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Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

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Overview

Must the sins of America's past poison its hope for the future? Lately the American Left, withdrawing into the ivied halls of academe to rue the nation's shame, has answered yes in both word and deed. In Achieving Our Country, one of America's foremost philosophers challenges this lost generation of the Left to understand the role it might play in the great tradition of democratic intellectual labor that started with writers like Walt Whitman and John Dewey.

How have national pride and American patriotism come to seem an endorsement of atrocities--from slavery to the slaughter of Native Americans, from the rape of ancient forests to the Vietnam War? Achieving Our Country traces the sources of this debilitating mentality of shame in the Left, as well as the harm it does to its proponents and to the country. At the center of this history is the conflict between the Old Left and the New that arose during the Vietnam War era. Richard Rorty describes how the paradoxical victory of the antiwar movement, ushering in the Nixon years, encouraged a disillusioned generation of intellectuals to pursue "High Theory" at the expense of considering the place of ideas in our common life. In this turn to theory, Rorty sees a retreat from the secularism and pragmatism championed by Dewey and Whitman, and he decries the tendency of the heirs of the New Left to theorize about the United States from a distance instead of participating in the civic work of shaping our national future.

In the absence of a vibrant, active Left, the views of intellectuals on the American Right have come to dominate the public sphere. This galvanizing book, adapted from Rorty's Massey Lectures of 1997, takes the first step toward redressing the imbalance in American cultural life by rallying those on the Left to the civic engagement and inspiration needed for "achieving our country."

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Editorial Reviews

The Nation
Richard Rorty [is] John Dewey's ablest intellectual heir and one of the most influential philosophers alive...In lively prose, [Achieving Our Country] offers a pointed and necessary reminder that left academics have too often been content to talk to each other about the theory of hegemony while the right has been busy with the practice of it. If those criticized in the book dismiss it the way they brush aside the Blooms and D'Souzas of the world, an opportunity will be lost. Rorty invites a serious conversation about the purposes of intellectual work and the direction of left politics. I wouldn't want him to have the last word, but the conversation should be joined. If it is conducted with the verve of Achieving Our Country, and if it shares Rorty's genuine commitment to revitalizing the left as a national force, it will be a very good thing.
American Literature

There is much to be debated, much that will probably infuriate, in Rorty's picture of contemporary Left intellectuals... Achieving Our Country is meant to be pointedly polemical, and Rorty...[has] succeeded at stirring up emotions as well as thoughts.
— Vincent J. Bertolini

New York Times

The heart of Achieving Our Country is Professor Rorty's critique of the "cultural left." Barricaded in the university, this left has isolated itself, he asserts, from the bread-and-butter issues of economic equality and security and the practical political struggles that once occupied the reform tradition...Controversies are seeded like land mines in every paragraph of this short book.
— Peter Steinfels

New York Times Book Review

Achieving Our Country is an appeal to American intellectuals to abandon the intransigent cynicism of the academic, cultural left and to return to the political ambitions of Emerson, Dewey, Herbert Croly and their allies. What Rorty has written—as deftly, amusingly and cleverly as he always writes—is a lay sermon for the untheological...[Americans] do not need to know what God wants but what we are capable of wanting and doing...[Rorty argues] that we would do better to try to improve the world than lament its fallen condition. On that he will carry with him a good many readers.
— Alan Ryan

Washington Post Book World

[In this] slim, elegantly written book...Rorty scolds other radical academics for abandoning pride in the nation's democratic promise; in their obsession with 'victim studies,' he argues, they have neglected to inspire the 'shared social hope' that motivated every mass movement against injustice from the abolitionists to the voting rights campaign.
— Michael Kazin

The Economist
Mr. Rorty calls for a left which "dreams of achieving" America, a patriotic left he recognises from the days of the New Deal and which he remembers from the early 1960s when, for example, people campaigned for civil-rights laws to make their country better. Where, he wonders, has such reformist pride gone? In place of "Marxist scholasticism", Mr. Rorty wants a left which makes reducing inequalities part of a "civic religion". Yet material differences are not the only sort of thing that bothers Mr. Rorty about the contemporary United States. On a communitarian note, he argues that the "civic religion" he advocates should include commitment to shared values that rise above ethnic or minority loyalties.
Featured in the "Books of the Year" issue for 1998 The Guardian
Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country is short, comprehensible and urges a civic and political agenda--the re-engagement of the Left...Rorty seeks to revive the vision of Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and what he sees as the real American Dream--a compassionate society held together by nothing more absolute than consensus and the belief that humane legal and economic agreements stand at the centre of democratic civilisation.
— Brian Eno
Christian Science Monitor

