The Ten Books of Christmas: Between Christmas and New Year’s FlaglerLive customarily reduces production. It helps us, and no doubt you, exhausted reader, to take a break from outrage and lurid politics. This year I’m doing something a little different. Instead of only running the usual end-of year sum-ups and fillers, I’m launching the Byblos column and offering the Ten Books of Christmas: every day I’m publishing an original piece of mine on one of the books of the year I found most notable—books old and new, fiction and nonfiction, whether inspired by covid, confinement, covfefe or just the libidinous, inebriating pleasure of reading. No doubt only six or seven readers out there are interested in this sort of thing. That's OK. They’re ignored the rest of the year, so this is for them. I hope they find these, ahem, brief reflections (rather than reviews) at least a little provocative. The days' installments are listed below.
Is there a behavioral definition of patriotism? I should hope not, at least not in a free, pluralist society, where a definition cannot, by definition, be imposed from without so much as felt from within. It can be orthodox (“I pledge allegiance,” rah rah and the rest of it). Or it can be tailor-made: freedom requires deference to one’s personal choice. It is as unpatriotic to command patriotism as to prescribe its expression. Both attempts would confine the meaning of the word, contradicting its essence. We can have as many definitions as we have citizens. The varieties of definitions become a form of patriotism, a celebration of the endless ways to love one’s country.
“I prefer ‘love of country’ because other terms,” Earl Warren, the Chief Justice, said of “patriotism” and “loyalty,” “have occasionally been adopted by extremists as labels for their own exclusive brand of Americanism.” So love of country may be the one thing we can agree is the pulse of patriotism. But love of country itself can be as subjective and undefinable as the word love, if not, these days of red and blue schisms, country.
Explore for a moment the varieties of patriotic expression. There’s Merle Haggard’s version, applied to America: “If you don’t love it, leave it,” or the way Dorothy Parker heard a New York taxi driver say it in the previous 20s: “Or I’ll knock the red, white and blue Jesus outa yuh!” There’s Samuel Johnson calling it “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” Tacitus calling it “praiseworthy competition with one’s ancestors,” Orwell calling it, before World War II, “devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same,” and during the war, with fascism in mind, clarifying that “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people.”
Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson thought defending the right not to salute the flag was as patriotic as saluting it. Bertrand Russell called patriotism “the chief curse of our age.” Daniel Ellsberg, who was at the origin of the leaking of the Pentagon Papers, playing an important role in ending the Vietnam War, thought that sometimes leaking secret documents was greatly patriotic. Liberals in the war-loving early 2000s declared that “peace is patriotic,” or in the racially conscious present argued that more honest history, without illusions and whitewashing, is patriotic. But they’re blamed for hating America.
Take this excerpt from a letter published in a tiny publication in Fillmore County Minn., last year: “Why do Leftists hate America? America is a massive refutation of their utopian fantasy, universal equality. They compare America with their vision of a perfect country which has never existed. Rather than change their false theories, they lash out at America and conservatives, including Trump.” The letter elicited 3,500 comments, probably a record for that site. The responses came from both sides, including this: “How many commentaries and letters to the editor does the [Fillmore County Journal] need that assert why their neighbors who have different opinions hate the country and them?”
It’s a familiar exchange, with truth on both sides. The Left can’t get rid of the impression that it “hates” America, however ridiculous the charge. The letter-writer’s only error is that it’s made to seem like a pathology, or that it’s particular to the Trump era. Deep into Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’s famous 1920 novel about small-town Middle America–set, like the Fillmore County Journal, in Minnesota–Will Kennicott has had it with his wife Carol’s idealism, her attempts to shake Gopher Prairie out of its oppressive patriotism. She’s dismayed by the country’s rush into World War I. “That’ll be about all from you!,” he yells at his wife. “I’ve stood for your sneering at this town, and saying how ugly and dull it is. I’ve stood for your refusing to appreciate good fellows like Sam. I’ve even stood for your ridiculing our Watch Gopher Prairie Grow campaign. But one thing I’m not going to stand: I’m not going to stand my own wife being seditious.”
