Rorty misquoted (again)

Writing in the New Republic, Chris Lehmann points out that a certain passage in Richard Rorty’s 1998 book, Achieving Our Country,

appeared to prophesy the conditions of Donald Trump’s shocking ascension to the presidency.

Lehmann then summarizes Rorty’s argument – without mentioning that the hypothetical scenario laid out by Rorty had been proposed by another political observer.

More than five years ago, I wrote in some detail about this confusing misattribution. This is what Rorty actually said in Achieving Our Country:

Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.

“Many writers,” but not Rorty. The philosopher proceeds to single out one of those many:

Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that…

The point of Luttwak’s book according to Rorty is exactly what Lehmann and other columnists before him have quoted as Rorty’s own view:

…members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack…

Already in 1998, Carlin Romano (in Rortyism for Beginners) took David Brooks to task for the same misrepresentation:

According to David Brooks in The Weekly Standard, Rorty predicts in Achieving Our Country that “we are about to become a dictatorship,” even though a glance at the text shows that Rorty is extrapolating from Edward Luttwak’s suggestion that “fascism may be the American future.”

Rorty didn’t think much of right-wing critics like Brooks, believing that they were arguing in bad faith:

They do not read philosophy, but simply search out titles and sentences to which they can react with indignation. Much of their work belongs to the current conservative attempt to discredit the universities – which itself is part of a larger attempt to dis­credit all critics of the cynical oligarchy that has bought up the Republican Party.

In contrast, “Rorty prophesied Trump” is a progressive meme, so to say.

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