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RICHARD RORTY

ACHIEVING
OUR
COUNTRY
r
leftist Thought in
Tw enti eth - C en tury Amer ics

Harvard University Press


Cambridge, Massachusetts
London, England
1 998
A CULTURAT
LEFT

F
T", *rroRMrsr American Left of the first two-thirds of
the century accomplished a lot. But most of the direct benefi-
ciaries of its initiatives were white males. After women won
the right to vote, the male reformers pretty much forgot
about them for forty years. Right up through the early Sixties,
male leftists in the hiring halls
and faculty lounges often
spoke of women with the same jocular contempt, and of ho-
mosexual.s with the same brutal contempt, as did male right-
ists in the country clubs. The situation of African-Americans
was deplored, but not changed, by this predominantly white
Left. The Democratic Party depended on the Solid South, and
Fra-klin D. Roosevelt had no intention of alienating South-
ern white voters in order to help blacks. Trade union leaders
Iike the Reuther brothers, who desperately wanted ro inte-
grate the unions, could not do much to diminish racial preju-
dice among the ran-k and file. Black Americans began to ger a
semblance of decent treatment only in the 1950s, when they
started taking matters into their own hands.
Most leftist reformers of this period were blissfr:lly un-
aware that brown-skinned Americans in the South\Mest were
being lynched, segregated, ard humiliated in the same way
as were African-Americars in the Deep South. Almost no-
body in the pre-Sixties Left thought to proresr against homo-
phobia, so leftists like F. O. Matthiessen and Bayard Rustin
had to stay in the closet. From the point of view of today's
Left, the pre-Sixties Left may seem as callous about the needs
of oppressed groups as \ as the nation as a whole.
76 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY .4 CUTTURT TEFT 77

But it was not really that bad. For the reformist Left hoped "politics of difference" or "of identity" or "of recognition."
that the mistreatnent of the weak by the sobng in general, This cultural Left thinks more about stigma than about
and racial discrimination in particula, would prove to be a money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motiva-
by-product of economic injustice. They saw the sadistic hu- tions than about shallow and evident greed.
miliation of black Americans, and of other groups, as one This shift of attention came at the same time that intellec-
more example of the selfishness which pervaded an unre- tuals began to lose interest in the labor unions, partly as a re-
formed capitalist economy. They saw prejudice against those sult of resentment over the ulion members' failure to back
groups as incited by the rich in order to keep the poor from George McGovern over Richard Nixon n 1972. Simultane-
tuming their wrath on their economic oppressors. The pre- ously, the leftist ferment which had been centered, before
Sixties Left assumed that as economic inequality and insecu- the Sixties, in the social science departments of the colleges
rity decreased, prejudice would gradually disappear. and the universities moved into the literature departments.
In retrospect, this belief that ending sel-fishress would The study of philosophy-mostly apocalyptic French and
eliminate sadism seems misguided. One of the good things German philosophy-replaced that of political economy as

which happened in the Sixties was that the American Left an essential preparation for participation in leftist initiatives.

began to realize that its economic determinism had been too The new cultual Left which has resulted from these
simplistic. Sadism \/as recognized as having deeper roots changes has few ties to what remains of the pre-Sixties re-
than economic insecurity. The delicious pleasure to be had formist Left. That saving remnant consists largely of labor
from creating a class of putative inferiors and then humiliat- lawyers and labor organizers, 'congressional staffers, low-
ing individual members of that class was seen as Freud saw Ievel bueaucrats hoping to rescue the welfae state from the
it-as something which would be relished even if everybody Republicans, journalists, social workers, and people who
were rich. work for fourdations. These are the people who worry about
With this partial substitution of Freud for Marx as a source .the way in which the practices of the National Labor Rela-
of social theory, sadism rather than selfishess has become tions Board changed under the Reagan administration, about
the principal target of the Left. The heirs of the New Left of the details of alternative proposals for universal health cae,
the Sixties have created, within the academy, a cultual Left. about budgetary constraints on Head Start and daycare pro-
Many members of this Left specialize in what they call the grrms, and about the reversion of welfae programs to state
-4 CUTTURT TEFT 79
78 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY

and local governments. This residual reforrnist Left thinl<s to 1grar.\e-t economy migh.t b.e, or about how to
__!._ry"ti"gr
more about laws that need to be passed than about a culture combine political freedom with centralized economic deci-
that needs to be changed. sionmaking. Nor does it spend much time asking whether
The difference between this residuai Left and the academic Americans ae undertaxed, or how much of a welfae state
Left is the difference between the people who read books like the country can afford, or whether the United States should
Thomas Geoghegan's Which Side,Are You On2-a brilliant ex- back out of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
planation of how unions get busted-and people who read When the Right proclaims that socialism has failed, and that
Fredric Jameson's Postmodernism, or The Culturql logic of late capitalism is the only alternative, the cultural Left has little to
Copitclism. The latter is an equally brilliant book, but it oper- say in reply. For it prefers not to talk about money. Its prin-

ates on a level ofabstraction too high to encourage any par- cipal enemy is a mind-set rather than a set of economic
ticular political initiative. After reading Geoghegan, you have arrrgements-a way of thinling which is, supposedly, at
views on some of the things which need to be done. After the root of both selfrshness and sadism. This way of thinking