A succinct, stimulating, crisply written book...Rorty proposes a return to the liberal values that animated American reform movements for the first two-thirds of this century: from the long struggle of labor unions to obtain better conditions for workers, to the efforts of leaders like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson to redistribute the nation's wealth more equitably...Although Rorty is an academic philosopher, in this book, addressed to the general reader, he employs clear, vigorous language that makes reading a pleasure rather than a chore.
— Merle Rubin

London Review of Books

Rorty made us realise how much poorer we are if Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Stowe, Peirce, William James, Santayana and Dewey are not familiar landmarks in our intellectual scenery...If we [scoff] at Rorty's patriotic American leftism, we may find that it sets off some doubts that will come back to haunt us. When we quibble over his interpretations of our favourite thinkers, are we not confirming his stereotype of left pedantry? When we sniff at him for keeping company with rightists and renegades, do we not bear out his idea of a Left that is keener on its own purity than on fighting for the poor? As we look down our noses at the etiolation of socialism in America, should we not reckon the costs and benefits of European mass movements, and reflect on the political history of the anti-Americanism that comes to us so easily? Before leftist subjects of Her Majesty get snooty about American democracy, we might stop and wonder whose interests are served by our unshakable optimism about the past. The unguarded naiveties of Achieving Our Country are not quite as negligent as they look, and the book may well turn out to be one of the first signs of a long-delayed breaking of the ice in socialist politics following the end of the Cold War. The fact that Rorty's old-style American leftism is closer to British New Labour than to good old socialism may prove not that he is confused, but that it is time to reset our political chronometers.
— Jonathan Rée

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Achieving Our Country criticizes academic theorists and reminds us that left-wing reformers in previous periods of American history either made their careers outside the university or, at least, developed strong links with the decidedly non-academic labor movement...Rorty's distinction between a 'cultural Left' and a "reformist Left" is useful. As Freud replaced Marx in the imagination of academic theorists, Rorty explains, a cultural left—one that "thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed"—came into being.
— Alan Wolfe

Journal of Economic Issues

Richard Rorty is considered by many to be America's greatest living philosopher. That assessment is firmly supported in this short, profound, and lucid volume. In Achieving Our Country, Rorty does what many of us think philosophers ought to do, namely, lay a foundation and establish a framework within which we as individuals and as a society can conceptualize and fashion operational theories by which to live and prosper together...I can think of no more important book that I have read in recent years or one that I could more fervently recommend to the readers of this journal that Rorty's Achieving Our Country.
— Thomas R. DeGregori

In These Times

For many years now, Rorty has been one of the most important American pragmatists, defending the experimental modes of inquiry first propounded by John Dewey from both traditionalists and postmodernists...In Achieving Our Country, a brief but eloquent book, Rorty begs his academic colleagues to return to the real world. "I am nostalgic for the days," he writes, 'when leftist professors concerned themselves with issues in real politics (such as the availability of health care to the poor and the need for strong labor unions) rather than with academic politics.
— Jefferson Decker

Boston Phoenix

Rorty offers a resolute defense of pragmatic and reformist politics, coupled with a sophisticated rereading of the history of 20th-century American leftist thought. The result is a book that ends up reaffirming the great achievements of American left liberalism—strong unions, Social Security, and the principled regulation of corporate power—even as it illuminates the ways in which the cultural myopia of today's academic left has placed those achievements in jeopardy...In his insistence that there is a great American tradition of leftist reform, and that this rendition can be reinvigorated only by a return to the idea of the nation, Rorty has constructed as humane and as hopeful a defense of patriotism as one can imagine.
— James Surowiecki

The Reader's Catalog

Rorty's new book urges a return to American liberalism's days of hope, pride, and struggle within the system...Subtle without being dense, good-natured in its defiance of a whole spectrum of conventional wisdoms, Achieving Our Country is a rare book. It should be compulsory reading—if that weren't contrary to all it stands for.
— Richard Lamb

Times Literary Supplement

Richard Rorty is remarkable not just for being a gadfly to analytical philosophers, but for his immense reading, his lively prose and his obvious moral engagement with the issues...The conversation of philosophy would be much poorer without him...Achieving Our Country is a valuable addition to Rorty's writings...He has things to say that are important and timely...They are said powerfully.
— Hilary Putnam

