Sunday, January 22, 2017

Achieving America

Richard Rorty’s Achieving our Country has been getting attention lately, because of his prediction that an authoritarian leader would eventually exploit the vacuum created by a fragmented, hieratic and recondite Left.  Rorty's book was, in part, a response to Identity Politics, and one might think that the recent attacks on Identity Liberalism by such as Mark Lilla are the logical follow up to Rorty's argument, now that the philosopher's prediction about the rise of a strongman is a reality.  But it's not quite that simple, so we should be cautious about the scalpels we bring to the autopsy of this election.

There is indeed a difference between the Old and New Left, but Identity Politics was never a purely academic phenomenon, nor did it operate on the same exclusionary basis as the historical White Anglo identity politics that ruled our history until people like Randolph Bourne started arguing on behalf of multiculturalism.  It may be time for us to make the case again in terms that are compelling and clear, because it seems that, like the phrase “Political Correctness,” the politics of identity has become a catchphrase for everything that is bad about “progressive” ideas.


So while we remark on Rorty’s prescience, we mustn’t jump to conclusions about the putative failures of the New Left.  With that in mind, I think Rorty’s little book still has some worthwhile ideas to offer, particularly concerning how our imagination of the past—the narrative we push—affects our view of the present and future, which in turn profoundly affects the way we go about our politics.  The New Left provided us with a much needed reassessment of our nation’s sins; it countered the heroic epic we all learned in grade school with a much darker dystopian story about imperialism and conquest, mass murder and bigotry and white supremacy.  This new narrative, sometimes contrite, often angry and disillusioned, eventually hardened into a rather narrow article of faith among Leftists that has inhibited a more generous imagination of our past and future, and by generous I do not mean forgiving or consoling, I simply mean larger, more comprehensive.  Contrition is not absolution.  We can never forget the bloody conflicts that have been a central, persistent theme of our history.  “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”  Neither can we forget that history is a process that involves many currents, and while, as Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past,” it is not exactly a given either—it’s not written in stone but in water.  We have ended up with only two narratives these days: The Right tells us America is the source of all greatness; the Left tells us that America is the source of all evils.  Both stories are fantasies that inhibit the political imagination, either by clinging to an idealized past or by repudiating it altogether.

Anyone who scans social media can see readily enough a constant reiteration of the dispiriting theme that “this country was actually built on genocide and slavery,” as one latter day Leftist graduate of an elite university recently wrote to rebuke those who are marching on Washington because they are aghast at Trump’s attack on immigrants.  Against their idea that “our country was built on immigration” this critic would have us remember the “actual” truth that it was built on slavery and genocide.  And that is certainly true, as anyone who reads Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1493, A People's History of the United States, or any number of slave narratives can see.  There are endless sources.  But this is not the whole story.  Mention Columbus and you are likely to get a lecture about genocide.  And that’s it.  Yet the New World is a tragicomic drama of hubris and humanism, encomiendas and communes, delusional fantasies and utopian vision, oppression and democratic innovation, with Calibans and Prosperos, invaders and resisters, dreamers, castaways, refugees, slaves and slavers.  Out of this mix has come a vital mongrel society that redeems to some degree its bloody origins.  Even so, “there is no document of civilization that is not also a document of barbarism,” and there is no halt to the bloodletting, no happy ending, no final redemption; there is only the dialectic of history, the conflict of antinomies, the perpetual struggle for justice, a struggle that itself, as Heraclitus argued, is Justice, a fundamental Order.  History’s cunning passages and contrived corridors require a thread that only the most imaginative of Ariadnes can weave.

Slavery and genocide, emigration and reinvention—both stories can coexist, so long as neither one is used to eclipse the truth of the other.  As Thomas Mann wrote, “A great truth is a truth whose opposite is also a truth.”  The problem lies in how we qualify the idea—the moment we insist that there is one single truth about our past, one “actual” narrative that supersedes or invalidates all others, we not only degrade the past but we also diminish our future.  Such single-mindedness does no one any good.  The challenge for 21st century Leftists lies in acknowledging the sins of the past while not allowing such knowledge to become paralyzing; we need to enhance our imagination, thicken our descriptions (to borrow Geertz’s famous phrase), resist monocausal schemes and straitjacketing labels.  Unfortunately, the dystopian narrative in vogue these days has enabled a kind of naïve cynicism that is proving to be politically disabling.

In this regard, Rorty offers a valuable lesson.  He recognizes that the country we envision is a process, not a product; and that is why he chose the present participle for his title.  As a remedy he recommends a return to the pragmatism and secularism of the Old Left.  Yet I don’t quite buy Rorty’s neat scheme, whereby the New Left infected us all with shame while retreating into their ivory towers and forsaking the practical labor of politics; even so, Rorty’s view is already dated because the Left has been going through a lot of changes, and this election is perhaps the catalyst that was needed to bring those changes all into focus.  What was once the province of rarefied Academic debate is now common currency:  theory and criticism are no longer an entirely elite discourse carried on in seminars—with the rise of social media it seems that intellectuals and activists are finding new ways to connect to audiences.  The secularism that Rorty recommended is becoming a reality once again.  On any given day I can find the ideas of Rebecca Solnit, Fredric Jameson, Lorgia García Peña, Arundhati Roi, Chris Hedges, John Berger, Theda Skocpol, Thomas Piketty, Maurizio Lazzarato, Anne McClintock, Wendy Brown, Naomi Klein, Saskia Sessen, and so many others flowing through my newsfeed.  And after this election it’s likely that the practical labor of politics will become an even more urgent vocation for most of us who find ourselves at odds with the prevailing order of things.

The path forward lies not in rejecting the New in order to revive the Old Left, but to alloy the best from both and forge a new set of ideas and strategies.  The pragmatism of the Old and the revisionism of the New need not be antithetical.  Pragmatism and Imagination are not strange bedfellows; they are polymorphous obverse partners.  Our imaginations should be large and ecumenical, our pragmatism worldly and less puritan, less finicky.  As Rebecca Solnit wrote recently in the Guardian, “We’re going to have to build alliances—that means working alongside people with whom you agree about the big things and not quibbling about the little ones.”  The price of solidarity is tolerance of differences.  Is that not the whole premise behind multiculturalism?

Randolph Bourne penned these words back in 1916, but they might just as well have been written today: “America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men.  To seek no other goal than the weary old nationalism, belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding, the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe, is to make patriotism a hollow sham. . . .”  That can serve to rebut not only weary old nationalisms but any account that suffers from a poverty of imagination.  We could use more of Bourne’s visionary cosmopolitanism just now, to combat both the “romantic gilding of the past” that breeds a provincial “fear of bogies” and the dyspeptic tarnishing that breeds cynicism and apathy, or just petty bickering.  Perhaps if we think hard about the future we want, the past will no longer be grounds for complacency or despair, but a goad to spur us to achieve something better:


“All our idealisms must be those of future social goals in which all can participate, the good life of personality lived in the environment of the Beloved Community. No mere doubtful triumphs of the past, which redound to the glory of only one of our trans-nationalities, can satisfy us. It must be a future America, on which all can unite, which pulls us irresistibly toward it, as we understand each other more warmly.” (Bourne, Trans-National America)