reading Jameson, you have views on practically everything is sometimes called "Cold Wa ideology," sometimes "tech-
except what needs to be done. nocratic ntionality," and sometimes "phallogocentrism"
The academic, cultual Left approves-in a rather distant (the cultural Left comes up $rith fresh sobriquets every year).
and lofty way----of the activities of these surriving reformists. It is a mind-set nu-rtured by the patriarchal and capitalist in-
But it retains a conviction which solidified in the late Sixties. stitutions of the industrial West, and its bad effects are most
It thinks that the system, and not just the laws, must be clearly visible in the United States.
changed. Reformism is not good enough. Because the very To subvert this way of thintcing, the academic Left be-
vocabulary of liberal politics is infected \ruith dubious pre- lieves, we must teach Americars to recognize otherness. To
suppositions which need to be exposed, the frrst task of the this end, leftists have helped to put together such academic
Left must be, just as Confucius said, the rectification of disciplines as women's history, black history, gay studies,
narnes. The concern to do what the Sixties called "naming Hispanic-American studies, and migrant studies. This has led
the system" takes precedence over reforming the laws. Stefan Collini to remark that in the United States, though not
"The system" is sometimes identified as "Iate capitalism," in Britain, the term "cultural studies" means "victim stud-
but the cultural Left does not think much about what the al- ies." Collini's choice of phrase has been resented, but he was
80 ,ACHIEYING OUR COUNTRY
.A CUTTURI, TEFT 8I

making point: namely; that such programs.were cre-


a good of sadism in our sociery. Especially among college graduares,
ated not out of the sort of curiosity about diverse forms of the casual i-fliction of humiliation is much less socially ac-
human life which gave rise to cultual anthropology, but ceptable than it was during the first rwo-thirds of the cen-
ather from a sense of what America needed in order to make tury. The tone in which educated men talk about women,
itself a better place. The principal motive behind the new di- and educated whites about blacks, is very different from
rections taken in scholarship in the United States since the what it was before the Sixties. Life for homosexual Ameri-
Sixties has been the urge ro do something for people vho cans, beleaguered and dangerous as it still is, is better thar it
have been humiliated-to help victims of socially accept- was before Stonewall. The adoption of attitudes which the
able forms of sadism by making such sadism no longer ac- Right sneers at as "politically correct" has made America a far
ceptable. more civilized society than it was thirty years ago.z Except for
Whereas the top-down initiarives of the Old Left had tied a few Supreme Cout decisions, there has been little change
to help people who were humiliated by poverty ard unem- for the better in our country's laws since the Sixties. But the
ployment, or by what Richard Sennert has called the "hidden change in the way we feat one another has been enonnous.
injuries of class," the top-down initiarives of the post-sixties This change is largely d.ue to the hundreds of thousands of
left have been direcred toward people who are humiliated for teachers who have done thei best to make their students ut-
reasons other than economic status. Nobody is setting up a derstand the humiliation which previous generations of
program in urremployed studies, homeless studies, or trailer- Americans have i-flicted on their fellow citizens. By assign-
park studies, because the unemployed, the homeless, and ing Toni Morrison's instead of
Bloved George Eliot's Silos
residents of trailer parks are not "other" in the relevant sense. Morner in high school literature classes, and by assigning sto-
To be other in ihis sense you must bear an ineradicable ries about the suicides of gay teenagers in freshrnan composi-
stigma, one which makes you a victim of socially accepted tion courses, these teachers have made it harder for their stu-
sarism rather than merely of economic selfishless.l dents to be sadistic than it was for those students' parents. By
This cultural Left has had extraordinary success. In addi- favoring women in academic hiring and preferment, and by
lion to being cenrers of genuinely original scholarstrip, the encouraging writing about the subjugation of women, col-
new academic programs have done what they were, semi- leges and universiries have helped change the relations be-
consciously', designed to do: they have decreased the amount tween men and women throughout American society. It is
82 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUI,TURI, TEFT 83

still easy to be humiliated for being a woman in America, but or about how people who earn the minimum \age can pay
such humiliation is nor as frequent as it was th-irty years ago. for adequate housing. They seem to regard discussion of
The American academy has done as much to overcome such topics as in poor taste.
sadism during the last thirty years as it did to overcome sel Nevertheless, there is a dark side to the success story I have
in the previous sevenfy. Encouraging students to be
ishress been telling about the post-Sixties cultural Left. During the
what mocking neoconservatives call "politically correct" has same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily
made ou country a far better place. American leftist aca- diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity
demi have a lot to be proud of. Their co";d";;rd;r, have steadily increased. It is as if the American Left could not
-h*dle
who have no remedies to propose either for American sadism more than one initiative at a time-as if it either had
or fo American selfishness, have a great deal to be ashamed of. to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice
What these critics condemn as the politicizing of the r:rri- versa.
versities is an expression of the same outrage against cruelty One symptom of this inability to do t'wo things at once is
which moved the students and faculry of Charles Universiry that it has been left to scurrilous demagogues like Patrick
in Prague to resist the Communists in 1948, and the students Buchanan to tale political advantage of the widening gap be-
and faculty at South African universities to resist apartheid tween ich and poor. While the Left's back was turned, the
Iaws. All universities wofthy of the name have always been bourgeoisification of the white proletariat which began in
centers of socia-l protest.If American universities ever cease \Morld War II and continued up through the Vietnam War
to be such centers, they will lose both their selrespect and has been halted, and the process has gone into reverse. Amer-
the respect of the leaned world. is doubtful whether the ica is now proletariarizing its bourgeoisie, and this process is
\
current critics of the universities who are called "conserva- likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt, of the sort
tive intellectuals" deserve this description. For intellectuals Buchanan hopes to foment.
are supposed to be aware of, and speak to, issues of social jus- Since 1973, the assumption that all hardworhng Ameri-
tice. But even the most learned and thoughtfi:l of cuent can maried couples would be able to afford a home, and that
conservatives ridicule thosewho raise such issueE They the wife could then, if she chose, stay home and raise kids,
themselves have nothing to say about whether childen in has begun to seem absud. The question now is whether the
the ghettos can be saved without raising suburbanites' taxes, average maried couple, both working full time; will ever be
8+ CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUI,TURT LEFT 85

