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.