For a culture to thrive, it needed to generate many ways of looking at the world, many strategies for solving problems, many perspectives. For that reason, poetic imagination—which offered one’s idiosyncratic views on life—was more powerful than philosophy.
For Rorty there was a clear political implication to the pragmatic view of language. “Competition for political leadership is in part a competition between differing stories about a nation’s self-identity,” he writes in Achieving Our Country. This is an idea that Barack Obama—one of the few contemporary politicians one could imagine being familiar with Rorty’s work—understood well. Obama told a story about American history in which his election was a culmination of imperfectly realized ideals that had been guiding America since its founding. Donald Trump—in a much more instinctual way—likewise understood this idea, and it is no accident that his political career began with the birther movement. He was telling a competing story about what it meant for a black man named Barack Hussein Obama to be elected president. In the political and cultural world we have inhabited ever since, Truth has most certainly gone on vacation.
Like any good instinctive pragmatist, Trump is thoroughly antifoundationalist...What about Trump’s followers? Do they really believe what they say about the election? Again: wrong question. Trump’s followers are in on the pragmatic secret that Truth has gone on vacation.
There is no special Truth existing on high that you can appeal to when the fascists are winning and you want to set your fellow citizens right. There’s just your vision, your interpretation, which has no more intrinsic validity than that of the fascists.
While Dick was still around, I was ill-equipped to offer an alternative to his vision. But I eventually became the sort of person the committed pragmatist has little time for: an idealist. I came to defend a capital-T Truth that is both traditional and foundational, grounded in what I take to be the three great human ideals: compassion, courage, and wisdom.
What makes an ideal? In my book Self and Soul, I argue that there are many factors involved. An ideal is difficult and demanding to reach. It requires great effort. And it is not self-interested—its realization benefits not only the idealist but those around her. The ideals place the individual outside of time, in an eternal present, at least while she is pursuing them.
America has long been a nation of ideals. People have been stirred by the Founders’ commitment to equality and their endorsement of freedom...American culture has always sustained a tension between the ideal and the pragmatic, and this tension is necessary....But if some nations have proven susceptible to toxic idealist nonsense, Americans have become more and more receptive to toxic pragmatic nonsense...With the declining belief in American ideals of equality, freedom, and democracy, the balance between pragmatism and idealism has blown up. Pragmatism has won the field, and Donald Trump has shown us quite clearly where pragmatism unchecked by idealism leads.
Rorty’s mode of opposing bad pragmatic stories with useful and humane pragmatic stories is a recipe for chaos. It allows for lies and obfuscation in a world defined by competing interpretations, one in which there is no solid ground to stand on. We need solid ground. Thousands of years of history and culture show us what humans at their best value: high ideals, energetically pursued. Truth has been on vacation long enough—it’s time to put it back to work.