lincoln read Leaves of Grass in 1857, when he was still a lawyer in Illinois. The author of Lincoln and Whitman argues that reading Walt Whitman’s poetry made Lincoln’s speeches more poetic.

Whitman was living in New York City in 1860 when Lincoln gave his famous Cooper Union speech, but he didn’t see Lincoln in person until January 1861, when the President-elect visited New York on his way to his inauguration.

During the Civil War, Whitman spent much of his time ministering to wounded soldiers in Washington, not far from the White House. He often saw the President traveling around the city. It appears that the President noticed Whitman occasionally, since the poet had a distinctive appearance and often watched the President’s carriage drive by. On one occasion, Whitman observed Lincoln in the White House from a few feet away, but they did not meet. There is also a story, not necessarily true, that Lincoln saw Whitman walking by the White House one day and was told that this was the famous poet.

Whitman was visiting New York when Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s death greatly affected Whitman. He had studied the President closely and felt a deep affection for him. His poem O Captain! My Captain! was written in response to the assassination.

Lincoln and Whitman ends in 1887 with Whitman giving a dramatic reading before a celebrity-packed audience in New York City, in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of Lincoln’s death.

Lincoln and Whitman did lead parallel lives for a time, although Lincoln clearly affected Whitman much more than the other way around. Lincoln and Whitman mixes large-scale history and politics with these men’s daily lives and personal relationships. There is some poetry too, mostly by the poet.  (9/30/12)