Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

by Richard Rorty

Paperback, 1999





Harvard University Press (1999), 176 pages


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. - Publisher.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cdogzilla
It was Rorty's passing that prompted me to pick this up and it intrigued me enough to want to read more. Although I was a philosophy major (a long, long time ago), I hadn't been exposed to his work before and suspect it was an unforgivable lapse on the part of my professors at UConn that he was never required reading. Really, I don't recall pragmatism getting much of a shake and feel like there's a pretty big gap in my education as a result.

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.
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