Engage with the world

October 16, 1998

US philosopher Richard Rorty thinks the academic left must jettison its navel-gazing, jargon-laden obsessions and focus on real issues such as helping the poor. Tim Cornwell reports

It is one of the sadder ironies of "the Lewinsky matter" that the United States's embarrassment extended to one of its foremost poets. Among the gifts Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky was a special edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. "Whitman is so rich that one must read him like one tastes a fine wine or good cigar," the girl from Beverly Hills wrote back to the president: "- take it in, roll it around in your mouth, and savour it."

The richness of Whitman's thought has a particular appeal for the man described as America's "greatest living philosopher". Richard Rorty cites Whitman's poetry and his "civic religion" fondly and often in his latest book, Achieving Our Country.

Now aged 66, Rorty is devoting his sunset years to defending his life's work. "Stupid as it sounds, I'm going to spend the next 12 months writing replies to critics," he says in a matter-of-fact tone. "I have a desk piled high with essays by fellow philosophers and various other people saying what's wrong with my stuff, and I am solemnly ploughing through them and writing replies."

As an analytic philosopher Rorty deployed his formidable skills to challenge the central thrust of mainstream Anglo-American philosophy. In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature and The Consequences of Pragmatism, he made the case for a postmodern, "post-philosophical culture", wherein philosophy abandons its quest for objective or ultimate truth. Rorty defined intellectual inquiry not as a project with an end-point but as a continuing "conversation of mankind."

In a forthcoming book, Rorty and his Critics, he takes on the analytic philosophers who are hostile to some of the nuances of his philosophical theorising. Another volume, to be published in Britain, assesses his work's relevance to political theory with six essays and six responses, and a third book about his work is to be published in Germany. Rorty also has to reply to several papers at an Australian conference. It goes with the territory for one whose work has changed the way modern philosophers think.

Stanford University's comparative literature department touted Rorty's move this summer from the University of Virginia as quite a coup. But for Rorty it was a fortuitous late-career move because he plans to retire to the San Francisco Bay area to be with two of his three children. He will teach for five years "and then I'm through".

Achieving Our Country is a departure from Rorty's usual preoccupations. In this adapted set of lectures about the American left, he waxes nostalgic for the "civic religion" taught by Whitman and John Dewey, the pre-eminent US philosopher of the inter-war years. He credits them for lifting the hearts of the old US "reformist" left by creating hope for a better America, even as they wanted "the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul".

It is the book's thesis that this optimistic left, which "dreams of achieving our country", was replaced after the Vietnam war with a "spectatorial, disgusted, mocking left". This second type of left prevails today in US academia, Rorty argues. Distracted by "victim studies", sidetracked by the spectres of "power" relationships, and caught up in "theoretical hallucinations", it is dangerously disengaged from the "problems of men". To be healed, the left has to look back to the Whitmanesque ideals and embrace a century of leftist activism.

"Hopelessness has become fashionable on the left - principled, theorised, philosophical hopelessness," Rorty writes. He observes that even as the gap between rich and poor grew exponentially, the academic left "preferred not to talk about money": it attacked "a mind-set" rather than a set of economic arrangements. Disciplines such as women's history, African-American and gay studies looked at people victimised for any reason other than poverty.

Rorty lent his weight to an attempt in 1996 to rebuild an alliance between organised labour and intellectuals. He joined a teach-in at Columbia University intended to ally the new leadership of the AFL-CIO, the US trades union organisation, with sympathetic academics. The son of socialist parents, Rorty urged the gathering to "revive a leftist politics which focuses on the need to prevent the rich from ripping off the rest of the country".

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labour historian and former colleague of Rorty at Virginia, was one of those who organised the Columbia teach-in and some 25-30 other smaller ones around the country. "I like Rorty, I'm glad he's on our side," he says. "But he's still sitting in English departments - his vision of what is left is a very cloistered vision." Even in the worst moments of the cultural politics of the 1980s, Lichtenstein says, the US left was broader than a parody of political correctness.

The "spectatorial, disgusted, mocking" left, Rorty responds, was born of American universities. Even there, it has been a potentially damaging distraction. "It seems to me that we are getting a lot of students who think of themselves as leftists, and know everything about the questions of race, gender and class, but don't read the papers, don't have any sense of the economic choices before the country or what's happening in the world.

"In the depression, there was a lot of leftist activity in the universities, but it took the form of labour history, labour economics, things that tied in with what people outside the university were doing. Initially this was the case for the academic left and the cultural left; women's studies, gay studies, were set up implicitly and tacitly as the academic arms of political movements, but then they became sufficient unto themselves, and their jargon overcame their political relevance."

Recently, other intellectuals have joined Rorty in slamming the jargon and narrowness of the academic left. Elaine Showalter, this year's president of the Modern Languages Association, intends to urge academics at the MLA's turn-of-the-year conference to write accessibly for a lay audience and to teach students to do the same. Rorty says the use of jargon and the question of people's political stance have become conflated: "It's as if the use of the jargon is itself subversive, is itself a leftist activity."

Rorty describes his foray into politics with Achieving Our Country as an anomaly. His reputation was built on his grasp of postmodern philosophical thought. But the spectre of a world recession, now occupying the minds of many Americans, has sharpened Rorty's contention that a country without a visible and involved left-wing is fertile territory for a populist revolt from the right.

"If huge hunks of the middle and working class lose their jobs," Rorty says, "there's going to be a political eruption, and I don't see any left-wing focus for such an eruption." Instead, "if I had to bet, I would bet" on the rise of insurgent conservatives such as Patrick Buchanan, a former presidential candidate. His slate is pro-family, protectionist and anti-immigrant, but, significantly, he is addressing the consequences of globalisation in a way that the left is not, Rorty says.

Universities worthy of the name, Rorty writes, have always been "centres of social protest. If American universities ever cease to be such centres, they will lose both their self-respect and the respect of the learned world." In the progressive era, he says, they emerged as something like a national church, the protector of American values. Indeed, the state universities of the Midwest were a power base for "redistributionist social initiatives".

But with polls showing student activism at new lows in an election year, haven't US universities long ceased to be centres of social protest? No, Rorty says. "The fact that gays and lesbians are relatively safe on campuses and aren't safe in large portions of the rest of America is itself a kind of social protest."

The academic left has achieved something: changing the lives of gays and women. "Education was the only power base the left had, and faculties became a force for social change in that you couldn't be racist, you couldn't be sexist, you couldn't be homophobic. It's a long way from supporting the strikers, but it's still a desirable social change and the academy ought to get some credit for it."

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