An Object of Contempt: Rorty Against the Unpatriotic Academy, and the Coming Double Oppression of Loyalty Oaths.

1. Rorty, Professional Academic Philosophy, and the Ash-Heap of History

Richard Rorty was a brilliant, critically devastating, historically wide-ranging and open-minded, highly prescient, exciting, and yet at the same time, oddly narrow-minded and misguided, philosopher.

What I mean is that Rorty’s positive views—anti-metaphysical, naturalistic, pragmatic, conceptualist, relativist, post-modernist, bourgeois, liberal, and in a word, Enlightenment Lite (see here and here), were pretty thin gruel, in comparison to his all encompassing, all-leveling, dialectical critique of modern philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (PMN).

With 20-20 retrospective vision, moreover, it’s shiningly clear that what PMN should have been called was Professional Academic Philosophy Circa 1980 and the Mirror of Nature.

In other words, what Rorty was really attacking in PMN was philosophy as conceived by the mainstream Anglo-American professional academic philosophical tradition of his day, and when PMN is understood as such, it’s absolutely bang-on.

Indeed, all the naïve unargued presuppositions, bad philosophical pictures, tragic intellectual flaws, and questionable ideological commitments, and correspondingly, the inevitable dialectical self-implosion, of that tradition, as so perfectly grasped and so correctly foreseen by Rorty, have indeed come to pass in the almost 40 years since PMN.

In that sense, APP, with its Kant-inspired Heavy Duty Enlightenment project (see here and here) in real, serious philosophy, can effectively build on and transcend the critical and dialectical work of the Enlightment Lite Wizard Rorty, and appear in the 2010s like an Avenging Kantian Anarchist Angel, brandishing its Rorty-forged sword,

as professional academic philosophy circa 1980 to circa 2020, finally goes down in flames and into the ash-heap of history, in The Age of Trump.

2. Rorty’s “The Unpatriotic Academy” and The Ivory Bunker

In his controversial 1994 NYT Opinion piece, “The Unpatriotic Academy”—re-posted below, as the Appendix of this edgy essay—Rorty presciently criticized the identity politics and emerging Social Justice Warriors of his day, barricading themselves

in colleges and universities, in the academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had a left more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one. But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.

But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.

If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a “politics of difference,” it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt. (underlining added)

Yes, yes, and yes again.

By 2017 and the dawning of the The Age of Trump-POTUS, Rorty’s “unpatriotic” left-liberal professional academic “sanctuary” of 1994 has indeed become an Ivory Bunker and “an object of contempt.”

And the reasons for this are exactly those that Rorty described.

Rorty’s argument, as always, is essentially stronger on its critical, negative side than on its constructive, positive side.

For the only philosophical and political counterpoint he can provide to The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker is an American “patriotic” philosophy and identity politics, according to which

it is important to insist that a sense of shared national identity is not an evil. It is an absolutely essential component of citizenship, of any attempt to take our country and its problems seriously. There is no incompatibility between respect for cultural differences and American patriotism.

Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself — unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals.

That is the desire to which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed, and he is somebody every American can be proud of. It is just as appropriate for white Americans to take pride in Dr. King and in his (limited) success as for black Americans to take pride in Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey and their (limited) successes. Cornel West wrote a book — “The American Evasion of Philosophy” — about the connections between Emerson, Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois and his own preaching in African-American churches. The late Irving Howe, whose “World of Our Fathers” did much to make us aware that we are a nation of immigrants, also tried to persuade us (in “The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson”) to cherish a distinctively American, distinctively Emersonian, hope.

Sadly, Rorty has completely missed the boat here.

The fundamental problem that he was implicitly identifying, and should have been attacking, is identity politics itself, whether of the left or of the right, and the inherent coercive authoritarianism of (neo)liberal democracy.

It doesn’t matter whether the government is democratically elected or not:

if what it tells you to do, backed up by the threat of coercive force, is morally wrong, then it’s morally wrong, and therefore it is rationally unjustified and immoral for them to compel you to do it.

In other words, Rorty’s appeal to American patriotic identity-politics, under the rubric of “a distinctively American, distinctively Emersonian, hope,” as the supposed antidote to The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker’s “politics of difference,” aka Social Justice Warrior identity-politics, tragically,

is playing directly into the hands of the ultra-patriotic political right, now fully metastasized into the contemporary political cancer we know as the neo-fascist President-Elect Trump and his Know-Nothings, the Republican establishment, and the alt-right zealots.

3. The Coming Double Oppression of Loyalty Oaths

Loyalty oaths, as litmus tests of anti-Communism and pro-Americanism, and as coercive mechanisms for imposing intellectual, moral, and political conformity, and for effectively silencing and punishing moral and political resistance and freedom of expression, via official reprimands, suspensions, firing, and blacklisting, were all-too-familiar features of the McCarthy-era Professional Academic State.