Commentary

It is refreshing to find so hard-hitting a portrait of the contemporary academic Left in the work of one of its own.
— Peter Berkowitz

Bimonthly Review of Law Books

Richard Rorty is an inspirational writer who makes a valiant effort in this book to create an atmosphere of cooperation among those he characterizes as "he Reformist Left."He wants us to return to the ideals of John Dewey and Walt Whitman and achieve the greatness that is possible in a country of our wealth and dominance.
— Edward J. Bander

Buffalo News

A bracing tonic against the jejune profundities and the self-centered talking points by the far Right that find their way into the media. In sharply etched arguments Rorty weaves in philosophical and historical perspectives...His message isn't one of resignation, rather of hope grounded in the Left's potential for reinventing itself. He thinks it's time for the Left to stop demonizing capitalist America and to develop once again a political program of its own.
— Terry Doran

Dissent

On behalf of countless readers whose reaction to most left academic writing over the past two decades has increasingly been not so much either agreement or disagreement as an overpowering sense of So what?, the eminent philosopher Richard Rorty has composed a marvelous philippic against the entrenched irrelevance of much of the American left...Rorty's most important insight is into the political worldview of the academic left: that it is essentially nonpolitical...He offers a withering comparison of the core beliefs of the current cultural left with those of one of its forebears, Walt Whitman.
— Harold Meyerson

Radical Philosophy

"Achieving our country"(the phrase is culled from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time) isn't just a redeemable aim, it's what good radical politics has always been about.
— Gideon Calder

Times Higher Educational Supplement

Politically progressive academics should consider carefully Rorty's arguments...They pose important questions about American politics and public intellectual practice.
— Harvey Kaye

