A Review of Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country”

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For having been written many years ago (published in 1998) the Richard Rorty book “Achieving Our Country” has drawn plenty of attention lately. The Rorty book has been republished, with new stories in the New York Times, Vox and other media highlighting some of the very prescient observations made by Rorty in this book.

This attention to Rorty has been driven by the results of the 2016 Presidential election, and Rorty’s analysis of the “split” in the left that he posits would lead to a divorce between a “cosmopolitan elite” and the working class whites who had been a mainstay of the New Deal Democratic coalition. Rorty identifies the mid-sixties as the time in which the “reformist left” split from the “new left,” with the so called “new left” becoming ascendant, and focusing more on “identity politics” than on bread and butter issues that had traditionally driven the “reformist left.” Rorty is self identified as a member of the “reformist, anti-communist left,” but has strong words of support for the “new left” efforts to address the major social injustices (sadism) that existed for so many in the United States. But this effort, in Rorty’s telling, took the left away from the traditional connection to union households, and away from the issue of growing economic inequality in the United States. 

“During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It is as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time- as if either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.”

Rorty believed that increasing economic inequality, and the preoccupation of the left with “identity politics” would open the door for a right wing demagogue to use populist rhetoric to seize political power. Rorty passed away long before 2016, but he did identify a major trend line that was coming, and that many just did not see. He even identifies Patrick Buchanan, the godfather, in my opinion, of Trumpism, as a right wing populist seeking to exploit the growing economic inequality being felt in the United States. Rorty, in discussing the economic pain of many American families, brings issues forward that are currently exploding on the political landscape. 

“Unless something unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to grow in America. Indeed, it is easy to imagine things getting much worse much faster. This is because a good deal of the insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor market- a trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefinitely.”

He focuses on the impacts of globalization, and writes the following: 

“Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result in only depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises. The increasing dependence of American universities on gifts from abroad, of American political parties on bribes from abroad, and of the economy on foreign sales of Treasury bonds are examples of the tendencies which are at work.”

The “cosmopolitan elite” are further defined by Rorty: 

“This frightening economic cosmopolitanism has, as a by-product, an agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism. Platoons of vital young entrepreneurs fill the front cabins of transoceanic jets, while the back cabins are weighted down with paunchy professors like myself, zipping off to interdisciplinary conferences held in pleasant places. Bit this newly-acquired cultural cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty- five percent of Americans. The new economic cosmopolitanism presages a future in which the other 75 percent of Americans will find their standard of living steadily shrinking. We are likely to wind up with an America divided into hereditary social castes. This America will be run by what Michael Lind (in The Next American Nation) has called the “overclass,” the highly educated and expensively groomed top 2.5 percent. One of the scariest social trends is illustrated by the fact that in 1979 kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were four times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter; now they are ten times more likely.”

Sound familiar? There is much more that sounds like it was written in 2016. Rorty looks at two alternatives to dealing with world-wide economic inequality. The first would be a globalist solution, while the second is a “take care of our own citizens” solution. The difference?
“The first solution suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.” The political divide on immigration may be the very largest gulf in an extremely polarized society in 2017, and played a major role in the ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Rorty appears to have seen this one coming many years ago. 

Beyond immigration Rorty saw the great big wedge that free trade would be for right wing populism. With economic security slipping away for so many free trade has come into the crosshairs: 

“Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders-as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse , we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our own citizens.”

Sounds like it could have been written by Steve Bannon, and it certainly was the linchpin of the assault on the Hillary Clinton candidacy by Donald Trump. It also provided to us a hint of the divide to come in Democratic politics, with Bernie Sanders decrying Democratic support for free trade, and condemning the “corporatists” in the Party who he believes have sold out working people. Clinton, at heart a free trader, could never truly give a cogent answer on the trade question, tripping badly in the primaries and in the general election in the face of the anti-trade groundswell. She lost Michigan in both.

Rorty accurately predicts the coming “crack” that will rupture traditional politics. 

“…is that 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. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking 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.”

And the Trump era begins. Rorty even manages to hit on a theme you hear, ad nauseam, from the right, about rejecting politically correct speech: 

“All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” 

Rorty speculates that this “backlash” has the potential to roll back gains made by minority groups over the past forty years, and we can see some of that prophecy coming to pass with efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, and in so many other areas.

For a book published in 1998 the analysis is fairly well thought out, and accurate. Rorty certainly, in my opinion, oversimplifies some concepts, including the dichotomy between “reformist” and “new” left. His prescription for curing the “sadism” suffered by so many in American society in the run up to 1964 is unclear to me. Despite those criticisms it is a book worth reading, especially for Democrats. His discernment of how the forces he identified would change American politics was and is truly amazing.

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A link to the VOX story on the Rorty book.

