The unpatriotic academy

February 17, 1994|By Richard Rorty

Charlottesville, Va. -- MOST OF us, despite the outrage we may feel about governmental cowardice or corruption, and despite our despair over what is being done to the weakest and poorest among us, still identify with our country.

We take pride in being citizens of a self-invented, self-reforming, enduring constitutional democracy. We think of the United States as having distinctive national virtues and glorious -- if tarnished -- national traditions.

Many exceptions to this rule are found in colleges and universities, in academic departments that have become sanctuaries for left-wing political views. I am glad there are such sanctuaries, even though I wish we had a left more broadly based, less self-involved and less jargon-ridden than our present one.

But any left is better than none, and this one is doing a great deal of good for people who have gotten a raw deal in our society: women, African-Americans, gay men and lesbians. This focus on marginalized groups will, in the long run, help to make our country much more decent, more tolerant and more civilized. But there is a problem with this left: It is unpatriotic.

In the name of "the politics of difference," it refuses to rejoice in the country it inhabits. It repudiates the idea of a national identity, and the emotion of national pride.

This repudiation is the difference between traditional American pluralism and the new movement called "multiculturalism."

Pluralism is the attempt to make America what the philosopher John Rawls calls "a social union of social unions," a community of communities, a nation with far more room for difference than most.

Multiculturalism is turning into the attempt to keep these communities at odds with one another.

There is no incompatibility between respect for cultural differences and American patriotism.

Like every other country, ours has a lot to be proud of and a lot to be ashamed of. But a nation cannot reform itself unless it takes pride in itself -- unless it has an identity, rejoices in it, reflects upon it and tries to live up to it.

Such pride sometimes takes the form of arrogant, bellicose nationalism. But it often takes the form of a yearning to live up to the nation's professed ideals.

That is the desire to which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. appealed, and he is somebody every American can be proud of. It is just as appropriate for white Americans to take pride in Dr. King and in his (limited) success as for black Americans to take pride in Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey and their (limited) successes.

There is no contradiction between such identification and shame at the greed, the intolerance and the indifference to suffering that is widespread in the United States.

On the contrary, you can feel shame over your country's behavior only to the extent to which you feel it is your country. If we fail in such identification, we fail in national hope. If we fail in national hope, we shall no longer even try to change our ways.

Richard Rorty is professor of humanities at the University of Virginia.

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