American Literature - Vincent J. Bertolini
There is much to be debated, much that will probably infuriate, in Rorty's picture of contemporary Left intellectuals... Achieving Our Country is meant to be pointedly polemical, and Rorty...[has] succeeded at stirring up emotions as well as thoughts.
New York Times - Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
In his philosophically rigorous new book, Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty raises a provocative if familiar question: Whatever happened to national pride in this country?...[and] he offers a persuasive analysis of why such pride has been lost.
New York Times Book Review - Alan Ryan
Achieving Our Country is an appeal to American intellectuals to abandon the intransigent cynicism of the academic, cultural left and to return to the political ambitions of Emerson, Dewey, Herbert Croly and their allies. What Rorty has written--as deftly, amusingly and cleverly as he always writes--is a lay sermon for the untheological...[Americans] do not need to know what God wants but what we are capable of wanting and doing...[Rorty argues] that we would do better to try to improve the world than lament its fallen condition. On that he will carry with him a good many readers.
Washington Post Book World - Michael Kazin
[In this] slim, elegantly written book...Rorty scolds other radical academics for abandoning pride in the nation's democratic promise; in their obsession with 'victim studies,' he argues, they have neglected to inspire the 'shared social hope' that motivated every mass movement against injustice from the abolitionists to the voting rights campaign.
New York Times - Peter Steinfels
The heart of Achieving Our Country is Professor Rorty's critique of the "cultural left." Barricaded in the university, this left has isolated itself, he asserts, from the bread-and-butter issues of economic equality and security and the practical political struggles that once occupied the reform tradition...Controversies are seeded like land mines in every paragraph of this short book.
The Guardian, Featured in the "Books of the Year" issue for 1998 - Brian Eno
Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country is short, comprehensible and urges a civic and political agenda--the re-engagement of the Left...Rorty seeks to revive the vision of Walt Whitman and John Dewey, and what he sees as the real American Dream--a compassionate society held together by nothing more absolute than consensus and the belief that humane legal and economic agreements stand at the centre of democratic civilisation.
Christian Science Monitor - Merle Rubin
A succinct, stimulating, crisply written book...Rorty proposes a return to the liberal values that animated American reform movements for the first two-thirds of this century: from the long struggle of labor unions to obtain better conditions for workers, to the efforts of leaders like Woodrow Wilson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson to redistribute the nation's wealth more equitably...Although Rorty is an academic philosopher, in this book, addressed to the general reader, he employs clear, vigorous language that makes reading a pleasure rather than a chore.
London Review of Books - Jonathan Rée
Rorty made us realise how much poorer we are if Jefferson, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Stowe, Peirce, William James, Santayana and Dewey are not familiar landmarks in our intellectual scenery...If we [scoff] at Rorty's patriotic American leftism, we may find that it sets off some doubts that will come back to haunt us. When we quibble over his interpretations of our favourite thinkers, are we not confirming his stereotype of left pedantry? When we sniff at him for keeping company with rightists and renegades, do we not bear out his idea of a Left that is keener on its own purity than on fighting for the poor? As we look down our noses at the etiolation of socialism in America, should we not reckon the costs and benefits of European mass movements, and reflect on the political history of the anti-Americanism that comes to us so easily? Before leftist subjects of Her Majesty get snooty about American democracy, we might stop and wonder whose interests are served by our unshakable optimism about the past. The unguarded naiveties of Achieving Our Country are not quite as negligent as they look, and the book may well turn out to be one of the first signs of a long-delayed breaking of the ice in socialist politics following the end of the Cold War. The fact that Rorty's old-style American leftism is closer to British New Labour than to good old socialism may prove not that he is confused, but that it is time to reset our political chronometers.
The Chronicle of Higher Education - Alan Wolfe
Achieving Our Country criticizes academic theorists and reminds us that left-wing reformers in previous periods of American history either made their careers outside the university or, at least, developed strong links with the decidedly non-academic labor movement...Rorty's distinction between a 'cultural Left' and a "reformist Left" is useful. As Freud replaced Marx in the imagination of academic theorists, Rorty explains, a cultural left--one that "thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed"--came into being.
Journal of Economic Issues - Thomas R. Degregori
Richard Rorty is considered by many to be America's greatest living philosopher. That assessment is firmly supported in this short, profound, and lucid volume. In Achieving Our Country, Rorty does what many of us think philosophers ought to do, namely, lay a foundation and establish a framework within which we as individuals and as a society can conceptualize and fashion operational theories by which to live and prosper together...I can think of no more important book that I have read in recent years or one that I could more fervently recommend to the readers of this journal that Rorty's Achieving Our Country.
In These Times - Jefferson Decker
For many years now, Rorty has been one of the most important American pragmatists, defending the experimental modes of inquiry first propounded by John Dewey from both traditionalists and postmodernists...In Achieving Our Country, a brief but eloquent book, Rorty begs his academic colleagues to return to the real world. "I am nostalgic for the days," he writes, 'when leftist professors concerned themselves with issues in real politics (such as the availability of health care to the poor and the need for strong labor unions) rather than with academic politics.
Boston Phoenix - James Surowiecki
Rorty offers a resolute defense of pragmatic and reformist politics, coupled with a sophisticated rereading of the history of 20th-century American leftist thought. The result is a book that ends up reaffirming the great achievements of American left liberalism--strong unions, Social Security, and the principled regulation of corporate power--even as it illuminates the ways in which the cultural myopia of today's academic left has placed those achievements in jeopardy...In his insistence that there is a great American tradition of leftist reform, and that this rendition can be reinvigorated only by a return to the idea of the nation, Rorty has constructed as humane and as hopeful a defense of patriotism as one can imagine.