Catholics, abolitionists, suffragettes, anti-Prohibitionists, labor unionists, civil rights activists, Vietnam War protesters, feminists were blamed for hating America, too. It’s the knee-jerk response of an essentially conservative country with built-in mechanisms for change. The Left has made the mechanism its own, the Right has made reaction its own. If this is where we are, it’s where we’ve always been, where I hope we always will be: the confrontation energizes America. Fuel it, and you honor it. End it, and you end the country.
What’s lacking in the Left’s version of patriotism, what’s perhaps not expressed affectionately or or often enough, is a sense of pride and forgiveness toward country. It’s as if liberals are incapable of saying “I love you” out loud, to their country. I say this as one fully blamable in how I express my criticism of a country I love, after all, more than anything. But can the American Left still talk of national pride? More pointedly, shouldn’t the American Left take pride in the country?
It’s the Q&A at the heart of Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, which begins: “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely. Emotional involvement with one’s country–feelings of intense shame or of glowing pride aroused by various parts of its history, and by various present-day national policies is necessary if political deliberation is to be imaginative and productive. Such deliberation will probably not occur unless pride outweighs shame.”
Achieving Our Country is a small book of three chapters and two appendices about how the American Left lost its way, and how it could regain it. It reads as if it were written in the last couple of years to a Left lost somewhere between an abyss and oblivion. The chapters were three lectures delivered as part of a celebrated series at Harvard–in 1997, or almost a quarter century ago. But with eerie precision, Rorty anticipates Hillary Clinton’s presidency and her loss, describing the disconnect between the Left and its intellectuals on one side and workers it abandoned on the other, as the Left “permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics” and “collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate.” It’s “a Left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no time to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future.”
He anticipated even more precisely Donald Trump’s victory, “a bottom-up populist revolt.” Upward mobility is down, standards of living are stagnant, the promise of American life is broken, globalization is wrecking job security with none of the New Deal protections that mitigated the industrial age’s abuses. Economies owned by transnational upper classes with zero attachment or accountability to local communities seethe with alienation. American politicians focus all debates on irrelevant cultural wedge issues and “media-created pseudo events” (woke hysteria, anyone?) including occasional wars, letting economic issues that matter evade serious debate. Edward Luttwak in The Endangered American Dream (1993) saw fascism in America’s future. Rorty saw not so much fascism as an authoritarian strongman as blue-collar workers’ fortunes sank and suburban whites refused to be taxed.
“At that point, something will crack,” Rorty wrote. “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’s novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen.”
Rorty described his Frankenstein creation as “my imagined strongman.” In 2016, he was imagined no more. Rorty then predicted with equal accuracy what a Trump-like presidency would yield. The populist backlash reignites a culture of humiliation, the normalization of sadism, violence, racism. “One thing that is very likely to happen is that 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 [‘n-g–r’] 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 writing in 1997, remember. Every prediction came true, down to the revolt against “sensitivity training,” the normalization of racism and the legislated derision against critical race theory. Rorty was only half-wrong about his strongman provoking more military adventures for short term gain (Trump didn’t start new wars. He stuck to the secret-bombing campaign his predecessors had put in place, hiding the war crimes). But he was right about everything else. The strongman “will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his inevitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left?”
The date of his writing is startling. It is also reassuring, and points to one of Rorty’s blind spots. For all the apocalyptic talk about the demise of the Left, the anxiety has been with us not just since the mid-1990s but since the founding of the republic. The liberal wing of the country represented by Jeffersonian Republicans might as well have been slashing its wrists during the administration of John Adams and his Aliens and Sedition Acts, the late eighteenth century’s version of rage at “shithole countries” and subversives–latter-day “socialists”–at home. It wasn’t George W. Bush who came up with the phrase, “you’re either with us or against us,” but a Federalist newspaper that used the phrase as a threat in support of Adams’s xenophobic administration: “He that is not for us is against us” (a reversion of the line in the Gospels). Andrew Jackson was the country’s first populist strongman, at one point flouting a Supreme Court decision and turning dispossession on a Stalinist scale into the Trail of Tears. (Trump hung Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office on his first day, and a year later held a ceremony honoring Native Americans beneath it.)
