Rorty, Heidegger, and the “cultural left” dog whistle

I know it can seem like political correctness is an impossible minefield, but it isn’t. The inner fascist just lives very deep inside people, and they can’t conceal it 100% of the time. In that sense, it’s a mindfulness challenge.

People’s preferred ideologies come from their pre-intellectual selves. Political theory is the realm where the inner likes and dislikes become abstractions, and the abstractions are turned into agendas for the exercise of power.

My mom’s a Jehovah’s Witness and my dad was an atheist, but they agreed on how to behave morally in the world. Compassion learned from personal suffering.

That’s why I can read something I almost entirely agree with, and a single passage alienates me from the author. Case in point:

Stupid progressive thing #4: never learning from past mistakes.

Fighting the last war — fixing the mistakes you made last time without anticipating the challenges of the next encounter — is a classic error of strategy. But progressives aren’t even good enough to make that error. They don’t even learn from their previous screw-ups.

Inspired by Tahrir Square, the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement suffered from its lack of centralized leadership, a lack of formal demands, its welcoming of the homeless and mentally ill and a rift between revolutionary and reformist wings. But OWS’ biggest mistake was calendrical.

They occupied public parks. Parks are outside. OWS began in the fall. The weather got cold, occupiers drifted away, morale turned sad. By the time Obama smashed the encampments with federally-coordinated violent raids, there wasn’t much of a movement left to destroy.

Here we go again.

Refuse Fascism has a plan to get rid of Trump. “On Saturday, November 4—approximately a year after President Donald Trump’s election—members of the Resistance will descend on America’s major cities,” reports The Politico. “They’ll march and demonstrate, as they have in the past, but this time, say organizers, they won’t go home at the end of the day. Instead, the plan is to occupy city centers and parks and not leave until, and only until, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have fallen.”


It’s cold in November.

I know, I know — it’s easy to criticize. Which is why I chose criticism as a job. So let me offer a concrete suggestion.

Starting in November? Occupy indoor spaces.

The refreshing voice of someone who’s not a tactical dumbass. He realizes that tactics and strategy exist as part of politics beyond emotional release and tribal bonding (which are lacking in daily life under capitalism).

But the real problem is the homeless and the mentally ill, who’d be out in the cold anyway? Seriously? The ones who dignify their condition with symbolic and futile gestures? Scapegoated by everyone at all times. The people at the top of the class hierarchy clearly had more responsibility for making it stupid, because they made a decision not to come up with a list of demands. I believe it had something to do with David Graeber treating the whole thing like a fascinating social experiment. I’ll bet you could’ve talked to the homeless people for 10 minutes to get a concrete policy agenda.

Then, as now, progressives weren’t serious.

What’s more telling about this Ted Rall passage is that it links here in the second sentence. I had to comment because it makes a big deal out of Richard Rorty, quoting this impressive prophesy:

“[M]embers 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. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots….

“One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Richard Rorty was cool for being sort of a postmodernist and an analytic philosopher at the same time. He was sympathetic to eliminative materialism, so he was compatible with neuroscience. He was getting the relativism more from pragmatism than French philosophy. Epistemological pragmatism defines truth as a property of models, judged by their usefulness for some purpose. The purpose is left up to the individual. Are your motives pure?

Ultimately, the reason Rorty could call it was that he was an American white guy, first and foremost, hailing from the “anti-communist left.”

Rorty argues that American socialism was a potent force a century ago, grounded in the optimistic national pride of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. Socialism might have become even stronger after the First World War, but the Russian Revolution offered a fatal attraction for the impatient. The American left broke up in a schism as momentous as Protestant and Catholic Christianity or Sunni and Shia Islam. National pride was out; international communism now set the terms of debate.

Rorty’s parents first chose communism, but returned to the anti-communist left soon after his birth in 1931. He grew up, therefore, in an ignored splinter party while the communists got all the attention (and most of the blacklisting and jailings).