able to take home more thar $30,000 a year. If husband and aged has taken its place, and measures which might cope
wife each work 2,000 hours a year for the curent average with this new problem have hardly even been sketched.
wage of production and nonsupervisory workers ($7.50 per The prbblem is that the wage levels, and the social benefits,
hour), they will make that.much. But $ 3 0, 0 0 will not
0 a year enjoyed by workers in Europe, Japm, and North America
permit homeownership or buy decent daycare. In a counry no longer bear any relation to the newly fluid global labor
that believes neither in public transportation nor in national market.
health insuance, this income permits a family of fou only a Globalization is producing world economy in which an
a
humiJiating, hand-to-mouth existence. Such a family, tring attempt by,*y one country to prevent the imniseration of
to get by on this income, will be constantly tormented by its workers may result only in depriving them of employ-
fears of wage rollbacks and downsizing, and of the disasous ment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cos-
consequences of even a brief illness.3, mopolitan upper dass which has no more sense of commu-
Sevenry-rwo percent of Americans no\il' think that "layoffs nity with aly workers alywhere than the great American
and loss of obs in this country will continue indefinitely."a capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigranrs who
They have good reason to think this. Unless something very manned their enterprises. The increasing dependence of
unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to American universities on gifts from abroad, of American po-
grow in America. Indeed, it is easy to imagine things geming litical parties on bribes from abroad, and of the American
much worse much faster. This is because a good deal of the economy on foreign sales of Treasr:ry bonds are examples of
insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor marker-a the tendencies which are at work.
trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefi- This fghtening economic cosmopolitarrism has, as a by-
nitely. product, an agreeable cultual cosmopolitanism. Platoons of
What indusria-Lization was to America at the end of the vital young entrepreneurs 6.ll the front cabins of ansoceanic
nineteenth century, globalization is at the end of the jets, while the back cabins are weighted down with paunchy
twentieth. The problem which Dewey and Croly faced- professors like myself, zipping off to interdisciplinary con-
how to prevent wage-slavery from destoying the hope of ferences held in pleasant places.s But this newly-acquired
equality-was partly solved by the leftist initiatives of cultual cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty-five
1910-1965. But a problem Dewey and Croly never envis- percent of Americans. The new economic cosmopolitanism j
I
86 CHIEYING OUR COUNTR CUTTURI, I,EFT 87

presages a futue in which the other 75 percent of Americars the intellectuals can identify and on which the urrions can
vrill find thei stardard of living steadily shrinking. We are rely for suppolt. It is as if the distribution of income and
Iikey to wind up with anAmerica divided into hereditary so- wealth had become too scary a topic for any American politi-
cial castes. Jhis America will be run by what Michael Lind (in cian-much less any sitting president-cver to mention.
The Next Americon Notion) has called the "overclass," the Politicians fear that mentioning it would lose them votes
highly euc"ted and expensively groomed top 25 percent. rmong the only Americans who can be relied on to go to the

One of the scariest social cends is illustated by the fact that polls: the sububanites. So the choice between the two major
tn 1979 kids from the top socioeconomic quuter of Anieri- parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and

can families were fou times more likely to get a college de- terrified silence.
gree than those from the bottom quatter; now they are tetr If the formation of hereditary castes continues unim-
times more likely.6 peded, and ifthe pressures ofglobalization create such castes

It isif, sometime aound 1980, the chjlden of the peo-


as not only in the United States but in all the old democracies,
ple who made it through the Great Depression and into the we shall end up in an Orwellian world. In such a world, there

suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. may be no supernational analogue of Big Brother, or any o

They decided that although social mobiJity had been aPPro- ficial creed analogous to Ingsoc. But there will be an analogue
priate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next of the Inner Party-namely, the international, cosmopolitan
generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong super-rich. They will make all the important decisions. The
with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what will be educated, comfort-
analogue of Orwell's Outer Party

Robert Reich (in his book TheWork of Notions) calls "the se- ably off, cosmopolitan professionals-Lind's "overclass,"
cession of the successfi:I." the people like you and me.
' Sometime in the Seventies, American middle-class ideal- The job of people like us will be to make sue rhar the deci-

ism rrent into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, sions made by the Inner Parry are carried out smoothly and

the Democratic Party has suvived by distancing itself from efficiently. It will be in the interest of the international super-
the unions and from any mention of redistibution, and rich to keep our class relatively prosperous and happy. For

moving into a sterile vacuum called the "center." The party they need people who can pretend to be the political class of
no longer has a visible, noisy left wing-a wing with which each of the individual nation-states. For the sake of keeping
I l
.ACHIEYING OUR COUNTRY
.4 CULTUR, L LEFT 89

