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Richard Rorty on America's Troubles

Three days after the presidential election, an astute law professor tweeted a picture of three paragraphs, very slightly condensed, from Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country,” published in 1998. ...

It’s worth rereading those tweeted paragraphs:

[M]embers 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 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. …

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.


Mr. Rorty, an American pragmatist philosopher, died in 2007. ...

When “Achieving Our Country” came out, it received a mixed critical reception. Writing for this newspaper, the critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt called the book “philosophically rigorous” but took umbrage at Mr. Rorty’s warnings about the country’s vulnerability to the charms of a strongman, calling this prophesy “a form of intellectual bullying.” ...

In universities, cultural and identity politics replaced the politics of change and economic justice. By 1997, when Mr. Rorty gave three lectures that make up the spine of “Achieving Our Country,” few of his academic colleagues, he insisted, were talking about reducing poverty at all.

“Nobody is setting up a program in unemployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer-park studies,” he wrote, “because the unemployed, the homeless, and the residents of trailer parks are not ‘other’ in the relevant sense.” ...

People are furiously arguing about what played a key role in this election — whether it was white working-class despair, a racist backlash or terror about the pace of cultural change. It seems reasonable to think that all three played a part.

What’s so striking about “Achieving Our Country” is that it blends these theories into a common argument: The left, both cultural and political, eventually abandoned economic justice in favor of identity politics, leaving too many people feeling freaked out or ignored.

- Jennifer Senior, Richard Rorty’s 1998 Book Suggested Election 2016 Was Coming, NYT, Nov. 20, 2016



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