Move up a century and you had Henry Adams’s self-disgust and pessimism, which William James thought “decadent and cowardly” (words Rorty used to echo his own assessment of the Left). “For James, disgust with American hypocrisy and self-deception was pointless unless accompanied by an effort to give America reason to be proud of itself in the future.” Impulses to self-disgust competed with more noble impulses of attainment without denying the flaws. By 1909, Herbert Croly, a leading progressive and founder of The New Republic, was writing a book that spoke of the Left’s optimism in its title–The Promise of American Life–even as it called for the demise of Darwinian capitalism. “We may distrust and dislike much that is done in the name of our country by our fellow-countrymen,” Croly wrote, “but our country itself, its democratic system, and its prosperous future, are above suspicion.”
Fair question: was the country’s democratic system above suspicion then? Is it now? Was a little self-disgust not warranted then as now? Is pride in country not a bit of a jarring ask at times? How are we to not be pessimistic in light of 2020’s response to the pandemic and the attack on the Capitol, the continuing and successful war on voting rights, the near-paralysis of major legislation and the return of 1920s inequality? As far as then, the United States was not a democratic country in 1909: the majority of the population was denied the vote. If you were Black, the South was a clobber of terrorist regimes. If you were Native, you were no less the subject of cultural genocide than China’s Uyghurs are today. As Barbara Tuchman wrote in The Proud Tower, “The strange physical fury generated by the women’s struggle for the vote was the most unsettling phenomenon of the Liberal era.” Until the strange physical fury generated by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the gay rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and so on.
In answer to Croly and Rorty, at least a little suspicion was, is, in order. Croley had big hopes for Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism. Like Carol Kennicott’s, his hopes were dashed when Wilson turned out to be a Southern sympathizer and assured a Second World War by enabling the Treaty of Versailles. Liberals felt similarly betrayed first by Bill Clinton’s–and Joe Biden’s– triangulations with Newt Gingrich in enacting the crime bill that contributed most to mass and massively Black and brown incarceration (“this country contains 4 percent of the planet’s population but 20 percent of its prisoners,” Bryan Stevenson notes in The 1619 Project).
Then came the welfare reform bill that resegregated poverty from moral and national responsibility by declaring it a failure attributable to the poor, and only to the poor. The “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act” legislated the puritan interpretation of poverty as divine reprobation. You were no longer just poor. You were contemptible.
By the time Rorty wrote, he’d seen the betrayals but passed over them as if liberal rage were a uniquely recent phenomenon. It weakens his argument and it doesn’t square with his own premise. Progressives of Croly’s time, those of both Roosevelts and especially those of the 1960s, did have programs to go along with their rage, he argues. The rage fueled an end. Women got the vote. The genocidal policy of assimilation of Native Americans was abandoned. Even the violence of 1960s leftism led to the Voting Rights Act in 1965 (such as it is anymore) and ended the Vietnam War. The Left did all that, not the robber barons, not the reactionary Supreme Court of the 1920s and early 30s, not Nixon. Or as Rorty put it: “Without the American Left, we might still have been strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good.”
But it’s no small thing that liberals had the necessary majorities in Congress to get that done, back when even the GOP had a strong liberal wing. That consensus ended during the Reagan years as polarization and gridlock, previously the exception, turned norm. But why? It’s a chicken-and-egg question Rorty doesn’t ask, but begs to be asked by the time he’s drawn the New Left as he did. Did liberal rage as we know it today, as a seeming end in itself, cause liberalism’s loss of faith in itself, and loss of face in government (as Rorty argues)? Or did the polarization cause frustration to turn to rage?