il

the proles quiet, the super-rich will have to keep up the pre- crujted into right-wing populist movements. Union mem_
tense that national politics might someday make a difference. bers in the United States have watched factory after factory
Since economic decisions are their prerogative, they will en- close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is
courage politicians, of both the Left and the Right, to special- no wonder that they see the result of international free trade
ize in cu-ltural'issues.7 The aim
will be to keep the minds of as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better stan-
the proles elsewhere--to keep the bottom Z5 percent of dard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very
Americans the bottom 95 percent of the world's popula- much worse standard of living for American workers. It
"rr
tion busy with ethnic and religious hostilities, and with de- would be no wonder if they saw rhe American leftist intelli-
bates about sexual mores. If the proles can be distracted from gentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders-as
their own despair by media-created pseudo-events, includ- sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who
ing the occasional brief and bloody war, the super-rich will are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well irrsulated, at
have little to fear. in the short run, from the effects of globalizarion. To
Ieast
Contemplation of this possible world invites rwo re- make things worse, we often seem more interested in the
sponses from the Left. The first is ro insist that the inequalities workers of the developing world than in the fate of our
between nations need to be mitigated-and, in particular, fellow citizens.
that the Northern Hemisphere must share its wealth with the Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that
I
Southern. The second is to insist that the primary responsibil- the old industrialized democracies are heading into a
ity of each democratic nation-state is to its own least advan- Weimar-like period, one in which populist movemenrs
I
taged citizens. These fwo responses obviously conflict with are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward
each other. In particu-lar, the first response suggests that the Lutak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the
old democracies should open their borders, whereas the sec- American futue. The point of his book The Endongere Ameri-
ond suggests that they should dose rhem.8 con Dreom is that members of labor unions, and unorganized
The first response comes naturally to academic leftists, unskilled workers, will soone or later realize that their gov-
who have always been internationally minded. The second eflr.ment is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or
response comes naturally to members of trade urions, and to to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time,
the marginally employed people who can mosr easily be re- they will realize that suburban white-collar workers-them-
t'

90 ACHIEYING OUR COUNTRY .A CUTTURT IEFT 91

selves desperately afraid of beingdownsized-are not going he will quickly make his with the international super-
peace
to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefrts for any- rich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists.
one else. He will invoke the glorious memory of the Gulf War to Pro-
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban voke military adventures which will generate short-term
electoraiewill decide that the system has failed and start prosperity. He will be a disaster for the country and the
looking .rond for a strongman to vote for-someone will- world. People will wonder why there was so little resistarce
ing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureau- to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American
crats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmod- teft? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to
ernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A the workes about the consequences of globalization? Why
scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis'novel It Con'tHappenHere could not the Left chanel the mounting rage of the newly
may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes of- dispossessed?
fice, nobody can predict what will happen. In 7932, most of It is often said that we Americans, at the end of the twenti-
the predictions made about what would happen if Hinden- eth century, no longer have a Left. Since nobody denies the
burg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic. existence of what I have called the cultural Left, this amounts
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains to an admission that that Left is unable to engage in national
made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, politics. It is not the sort of Left which can be asked to deal
and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for with the consequences of globalization. To get the country to
women will come back into fashion. The words "nigger" deal with those consequences, the present cultual Left
and "kike" will once again be heard in the worlace. All the would have to tansform itself by opening relations with the
sadism which the academic Left has tried to make ulaccept- residue of the old reformist Left, and in parricular with the
able to its students will come flooding back. All the resent- labor unions. It would haYe to talk much more about money,
ment which badly educated Americars feel about having even at the cost of talking less about stigma.
their manrers dictated to them by college graduates will find I have rwo suggestions about how to effect this transition.
an outlet. The first is that the Left should put a moratorium on theory. It
But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of should ry to kick its philosophy habit. The second is that the
selfishress. For after my imagined snongman takes charge, Left shou-ld try to mobiJize what remains of ou pride in
92 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUTTURT TEFT , 93

being Americans. It should ask the public to consider how your level of abstaction, the more subversive of the estab-
the country of Lincol and Whitman might be achieved. lished order you can be. The more sweeping and novel your
In support of my fst suggestion, let me cite a passage conceptual appa.ratus, the more radical your critique.
from Dewey's Reconstruction in Philosophy in which he ex- When one of today's academic leftists says that some topic
presses his' exasperation with the sort of sterile debate now has been "inadequately theorized," you can be pretty certain

going on urder the rubric of "individualism versus commu- that he or she is going to drag in either philosophy of lan-
nitarianism." Dewey thought that all discussions which took guage, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, or some neo-Marxist ver-
this dichotomy seriously sion of economic determinism. Theorists of the Left thik
that dissolving political agents into plays of differential sub-
suffer from a common defect. They are all committed to jectivity, or political inidarives into pursuits of Lacan's im-
the logic of general notions ulder which specific situa- possible object of desie, helps to subvert the established
[ions are to be brought. What we want is light upon this order. Such subversion, they say, is accomplished by "prob-
or that group of individuals, this or that concrete lematizing familiar concepts. "
human being, this or that special institution or social Recent attempts to subvert social institutions by prob-
arrangement. For such a logic of inquiry, the tadition- lematizing concepts have produced a few very good books.
ally accepted logic substitutes discussion of the mean- They have also produced many thousands of books which
ing of concepts and their dialectical relationships with represent scholastic philosophizing at its worst. The authors
one another. of these purportedly "subversive" books honestly believe
that they are serving human liberty. But it is almost impossi-
Dewey was right to be exasperated by sociopolitical theory ble to clamber back down from their books to a level of ab-
conducted at this level of abstraction. He was wrong when he straction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a

went on to say that ascending to this level is typically a right- Eeaty, a candidate, or a political strategy. Even though what
ist maneuver, one which supplies "the apparatus for intellec- these authors "theorize" is often something very concrete
tual justifications of the established order."e For such ascents and near at hand-a curent TV show, a media celebrity, a re-
are now more common on the Left than on the Right. The cent scandal-they offer the most abstract and barren expla-
contemporary academic Left seems to think that the higher nations imaginable.
94 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY
CUTTURT TEFT ss

