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Monday, November 26, 2018

The Philosophers and the American Left | News & Politics - Tablet Magazine

Third in a series on the American left: a tale of buried treasure, argues Paul Berman, Contributor to Tablet Magazine.

Photo: Tablet
I.
The American left, which has sometimes been poor in institutions, has always been wealthy in political philosophy—and you can see the wealth and its significance in two books of our own moment, one by the late Richard Rorty and the other by Michael Walzer. Perhaps Rorty’s book is not completely of our moment. The book is Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, which came out from a university press in 1999 and lay in slumber for 17 years, until the catastrophic Election Day of 2016. Then the book awoke, and Achieving Our Country became a publishing sensation, such that, even today, it appears to be selling fairly well, for a book of its nature. Its success is owed to a single passage on page 90. Rorty wondered on that page what would happen if, one day, America’s trade unionists and unskilled workers, the people who do not live in prosperous suburbs, ever came to notice that, in the American government and among the American elites, no one at all was even trying to defend them from the economic and social consequences of modern industrial trends.

He wrote:
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 scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such 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 forty 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.
He was a genius. It is not just Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, his masterwork. It is that one passage!

But the university left had made a mistake. It had fallen under the influence of the postmodernist professors, who led their adepts into an infinity of minicauses and controversies over language. The university left had ended up losing sight of the primary purpose of any left-wing movement, which ought to be the maxi-cause of the working class. And Rorty proposed a rectification...

He wanted to invigorate the philosophy of democracy that John Dewey had drawn in part from Whitman—democracy as an eternal project for endless social progress, democracy as a way of life and a way of thinking—which became Hook’s idea, and became his own...

II.
During the last 150 years or so, the American left has advanced in a nearly mathematical pattern of waves, one wave after another—waves of popular insurgency, which rush forward and linger a while, then get pulled back by a nasty undertow and other forces, only to rush forward again, a generation later. There have been four of those waves in the past—in the 1870s and ’80s; in the 1910s; in the 1930s and ’40s; and in the 1960s and ’70s, continuing into the ’80s and maybe beyond. A fifth such wave is unmistakably upon us right now—the new insurgency that got underway with Occupy Wall Street in 2012 and continued into Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution and the Women’s March and has lately brought a lot of people, the progressives, into the Democratic Party. And each of these waves has engendered its own destructive undertow.
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Source: Tablet Magazine


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