For years, Richard Rorty held court as one of the foremost left-wing intellectuals in America. In his latest book, "Achieving Our Country," he describes the left as anti-American, negative, lacking any program and politically irrelevant.
Damning as this indictment might seem, Rorty has no intention of abandoning a movement on whose behalf he has toiled for so long. The left remains, in his eyes, the "party of hope," embracing the only political beliefs decent, humane and moral intellectuals could embrace. This mixture of lament and rigid self-righteousness makes for both a desperate and revealing picture, an emblem of the impossible quandary in which the American left now finds itself.
Rorty's parents, by his own account, were "loyal fellow-travelers" of the Communist Party, breaking with their comrades in 1932 when they realized how completely the Party was dominated by Moscow. Rorty's father was, for a time, a leading American Trotskyite; a 1935 Daily Worker cartoon portrayed him as a trained seal reaching for fish thrown by William Randolph Hearst. Rorty, in his own words grew up as an "anti-Communist red diaper baby" -- supporting America's cold war against the Soviet empire abroad, while keeping the socialist fires burning at home. With the passing of Irving Howe, Rorty has become the godfather to a small but influential remnant of "social democrats" huddled around Howe's magazine, Dissent, clinging to socialism -- "the name of our desire," as Howe once called it.
Rorty announces his central concern with the current American left when he equates national pride with individual self-esteem, declaring the former a "necessary condition for self-improvement." But in the 1960s, Rorty writes, a left emerged that despises America, speaks of it solely in terms of "mockery and disgust" and associates American patriotism with the endorsement of atrocities against Native Americans, ancient forests and African slaves.
It was not always thus, in Rorty's view. There was once a progressive left whose pride in country was "almost religious." Its aspirations were capsulized in Herbert Croly's title "The Promise of American Life," a promise that would be achieved by pragmatic, piecemeal reform. Into this American Eden, according to Rorty, came the serpent of totalitarian Marxism followed by the trauma of Vietnam. Negativism -- the use of social criticism as a corrosive social acid -- became the principal weapon of revolutionary intellectuals. The Vietnam War, which Rorty describes as "an atrocity of which Americans should be deeply ashamed," pushed a younger generation of leftists away from reform and toward neo-Marxism.
All that is dead, of course, but Rorty would like to believe that the end of communism offers his comrades a new opportunity. Previously divided factions of the left can now unite in a new kind of Popular Front. Forget "Old Left" and "New Left," and erase the distinction between socialists and liberals, since the idea of overthrowing capitalism has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Rorty's roster of progressive icons to be included in this new popular front is significant. "A hundred years from now, Howe and [John Kenneth] Galbraith, [Michael] Harrington and [Arthur] Schlesinger ... Jane Addams and Angela Davis ... will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice," he writes. "Whatever mistakes they made, these people will deserve, as [Calvin] Coolidge and [William F.] Buckley never will, the praise with which Jonathan Swift ended his own epitaph: 'imitate him if you can; he served human liberty.'" Elsewhere, Rorty comments: "My leftmost students, who are also my favorite students, find it difficult to take my anti-communism seriously." His readiness to embrace Davis and other lifetime servants of the communist cause as defenders of liberty, while dismissing anti-totalitarians like Buckley, shows why.
Rorty does acknowledge another obstacle to this idyllic union of liberal and socialist: the emergence of the "cultural left," whose commissars, as Harold Bloom and others note, have reproduced the political modalities of 1930s fascism and Stalinism on American campuses. Rorty describes it as "spectatorial, disgusted, mocking," its postmodernist nihilism so total that it has no practical political agenda. There are overlaps between these postmodernists and the Old Left. Rorty notes that tenured professor and armchair Maoist Frederick Jameson thinks that "anti-communists are scum." To Rorty this is an amusing quirk rather than a significant statement. Perhaps that's not surprising since Rorty has referred to anti-communist politicians like Ronald Reagan with similar verve.
Besides, the cultural left, in Rorty's view, isn't all bad. It has, he says, purged America of "sadism," via campus speech codes and other methods of sensitivity enforcement. "Especially among college graduates, the casual infliction of humiliation is much less socially acceptable than it was during the first two-thirds of the century," Rorty writes. "The tone in which educated men talk about women, and educated whites about blacks is very different from what it was before the Sixties ... The adoption of attitudes which the Right sneers at as 'politically correct' has made America a far more civilized society than it was thirty years ago."
And there, in plain view, is the intellectual bubble inside which Rortyan leftists conduct their ruminations. It may or may not be that the tone in which "educated" whites talk to blacks and "educated" men talk to women has improved under pressure from the commissariat. But what about the tone in which the politically correct talk to the politically incorrect -- especially the hated white male? What about the ritual punishments meted out in the academy to those who deviate from the party line, the politicization of the hiring process and the reflexive hatred visited upon those who don't sport the correct multicultural badge? Rather than the end of "sadism," the juices of atavistic prejudice have been simply redirected, perhaps even intensified. Religious Christians are scorned. Jews have been the subject of more virulent forms of anti-Semitic assault by black supremacists and Arab fundamentalists -- egged on by their progressive apologists -- than at any time since the 1930s.
In order to preserve his radical faith, Rorty also finds it necessary to demonize the conservative right, and in a manner as relentless as the demonization of white males and America by the cultural left. "It is doubtful whether the current critics of the universities who are called 'conservative intellectuals' deserve this description," he writes. "For intellectuals are supposed to be aware of, and speak to, issues of social justice. But even the most learned and thoughtful of current conservatives ridicule those who raise such issues. They themselves have nothing to say about whether children in the ghettos can be saved without raising suburbanites' taxes or about how people who earn the minimum wage can pay for adequate housing. They seem to regard discussion of such topics as in poor taste."
Can it be that Rorty is ignorant of the work of James Q. Wilson, Marvin Olasky, Peter Mead, Glenn Loury, John DiIlulio and Robert Woodson, who have thought long and hard about the problems of poverty, and from a perspective of concern? Or has he dishonestly chosen to ignore them? The academic purge of conservatives by Rorty's political allies has been so thorough, though, that Rorty need hardly be concerned about being held to account.
Rorty's myopia steers him, predictably enough, straight into the intellectual ditch. Full of ringing clichés, Rorty declares:
"The Right ... fears economic and political change, and therefore easily becomes the pawn of the rich and powerful -- the people whose selfish interests are served by forestalling such change." This is pure 1930s Old Left mentality, which Rorty affects to disdain. It is also empirically absurd. Bill Gates, Marc Andriessen, Larry Ellison and other exemplars of the modern world's "rich and powerful" are "forestalling" economic and political change? The right's contribution to exploding the communist empire and liberating the political and economic forces of a large part of the developed world reflected a "fear" of change? Stemming government red ink and unraveling the nightmare of welfare are not ways of restoring a sense of initiative and esteem to millions of Americans?
Rorty, in the end, can't get over the fact that in the name of "socialism," tens of millions of people have been killed, billions have been impoverished, all in the name of an idea that has curled up and died. Rorty, for all his hand-wringing, doesn't have the intellectual grit to admit that his conservative opponents were right and he was wrong.