The New York Times story on the Rorty book.

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A Review of David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest

The Best and the BrightestThe Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A true masterpiece. It is hard to believe that I am reading this book in 2017, but it is still relevant today, offering insights that policy makers can still learn from. To that end I was reminded of this book by a news report that Steve Bannon was spotted with a copy of the book at an airport. Yes, very relevant today.

Halberstam does a deep dive here, looking back at the historical record, rolling back to Truman and Acheson, looking at how the political scars of the “who lost China” meme impacted the U.S. psyche, how the Joseph McCarthy campaigns, over by 1960, exercised gravitational pull on the foreign policy establishment, most especially the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs in the Department of State. Halberstam shows us how, in the run up to the Kennedy Administration, the GOP assault on “who lost China” managed to not only ruin the careers of many qualified people, but that “realistic” policy ideas on China, and Indochina were just not welcome at the State Department. From the book:

“Of the things I had not known when I started out, I think the most important was the degree to which the legacy of the McCarthy period still lived. It had been almost seven years since Joe McCarthy had been censured when John Kennedy took office, and most people believed that his hold on Washington was over. … among the top Democrats, against whom the issue of being soft on Communism might be used, and among the Republicans, who might well use the charge, it was still live ammunition. …

McCarthyism still lingered … The real McCarthyism went deeper in the American grain than most people wanted to admit … The Republicans’ long, arid period out of office [twenty years, ended by the Eisenhower administration], accentuated by Truman’s 1948 defeat of Dewey, had permitted the out-party in its desperation, to accuse the leaders of the governing party of treason. The Democrats, in the wake of the relentless sustained attacks on Truman and Acheson over their policies in Asia, came to believe that they had lost the White House when they lost China. Long after McCarthy himself was gone, the fear of being accused of being soft on Communism lingered among the Democratic leaders. The Republicans had, of course, offered no alternative policy on China (the last thing they had wanted to do was suggest sending American boys to fight for China) and indeed there was no policy to offer, for China was never ours, events there were well outside our control, and our feudal proxies had been swept away by the forces of history. But in the political darkness of the time it had been easy to blame the Democrats for the ebb and flow of history.

The fear generated in those days lasted a long time, and Vietnam was to be something of an instant replay after China. The memory of the fall of China and what it did to the Democrats, was, I think, more bitter for Lyndon Johnson than it was for John Kennedy. Johnson, taking over after Kennedy was murdered and after the Kennedy patched-up advisory commitment had failed, vowed that he was not going to be the President of the United States who lost the Great Society because he lost Saigon. In the end it would take the tragedy of the Vietnam War and the election of Richard Nixon (the only political figure who could probably go to China without being Red-baited by Richard Nixon) to exorcise those demons, and to open the door to China.”

So group think took over, with no room for nuance, and a total failure to recognize that the communist world was not a monolith. With this mindset prevalent recognizing the nationalism of Ho Chi Minh, or the long history of enmity between China and Vietnam, was not possible, or desired. The idea that real trouble could erupt between China and the Soviet Union was not something on the minds of those making U.S. foreign policy.

Halberstam effectively shows us the history preceding JFK, and gives us extensive background on the Kennedy team that took over in 1961. The book provides biographical data on “The Best and the Brightest” that joined the Kennedy Administration, renowned as whiz kids as they came into government. The focus is on Robert McNamara, an auto executive turned Defense Secretary with an astounding ability to quantify issues and policy, always believing that problems could be solved by the application of superior brainpower. George Ball, McGeorge Bundy, Maxwell Taylor, and of course Dean Rusk are examined in detail. With all that brain power how could things have gone so wrong?

The book is not ideological, and in my view has a very good grasp of some of the political considerations that played a role in decisions made by JFK, and then LBJ. Halberstam counts JFK as one of the whiz kids, but he does not spare Kennedy from criticism, providing an unvarnished view of his actions that at least started the train rolling down the track to the disaster that Vietnam became. JFK, at least in my view, likely had a better grasp of the nonsense propagated by the military, but kept the ball moving forward, slowly, towards American military escalation. The lessons that should have been taken from the massive defeat suffered by the French were ignored, and JFK, with fears of being considered soft, allowed an expansion of U.S. involvement. Halberstam cites a Kennedy conversation on China policy as instructive as to how he would approach some foreign policy issues:

“Early on, when Stevenson and Bowles repeatedly mentioned China to Kennedy, saying that the policy was absurd and that it was urgent to try to change it, Kennedy would smile and agree and say yes, it was a stupid policy, but it would all have to wait. Until the second term. It could not be changed now. There was a limit to the things he could do.”