Rorty provides an answer–and argues against himself. The Left was so successful that it seeded its own reaction. “It’s as if, sometime around 1980,” Rorty writes, “the children of the people who made it through the Great Depression and into the suburbs had decided to pull up the drawbridge behind them. They decided that although social mobility has been appropriate for their parents, it was not to be allowed to the next generation. These suburbanites seem to see nothing wrong with belonging to a hereditary caste, and have initiated what Robert Reich (in his book The Work of Nations) called ‘the secession of the successful.’” Rorty never knew the Tea Party movement. But he was describing its incubator.
The period between 1940 and 1980, when the Left was at its most effective, was the highest-taxed era in American history, when the country was also at its most egalitarian, when incomes and standards of living grew the fastest across all demographics, and when American power and prestige was at its zenith. The Boomers got their piece of the American dream during those decades. They weren’t about to share. The Boomers, children of the most liberal generation since the Radical Republicans of Reconstruction, applied the mindset of gated communities to their suburbs as much as to politics. The purification and gerrymandering of voting districts followed, polarizing and radicalizing American politics in tandem with courts’ rigging of campaign-finance laws to the point that 158 families provided nearly half the “early” money that bought the 2016 election. The political playing field was no longer equal.
Of course there was rage.
These days–Rorty’s 1990s, our own day–i t can appear as if there’s been little more than rage. Achieving Our Country contrasts the paralysis with the Left’s better days, addressing what that letter to the small Minnesota publication had picked up on: that fixation on a utopian America and the Left’s fixation on “theory.” It’s not, as the letter-writer argues, that the theories are “wrong,” but that the theories have become ends rather than means. We may be seeing this with critical race theory, though in fairness to the Left, it wasn’t the Left that fabricated the scandal surrounding the theory’s application beyond the academy, and it isn’t the Left that’s clothing the re-normalization of racism in a war on “political correctness” or veiling white-supremacist history in “race-neutral” civics education.
Rorty in 1997 was saying that the Left was not reckoning with itself. Appearances to the contrary–the appearances being the election of the first Black president, a foil to a Right that still pretends that the Obama election absolved the country’s original sin–the reckoning is still not taking place. “The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms.” (Health care? Environmentalism? Marriage equality?) But the same can be said of the obstructionism of the Right and what George Packer describes in Last Best Hope, a 2021 updating of Rorty’s thesis, as a “morally bankrupt” Republican party. So we’re in a feedback loop, making Rorty’s book as current today as ever, with blame and injustice for all.
There’s no lack of national pride these days. But as Rorty sees it–as anyone can see it every Sunday on the football field–“The only version of national pride encouraged by American popular culture is a simpleminded militaristic chauvinism.” To get us back to the sort of national pride we can be proud of, whether from Left or Right, Rorty takes us on a tour of Walt Whitman and John Dewey and their secular vision of an America looking forward, not upward–meaning not at anything divine or divinely ordained: no manifest destiny need apply–and opposing any form of “resigned pessimism.” Or any place for “sin” in the country’s understanding of itself, including “original sin,” the overly used metaphor for slavery. America’s destiny is in America’s hands, directed neither by gods nor by outward forces. History is not determinative. Americans are. American destiny rises and falls of its own doing. Its best achievements are its own. Its enemies are from within, too. It’s not the sort of god-and-country patriotism conservatives like to hear, though the irony is that when conservatives idealize a golden age for America, Whitman’s America was it.
As inspired and even spiritual as Whitman’s poetry was, there was no divine providence in Whitman’s thinking. He believed in the country’s possibilities, not its inevitability. Possibilities are human. Inevitabilities, which assume divine intervention, are dangerous: you can invent anything, therefore justify anything. Like the crusades, like the ideology of manifest destiny, divine intervention is genocide’s notary. Neither Whitman nor Dewey thought American democracy had “room for obedience to a non-human authority.” They “wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional object of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country’s animating principle, the nation’s soul.” They were American optimists with a plan. They could agonize and weep, but they could “Hear America Singing.” Social justice takes ideas, arduous work, consensus. Making god the ideal takes no work, just worship and ideology.