Thesefutile attempts to philosophize one's way into polit-


The ubiquity of Foucauldian power is remjniscent of the
ical relevance are a symptom of what happens when a Left re-
ubiquity of Satan, and thus of the ubiquiry of original sin-
treats from activism and adopts a spectatorial approach to the
that diabolical stain on every human soul. I argued in my first
problems of its country. Disengagement from practice pro-
lectue that the repudiation of the concept of sin was at the
duces theoretical hallucinations. These result in an intellec-
heat of Dewey and Whitman's civic religion. I also claimed
tual environment which is, as Mark Edmundson says in his
that the American Left, in its horror at the Vietnam War, rein-
book Nightmare on Mcin Street, Gothic. The cultual Left is
vented sin. Itreinvented the old religious idea that some
haunted by ubiquitous specters, the most fghtening of
stains are ineradicable. I now wish to say that, in cornmitting
which is called "powel." This is the name of what Edmr:nd-
itself to what it calls "theory," this Left has gomen something
son calls Foucault's "har:nting agency, which is everywhere
which is entirely too much like religion. For the cultual Lefr
and nowhere, as evanescent and insistent as a resourceful
has come to believe that we must place our country within a
spook."1o
theorecal frame of reference, situate it within a vast quasi-
In its Foucauldian usage, the term "power" denotes an
cosmological perspecrive.
agency which has left an indeLible srain on every word in our
Stories about the webs of powe and the insidious in_flu-
language and on every institution in our society. It is always
ence of a hegemonic ideology do for this Left whar stories
already there, and cannot be spotted coming or going. One
about the Lmanites did for Joseph Smith and \ hat stories
might spot e corporate bagman arriving at a congressman's
about Yal<kub did for Elijah Muhammad. What srories abour
office, and perhaps block his enrance. Bur one cannot block
offpower in the Foucauldian sense. power is as much inside
blue-eyed devils are to the Black Muslims, srories abour
hegemony and power are to many cultural leftists-the only
one as outside one. It is nearer than hands and feet. As Ed-
thing they really want to hear. To step into the intellecrual
mundson says: one crnnot "confront power; one can only
world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a
encormter its temporary and generally unwitting agents . . .
world in which the citizens of a democracy can join forces to
[it] motion and uansformation that make it
has capacities of
resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which
a pretemturol force."l I Only interminable individual and so-
democratic politics has become a face. It is a world in which
cial selanalysis, and perhaps not even that, can help us es-
all the daylit cheerfirlness of Whitma.riesque hypersecularism
cape from the in-finitely fine meshes of its invisible web.
has been lost, and in which "Iiberalism" and "humarrism"
CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUI,TURI, I,EFT 97

are synon)ms for naivet-for an inabiJity to grasp the full unrepresentable are merely nuisances. Thinlcing of oru re-
horror of ou situation. sponsibilities in these terms is as much of a stumblinq-block
I have argued in various books that the philosophers most to effective political organization as is the sense of sin. Em-
often cited by cultural leftists-Nietzsche, Heidegger, Fou- phasizing the impossibiJity of meaning, or of justice, as Der-
cault, and Derrida-ae largely right in their criticisms of rida sometimes does, is a temptation to Gothicize-to vie\M,
Enlightenment rationalism. I have argued further that tra- democratic politics as ineffectual, because unable to cope
ditiona-l liberalism and traditional humanism are entirely with preternatural forces.
compatible with such criticisms. We can still be old- Whitman and Dewey, I have argued, gave us all the ro-
fashioned reformist liberals even if, Iike Dewey, we give up mance, and all the spiritual uplift, we Americars need to go
-the about ou public business. As Edmundson remarks, we
correspondence theory of nuth and start treating moral
and scientific belie as tools for achieving greater human should not allow Emerson, who was a Precursor of both
happiness, rather than as representations of the intrinsic na- Whitman and Dewey, to be displaced by Poe, who was a pre-
ture of reality. We can be this kind of liberal everi after we cursor of Lacan. For purposes of thinking about how to
turn oul backs on Descartes, Iinguistify subjectivity, ard see achieve our country, we do not need to worry about the cor-
everhing around us and within us as one more replaceable respondence theory of nuth, the grounds of normativity, the
social construction. impossibility of justice, or the ifinite distance which sepa-
But I have also ruged that insofar as these antimetaphysi- rates us from the other. For those purposes, we can give both

cal, anti-Cartesian philosophers offer a quasi-religious form religion and philosophy a pass. We can just get on with ty-
of spiritual pathos, they should be relegated to private life ing to solve what Dewey called "the problems of men."
and not taken as guides to political deliberation. The notion To thinl< about those problems means to refrain from
of "in-firrite responsibility," formulated by Emmanuel Lev- thinking so much about otherness that we begin to acquiesce
'inas and sometimes deployed by Derrida-as well as Der- in what Todd Gittin has called, in the title of a recent book,
rida's own frequent discoveries of impossibility, unreacha- "the twilight of common dreams." It means deriving our
biliry, and unrepresentability-may be useful to some of us moral identity, at lea-srin Paft, from our citizenship in a dem-
in our individual quests for private perfection. When we take ocratic nation-state, and from leftist attempts to ful-fill the
up our public responsibilities, however, the infinite and the prorrrise of that nation.
, CUI,TURL
CHIEYING OUR COUNTRT IEFT 99

