The mystique that enables corrupting the youth

I’m quite amazed by this excerpt from a letter of Richard Rorty’s, to one Milton Fisk, on March 20, 1971:

No, it’s the best bet available for improving society. This standard bourgeois liberal view of mine has the same cynicism of all bourgeois liberal views—it says to the people on whose necks one trods that it will be better for their children’s children if they keep on getting trodden upon while we educate the more intelligent of their children to understand how society works. But I believe it anyway. I honestly think that we—the parasitic priestly class which confers sacraments like BAs and PhDs—are the best agency for social change on the scene. I don’t trust the aroused workers and peasants to do themselves or anybody any good. To put it still more generally, I think that nothing but a revolution in this country is going to make it possible for millions of people to lead a decent life, but I still don’t want a revolution in this country—simply because I’m afraid of finding something worse when the revolution is over. So insofar as I have any thoughts on the higher learning in America they are to the effect that we pinko profs should continue swinging each successive generation a little further to the left; doing it this way requires the continuation of the same claptrap about contemplation we’ve always handed out, because without this mystique the society won’t let us get away with corrupting the youth anymore.

(Quoted in Neil Gross’s sociobiography of Rorty.)

So basically, Rorty could not, or could no longer believe in the claptrap of the beauty of liberal arts education as teaching “contemplation”, but was happy to continue its rhetoric in the service of gradualist progressive politics (“swinging each successive generation a little further to the left”). His reason for being against a “revolution” was fairly understandable, if not very noble: as a good “liberal bourgeois,” he was afraid of being worse off afterwards. Or, he suggests, of having someone else be worse off afterwards. His claims to altruism are somehow not very convincing, and one gets the sense that Rorty was animated by a curious contradiction between his own class interests and his anti-Communist leftist ideals. (Gross goes on about his parents’ politics at great length; it’s one of the best parts of that book.)

What is more interesting to me here is less Rorty’s ultimately banal admission that his politics were limited by self-interest, and more the guilty and remarkable acceptance, at the start of the excerpt, that ultimately his own class position was based on exploitation and domination of people lower in the social hierarchy. As he puts it, “[my view] says to the people on whose necks one trods that it will be better for their children’s children if they keep on getting trodden upon while we educate the more intelligent of their children to understand how society works.”

Is this not a remarkable sentence?

What is at stake in Rorty’s acceptance of the cynicism of his own view?

And why exactly does Rorty mistrust the “aroused workers and peasants”? In the name of his own supposedly superior, more disinterested, more considered position?

And what shall we make of Rorty’s own despairing and contradictory comment that “nothing but a revolution” could make possible a “decent life,” but that he still doesn’t want a revolution? To what extent does he ultimately reject the possibility of a “decent life” altogether? A life where one group “trods” on another is hardly decent, by definition.

For that matter, where, in the end, did Rorty’s presupposed standards of decency come from? What, if anything, legitimates them?

… Some texts don’t have any answers, it seems to me as I write.

2 thoughts on “The mystique that enables corrupting the youth

  1. That is an amazing passage.

    But I am surprised that you are so quick to read “I don’t trust the aroused workers and peasants to do themselves or anybody any good…I’m afraid of finding something worse when the revolution is over” as the expression of self-interest. He mistrusts the peasants and workers because, in fact, recent revolutionary movements of that kind seemed to have made them worse off rather than better off. One can surely disagree with that evaluation of the 20th century’s revolutionary tradition–although I think it’s at least worth talking about–without reducing it to class-interest. It’s important that the list of such revolutionary surges would include not just the Bolsheviks and the Chinese Communist Party, but also the Nazis, all of which were, in their way, democratic.

    And then, I’d say, a great deal of Rorty’s philosophical project was dedicated to explaining how one’s “standards of decency” could be contingent (that is with uncertain or merely historical legitimacy), embraced ironically (or, here, cynically), and yet also be an important and progressive source of solidarity. (*Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity*, 1989.) That is, you know that you live by stepping on the neck of another (if we’re honest, we admit that we all do to some extent), but one doesn’t allow this knowledge to push one into self-denying mysticism, revolutionary violence, or simple cynicism. rather, one tries to be a good social democrat (basically), and leave the world better, according to your limited lights, than you found it.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Yeah, it’s true that my reading is written in haste. And I agree that Rorty may well have had in mind a certain reading of the 20th century socialist revolutions (I don’t really know of any evidence that he would have lumped Nazi Germany in with them, though — as far as I can judge from that biography by Gross, at least).

    That said, here’s the logic that leads me to read this as self-interest: Rorty says that revolutions may make things worse. But it’s important to remember that, on his own view, if you’re in the working class, you already are getting “trodden” on, such that you don’t have a “decent” life or even the possibility of a “decent” life. So I take it that if after the revolution, your working-class life is still exploited and indecent, that’s not necessarily a qualitatively worse situation than it was before. By process of elimination, then, isn’t it the cultured bourgeoisie that Rorty belonged to that really stands to lose out in the revolution? In other words, if Rorty thinks the workers are already miserable, then a revolution would seem to at worst reformat their already bad life, or worsen things in a sort of quantitative way.

    I guess one might say that getting killed in a violent revolution is worse than being a cog in the machines of the captains of industry and erudition, but then, given that the Vietnam War was raging in 1971, working-class Americans were already dying pointlessly for their political leaders. Probably they weren’t dying on the scale of massacres that happened elsewhere in the world, but I don’t think Rorty’s argument is that effective if it’s only based at the level of quantitative comparisons between different regimes of misery.

    As to Rorty’s arguments about the contingency of vocabularies and values, yeah, I’ve read some of those arguments, and I’m not very persuaded on the basis of this passage that when translated into political terms they are very persuasive. In the terms that Zizek and Sloterdijk have since elaborated, Rorty is basically a passionate advocate of “enlightened false consciousness,” that is, someone whose awareness of the ideological fantasies driving their praxis ultimately amounts to a form of overtheorized passivity. Or rather, one reading of Rorty — as an ultimately contented social democrat — would point in that direction; the other, which I think is floating around in the letter I quoted above, suggests that Rorty actually was aware that his political compromises were indeed compromising: aware in a sense that his politics were a kind of despair. I admit that many of his texts don’t point in that direction, but this letter takes liberal guilt to its breaking points, which is what I find fascinating about it.

    thanks for your thought-provoking comment, at any rate!


Comments are closed.