Interviews April 1998

The Next Left

Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

Speaking of populist upsurges, the most successful person, so far, at addressing lunch-bucket economic concerns in America is Pat Buchanan. If the Left is going to be politically successful in the coming years it's going to have to effectively deploy the rhetoric of class. But how can you do this without sliding into the kind of nativist-protectionist jingoism that Buchanan falls into?

I think you can have a Left that isn't culturally conservative talking about lunch-bucket issues. You don't have to have a homophobic, racist version of populism. Protectionism is a separate question. I don't know how you avoid protectionism. I say at some point in the book that this seems to me the real dilemma facing the Left: without protectionism you just watch economic inequality growing in the old democracies. With protectionism you cut off the workers in the Third World and probably wreck the economy in other ways.

In your book you say that your left-most students are your favorite students. Is that just because you identify with them politically?

Yeah, they seem to me the most lively minds, the most curious, easiest to talk to, the people anxious to read the most books, stuff like that.

You've been teaching for quite a few years now—

Forty.

How do you think today's kids compare with earlier cohorts? I would guess, based on your book, that you think that today's students are less politically engaged than they were in the sixties.

Yeah, but in the sixties the kids I taught never dreamed they could possibly fall out of the middle class. And these kids think they could do it very easily. So they're just much more insecure.

And this makes them more politically engaged, or less?

I think it makes them less. It's as if they don't have time to think about politics. They've got to think about their careers.

So, was the activism of the sixties simply a matter of students having more time then?

I think it helped a lot. I think that the affluence of the country in the fifties and sixties made the civil-rights and antiwar movements possible.

In Arguing the World—a new documentary about four of the New York Intellectuals (Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, Irving Howe, and Irving Kristol)—the despair of Bell and Glazer at what was wrought by the New Left is palpable. They seem to see the student radicals as almost destroying the project of the Left. You're less critical of the revolutionaries of the late sixties. How would you explain your stance on the New Left, relative to Bell or Glazer's?

I think that the student Left of the sixties probably gets the credit for stopping the war, and if you can't take that away from them, then the fact that they said a lot of stupid things, that they alienated the unions—alienated Bell and Glazer, alienated a lot of people—is, well, you know, no big powerful movement that has accomplished something has avoided alienating a lot of people. Seems to me that it's time for the remnants of the old Left and the remnants of the sixties Left to get together and say that we're all part of the same overall trend, or share the same overall hopes.

To what degree do you think the distinction between the old Left and the New Left is reducible to just economic versus cultural?

I think the New Left, in the sense of the sixties Left, was as moved by economic issues as by cultural issues. The present academic Left isn't as moved by economic as cultural issues. I think that there's an academic Left that has obvious links to sixties radicalism, but you can't really bring them under the same umbrella.

Those are the notorious "tenured radicals."

Yeah.

In one of your lectures you say that the Left should try to "kick its philosophy habit." Isn't that an odd thing for you to say? You are an academic philosopher, still practicing. What exactly do you mean by kicking its philosophy habit?

The analogy I had in mind was with the Marxist discussion groups in the cubicles in City College, discussing dialectical materialism for hours and hours and hours, and eventually realizing that this wasn't much to the point of achieving the ends of social democracy, and that you couldn't get much out of Marx or anybody else in the way of knowing how to make political decisions for America. It seems to me that Marx has been replaced by Foucault these days, and people seem to believe that if you know enough about Lacan, Foucault, and Derrida, then somehow you're in a good position to think about politics. That seems to me just as false as the thirties idea that if you read a lot of Marx, Engels, and Lenin then you would be in a good position to think about politics.

So, in other words, stop theorizing and start organizing?

Yes, start thinking about specific reforms and stop trying to generalize about what stage of world history we're in.

Why do you think people gravitate to the theorizing? Is it just that it's intrinsically more interesting and less dispiriting?

It's easier and more fun.

What do you see as the role of literature and literary criticism for an activist, reformist Left?

Nothing special. I mean, it happens that somebody like Irving Howe was both a good literary critic and a good political activist. It's hard to think of anybody who meets that description today. But there's no reason there shouldn't be some in the future.