The cultural Left often seems convinced that the nation_ will have ro stop thinldng up
rage of the late Sixties. This Left
state is obsolete, and that there is therefore no point in at- ever more abstract and abusive nunes for "the system" and
temptilg, ro revive national politics. The trouble with this staft trFing to construct inspiring images of the country.
claim is that the government of our nation-state will be, for Only by doing soan it begin to form alliances with people
the foreseeable future, the on_ly agent capable of making any outside the academy-and, specifically, wirh the labor
eal difference in the arnount of selfishness and sadism in_ r:nions. Outside the academy, Americans still want to feel pa-
flicted on Americans. triotic. They still vant to feel part of a nation which can take
It is no comfort to those in danger of being imrniserated control of its destiny and make itself a better place.
by globalization ro be rold that, since nationa.l govetmenrs If the Left forms no such aiances, it will never have any
a-re now irelevant, we must think up a replacement for such effect on the laws of the United States. To form them will re-
governments. The cosmopolitan super-rich do not think any quire the cultrual Left to forget about Baudillad's account of
replacements ae needed, and they are likely to prevail. Bill America as Disneyland-as a countrF of simulacra-and to
Readings was right to say that "the narion-state start proposing changes in the laws of a real country, ihab-
[has ceased]
to be the elemental rurit of capitalism," but it remains the en- ited by real people who are enduring unnecessa.ry suffering,
tity which makes decisions about social benefits, and us much of which can be cured by govemmental action.r3
about social justice.tz The currenr lefrist habit of taking the Nothing would do more to resurrect the American Left than
long view and looking beyond nationhood to a global polirF agreement on a concrete political platform, a People's Char-
is as useless as was faith in Marx's philosophy of history, for ter, a list of specific eforms..The existence of such a list-
which it has become a substitute. Both are equally irelevant endlessly reprinted and debated, equally familiar to profes-
to the question of how to prevent the reemergence of hered- sors and production workers, imprinted on the memory
ita-ry castes, or of how to prevent righrwing populists from both of professional people and of those who dean the pro-
taking,advantage of resentment at that reemergence. toilets-might revitalize leftist politics. a
fessionals' I

When we thin-k about these latter questions, .we begin to The problems which can be cured by governmental ac-
realize that one of the essential transformations which the tion, and which such a list would canvass, are mostly those
cultural left will have to undergo is the shedding of its semi- that stem from sel-fishness rather than sadism. But to bring
conscious anti-Americanism, which it caried over from the about such cues it would help if the Lefr would change the
.r:;
"ft;
IOO CHIEYING OUR COUNTRT
s
r:i.' CUI,TURI, I.EFT 101


,i,,

tone in which it now discusses sadism. The pre-Sixties fe- question .tMas
to he us become a co]ntr in which a Per-
formist Left, insofar it concemed itself with oppressed'rr-
as son's difference would be largely neglected by others, uiless
noritie, did so by proclaiming that all of us-black, white, the person in question wished to call attention to it. If the cr:l-
and brown-are Americans, and that we shorld respect one tural Left insists on its present stategy<n asking us to re-
another as such. This scategy gave rise to the "platoon" spect one another in ou differences rather than asking us to
movies, which showed Americans of various etbnic back- rroticing those differences-it will have to find a new
cease
glounds fighting and dying side by side. By coneast, the con- way ofceating a sense of commonality at the level of na-
temporary cultural Left urges that America should not be a tionl politics. For only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a

melting-pot, because we need to respect one another in ou \Minning majority in national elections.
differences. This Left wants to preserve otherness rather than I doubt that any such new way will be for:nd. Nobody has
ignore it. yet lggsie \'ble-lefd;f t tr' civiliii of
"ti.*iti".
The distinction between the old stategy and the new is
important. The choice btween them makes the difference
between what Todd Gitlin calls "common deams" and what
Arthur Scblesinger calls "disuniting America." To take pride
h "iog black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the posed to love our county because it showed promise of
sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But in- being kinder and more generous than other cor:nties. As the
sofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in blacks and the gays, among othets, were well aware, this was
being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her coun- a counsel of perfection rather thn'.dssiption of fact. But
ty of reform, or from being able to jin with
as capable you caflrot rrge national political renewal on the basis of de-
staights or whites in reformist iniatives, it is a political scriptions of fact. You ave to describe the counry in terms
disaster. of what you passionately hope it ill become, as well as in
The rhetorical question of the "platoon" movies-"What terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to
do ou differences matter, compared with our commonality a dream counry rather than to the one to which you wake up
as fellow Americans?"--dd not conmend pride in differ- every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no
tot neither did it condemn it. The intent of posing that chance of becoming actual.
"rr"",
I02 CHIEYING OUR COUNTRY
CUTTURT I.EFT 103

But the counfry of one's deams must bea corty one can
may be affected by their resulrs. This means, for example,
imagine being consfucted; over the couse of time, by
that economic decisions will be made by stakeholders rather
human hands. One reason the cr:ltural Lefr wilt have a had
than by shareholders, and that enfepreneurship and markets
time tansforming itself into a political Left is that, like the
will cease to play their present role. When they do, capitahsm
Sixties Left, it still dreams of being rescued by * angelic
as we know it will have ended, and something new will have
poyer called "the people." In this sense, "the people" is the
taken its place.
name of a redemptive preternatutal force, a force whose de-
But what this new thing will be,.nobody knows. The Six-
monic counterpart is named "power" or "the system." The
ties did not ask how the various groups of stakeholders were
cultural Left iherited the slgan "Power to the people" from
to reach a consensus about when to remodel a factory rather
the Sixties Left, whose members rarely asked about how the
than build a new one, what prices to pey for raw materials-,
tansference of power was supposed to work. This question
and the like. Sixties leftists skipped tightly over all the ques-
still goes unasked.
tions which had been raised by the experience of nonmarket
Edmudson, Delbarco, nd other cultual cormentators
economies in the so-called socialist countries. They seeined
have remarked that the contemporary united States is filled
to be suggesting that once we were d
of both bureaucrats
with visions of demons and angels. Stephen King and Tony
and enfrepreneurs, "the people" would know how to handle
Kushner have helped form a national collective uconscious
competition from, steel mi-lls or textile factories in the devel-
whichis "Gothic" inEdmundson's sense. Itproduces dreams
oping world, price hiles on imported oil, and so on. But they
not of political reforms but of inexplicable, magical transfor-
never told us how "the people" would learn how to do this.
mations. The cr:ltual Left has contibuted to the formation of The cultural Left still skips over such questions. Doing so is
this politically useless unconscious nor only by adopting
a consequence of its preference for ta_lking about "the sys-
"power" as the name of an invisible, ubiquitous, and malev-
tem" rat.er than about speqific social practices and specific
olent presenc'e, but by adopting ideals which nobody is yet
changes in those practices. The rhetoric of this Left remains
able to imagine being actualized.
revolutionaF rather than reformist and pragmatic. Its insou-
Among these ideals are participatory democracy and the
ciant use of terms like "late capita.lism" suggests that we can,
end of capitalism. Power will pass to the people, the Sixties
just wait for capitalism to collapse, rarher than figuring out
Left believed, only when decisions are made by all those who
what, in the absence of markets, will set prices and regulate
10+ .ACHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUI,TURI I,EFT 105

