hmmm, with my last two posts I’m afraid people will take me to be anti-American. I am not. However, I do feel as though it is important that we acknowledge some of the atrocities it is responsible for.
This made me think of a short essay by Richard Rorty (‘The Unpatriotic Academy’, written in 1994), which I found here (from the New York Times), and can be read below:
Most of us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country. We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having glorious — if tarnished — national traditions.
Many of the exceptions to this rule are found in colleges and universities, in the academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had a left more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one. But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized.
But there is a problem with this left: it is unpatriotic. In the name of “the politics of difference,” it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride. This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called multiculturalism. Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls “a social union of social unions,” a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most. Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.
Academic leftists who are enthusiastic about multiculturalism distrust the recent proposal by Sheldon Hackney, chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, to hold televised town meetings to “explore the meaning of American identity.” Criticizing Mr. Hackney on this page on Jan. 30, Richard Sennett, a distinguished social critic, wrote that the idea of such an identity is just “the gentlemanly face of nationalism,” and speaks of “the evil of a shared national identity.”
It is too early to say whether the conversations Mr. Hackney proposes will be fruitful. But whether they are or not, it is important to insist that a sense of shared national identity is not an evil. It is an absolutely essential component of citizenship, of any attempt to take our country and its problems seriously. There is no incompatibility between respect for cultural differences and American patriotism.
Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself — unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it. Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation’s professed ideals.
That is the desire to which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed, and he is somebody every American can be proud of. It is just as appropriate for white Americans to take pride in Dr. King and in his (limited) success as for black Americans to take pride in Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey and their (limited) successes. Cornel West wrote a book — “The American Evasion of Philosophy” — about the connections between Emerson, Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois and his own preaching in African-American churches. The late Irving Howe, whose “World of Our Fathers” did much to make us aware that we are a nation of immigrants, also tried to persuade us (in “The American Newness: Culture and Politics in the Age of Emerson”) to cherish a distinctively American, distinctively Emersonian, hope.
Mr. Howe was able to rejoice in a country that had only in his lifetime started to allow Jews to be full-fledged members of society. Cornel West can still identify with a country that, by denying them decent schools and jobs, keeps so many black Americans humiliated and wretched.
There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States. On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country’s behavior only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways. If American leftists cease to be proud of being the heirs of Emerson, Lincoln and King, Irving Howe’s prophecy that “the ‘newness’ will come again” — that we shall once again experience the joyous self-confidence which fills Emerson’s “American Scholar” — is unlikely to come true.
If in the interests of ideological purity, or out of the need to stay as angry as possible, the academic left insists on a “politics of difference,” it will become increasingly isolated and ineffective. An unpatriotic left has never achieved anything. A left that refuses to take pride in its country will have no impact on that country’s politics, and will eventually become an object of contempt.