Dear Friends and Readers,
“A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.”
–Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
“My barn having burned down / I now can see the moon.”
Many of us, who are interested in progressive education and liberalism, are aware of ideas that can be materialized and put into practice for the welfare of people in every aspect of their lives: jobs, housing, schools, healthcare, and whatever else concerns their civil rights. We therefore wonder what has happened with what was once the most identifiable brand of American philosophy, namely pragmatism—a philosophy that is invested in matters of fact, and tangible results?
The philosophy of pragmatism has its roots in the beginning of the United States. It began with the theologian Jonathan Edwards, tutored by Dr. Samuel Johnson at Yale University (a phenomenologist and benefactor of the synthesis of increased secularization and progressive ideas passed down from John Locke, among others), who combined the old and new thinking. As our friend Barbara Novak, the renowned art historian, once said in a Rail interview:
“[Edwards] was concerned with pragmatic, ad-hoc experience. When he was in Stockbridge teaching Indian children, he insisted, ‘We must teach them things as words.’…That related—in the temporal jump—to William James, who has his feet on the same ground. As he said: ‘If you have one real raisin instead of the word raisin, and one egg instead of the word egg, it might be an inadequate meal, but what you end up having is a commencement of reality.’”
This practicality of pragmatism is what has made the U.S. so uniquely different from Europe, and the rest of the world for that matter. Most of us are aware that at the turn of the 20th century there arose a progressive moment aspiring to build a new kind of democratic community that, in the wake of industrial capitalism, would have responsibility shared among the people themselves rather than the preservation of the rights of the individual against the state alone. People needed to be together to be effective. We are indeed reminded again and again that this progressive moment entails progressive education, and a social liberalism that endorses and cultivates important social issues including an honest addressing of inequality, voting rights for minorities, affirmative action, reproductive and other women’s rights, support for LGBT rights, immigration reform, and the protection of the environment—an impetus and energy which, when lost, became known as the agony of the American Left.
Many of us, who care for the healthy conscience of progressive thinking to continue to grow with new spirit and direction, are also aware of the two sides of the left: a Cultural Left and a Progressive Left. In his now classic Achieving Our Country (an adaptation of a series of lectures at Harvard University, published in 1998) Richard Rorty incisively pointed out that in spite of the insightful assertions that post-structuralists and post-modernists such as Michel Foucault and Jean-Françoise Lyotard have made about various maladies of society, they either offered no alternative solutions or simply dwelled on the problems as problematic. Rorty instead proposed a possibility, for the Progressive Left to regain its strength and conviction, it must readapt the philosophical spirit of pragmatism. In fact, the following prophetic message from Achieving our Country makes our current social/political condition more urgent than ever:
Members of labor unions, and unorganized and 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 around 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. . . . Once the strongman takes office, no one can predict what will happen. [Again, published in 1998.]
Many of the Trump voters among the white working-class had once voted for Obama and felt deceived by the 2008 slogans of “Hope” and “Change.” Voting for Trump’s new slogan “Make America Great Again” seemed inevitable, and rightly so for they have suffered severely from the neoliberal policies of the past generation. The question is, can the plain and simple redistributionist solutions of raising minimum wage from what Bernie Sanders had proposed be effective, if approached with prepared and organized activism? Without a doubt, many of us believe that we can win back the same people who voted for Trump. One thing everyone has come to realize about Trump is his form of entertainment has proven to be boring, and he is a bore, as Benjamin Disraeli once said “Bore: one who has the power of speech but not the capacity for conversation.”
Welcome to the fall my friends.
P.S. On behalf of the Rail, I’d like to send our deep thanks to our summer production assistants Anna Bonesteel, Kelton Ellis, Vered Engelhard, Anna Lee, Cal McKeever, and Kikuko Tanaka. It was they who helped to fortify our warm and stimulating democratic community, and the new spirit and vital energy that will be continuing to the future. They shall be missed. This issue is dedicated to the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
PHONG BUI is the Publisher and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.