Right and Left could capably work together: the civil rights bills of the 1960s depended on northern Republicans, Nixon’s domestic programs were oddly progressive, Americans with disabilities owe their biggest debt to the first Bush. But the consensus started ending with Reagan’s alliance with the religious right–whom the first Bush loathed almost as much as Barry Goldwater did–starting with his inaugural “city upon a hill” imagery: God, not social justice, as the driving force. It’s a punt on responsibility gilded in the appearance of devotion and piety. It’s why “social justice warriors” are now derided as “woke.” Social justice was once woven into the country’s leaves of grass. The crosses of gold returned in 1980. So if the Left has lost its way in the elitism of theory, the Right has surrendered to a more Puritan, if not purist, vision of an America no less utopian than the leftist one the Fillmore County letter-writer was complaining about.
Unsurprisingly, Rorty also anticipates the ongoing history wars–the clash between The New York Times’s 1619 Project and Trump’s 1776 Commission (which I do not mean to put on the same plane: one is 590 pages of history, the other is a farcical brochure of revanchism), and the rage over critical race theory. But the argument between Left and Right over our history will never be about facts. It’s “an argument about which hopes to allow ourselves and which to forgo.” Put another way: “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.”
In that sense, the Left, “the party of hope, sees our country’s moral identity as still to be achieved, rather than needing to be preserved. The Right thinks that our country already has a moral identity, and hopes to keep that identity intact. It fears economic and political change. And therefore, easily becomes the pawn of the rich and powerful, the people whose selfish interests are served by forestalling such change.”
The Right, in other words, is wedded to what James Baldwin in The Fire Next Time called a “collection of myths, to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors over inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.”
For all that, the Left cannot afford self-loathing nihilism, even though that’s what it’s reduced itself to. It’s a different way of seeing the country exactly as the Right does in 2021: immobilized beyond improvement. The Right thinks America is not perfectible so much as perfect, if only we turn back the clock a bit (“Make America Great Again.”) The Left of 2021 not only thinks the country was never defensible, but that it is beyond repair, beyond redemption. So “we now have, among many American students and teachers, a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left rather than a Left which dreams of achieving our country.” Both positions are untenable, self-satisfied, and I think equally nihilistic. Patriotism is not definable, but it’s possible to say what it ought not be. Despair is not patriotism.
While Baldwin found America unforgivable, he did not find it unachievable. If that’s the difference between him and the nihilistic Left, as Rorty implies, I don’t think you can exclude the Right’s nihilism anymore, now that it sees its survival only as a zero-sum game: To make America great again, liberalism must die. We are a long way from a pluralist ideal and well into the rhetoric of civil war.
Achieving Our Country is Rorty’s most accessible book. I read it once a decade. It has yet to age. It seems to have nothing to do with his more academic work, but it’s also a distillation of his life’s thought. Rorty, who died in 2007, wrote on truth, the purpose of philosophy, social and political injustice, literature. He wrote on the pleasures and rewards of understanding through literature. Pragmatism and the limits of the possible excited him. Theory did not. He would not have agreed with Plato or “The X-Files”’ Fox Mulder’s oracular claims that the truth is out there, that there’s an ideal floating in the ether, or that there is an American utopia. The ideal is what we make of it. The truth is in us. It isn’t unchanging. Anything else is fundamentalism–in law, in politics, in culture, and in America.
So there are no first principles, no immovable, authoritarian truths. Rorty could criticize Left and Right equally, if more lovingly when criticizing a Left he never abandoned, and more contemptuously when criticizing a Right he had trouble respecting the more it suckled at the teats of evangelism and chauvinism. And he loved his country, our country. He believed in its possibilities, so many of them realized, so many more yet to be realized.
Achieving Our Country is an energizing manifesto, a reminder that we are not as good as we think we are, and, atrocious as we can be, not nearly as bad, either. We are merely unachieved. With a little less despair, a little more affection, even–heaven forbid–a bit of patriotism, however defined but equally respected (whether the patriot is holding hand over heart during the anthem or taking a knee) we can achieve more. Let’s just hope we never consider the job done: Like any utopia, Achieving Our Country is not a destination but an act of will.
Pierre Tristam is the editor of FlaglerLive. Reach him by email here.