UnHerd Book Club

Books to help make sense of a chaotic year

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December 29, 2020

Decades ago, in a village in Burma, my companion told me of a fear she’d had in the night. “What if they all want to do that?” she asked.

“That” was move to Britain. We had been talking to a waiter who had learned good English and through some connection with previous tourists knew about the outside world in what we might call granular detail. He was particularly impressed with banks that gave out money via holes in the wall. He wanted to escape the repression and poverty of his country and get to London. We gently put him off the idea, which seemed too far-fetched to be realistic.

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“It rains a lot,” we told him. “And it’s cold.”

“Wait till we all know about how you live,” he replied. “We could always wear coats. The problem is that you won’t want us to stay.”

“Nonsense,” we said.

“Come anytime,” we smiled, knowing that he would not, could not.

It’s one thing to predict events. Any fool with a Twitter account and modicum of luck can say “told you so.” The real sages are the predictors of the thinking that moulds events: people who can look ahead and see not the events themselves — who will win an election, whether he’ll start a war, and so on — but the context of them. Long before the internet and the connectivity of today, this man in Burma could see that if the world ever got smaller and more knowable for everyone, then mass migration would become a huge object of desire and cause of conflict. Both of those things happened.

Halfway across the globe, as we were talking in Burma, the philosopher Richard Rorty was thinking in Harvard and becoming less interested in the arcane stuff of academic philosophy and more interested in the field as it applied to politics. It was the 80s. Reagan in power, the American Left wondering what just happened.

Rorty predicted two things. The first is the more famous but the less important. He said something “would crack” in American politics and allow a strongman to become elected. The interests of the working class had been ignored in a globalising world and they would eventually notice and go elsewhere for satisfaction.

Not a bad shot at superforcasting.

But he made a wider set of predictions too, less celebrated but more important in the post-Trump world. What Rorty predicted, in a set of lectures that eventually became the book Achieving Our Country, published in 1998, was that the route back for the American Left was far trickier than it might appear. Sure, Bill Clinton won. So — after Rorty had died — did Obama. But a conflict on the Left would hobble them both, reducing their ability to be properly transformational presidents.

Rorty used the word “exhausted.”

He believed that the old social democratic American Left “collapsed during the late sixties under the burden of the conflagration surrounding the Vietnam War” and might be replaced by a Left that believed the only way forward was a “complete dismantling of the ‘system.’”

The consensus view on the Left risked becoming shaped by this epoch-making event and the reaction to it. The Vietnam War, in the view of the activists, “not only could never be forgiven, but had shown us to be a nation conceived in sin, and irredeemable.” Rorty predicted that “a spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left” would only ever be able to understand America in a way that:

“leads them to step back from their country and, as they say, ‘theorise’ it. It leads them to … give cultural politics preference over real politics, and to mock the very idea that democratic institutions might once again be made to serve social justice.”

Rorty predicted the context — the descent into identity and away from class — and suggested that without a way back to the old broad appeal of the Democratic party of Roosevelt and Kennedy and LBJ, the game was up. Even the great author and civil rights icon James Baldwin, Rorty pointed out, had thought that America was redeemable — as revealed in the Baldwin passage that inspired the title of Rorty’s book:

“we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

It seems odd to suggest, at the start of a new Democratic presidency — with a Biden mandate provided by easily the biggest number of votes cast in a presidential election, and the President-elect himself so obviously cut from the social democratic cloth of his forebears — that this project is so badly damaged. But Rorty, just as keenly as the Burmese waiter, could see that if something came along to trip the switch, to force the issue, then everything would change. And in both cases the arrival of social media has been the enabler of the contextual shift. Suddenly in poorer parts of the world it is easy to see, on the screen of a phone, what the fancy world looks like. And suddenly in America it has become easy to go head-first down the rabbit-hole that worried Rorty.

He was not an enemy of identity. He could see why it might be time to become more sensitive to what he called the “humiliation which previous generations of Americans have inflicted on their fellow citizens.” He actually endorsed modern campus culture: “Encouraging students to be what mocking neoconservatives call ‘politically correct’ has made our country a far better place.” But there was a limit.

Baldwin drew a limit at being disgusted by America: be angry for sure, be horrified at the place, condemn its many failings and be sceptical of those who hold it up as a shining light without considering the darkness in which so many of its citizens live and have always lived. Do all of that. But do not condemn the whole project. Leave a chink of light, as Baldwin did, towards which people of good heart might still turn.

Rorty suggested that too many academic Left critics of the USA had already closed the door:

“To step into the intellectual world which some of these leftists inhabit is to move out of a world in which citizens of a democracy can join forces to resist sadism and selfishness into a Gothic world in which democratic politics has become a farce.”

So here we are in 2020. So much of that thinking now permeates the American Left. They see racism and misogyny literally everywhere in American life. They want to defund the police and open the borders. The former movement is the epitome of what Rorty feared because of the implication that policing in America cannot be reformed because America cannot be reformed and has to be burned down (sometimes literally) in order to be rebuilt. As the activist Vicky Osterweil put it “those who participate in rioting and looting tend to be the most politically informed and socially engaged in the neighborhood,” and that their actions should be understood “as essential tactics in fighting racial capitalism.”

Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting caused exactly the fuss she hoped for last summer and there is a performative side to it, and to her, that leads many Democrats to view the threat from these people to them as unserious.

Well, perhaps. Maybe Joe Biden from Scranton will just carry on back in his centre-lane as if nothing has happened. Perhaps Kamala Harris — a former prosecutor — will take up the mantle of centrism too when her turn comes, as it surely will.

But the Rorty warning from history is that the Left will lose the plot and, to the intense frustration of all those around the world who breathed a sigh of relief on November 4th, cock it all up. Specifically, they will cause the Democratic presidency such grief that the party enters the mid-terms in 2022 in disarray and the presidential poll in 2024 in outright civil war.

Our pal in Burma never got to write his predictions down and I imagine never left the nation. But the power of his prophesy has stayed with me. Richard Rorty has also departed the scene — at least, though, he left us this fine book. Which, last year, was reprinted. The American Left cannot say, come 2024, that it wasn’t warned.