In other words, it's not a necessary requirement of an activist, reformist Left that there be good literary critics as part of it?

Not at all. It helps occasionally, but I don't think it's essential. What I find weird is the thought that the departments of English literature are now the left-most departments of the universities. That seems purely accidental. And it's no great help either to literary criticism or to politics.

If you were going to propose, say, three or four concrete policies, fairly general ones, that aim to rectify the widening gap between rich and poor, and mitigate the effects of globalization and worker displacement, what would they be?

Well, I tried to do this in an article in The Nation a while back. The things I listed were campaign financing, health care, and local financing of primary and secondary education. But that's a fairly arbitrary choice. My feeling is that as long as you pay the legislators salaries that are minute in comparison to what their peers are earning in business and law, and require them to raise 25 million bucks for TV ads to get reelected, the country will in effect be on sale. The level of bribery at this point has become so ridiculous and so accepted that unless that breaks there's just not much hope for democratic government. I think this is very widely believed among the electorate. But I don't think either party intends to do a damn thing about it.

In the Winter, 1998, issue of The Wilson Quarterly you contributed to a collection of articles, including one by E. O. Wilson, about whether all human knowledge can be reduced to a single set of principles. Have you read Wilson's book Consilience, which was excerpted in the March and April issues The Atlantic?

Yeah, Wilson sent me the manuscript of Consilience before I wrote the article for The Wilson Quarterly.

How would you characterize the nub of your disagreement with him?

Wilson's idea of consilience is one more ambitious attempt to set up a single discipline as if it were the keystone of culture. With Marx it was political economy. With Wilson it's evolutionary biology. It seems to me that specialists in a given area are always telling us that everything really comes back to their specialty, and Wilson is one more example of that.

Do you think Wilson's argument is more convincing than Marx's, because whereas Marx was arguing from a theoretical social-scientific perspective, Wilson is arguing from a naturalistic scientific one?

I don't think Wilson is arguing from a scientific perspective. I think he's just saying it would be nice if we could bring ethics, religion, and social science together on the basis of our knowledge of what's hardwired into the brain. The only sense in which that could be done would be if knowledge or brain physiology or evolutionary biology gave us a way of saying that this social experiment will work, that other social experiment won't work—that is, if it gave us policy directions. And there doesn't seem to me to be the slightest evidence that there's any way to get from hardwiring of the brain to what will and won't work in institutional policy. His book doesn't seem to me to show how you'd get from here to there.

Over the last four or five years or so, with Wilson's book, Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works, Robert Wright's book The Moral Animal, and a whole slew of books on evolutionary psychology, there seems to be a trend toward reducing all human behavior, all human society—in some ways all human knowledge—to a biological basis. Why do you think that is?

I wish I knew. It seems to me as desperate as the attempts by Reagan to find out what was going to happen in the Middle East by reading the Book of Revelation. I really don't understand what the attraction is. It's as if people thought if they could find a science then they wouldn't have to think politically anymore. That was one of the attractions of Marxism: if you really understood the basic determinants of everything then somehow your politics would be prescribed for you. But Marx at least had a good cause to take up—namely, the fact that the workers weren't getting enough money. Pinker and Wilson don't even have a good cause to take up.

If you're looking at the political landscape, say between now and the next presidential election, or the next two presidential elections, what do you foresee, not necessarily in terms of which party is going to win, but what's going to galvanize the electorate? Will anything galvanize the electorate?

I think it would galvanize the electorate if Clinton suddenly said, "I've been moving toward the center all my life, and it didn't work. The country is in much worse shape than when I took office six years ago, the trends have all been downhill, so I am going to start moving away from the center, and I am going to propose the following radical legislation."

Do you think there's any chance of that happening?

No, no. I think he's a remarkably decent and intelligent man, and I can't see why he doesn't do that, but I don't know whether it'll ever happen.

Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect. His article on television violence, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," appeared in the May, 1997, issue of The Atlantic.
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Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind and the award-winning Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent ShriverMore

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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