In the 20 years after the Second World War, the trade unions were purged of their communist members, and often taken over by crooks and gangsters. Old-fashioned American socialists, with CIA funding, supported the Cold War and promoted a kind of cultural leftism that ignored the workers.

Of course, it was the communists who’ve had Negroes’ backs, historically.

Somehow I just know that a lot of people can’t tell the ideological difference between Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. Half of them because they believe Obama is a communist! This includes Rudy Giuliani:

“Look, this man was brought up basically in a white family, so whatever he learned or didn’t learn, I attribute this more to the influence of communism and socialism” than to his race, Giuliani told the Daily News.

“I don’t (see) this President as being particularly a product of African-American society or something like that. He isn’t,” the former mayor added. “Logically, think about his background. . . The ideas that are troubling me and are leading to this come from communists with whom he associated when he was 9 years old” through family connections.

When Obama was 9, he was living in Indonesia with his mother and his stepfather. Giuliani said he was referencing Obama’s grandfather having introduced him to Frank Marshall Davis, a member of the Communist Party.

The former mayor also brought up Obama’s relationship with “quasi-communist” community organizer Saul Alinsky and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

If only.

Returning to Rorty, his inner fascist reveals itself:

The academic left, Rorty says, didn’t completely abandon the fight. But emphasis shifted from the political left to the cultural left. Workers had long been the objects of concern. Now the left’s concern was for minorities of all kinds — racial, ethnic and eventually sexual.

This amounted to desertion of the workers, and when free trade took away American jobs, it met only feeble resistance from the cultural left. “Globalism” now seemed as inevitable as communism once seemed. The workers who lost their jobs went into history’s ash can.

You can go to the Movement for Black Lives website and see for yourself that this is nonsense. I doubt Crawford Kilian (author of the Rorty article) substantively disagrees with the platform’s economic positions:

1. A progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.

2. Federal and state job programs that specifically target the most economically marginalized Black people, and compensation for those involved in the care economy. Job programs must provide a living wage and encourage support for local workers centers, unions, and Black-owned businesses which are accountable to the community.

3. A right to restored land, clean air, clean water and housing and an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources — including land and water. We seek democratic control over how resources are preserved, used and distributed and do so while honoring and respecting the rights of our Indigenous family.

4. The right for workers to organize in public and private sectors especially in “On Demand Economy” jobs.

5. Restore the Glass-Steagall Act to break up the large banks, and call for the National Credit Union Administration and the US Department of the Treasury to change policies and practices around regulation, reporting and consolidation to allow for the continuation and creation of black banks, small and community development credit unions, insurance companies and other financial institutions.

6. An end to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and a renegotiation of all trade agreements to prioritize the interests of workers and communities.

7. Through tax incentives, loans and other government directed resources, support the development of cooperative or social economy networks to help facilitate trade across and in Black communities globally. All aid in the form of grants, loans or contracts to help facilitate this must go to Black led or Black supported networks and organizations as defined by the communities.

8. Financial support of Black alternative institutions including policy that subsidizes and offers low-interest, interest-free or federally guaranteed low-interest loans to promote the development of cooperatives (food, residential, etc.), land trusts and culturally responsive health infrastructures that serve the collective needs of our communities.

9. Protections for workers in industries that are not appropriately regulated including domestic workers, farm workers, and tipped workers, and for workers — many of whom are Black women and incarcerated people— who have been exploited and remain unprotected. This includes the immediate passage at the Federal and state level of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and extension of worker protections to incarcerated people.

The intersectionality stuff is a deeper insight into the problem. It goes deeper into the psychology of fascism, knowledge that’s badly needed among liberals right now.

The alt-right lives inside the left. Stupid black people!