The Reader's Catalog - Richard Lamb
Rorty's new book urges a return to American liberalism's days of hope, pride, and struggle within the system...Subtle without being dense, good-natured in its defiance of a whole spectrum of conventional wisdoms, Achieving Our Country is a rare book. It should be compulsory reading--if that weren't contrary to all it stands for.
Times Literary Supplement - Hilary Putnam
Richard Rorty is remarkable not just for being a gadfly to analytical philosophers, but for his immense reading, his lively prose and his obvious moral engagement with the issues...The conversation of philosophy would be much poorer without him...Achieving Our Country is a valuable addition to Rorty's writings...He has things to say that are important and timely...They are said powerfully.
Commentary - Peter Berkowitz
It is refreshing to find so hard-hitting a portrait of the contemporary academic Left in the work of one of its own.
Bimonthly Review of Law Books - Edward J. Bander
Richard Rorty is an inspirational writer who makes a valiant effort in this book to create an atmosphere of cooperation among those he characterizes as "he Reformist Left."He wants us to return to the ideals of John Dewey and Walt Whitman and achieve the greatness that is possible in a country of our wealth and dominance.
Buffalo News - Terry Doran
A bracing tonic against the jejune profundities and the self-centered talking points by the far Right that find their way into the media. In sharply etched arguments Rorty weaves in philosophical and historical perspectives...His message isn't one of resignation, rather of hope grounded in the Left's potential for reinventing itself. He thinks it's time for the Left to stop demonizing capitalist America and to develop once again a political program of its own.
Dissent - Harold Meyerson
On behalf of countless readers whose reaction to most left academic writing over the past two decades has increasingly been not so much either agreement or disagreement as an overpowering sense of So what?, the eminent philosopher Richard Rorty has composed a marvelous philippic against the entrenched irrelevance of much of the American left...Rorty's most important insight is into the political worldview of the academic left: that it is essentially nonpolitical...He offers a withering comparison of the core beliefs of the current cultural left with those of one of its forebears, Walt Whitman.
Radical Philosophy - Gideon Calder
"Achieving our country"(the phrase is culled from James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time) isn't just a redeemable aim, it's what good radical politics has always been about.
Times Higher Educational Supplement - Harvey Kaye
Politically progressive academics should consider carefully Rorty's arguments...They pose important questions about American politics and public intellectual practice.
Library Journal
Rorty contrasts two views of America: those of the Old Left and of the New Left. The Old Left he associates with Walt Whitman's "American Dream" and John Dewey's idea of an ever-evolving secular society of varied, autonomous agents whose evils are remediable because they result from failures of imagination. The New Left he associates with spectators who damn America for such past "atrocities" as slavery, the massacre of Indians, and the Vietnam War. Rorty claims that the Old Left was stubbornly reformist, whereas the New Left collaborates with and thereby empowers the Right by supplanting real politics with cultural issues. He urges the New Left to understand that our national character has not been settled but is still being formed. The book contrasts the two Lefts clearly enough, but the rest of it is rather foggy with occasional flashes of light. For larger academic libraries only.Robert Hoffman, York Coll., CUNY
Alan Ryan
Achieving Our Country is an appeal to American intellectuals to abandon the intransigent cynicism of the academic, cultural left and to return to the political ambitiohns of Emerson, Dewey, Herbert Croly and their allies. What Rorty has written -- as deftly, amusingly and cleverly as he always writes -- is a lay sermon for the untheological...[He argues] that we would do better to try to improve the world than lament its fallen condition. On that he will carry with him a good many readers. -- New York Times Book Review
NY Times Book Review
A witty and distinuished philosopher appeals to American intellectuals to return to the political ideals of Emerson, Dewey and other ancestors.
Michael Berube
[A] blueprint for nothing less than the renewal of the American left, a provocative challenge to left sectarianism of the past and present.
Tikkun
Kirkus Reviews
In this slim volume (from a series of lectures), eminent liberal political theorist Rorty passes judgment on the state of the US left. And he is not amused. Beginning from familiar places for him, John Dewey and Walt Whitman, Rorty (Humanities/Univ. Of Virginia) argues that the faith of these men in what the US might become, their dismissal of all closed systems of thinking, their turn from religious authority to secular joy in the contingent process of democratic creation are all aspects of leftist thought missing from today's left, much to its detriment. In place of the search for a moral identity that will inspire and unite us, the left todayþwhat he calls the "academic" or "cultural" leftþhas opted instead for a "detached spectatorship," condemnation without action or hope. Rorty traces the origins of this spectatorship to theorists such as Foucault, who insists on the irresistible ubiquitousness of power. The appeal of such spectatorship he traces to the US New Left and its experience with the Vietnam War. In Vietnam the US "sinned," became beyond redemption, and so the New Left turned its back on ever reforming such a place. The Left retreated to academia, theory, culture, and spectatorship. This is all, however, a very familiar scenario by now (if argued in an interestingly odd way), and one wonders why it needs repeating, Rorty seems only to be using the New Left as a straw person here, and his depiction of the "academic" Left is caricature. Assertion substitutes for analysis. Lapses in logic occur: He chastises the Left, for instance, for being both Marxist and "postmodern," yet the two tendencies stand mostly opposed to each other. Like an obscure clubrecording from a major jazz musician, this is a minor work from a profound thinker that perhaps only true devotees of Rorty will find of value.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

Richard Rorty was Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He is the author of the landmark works Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity; and The Consequences of Pragmatism.
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Table of Contents

American National Pride: Whitman and Dewey

The Eclipse of the Reformist Left

A Cultural Left

Appendixes

Movements and Campaigns

The Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature

Notes

Acknowledgments

Index

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