I got the sense that Kennedy felt he might be able to kick the Vietnam can down the road as well, looking to make real decisions about involvement after 1964. With little evidence I also believe JFK more likely to have cut our losses there rather than allowing the escalation that led to ruin. LBJ carefully hid the actions on Vietnam until after his election in 1964, and then, feeling his options (as he understood them) closed, turned to military escalation, buying into the utter nonsense being sold by the military. He would give Ho Chi Minh a little “touch-up,” and Ho would sue for peace. A more severe miscalculation by an American leader would be hard to identify, with some similarity to the one made later by George W. Bush in Iraq.

So what happened? Were the principals simply guilty of political and military miscalculation? A lack of understanding of Vietnam? This book shows how hubris, and buying into “facts” on the ground that were easily debunked as false, kept driving the U.S. effort until it could no longer continue, and had destroyed the Presidency of LBJ. The book deals with how Eisenhower, being pushed by Dulles to intervene to save the French in 1954, simply would not buy in. He was aided in that determination by one of the military people who had it right, General Matthew Ridgway. MacArthur’s successor as commander in Korea, Ridgway undertook a look at what would be needed for a “successful” intervention in Indochina. What did he find? From the book:

“The answers were chilling: minimal, five divisions and up to ten divisions if we wanted to clear out the enemy (as opposed to six divisions in Korea), plus fifty-five engineering battalions, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 men, plus enormous construction costs. The country had nothing in the way of port facilities, railroads and highways, telephone lines. We would have to start virtually from scratch, at a tremendous cost. The United States would have to demand greater mobilization than in Korea, draft calls of 100,000 a month. Nor would the war be as easy as Korea, where the South Koreans had been an asset to the troops in the rear guard. It was more than likely that in this political war the population would help the Vietminh (Ridgway was thus willing to make this crucial distinction that everyone glossed over in 1965). Instead of being like the Korean War it would really be more like a larger and more costly version of the Philippine insurrection, a prolonged guerrilla war, native against Caucasian, which lasted from 1899 to 1913 and which had been politically very messy. Nor did the Army permit the White House the luxury of thinking that we could get by only with air power. Radford’s plans for an air strike were contingent on seizure of China’s Hainan Island, which seemed to guard the Tonkin Gulf, because the Navy did not want to enter the gulf with its carriers and then have Chinese airbases right behind them. But if we captured Hainan, the Chinese would come across with everything they had; then it was not likely to remain a small war very long.”

Ridgway, in 1954, had the military component exactly right, with the added bonus of recognition of the political support enjoyed by the Viet Minh. Analysis existed in the JFK/LBJ Administrations that showed that a bombing campaign could not:
1. Change the political calculus of Ho, or harm the North Vietnamese economy enough to force them to the peace table, or
2. Interdict either North Vietnamese supplies or troops flowing South.

This analysis, known to the military and political leadership, was ignored. Manpower analysis, which showed that introduction of more U.S. personnel into the war could be matched by the North, was also ignored. The U.S. embarked on both courses of action, with the bombing of the North failing to interdict supplies or manpower, or bring the North to its knees.. The expansion of the U.S. military footprint, sold by the military as a way to overwhelm the enemy, simply escalated the violence, as the North introduced additional manpower to match. Although the military issued glowing reports about the military and political progress being made, the Tet offensive blew those lies apart, and put some light onto the long deception that had occurred by the military in its war reporting. That deception was put forward not only by the military, but by McNamara as well.

McNamara did not need this book to destroy his reputation, but it certainly played a large role in so doing. Rusk comes out not much better, an antiquated player failing to adapt. The U.S. mindset, anti-colonial under FDR, shifted gears after Roosevelt’s death, with generic anti-communism overwhelming every other possible principle. LBJ was a prisoner of this mindset, ever fearful of “losing Vietnam” and suffering the same political fate as those who had “lost China.” His belief that an exit, on favorable terms, could be facilitated by military expansion, led him to make bad decision after bad decision. This book exposes the bad judgements, inexplicable military decisions, and flat out dishonesty of the U.S. policy makers that led us into Vietnam. The book is renowned, and after all the years I know why. A final note, on Steve Bannon carrying the book. A short snippet has Averill Harriman answering an inquiry from Khrushchev on the true power structure in the United States. Not who held office, but who held power: From the book:

“Harriman had been the perfect figure for the Democratic party in foreign affairs in the Roosevelt-Truman years, a full-blown true-blue capitalist who had the allegiance of his class and yet was a party partisan on domestic issues as well. He was the party’s most legitimate capitalist, and foreign governments, including the Soviet, knew that he spoke not just for an Administration but for the power structure as well. (When Khrushchev came to America in 1959, he asked Harriman to round up the real power structure of America for him, not the paper power structure. Harriman did just that, thus confirming to Khrushchev that his own view of who held power in America, as opposed to that of those who thought they held power in America, was correct, which it probably was.”

