On the bookstore magazine rack were several copies of Dissent. The cover piqued my interest because it advertised an article by Richard Rorty, an academic philosopher and a professor of mine at Princeton in 1977.
Rorty’s contribution to Dissent, part of a multi-author retrospective on the impeachment of President Clinton appearing in the Spring 1999 edition, is entitled “Saved From Hypocrisy.” Its thesis is that the public indifference to the President’s sex life has had the beneficial effect of hurting the political fortunes of social-issue conservatives (“the hypocrites of the Christian Right”). Now, he writes, the only impediment to a just and compassionate society are the economic conservatives (“greedheads”) who will henceforth gain ascendancy in the Republican Party. But the “greedheads,” at least, are free from hypocrisy: “[T]hey are not trying to reduce politics to a battle between the pure and the impure.”
It took grit to read Rorty’s stream of invective against socially conservative Republicans (among whom I count myself). But even more difficult to stomach was the spectacle of a “philosopher” of apparently powerful intellect and wit stooping to the grossest level of leftist ad hominem.
Two decades ago at Princeton, Rorty was held in high esteem for his intelligence and self-effacing humor. A friend told me that I should sign up for Rorty’s class because he was both smart and funny. Indeed, his great popularity as a lecturer owed much to his ability to keep students amused for the better part of 50 minutes.
Like most of his students, I did find him amusing. While suffering from mononucleosis and strep throat, I even went AWOL from the campus infirmary so I would not miss his final lecture of the term. A typical college freshman, I was struggling with profound questions of belief Naively, perhaps, I had a habit of signing up for philosophy and religion courses in the search for Truth. As Professor Rorty’s class was supposed to be a survey of philosophy, I supposed I might find some truth mixed in with the mirth. My hope was disappointed, for the course was really nothing more than an introduction to skepticism —not only about religious belief, but about the very existence of reason and truth. Advertised as “philosophy,” it was, in fact, anti-philosophy.
As a student, I was in no position to challenge the prevailing beliefs of those who posed as teachers. And, like most students, I had just enough savoir faire to know that opposing what later became known as “political correctness” amounted to academic suicide. So, for the most part, I kept my own counsel.
But even as an artless undergraduate, I had a half-articulated idea that Rorty’s deconstructionism must necessarily self-destruct. For one cannot make a reasoned argument (that is, an argument calculated to convince anyone else) that does not posit reason as its standard. There must be some irreducible truth upon which we can agree, before we can even begin to have the kind of public discourse about ideas that philosophy entails.
Rorty’s aim, however, was to demolish the very concept of truth. In doing so, he also destroyed his own ability to construct a cogent argument. Cogency entails supporting one’s major point by establishing the truth—or at least the plausibility—of one’s subsidiary points. Rorty utterly fails to do this. In fact, he shows himself to be a serial question-beggar.
To be convinced that the public was right to reject the supposed hypocrisy of the Christian Right, one must first hold a series of supporting beliefs. One must believe that members of the Christian Right do not act according to their stated beliefs, that the public knows it, and that the public decided to punish them for such hypocrisy. More fundamentally, one must presume that the entire impeachment was about illicit sex rather than the obstruction of the judicial process. And one must disregard completely the roles that the media and presidential politics played in the unfolding of events. For all these reasons, Rorty’s thesis that the public is punishing the “religious right” for its hypocritical attacks on Clinton is simplistic in the extreme. And it is not even very original, having been adopted long ago by most middle-brow pundits.
The sloppiness of Rorty’s argument, unbecoming a philosopher, is not so surprising coming from a person with an a priori commitment to liberal political beliefs. For the true object of Rorty’s Dissent article is not to meditate on the “larger meaning” of the impeachment, but to vilify his political adversaries and gloat over their defeat.
The article illustrates and confirms a larger truth about academic “liberals,” the group of “New Yorker-reading academics” in which Rorty includes himself In an attempt to destroy the institutions they hate (tradition, morality, public virtue), they seek to destroy the very foundations (God, reason, truth) of those institutions. But, in doing so, the liberals hurt their own cause. Having destroyed objective truth, they have destroyed the only basis on which to engage in public discourse with people who do not already share their conclusions. Discourse descends to the level of pure assertion, unsupported by any reasoning. From there, it descends even further, into unadulterated ridicule of one’s adversaries—ridicule which has ceased to be funny because it merely presumes the conclusion that one’s enemies are laughable.
When scorners of God and reason wield political power, they are much to be feared. They are apt to do just as they please, precisely because they believe that there is no ultimate power to restrain them. Indeed, in our national political life, those who are a law unto themselves now appear to hold sway. Even in the sphere of life we share beyond the narrow realm of elective polities, the “liberals” have attempted to impose their nihilism—by force if necessary—on our culture.
Fortunately, Richard Rorty’s solipsistic musings pose no grave threat to the future of mankind. His Dissent audience most probably consists of people who already agree with him. It is not likely to grow, because he is incapable of making a reasoned argument from shared beliefs; rather, he has consigned himself to recycling premises dressed up to look like conclusions. And he is no longer funny, at least to grown-ups.