I am reading some of Richard Rorty’s work this summer. I was moved to do this by a critically paper that examined his political program. The paper, by Joshua Forstenzer, is titled, “Something Has Cracked: Post-truth Politics and Richard Rorty’s Postmodernist Bourgeois Liberalism.” The paper in available online from the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center’s occasional papers. The title comes from an extract from Rorty’s 1998 book, Achieving Our Country, Forstenzer includes as a prefatory note. I have filled out the quote (underlined) to reflect the full impact of the original.
Edward Luttwak for example, has suggested the fascism may be the American future. The point of his book, The Endangered American Dream is that 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 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. A scene like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
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. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
…For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international superrich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists.…He will be a disaster for the country and the world (p. 89-91).
It is very hard to accept that this was published 18 years before President Trump was inaugurated. I said to myself that anyone with such uncanny prescience needed further scrutiny. I had read some of Rorty’s philosophical volumes, but not his more politically-oriented work. Both streams are built on the same underpinning of pragmatism and Rorty’s characteristic arguments against any form of essentialism, the existence of some eternal, inherent truth about the world of objects and humans.
Rorty is committed to the idea of liberalism, but avoids defining it other than “an unwavering attachment to the fundamental rule formulated by Jean Bethke Elshtain: ‘Don’t be cruel.’” The anti-liberal stance of President Trump and his administration is no more clear than in their antagonism to this principle. The paper goes on to note that adherence to these rules is not enough; liberals should actively engage more and more people in the conversation of what to do politically. But such conversations need to keep their vocabularies from being dominated and contaminated by the mainstream concepts of truth and justification. To the extent that they try to define what is true, they will “stifle conceptual creativity and innovation and thus shut down conversation.”
Continuing in this line of argument, Forstenzer says that Rorty’s liberal actor should be “engaged in the process of developing the virtues of tolerance, open-mindedness, creativity, inclusivity, and empathy.” Wow! I stopped short at this point because once more I could spot the right-brain at work. All of these behaviors are associated with the right hemisphere, whereas the abstractions and generalizations of essentialism and its ‘truths’ are firmly implanted in the left. The idea of ‘democracy’ may be found in the left-brain, but the practice of democracy clearly, on this basis, requires the right-brain. Solidarity may become a political slogan, but it is, in reality, nothing more than an expression of the empathic interconnection of human beings to themselves and to the world.
Rorty is deeply opposed to the whole idea that the Platonic/Aristotelian idea of timeless, eternal essences of worldly objects and of human beings is deeply flawed. I cannot in a single blog begin to elaborate his thinking (I don’t think I could in any case.), but here are a few of the key parts. He draws from the world of pragmatism to explain his views on truth and action. I find these sentences from his book, Philosophy and Social Hope, capture a lot in a few words: “All areas of culture are part of the same endeavor to make life better. There is no deep split between theory and practice, because on a pragmatic view all so-called ‘theory which is not wordplay is always already practice (p. xxv).” Later he writes, “The idea of universally shared source of truth called ‘reason’ or ‘human nature’ is, for us pragmatists, just the idea that such discussion ought to be capable of being made conclusive. We see this idea as a misleading way of expressing the hope, which we share, that the human race as a whole should gradually come together in a global community…(p.xxii)”
I have come to put myself in the category of pragmatists. It is helpful in this climate of “alternative facts” and outright falsehoods. I do my best to get as close to what has actually been going on to make my conclusions of what is true or not. Pragmatists also use the right brain over the left. They need to be connected to the present, immediate world, not be off in some previously constructed set of “facts.” It is this connection that matters most. It is virtually impossible to be cruel to someone that you are empathetically connected to. Cruelty needs the lifeless, abstractions of the left-brain and its tendency to dehumanize and decontextualize.
While I have been awaiting the arrival of my book, I continue to be amazed by how frequently what I read can be traced to the dominance of one or the other brain hemispheres. I realize that what I have written captures only a tiny fraction of what could be possible should we be able to restore the historic, humanistic, loving right-side of the brain to its proper role as master.