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Achieving Our Country : Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America

26 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0674003125
ISBN-10: 0674003128
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Editorial Reviews Review

There are many shameful incidents in America's past: the institution of slavery, genocidal assaults on the indigenous peoples of this continent, the escalation of the Vietnam War, and so on. What should our response to such acts be? Should we regard the nation as irredeemably tainted by sin and spend our time cataloging its evils, or should we acknowledge its shortcomings and make a conscious effort to turn it into a better nation?

Philosopher Richard Rorty believes that there is hope for America, but that today's Left is not meeting the challenge. He contrasts the cultural, academic Left's focus on our heritage of shame (which, he admits, has to the extent that it makes hatred intolerable had the positive effect of making America a more civil society) with the politically engaged reformist Left of the early part of this century. "The distinction between the old strategy and the new is important," he writes. "The choice between them makes the difference between what Todd Gitlin calls common dreams and what Arthur Schlesinger calls disuniting Americans. To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster."

Not everyone, to be sure, is going to agree with Rorty's ideas. But his approach to civic life, which is pragmatic in the tradition of John Dewey and visionary in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is bound to provoke increased discussion of what it is to be a citizen, and his call for a renewed awareness of the history of American reformist activism can only be applauded. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Rorty contrasts two views of America: those of the Old Left and of the New Left. The Old Left he associates with Walt Whitman's "American Dream" and John Dewey's idea of an ever-evolving secular society of varied, autonomous agents whose evils are remediable because they result from failures of imagination. The New Left he associates with spectators who damn America for such past "atrocities" as slavery, the massacre of Indians, and the Vietnam War. Rorty claims that the Old Left was stubbornly reformist, whereas the New Left collaborates with and thereby empowers the Right by supplanting real politics with cultural issues. He urges the New Left to understand that our national character has not been settled but is still being formed. The book contrasts the two Lefts clearly enough, but the rest of it is rather foggy with occasional flashes of light. For larger academic libraries only.ARobert Hoffman, York Coll., CUNY
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: The William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in the History of American Civilization (Book 1997)
  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674003128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674003125
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 4.8 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #623,918 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 34 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 19, 1999
Format: Paperback
Some of the other reviewers of this book seem to have missed the point that this is the text of lectures, not a book length analysis of the policatical left in modern America. Rorty's intent, it seems to me, was to provoke thinking about leftist activity at the political level, not analyse leftist theory. As with other of his works, Rorty is openingly an advocate of a return of the influence of Dewey. I really recommend this book, especially to those who consider themselves on the political left and are wondering why the importance of social reform in America seems to have faded since Vietnam.
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19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Daniel J. Hamlow HALL OF FAME on May 16, 2003
Format: Paperback
In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty details the roots to leftist thought, exploring the dawning of the modern era and the pragmatic approach, the glorification of the American ideal and American story as one that would continue onward and upward, and the role of the intellectual Left to be the agent of hope and progress as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
Unfortunately, events in the 1960's created a schism in the Left from which neither side have succeeded in counteracting a unified Right that sunk its claws into the haunches of America. It is up to the Left to coalesce once again into a unifying force to continue the American story and achieve the country.
The loss of American pride is another key element. Rorty derives this from two modern thinkers, Walt Whitman and John Dewey, whose beliefs sharply contrasted with that of the finite, absolute, divine-centered beliefs of the Victorian pre-modernists. Whitman passionately exalted the more humanistic approach to truth and self-discovery caused by the floodgates opened by Darwin's theory of evolution. As a result, the divine standard to which men held to was replaced by secular humanism and humanistic standards.
Both Dewey and Whitman saw "America" and "democracy" as synonymous with being "human." Dewey too placed "America" and "democracy" on a visionary scale. But where Whitman described the American way as "the last and greatest vision of the American potential," Dewey saw "democracy" and thus America's story as "a great word, whose history... remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted".
As a result, Rorty asserts that Dewey and Whitman would advocate American pride despite blacker moments in America's history such as the Vietnam War.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Aaron Weber on February 9, 2002
Format: Hardcover
As even the negative reviewers of this book point out, the intellectual left of the US has become stagnant, overly theoretical, and is stuck ruminating on the mistakes of the past (whether those are mistakes of the Left, like the willful ignorance of repression in the USSR, or mistakes of the right, like McCarthyism, hardly matters). Rorty argues, and I don't see many people disagreeing, that from the relevance and good works of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and voter registration campaigns, the left has retreated to the ivory towery, deconstructivist literary theory, and apathy towards the actual day-to-day lives of the world. His examples of his own personal conflicts growing up as a "red daiper baby" (see the review "Red Daiper Baby Still in the Dark") serve to illustrate this growing irrelevance, and he admits that issues like these, which he once championed, have grown stale.
Rorty's lectures in this book are aimed at finding a way out of the dead end of abstract theory and "cultural politics," and into an applied social justice campaign. Let's drop the whole "leftism is dead" and "theory of culture" prattle, and move on to doing things about people starving in our streets, he says.
Now, this is where the negative reviewers really begin to skewer him-- he suggests that the answer lies in pragmatism and a sort of 'secular religion.' I'm not convinced that he's correct, however, and I think that although he's right about the need to preserve our government as a secular one, I think that he really ignores the benefits of religion in civil society. Regardless of whether you agree with his prescription, however, his history of American leftism, and his analysis of its problems today, are insightful.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Achieving Our Country is both an historical account of the shifts in the ideas underpinning the American Left and a recommendation for how to improve what Rorty perceives to be its decayed state. Should you read it? Yes. The historical account has an almost revelatory character -- to read it is to have one's eyes opened to the left's increasingly theoretical bent and the consequent loss of vigor. Success in leadership, politics and government is, after all, measured by action. Rorty's recommended way to solve the degeneration of the left, of course, flows from his diagnosis of the problem. In addition, this book displays much skill with blending seemingly unrelated kernels of information in suggestive ways to show problems, trends, etc. that weren't detected otherwise. This weaving character makes the book enjoyable to read irrespective of its content - one must admire the Rorty's technical skill. This book is not without its flaws. Foremost is Rorty's overly simple diagnosis of the left's problem. Achieving Our Country is a collection of lectures, so arguably oversimplified presentation may be expected and excused. At bottom, this book informs the reader about the past and about choices to be made in the future, and it does so in a pleasant and readable.
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