distibution. The voting public, the public which musr be under this new dispensation. Since I see no reason to share it,
won over if the Left is to emerge from the academy into the I thin-k that the Left should ger back inro rhe busiress of
public square, sensibly \ rrrrs to be told the details. It \Mants piecemeal reform within the framework of a market econ-
to know how things are going to.\ iork after markets are put omy. This was the business the American Left was in during
behind us. It wants to lcrow how participatory democracy is the first two-thirds of the century.
supposed to fi:rction. Someday, perhaps, cumulative piecemeal reforms will be
The cultual Left offers no answers to such demands for found to have brought about revolutionary change. Such re-
frnther information, but until it confronts them it will not be forms might someday produce a presently unimaginable
able to be a political Left. The public, sensibly, has no inrerest nonmarket economy, and much more widely distributed
in getting rid of capitalism until it is ofTered derails about the povers of decisionm"kirg. They might also, given simjla
alternatives. Nor should it be interested in participatory_ reforms in other countries, bring about an international fed-
democracy-the liberation of the people from the power of eration,a world goverrment. In such a new world, American
the technocrats-until it is told how deliberative assemblies national pride would become as quaint as pride in being
will acquire the same know-how which only the technocrats from Nebraska or Kazal<hstan or Sicily. But in the meantime,
presently possess. Even someone hke mysef whose admira- we should not let the abstractly described best be the enemy
tion for John Dewey is almost ulimited, cannot take seri- of the better. We should nor let speculation abour a torally
ously his defense of participatory democracy against Walter changed system, anda rotally differentway of thinling about
Lippmanl's insistence on the need for expertise.ls human life and human affairs, replace step-by-step reform of
The cultual Left has a vision of an eiic in which the the system we presently have.
white patriarchs have stopped voting and have left all the vot-
ing to be done by members of previously victinized groups, LET ME RETURN, yet again, to the theme with which I
people who have somehow come irto possession of more began:.the contrast between spectatorship and agency.
foresight and imagination than the sel-fish suburbanites. From the point ofview of a detached cosmopoliran_sgectl-
These foimerly oppressed and newly powerfi:I people are tor, our country may seem to have little to be proud of. The
expected to be as angelic as the straight white males were di- -United States of America finally freed its slaves, but it then in-
abolical. If I shaed this expectation, I too would want to live vented segregation laws which were as ingeniously cruel as
106 ,ACHIEYING OUR COUNTRY CUITUR,AI, I,EFT 107

Hitler's Nuremberg laws. It started to create a welfae state, knowledge of God's Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or
but quickly fell behind the rest of the industrial democracies the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made
in providing equal medical cae, education, and opportunity twentieth-century America more than just an economic and
to the childen of the rich and of the poor. Its workers built a
military giant. Without rhe American Left, we might still
strong labor movement, but then allowed this movement to have been strong and brave, but nobody would have sug-

be crushed by restrictive legislation and by the gangsters gested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning

whom they weakly allowed to take over many loca-ls. Its gov- political Left, we still have a chance to achieve our counrry, to
mal<e it the country of Whitman's ard Dewey's dreams.
ernment perverted a justified crusade against an evil empire
into a conspiracy with right-wing oligarchs to suppress so-
cial democratic movements.
I have been arguing that the appropriate response to such
observations is that we Americans should not take the point of
view of a detached cosmopolitan spectator. We should face
up to unpleasant truths bor.,t o,lrtelves, but we should not
take those tuths to be the last word about our chances for
happiness, or about our national character. Ou national
character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have pre-
dicted the hogressive Movement, the forty-hour week,
Women's Sufrage, the New DeaI, the Civil Rights Move-
ment, the successes of second-wave feminism, or the Gay
Rights Movement. Nobody n 1997 can know that America
will not, in the course of the next century, w-itness even
greatff moral progress.
Whitman and Dewey tried to substitute hope for knowl-
edge. They wanted to put shared utopian deams--leams
of an ideally decent and civilized society-in the place of
146 NOTES TO PGES 50-57
I
. NOTES TO PGES 59_84 147
I
-
national 2 1 ' walter Rauschenbusch, proyers of the socior wokening
(Bosron: pir-
and that grim Press, 1909), p. I 0 l.
- the lives 22. Fo a desoiption of this parry, see Sam Taenhaus, Whittoker
2. York: Random House, 1997), pp. l+l-l+2.
I Eisenach, Te lost pomise of progressivism, p. 7.
13. See George S. McGovern and Leonard F. Gutridge, The Grt left (New york: Vin_
The Agony of themeicon

coclfield wcr (Boston: Houghton Mimin, l97z)_.n account of the


2a. Ibid.,p. 10.
wave of sEikes which swept the mines of Colorado in lglg_1914.
25. Ibid., p. 29.
14. Daniel Be-ll, Morxio sociarism in tie united srotes (Irhac: cornell
26. Ibid.,p.27.
Universir) hess, I 996), p. 45.
27. On tting the left in the early
Most Dcnger- Sixties,see The politiccl ourney of the
(New York: Goeation of p. 63_g3.
Luce's mag- 28. See Lichtenstein, The Most Dongerous Mon in Detroit, pp. 392_395.
29. Berman, Tcl of Two Utopics, p. g.
1 6. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: years of Hope,
Doys of Roge (New york: Bal_
am Books, 1987)', p. 17 B.

