What happens when fatuousness meets fatuousness? We were recently given a splendid example in the Op-Ed pages of The New York Times. The protagonists were Richard Sennett, the woolly-headed guru of kinder, gentler cities, and Richard Rorty, the influential philosopher who has become an academic celebrity by purveying a mild-mannered, analgesic sort of nihilism. At the end of January, in an expostulation called “The Identity Myth,” Mr. Sennett provided us with an example of the garden-variety sort of fatuousness. The occasion for his piece was the Clinton administration’s proposal to hold a series of electronic “town meetings” that would be overseen by Sheldon Hackney, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The purpose of the televised meetings would be to soothe ethnic rivalries by showing how various groups “fit into the American dream.” Mr. Sennett criticized the proposal, and he was right to: it’s a truly fruity idea, yet another way to waste the taxpayer’s money. But the reasons Mr. Sennett offered for his criticism were even fruitier. He was against the electronic town meetings not because they would be a waste of time and money but because they would implicitly support the idea that there is such a thing as “an American identity.” For Mr. Sennett, the “very notion of an American identity is a sweeping stereotype” that must be resisted. He then went further, speaking of “the evil of a shared national identity.”
We can’t say we were particularly surprised by Mr. Sennett’s remarks. He has long specialized in what we have come to think of as the goulash school of “cultural criticism”: lots of sauce, no distinctions. Mr. Sennett knows that there are virulent forms of nationalism. He therefore decides that a healthy love of one’s country and an appreciation of its achievements must be symptoms of incipient fascism. It’s silly, maybe even pernicious in its naïveté, but it is prefabricated dogma in the academy today.
The surprise came a couple of weeks later when Mr. Rorty wrote in to criticize Mr. Sennett for being insufficiently … patriotic. Is Richard Rorty, the man who routinely warns us that there are “no such things” as moral facts, who denies that there are “any truths independent of language,” etc.—is this paragon of bien pensant academic radicalism now coming out in support of such an old-fashioned moral virtue as patriotism? Well, sort of. In fact, Mr. Rorty provided an example of the higher fatuousness confronting Mr. Sennett’s more plebian variety. He begins by speaking about the “academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views,” taking care to note that he is “glad” that these sanctuaries exist. Only there is one small problem: The academic Left “is unpatriotic.”
We are of course happy that Mr. Rorty, at least, has acknowledged that the academy is a “sanctuary” for left-wing sentiment. We’ve been pointing that out for years, only to be accused of right-wing paranoia and other unpleasant things. But what about patriotism? Should we not rejoice that Mr. Rorty has been vouchsafed the revelation that America is not a fount of evil and oppression? We’d like to. But we wonder what Mr. Rorty’s call for patriotism can mean when it stands in contradiction to everything else he teaches. Mr. Rorty has not changed his mind about anything fundamental. It’s just that he is worried by the spectacle of America-bashing that has become routine on college campuses. So he wants us to be thorough- going relativists who have jettisoned any commitment to truth but who are sensible enough to behave properly and display a degree of patriotic sentiment. It’s an untenable demand, a prescription for fatuousness. Mr. Rorty concludes by noting that “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.” We fear he’s wrong about the first item—the election of Bill Clinton shows that. But about the second, we can only say that it’s much later than he thinks.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 7, on page 1
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