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. 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 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."
If nothing else, this book could serve as an inoculation for the student who's read some of the Ancient Greeks, Utilitarianism through Mill, and Kant but is now getting out of Philosophy 101 and about to be exposed to the egghead nexus where Marxism meets literary criticism.
Where Rorty is perhaps most engaging is in his discussion of agents vs. spectators and the appropriate balance between national pride and shame. He's passionate about the need to be proud of our progressive history and focusing on that pride on participation in our democratic process. He says, I'm paraphrasing here, "Look, you can acknowledge our nation's mistakes, some of the horrible and cruel, and either disengage from the system in protest, believing that it can't be fixed ... or you can be part of the solution." The pragmatic thing to do is not get hung up on how far away we are attaining a society that is just, but instead to try to make progress.