One of the best works of political philosophy I’ve read in the last few years is Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country. Rorty’s politics were very much not my own; he was as hard left as they came, though just as adamantly anti-communist. The book came out in 1998 and served as something of a survey of the 20th century left, its accomplishments, its pitfalls, and what we might call its fall into decadence. At 67 years old, Rorty had seen much of this himself, and been born into a politically active family from the start. He had a uniquely rich perspective on the subject, in short.
Rorty was a pragmatist; he cared little for doctrinal disputes or purity and more for results. And so while today we might find it surprising that so committed a leftist was a staunch defender of nationalism, his reasons had nothing to do with blood ties or cultural essentialism or anything smelling even vaguely of metaphysics, as nationalism tends to.
The book opens as follows:
National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals: a necessary condition for self-improvement. Too much national pride can produce bellicosity and imperialism, just as excessive self-respect can produce arrogance. But just as too little self-respect makes it difficult for a person to display moral courage, so insufficient national pride makes energetic and effective debate about national policy unlikely.
And like that we’re off to the races. Further down he adds:
Those who hope to persuade a nation to exert itself need to remind their country of what it can take pride in as well as what it should be ashamed of. They must tell inspiring stories about episodes and figures in the nation’s past—episodes and figures to which the country should remain true.
Rorty emphasized this need for national pride and inspiring national stories because he believed that we had veered too much towards national shame. Or perhaps that the two tasks, of reminding the country “what it can take pride in” and “what it should be ashamed of” had polarized in an unhealthy way. On one side we are told story after story that is meant to make us feel the shame of past and present sins, on the other we are given inspirational stories that have been bled of their human complexity, bleached out to be made into acceptable children’s fables and little more. On this latter score, Rorty cites, with approval, James Baldwin’s description of the:
collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure.
Taking Whitman and Dewey as his guiding stars, Rorty offers:
The sort of pride Whitman and Dewey urge Americans to feel is compatible with remembering that we expanded our boundaries by massacring the tribes which blocked our way, that we broke the word we had pledged at the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and that we caused the death of a million Vietnamese out of sheer macho arrogance.
But, one might protest, is there nothing incompatible with American national pride? I think the Dewey-Whitman answer is that there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible for a constitutional democracy to regain self-respect. To say that certain acts do make this impossible is to abandon the secular, antiauthoritarian vocabulary of shared social hope in favor of the vocabulary which Whitman and Dewey abhorred: a vocabulary built around the notion of sin.
Here I must part ways with Rorty slightly and admit that I’m quite fine with a vocabulary of sin, but not one that requires abandoning anti-authoritarian shared social hope.
So much for Rorty. I recommend the book very highly; I have thought of it often lately. Though told from the perspective of an old American leftist, I think it provides a clear formulation of the positive path out of the discourse of negation that my dad has spoken about at some length, in his book and many other places. In one interview, he specifically pointed to the difference between how Mark Zuckerberg was portrayed in The Social Network compared to how Edison was portrayed in the 1940 Young Tom Edison. Rorty emphasizes the need to remind a country “what we ought to be ashamed of” far more than my dad would, but their positive discursive vision is almost identical: we need to revive, support, and sustain a healthy national pride.
It is from this perspective that, as an American, I felt jealous as I read Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial India After Ghandi. The subtitle of the book is The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, and this framing is already surprising, though very obviously true. India is the largest democracy in the world and therefore in history. Guha from the beginning emphasizes that, recent economic growth aside (which, shortly after finishing the book, I sadly learned has been less than originally thought), India pulled off a political accomplishment that is nothing short of astonishing. As the second largest country in the world, and by far the most diverse ethnically, religiously, culturally, linguistically, you name it—almost everyone among right-thinking observers assumed the whole project would blow up. And yet here they are, still a united, secular democracy, some 72 years later.
I did not read the book to learn how amazing India was. In truth, I read it because I am abhorrently ignorant about the largest democracy in the world. But as Guha described monumental accomplishments such as the integration of the independent principalities and the rolling out of the infrastructure to allow a universal suffrage election so soon after independence—I thought to myself, boy, how I’d love to read someone with Guha’s careful hand writing about the postwar period of American history, to the present. Guha wrote a book for India that fit the exact specifications of what Rorty wanted for Americans: he did not shrink from India’s internal strife, its mistakes, its abuses, but I find it hard to believe any Indian could read the book and not walk away with their national pride tremendously—and deservedly!—augmented.
My goal this year was to read more books on countries like India that I know far too little about. And I still hope to do so. But the approach Guha took makes me want to read more American history. The section on the first Indian elections in particular makes me want to get to Pauline Maier’s Ratification, which I have heard is phenomenal. I’m slowly working through the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers before doing so, for context.
Context is important. But so is hope. And so is pride.