Rorty was no fan of globalism; he was too much of a nationalist. In another eerie foreshadowing of Trump, he warned about the rise of a “cosmopolitan upper class,” entrepreneurs with no real roots in the U.S., much less in the working class. This “overclass” was served, he said, by “cultural cosmopolitanism,” the professors and managers who enjoyed comfortable lives serving the overclass while promoting racial, ethnic and gender equality and ignoring the workers.

In describing this process, Rorty makes a useful distinction. Selfishness, he says, causes the oppression of classes; sadism causes the oppression of minorities. The cultural left has fought for half a century against the sadists (of all classes and ethnicities), and scored some real victories. The sadistic right wing squawks about “political correctness,” but the term simply means showing respect for kinds of people the right wing would rather bully.

But the cultural left has abandoned the workers to the selfish right wing, which now owns most of the world’s wealth. The workers themselves often despise minorities (immigrants, Muslims, gays, First Nations) like their hardhat fathers, and no one’s willing to teach them better; no wonder Trump and his Republicans won so many of their votes.

The cultural left has brought a lot of people out of some suffocating closets, and that’s a worthwhile achievement. But it’s pointless if minority workers are still underpaid, and immigrant workers can’t find housing, and work itself is as rare on First Nations reserves as drinkable water.

Seen in the light of Rorty’s critique of the left, the last 20 years make a kind of horrible sense. The overclass has continued to amass most of the world’s wealth, with the eager help of the merely rich. Minority rights have improved, but economic inequality has grown worse.

When you think about it, isn’t the class-first emphasis a stereotypically white guy thing to do? Think about the money. The great thing about unions is making more money than poor people!

Note that the minorities are actively campaigning for an economic agenda that overlaps with his, but he’s discouraging interest in the other dimensions of oppression, which don’t affect him personally enough to care. He’s preserving his ability to sneer at black people, having suffered catastrophic political losses along with them. Well, he’s Canadian, but it’s all pretty similar.

Now a few astute racists and reactionaries have seized on the situation Rorty described, and exploited the workers on behalf of Trump and the overclass. They have cynically stolen the left’s old skepticism about globalism and free trade and made it a pillar of the new right wing.

The moral for Canada is pretty clear. The Canadian left has also largely deserted the workers while supporting minorities. The Liberals pretend there is no working class, only hard-working folks trying to escape it. The Conservatives’ scare themes, like hijabs and “barbaric cultural practices,” distract attention from workers’ real problems.

Canada’s left should focus instead on creating an educated, resilient working class — of all ethnicities and genders — that can demand its fair share of the nation’s wealth and respect. Richard Rorty’s book is a useful primer for anyone who wants to embark on helping create such a class.

All lives matter, blah blah blah.

Implicitly, he’s saying that minorities are snowflakes who worry about people hurting their feelings as they’re too dumb to see themselves getting fucked over economically. He just has no idea what sort of things a black person would even worry about. It’s just annoying that they’re distracting everyone from getting him a nice union job so he can finally buy a boat or remodel his kitchen or something.

Is this person my political ally? It’s true that implementing his agenda would help. But how do you work with someone who’s resolute about denying your reality? You can’t. Effectiveness also requires mutual trust, which is why so much federal effort goes towads undermining it. I simply couldn’t trust him, on a personal level. I get the vibe that he could go out for beers with some Trump people and talk about sports. I’ve had very good work relationships with Mormons. One of the few people I got close enough to that I’d give him rides home sometimes. I explained anarchism to him once and he listened respectfully. He empathized with my marital problems. I get it. I still don’t think it would be wise to collaborate with him on a political project.

We could relate on that “You’re kinda awkward and Mormon and I’m kinda awkward and used to be Jehovah’s Witness” level.

Anyway, what worries me is that other people read these articles and don’t know how to tell that a bunch of sophistry about sadism and selfishness means “white men” and “Others.” Redefinition of terms is a rhetorical move.

