Loyal to a dream country


The distinction between the old strategy and the new is important. The choice between them makes the difference between what Todd Gitlin calls “common dreams” and what Arthur Schlesinger calls “disuniting America.” To take pride in being black or gay is an entirely reasonable response to the sadistic humiliation to which one has been subjected. But insofar as this pride prevents someone from also taking pride in being an American citizen, from thinking of his or her country as capable of reform, or from being able to join with straights or whites in reformist initiatives, it is a political disaster.

The rhetorical question of the “platoon” movies-“What do our differences matter, compared with our commonality as fellow Americans?”—-did not commend pride in difference, but neither did it condemn it. The intent of posing that question was to help us become a country in which a person’s difference would be largely neglected by others, unless the person in question wished to call attention to it. If the cultural Left insists on its present strategy-on asking us to respect one another in our differences rather than asking us to cease noticing those differences-it will have to find a new way of creating a sense of commonality at the level of national politics. For only a rhetoric of commonality can forge a winning majority in national elections.

I doubt that any such new way will be found. Nobody has yet suggested a viable leftist alternative to the civic religion of which Whitman and Dewey were prophets. That civic religion centered around taking advantage of traditional pride in American citizenship by substituting social justice for individual freedom as our country’s principal goal. We were supposed to love our country because it showed promise of being kinder and more generous than other countries. As the blacks and the gays, among others, were well aware, this was a counsel of perfection rather than description of fact. But you cannot urge national political renewal on the basis of descriptions of fact. You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than to the one to which you wake up every morning. Unless such loyalty exists, the ideal has no chance of becoming actual.


  1. Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print. 100-101.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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