We have identified the existence of the “deep state.”

View all my reviews

The C-Span look at the David Halberstam book.

Books that might be good follow ups to this.

Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate by Ken Hughes

Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint chiefs of Staff by H.R. McMaster

The Memoirs of Richard Nixon by Richard Nixon

White House Years by Henry Kissinger

The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969 by Lyndon Johnson

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Seabrook Beach Fire, Catalano’s Market

Below is the description, from the Seabrook Fire Department,of the massive fire at Seabrook Beach that destroyed Catalano’s Market. Our sincere thanks to the Seabrook Fire Department personnel, as well as those from surrounding communities, that battled this blaze in truly difficult conditions. Chief William Edwards was on the site at 3:30 am, and did a great job managing the scene, with Deputy Koko Perkins. We managed to get through this event with none of our people injured. Our thoughts and prayers are with those displaced by the fire, and to the Catalano family.

On March 15 we had a 3-Alarm Fire at Catalano’s Market on the corner of River Street and Rte 1a. We were notified of the fire at 3:13am. We had extremely cold temperatures mixed with 40-50mph winds. The structure was well involved upon arrival. Luckily all residents were able to get out prior to our arrival.
The environmental conditions and building construction made extinguishing the fire and initial fire attack very difficult. We were able to keep the fire from spreading to adjacent buildings. No residents or firefighters were hurt.
We are extremely thankful of the following departments from 3 states that came to our aid this morning.
Seabrook Fire Department would like to thank the Seabrook Police Department, Seabrook Water Department, Seabrook DPW, North Hampton Fire, Hampton Fire, Hampton Falls Fire, Exeter Fire, East Kingston Fire, South Hampton Fire, Kensington Fire, Portsmouth Fire, Rye Fire, Amesbury Fire, Salisbury Fire, Newbury Fire, Newburyport Fire, York Rehab Unit, and Seacoast Chiefs Fire Officer Mutual Aid.
All in all we had 14 different communities respond and roughly 40-50 firefighters on scene.
Our thoughts are with the Catalano’s during this difficult time.

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Dave Mason at the Blue Ocean Music Hall November 2016

Dave Mason came to the Blue Ocean Music Hall last year in November, and did the entire Alone Together album, plus some other goodies. Really good show by Dave, who can still let it rip. I know there is still some tension with Steve Winwood, but it would be nice to see them play together a few more times. From that Blue Ocean show, from Alone Together, “World in Changes.”

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The Seabrook Water Department Presentation on 2017 Warrant Articles

The Seabrook Water Department has created the attached slide show to highlight the warrant articles that they have put forth for Town Meeting on March 14, 2017. Article 10, on Anne’s Lane, deserves a little attention. This line is undersized, but more importantly, has cracked frequently, forcing us to constantly repair it. Even after repairs it provides inadequate water pressure to the homes served. The Board of Selectmen have authorized the utilization of Unexpended Fund Balance to finance the anticipated costs, which leaves no impact to the taxpayers. It would be a good investment, and allow us to replace the old and faulty one inch line with an 8 inch line that meets the needs of our residents, and comports to the existing water ordinance. Please get out and vote.

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Seabrook Fire Department 2017 Warrant Article Presentation

The Seabrook Fire Department has put together a short slide show on the warrant articles impacting their Department in 2017. It is attached below. Get out and vote on March 14, 2017.

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Seabrook Earns Big Money Through Public Auctions

The Seabrook Board of Selectmen have created centralized purchasing by policy, which has led to savings in procurement across the enterprise. As part of this major reform the Board abolished the position of Projects Clerk, and created the position of Procurement Manager. Since that time Procurement Manager Shaylia Marquis has brought the process of requesting public property surplus back to where it needs to be, with all requests for disposition of public property submitted to the Board of Selectmen in public session for discussion and decision by the governing body. As part of this effort Ms. Marquis initiated a process to dispose of taxpayer property through the use of “public auctions,” with utilization of a national on line company Public Surplus. That company does not charge the Town for use of the system, with all costs borne by the buyer. This initiative has brought the taxpayers of Seabrook over $70,000 for the surplus of public items, including $40,000 for the disposition of a Town boat. Ms. Marquis has initiated a process where Town police cruisers coming off line are disposed off through this process. We have just sold our third cruiser through this process, and those proceeds have far exceeded the value taxpayers would have received from simply trading the cruisers in against the value of new cruisers. There has been much more to centralized procurement than this item, but it is a significant success. Congratulations to Procurement Manager Marquis for all of her hard work in bringing this success to the taxpayers of Seabrook.

Using Public Surplus in Seabrook

Seabrook Procurement Manager Shaylia Marquis using Public Surplus

News Coverage of Seabrook’s use of Public Auctions to Save Taxpayer Dollars.

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