Philosophy and rhetoric aren’t usually taught in high school, but they are in debate. The thing about debate is that the rules are incredibly complicated, and the debate coach was whichever poor English teacher had to spend most weekends for a season driving teenagers in big white vans full of photocopies across the state. In other words, the team was self-sustaining in that the senior people on the team taught the younger people, and the coach hung back a lot. When I think about it, it’s crazy something that critical pedagogy even happened in a Navy town. Of course the team no longer exists.

Digressions…I distinctly remember hearing a lecture about Aristotle and how there were appeals to ethos, logos, and pathos. 9th grade. Just understanding that there ARE those three things would improve the public’s media literacy tremendously.

Then we learned the word phallogocentrism because it’s funny. Thus the seeds of queer theory were planted. LOL dicks, age 14 or 15. They taught us about using Heidegger and Derrida as a lens to understand the Vietnam war. Fuck yeah Spanos kritik.

Mystified and utterly frustrated by the enemy’s decentered “invisibility,” the agencies conducting the war eventually reacted to the uncanny impasse in the same, if deviously rational, way that Lieutenant Calley did: they unleashed overtly and massively the latent (racist) violence inhering in the liberal democratic (“can do”) representation of American intervention in Vietnam. It was, to be specific, the subversion of their inscribed assumption of presence and desire for and expectation of closure–the resolution of the narrative that promised decisive victory–that, after, 1965, provoked the full fury of American technology against all the Vietnamese: the saturation B-52 bombings that decimated the Vietnamese landscape and contributed to making the agrarian people of Vietnam a population of refugees; the indiscriminate use of herbicides like Agent Orange that defoliated and contaminated vast areas of the earth of Vietnam; the mechanized “search and destroy” (later re-coded as “search and clear”) missions and the bracketing of “free-fire zones” that resulted in the undifferentiated destruction of entire villages and untold numbers of villagers; the systematic, concealed brutalization and torture of prisoners of war, and of those villagers suspected of being “Viet Cong,” that spread terror throughout the Vietnamese populace; and the various “pacification” projects: the relocation of the peasantry in what were euphemistically called “New Life Hamlets,” but which…were more like concentration camps. One catches a glimpse of the awful violence of the American command’s policy of “attrition”–the concentrated American impulse to force a rational/technological solution on the recalcitrantly de-centered context generated by the anticlimactic strategy of the NLF and NVA…

The military response to the differential nomadic counterstrategy of the NLF and NVA took the form of an advanced technological bludgeoning (Nievellierung, “leveling,” to appropriate the term Heidegger uses to characterize the representational and dedifferentiating discursive practices of the modern “age of the world picture”) that resulted in the apparently gratuitous but in fact systematic…mass killing and maiming of an untold number of Vietnamese peasants. Simultaneously–and equally significant in the context of the outpouring of moral outrage precipitated by the reinvocation of Heidegger’s “identification” of the mechanization of agriculture and the “manufacture of corpses in the gas chambers and the death camps”–it involved the systematic technological laying waste (leveling) of vast amounts of the Vietnamese earth (I stress this word, despite the problems it poses, to alienate the predictably derisive representation by contemporary liberal humanists of Heidegger’s invocation of die Erde and/or die Volk as an unqualified and dangerous form of nostalgic idolatry)…

It must not be overlooked, as it callously was by those who directed the American intervention in Vietnam (and even those liberal humanists who protested against the intervention as immoral), that for the Vietnamese peasantry the earth they cultivated was not, as it has become in the “developed” Occident, simply a technologically exploitable space.

It felt like an achievement to learn all the terminology to understand that. I wasn’t very successful with this argument, compared to queer theory. Other big kritiks were the kritik of realism in international relations, threat construction (social constructionism applied to national security), the kritik of international borders, critical race theory, critical legal studies.

The source of that Spanos passage is a book called “Heidegger and Criticism,” which is an argument that Heidegger’s philosophy is OK despite the Nazism, and the people bringing it up are untrustworthy conservative culture warriors.