But since the McCarthy era, especially in the 2000s, and above all now in The Age of Trump, loyalty oaths of various kinds, now called “professional codes of conduct”–e.g., The APA’s “Code of Conduct” and Rachel Barney’s  “Anti-Authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct”–have been, are, and will be just as effectively used as by The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker as coercive mechanisms for imposing their very own special Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker brand of intellectual, moral, and political conformity, and for effectively silencing and punishing moral and political resistance and freedom of expression, via official reprimands, suspensions, firing, and blacklisting.

But, sadly, it gets even worse, and is soon going to be infinitely worse.

Trump, his Know-Nothings, the Republican establishment, and the alt-right zealots are on the move.

Their first step, already taken, is Professor Watchlist.

But their second step, which I recently predicted in “Professional Philosophy Inside The Ivory Bunker” and hereby reiterate and re-emphasize, is going to be

the widespread imposition of patriotic pro-USA, pro-Trump-ite, pro-Republican establishment, pro-alt-right loyalty oaths, quite possibly delivered in the form of  patriotic professional academic codes of conduct.

Their all-too-familiar third step, moreover, will then be

to use these loyalty oaths/codes of conduct as coercive mechanisms for imposing patriotic pro-USA, pro-Trump-ite, pro-Republican establishment, pro-alt-right intellectual, moral, and political conformity, and for effectively silencing and punishing moral and political resistance and freedom of expression, via official reprimands, suspensions, firing, and blacklisting.

Then, professional academic philosophers will be doubly oppressed by the loyalty oaths/codes of conduct of the left from inside The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker and by the loyalty oaths/codes of conduct of the right from outside The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker.

So it’s going to be really, really shitty to be a professional academic philosopher in The Age of Trump, as professional academic philosophy circa 1980 to circa 2020, finally goes down in flames and into the ash-heap of history.

No matter which way you slice it, you’ll have to develop a captive mind, in order to survive inside the Professional Academic State.

Finally, the only way out for an independently-minded, authentically free, real, serious philosopher, short of suicide, will be to exit professional academic philosophy and take a leap of faith into the abyss of unemployment, and eventually come to earth in that undiscovered country, from whose bourne no professional academic philosopher ever returns, open philosophy.

Living philosophically out there in the open, you’ll discover that, as in other walks of life, lonely are the brave.

But at least you’ll be a free-thinker, and have your own life.

Thus I hereby propose a new bumper-sticker slogan, destined to make millions for some poor, unemployed recent philosophy PhD, to whom I bequeath it:

Rorty Was Right!

Like all million dollar bumper-stickers, it’s a visual pun, and true in two distinct senses.

First, Rorty was bang-on right that The Unpatriotic Academy/Ivory Bunker of professional academic philosophy would “eventually become an object of contempt.”

But second, tragically, Rorty’s own “distinctively American, distinctively Emersonian, hope” that, for him, constituted an ideal, true-blue patriotism for professional academic philosophy, has finally morphed into the alt-right oppressor in The Age of Trump.

4. Appendix: Rorty, “The Unpatriotic Academy”

(New York Times, 13 February 1994)

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.— Most of us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious — if tarnished — national traditions.

Many of the exceptions to this rule are found in colleges and universities, in the academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had a left more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one. But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.

But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.

Academic leftists who are enthusiastic about multiculturalism distrust the recent proposal by Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, to hold televised town meetings to “explore the meaning of American identity.” Criticizing Mr. Hackney on this page on Jan. 30, Richard Sennett, a distinguished social critic, wrote that the idea of such an identity is just “the gentlemanly face of nationalism,” and speaks of “the evil of a shared national identity.”

It is too early to say whether the conversations Mr. Hackney proposes will be fruitful. But whether they are or not, it is important to insist that a sense of shared national identity is not an evil. It is an absolutely essential component of citizenship, of any attempt to take our country and its problems seriously. There is no incompatibility between respect for cultural differences and American patriotism.

Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself — unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals.

That is the desire to which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed, and he is somebody every American can be proud of. It is just as appropriate for white Americans to take pride in Dr. King and in his (limited) success as for black Americans to take pride in Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey and their (limited) successes. Cornel West wrote a book — “The American Evasion of Philosophy” — about the connections between Emerson, Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois and his own preaching in African-American churches. The late Irving Howe, whose “World of Our Fathers” did much to make us aware that we are a nation of immigrants, also tried to persuade us (in “The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson”) to cherish a distinctively American, distinctively Emersonian, hope.

Mr. Howe was able to rejoice in a country that had only in his lifetime started to allow Jews to be full-fledged members of society. Cornel West can still identify with a country that, by denying them decent schools and jobs, keeps so many black Americans humiliated and wretched.

There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States. On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country’s behavior only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways. If American leftists cease to be proud of being the heirs of Emerson, Lincoln and King, Irving Howe’s prophecy that “the ‘newness’ will come again” — that we shall once again experience the joyous self-confidence which fills Emerson’s “American Scholar” — is unlikely to come true.

If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a “politics of difference,” it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.

Richard Rorty, professor of humanities at the University of Virginia, is author, most recently, of “Objectivity, Relativism and Truth.”

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About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.