like to pick out the exact moment of metmor_ A CULTURAL LEFT


the accornt (by one of the Berkeley protesters,
1. Just as linguiss joke that
reminiscilg in the documentary Bukeley in the sixtia) of what happened
and a navy, one might joke tbat
on the day after the snrdents had been prevented, by roopsmornied
on that boasts an academic program
armored personael, cariers, from dosing down the Induction
center in interest gtoups count as identicy groups: you crn move into
oalland. The students, having no bener idea of what to do the next day, and out of
an iaterest group (the professoriat, the unemployed),
returned to the center (now crosed for the weekend), sat dowa but the sadism of
ia the move out of an identity group. See
National SelDetermination,,' Jounml
439-461, for a list ofsix chaacteris_
tics that give a group aa "identiry" in the rerevant serse.
see arso idem,
"Liberalism'ad the Right to Cultue,', Social Resc 21, no. 3 {Fall
19. These people thin} that il the Thid World Mancism is still indis- 1994):491-510.
pensable. Ihey hope that Ma:nrist movements caa, by internal
reform, 2.
surive the opening of the Lubyanla hison, just as Roman Cathoricism
Here I use Margalit's definition of "civilized society" :a society il
which individuals do not humiliate one another. See Chapter l, n. 25,
maaaged, by iaternal reform, to sr:vive the openiag of the dungeons
of above.
Toledo. They could be right, but I doubt it.
3. For an account of a family trfing ro get by at this income level,
20. C. Wright Mills, quored in Christopher tasch, The Nw Rodicolism gsehn, "Ain't No Middle Class,',
see Susan New yorke, December I l,
in,America (Newyork: RandomHouse, 1965), p. 29g.
1 995, pp. 82-93.
148 NOTES TO PGES 84_88
NOTES TO P4GES 88-104 149

4. New Yok Times, Mach 3 , 1996, p.28. wish tbat I had some good ideas about how the dilemma might be re_
5. Maly of these conferences concern the nagic effeca of global- solved, but I do not.
ization on cultud idenriry. See Ricbard Rorry, "Gtobal Utopias, History 9. Johl Dewey, Rconstru*ion in pilosopy, in Te Middle l4orks of John
ald Pbjlosophy," in.Luiz Soaes, ed., Culturol plurolism, Idatity, oad Dtey, vol. l2 (Carbondale: Souttrern Tllin6i5 University hess, l9g2),
Globolizction (Rio de Janeiro: UNESCO/SC/EDUCAM, 1996), pp. pp.187-188.
+57469. This volume conrai.ns the proceediags of a UNESCO con- 10. Mark Edmundson, Nightrncre on Main Street: ,4ngels, Scdomosocism,
ference that was held in a room overlooking the beaches of Copaca-
od the culture of te Gothic (cambridge, Mass.: Hawad university hess,
baa. t9e7) , p. +t .
6. See Karen Arenson, "Cuts in Tuition Assistance put College be_ 11. Ibid., p. a2.
yond Reach of Poorest Studens," New york Tima, January 27, 1992, 12. For a good example of the conventional wisdom of the culnual
p. 81, reporting o.n a srudy by Thomas G. Morrenson for the National Left on this topic, see Bill Readings, The University in Ruir (Cambridge,
Council of Educational Opportuniry Associations: "Mr. Mortenson has Mass.: Havad Univeniry press, 1996), ch. 3, ..The Decline of the
found that tt proportion of srudens earnhg college degrees by age
rwenry-four from families i the richest quarrer of the population (in
1994, those with incomes above 960,000) has jumped sharply, to 79
percert in 1994 from 3l percent t, 1979. But the rate among students
from families in the poorest popr:lation (with 1994 incomes below 13. For a account of America wbich daws on Baudrillad, see Fred
$22,000) stayed flat over the same years, at about 8 percent." M. Dolan, egories of Amenca (Ithaca: Cornell Universiry hess, 1994),
7. Daniel Bell is right when he says, in an atide subtitled ,,Middle esp. pp. 60-7 3 , the opening pages of a chapter called ..Cold Wa Mea_
Class Feas Tu:n Class Was into Cultue'Wars," that there has been a
physics." One would never guess, from Dolan,s account, that there
"shift from economics to crlture i:l defining the divisions in society."
might have been a real, nonmetaphysical, nonimaginary poiat to fight_
See Daniel Bell, "The Disrnited SAtes of America," Times literory Supple-
ing the ColdWar.
m-ent, June 9, 1 995, p. 1 6. The academic Left and the "conservative intel_ 14. The fst item on such a hst would obviously be ruly radical re_
lectuals" (e.g., the editorialists for the I{oIl StreetJournol) have collabo- form of campaign frrancing-the issue on which there is, at present, the
rated in brhging about this sbift.
8. The dash benveen tlese two responses was well illusnated at a
"Teach-I for Labor" held at Columbia University on Octobe 3--4,
1996. Orlando Patterson, the eminent historia of slavery, argued that
the border with Mexico would sooner or later have to be closed to pro-
tect Americ"n.workes. He was heckled by people shouting, ..What
about the workers i the Thid World?" Blac-k scholas do not often get
booed by predomiaantly white and leftist audiences, but it happened
this time. I suspect that the issue patteson aised will be the most deeply
divisive that the American Left will face in the rwenry-first cenilry. I