On the other hand, Spanos is trustworthy because he speaks from compelling personal experience (being an American POW held by Germans during the Dresden bombing, In the Neighborhood of Zero):

On seeing the inert body of this beautiful young girl, whom death had not allowed the time to mature into a woman, I was filled with profound sorrow. How many more like this innocent child had suffered the same inexplicable and ruthlessly violent death? But then I realized that there was something that didn’t ring true about this emotion. It made a personified Death the always immune murderer of the countless innocent children like this one who had suffered terrible deaths during the firebombing of the city, whereas in reality the murders was committed [sic] by the British and American bombers who had been sent on and guided through this mission by the Allied military commanders hovering over their map of Europe in an operations room a thousand and more kilometers away, pushing model aircraft–the target of their deadly game, Dresden–with long cue sticks toward their doomed destination. My sorrow became contaminated with anger over the utter senselessness–and the incredible insensitivity–of these callous perpetrators of this very real apocalypse.

Suddenly, without premeditation, I picked the dead girl up in my arms in a wild protective gesture and then, awakened by the utter futility of my impulsive act, felt at a loss about what to do with my lifeless burden. I looked around at my comrades, at our guards, at the smoldering waste of the city in a state of turbulent confusion. Then I looked at the girl’s face. Its features–fair, delicate, oval shaped, high cheekbones, catlike eyes, and petite–bore an uncanny resemblance to Kathryn. For an instance all the borders that separated and distinguished “us” from “them” were down. It seemed like the end of something, the reduction of Everything to nothing, the All to a “zero zone,” but also, in a way–it was so faint an impulse–that I could not fathom then, a beginning. And without warning I began to sob uncontrollably as I rocked the dead girl cradled in my arms in the midst of those ruins.

Our German guards and my comrades were taken aback momentarily by my erratic, not to say unmanly, behavior and in that state of surprise said nothing until my crying had run its course. We were, I can imagine, a grotesque still life–I, holding the dead girl in my arms staring out vacantly beyond our immediate desolate location; the motley German Volksturm guards, uncertain about what to do; the Kommando of American prisoners, embarrassed at my emotional breakdown (retrospectively, I was grateful that Tex was not one of them); the venerable city below a sickly grayish yellow pall of smoke lying in ashes all around us as far as our eyes could see…

No sooner than we heard these commands, I found myself, the dead girl’s limp body still in my arms, face to face with a middle-aged woman who, unseen by the policemen until it was too late, had slipped through the roped-off area and come to where we were standing..Her black eyes, ringed by the shadows of fatigue, were blazing. She looked piercingly into mine. Without saying a single word, she spit, full force, into my face. She then grabbed the dead girl out of my arms.

By this time two of the policemen had arrived at the scene. One rescued the dead body of the child; the other took hold of the flailing woman and led her away. With that acute sting of her fiery spit, the last vestige of my identity as an American–the image by which I had hitherto lived my life–curdled up and withered into ash…

Despite my effort to rationalize the carnage perpetrated by our side–this was a just war that had been initiated by an evil regime–I couldn’t, as before, make my argument take hold. I had experienced a vaguely defined evil for which there simply was no justification. I couldn’t formulate the feeling of anger and frustration I felt then, but it was persistent, a haunting specter, to the end of the war and many years thereafter. And it had precisely to do with bearing witness to, remembering, indeed re-membering, those thousands upon thousands of innocent lives that our incendiary bombs had wiped out–dismembered–and deprived of their stories in less than twenty-four hours.

Spanos made his academic career defending a Nazi, without being one. These class war uber alles progressives are accepting Rorty’s nationalism uncritically.

Isn’t it strange that I should side with the Nazi-defender in a free speech argument at a university? In this case, Heidegger’s Nazism is tangential to a lot of what he said, in the same way that Rorty’s nationalism is tangential to a lot of what he said. Their ideas had integrity in some areas but not others.