Jean Stimmell: The prescience of Richard Rorty

  • A mock funeral at the State House on Sept. 20, 2019, during a climate change protest. Jean Stimmell

For the Monitor
Published: 11/21/2020 6:20:34 AM
Modified: 11/21/2020 6:20:20 AM

Richard Rorty, a prominent 20th-century philosopher and public intellectual, wrote an obscure book in 1998 titled Achieving Our Country, which looks back on America from a vantage point 100 years in the future.

Defying belief, he correctly predicted the election of a strongman like Donald Trump in our country. Rorty based his prophecy on a trend that he saw already developing because Democrats were abandoning working-class interests. Check out, in his own words, how dead-on his predictions were: “It’s dawning on working folks 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.”

Rorty correctly foresaw that this betrayal by the Democrats would have momentous consequences, resulting in an explosive release of bottled-up rage by “poorly educated Americans having their manners dictated to them by college graduates.”

At the time his book was published, he was roundly criticized from both the left and right, including a New York Times critic who called his warnings about our vulnerability to the charms of an autocrat “a form of intellectual bullying.”

Rorty was renowned for having controversial ideas and for thinking outside the box. Although some issues have changed since his death in 2007, we can still profit from what he wrote about the ways to strengthen our democracy.

Perhaps the most crucial fix, he would say, is to rescue the working class from the increasing income inequality they face. He would agree with Bernie Sanders that the working class is now in the worst shape since the Great Depression, and that’s why we need to pass a progressive agenda that creates jobs, raises wages, and provides universal health care and affordable education, among other things.

A second related issue is globalization. He would have agreed with Bernie (and Trump) that, thanks to globalization, economic instability and inequality are increasing. Rorty bluntly predicted that “this world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900.”

Third, he doesn’t mince words in criticizing the Democratic left, calling it unpatriotic for its behavior in the wake of our Vietnam War debacle: “In the name of ‘the politics of difference,’ it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.”

He writes that this repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism, a community of communities, and multiculturalism, which “is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.”

Rorty doesn’t deny that identity politics has been beneficial for minorities, but points out how, at the same time, it has been a stick-in-the-eye to working folks, who feel ignored as they slip from the middle class into poverty. Sadly, it took almost 20 years for a Democratic leader to respond, as Bernie Sanders did, bursting onto the scene in 2016 to “channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed.”

Part of the problem, Rorty says, is our obsession with rights, a free-for-all where every identity group demands complete freedom to exercise their rights, even if it hurts other groups – or society as a whole. A family would disintegrate if each member insisted on their own agenda, based on the supremacy of individual rights, and refused to compromise with others. As it is for families, so it is for our country. What we need, Rorty says, is a shift from our total emphasis on defending individual rights to more talk about fraternity.

For Rorty, “Fraternity is an inclination of the heart, one that produces a sense of shame at having much when others have little. It is not the sort of thing that anybody can have a theory about or that people can be argued into having.”

That’s because, as I see it, the ability to open our hearts goes beyond politics, requiring a spiritual awakening.

Rorty, iconoclast that he was, gives us much to think about in these tumultuous times.

(Jean Stimmell is a semi-retired psychotherapist living with the two women in his life, Russet the artist and Coco the Plott hound, in Northwood. He blogs at jeanstimmell.blogspot.com.)




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