Monday, September 21, 2009

Niebuhr in Detroit: The Strange Fascination of War

It's worth remembering that the USA has been involved in twin wars of occupation for six years (add another two for Afghanistan) -- and counting. That's a long time without a break, by any standards. It's with these conflicts in mind that Reinhold Niebuhr's Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic (1929/1930), written in Detroit, remains very relevant.

I. Detroit, 1918, during The Great War.

I can see one element in this strange fascination of war which men have not adequately noted. It reduces life to simple terms. The modern man lives in such a complex world that one wonders how his sanity is maintained as well as it is.

Every moral venture, every social situation and every practical problem involves a whole series of conflicting loyalties, and a man may never be quite sure that he is right in giving himself to the one as against the other. Shall he be just and sacrifice love? Shall he strive for beauty and do it by gaining the social privileges which destroy his sense of fellowship with the under-privileged? Shall he serve his family and neglect the state? Or be patriotic to the detriment of the great family of mankind? Shall he be diligent at the expense of his health? Or keep healthy at the expense of the great cause in which he is interested? Shall he be truthful and therefore cruel? Or shall he be kind and therefore a little soft? Shall he strive for the amenities of life and make life less robust in the process? Or shall he make courage the ultimate virtue and brush aside the virtues which a stable and therefore soft society has cultivated?

Out of this mesh of conflicting claims, interests, loyalties, ideals, values and communities, he is rescued by the psychology of war which invests the state at least a momentary priority over all other communities . . .

I talked to a young captain at camp last week who told me how happy he was in the army because he had "found himself" in military service. Our further conversation led me to suspect that it was this simplification of life which had really brought him happiness; that and his love of authority. . .

II. The Obama connection

On April 25, 2007, David Brooks, moderate conservative columnist for the New York Times, interviewed then candidate Barack Obama:

"Out of the blue I asked, 'Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?'

[Obama's response:] 'I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.'

So I asked, What do you take away from him?

'I take away,' Obama answered in a rush of words, 'the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away . . . the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.'

My first impression was that for a guy who’s spent the last few months fund-raising, and who was walking off the Senate floor as he spoke, that’s a pretty good off-the-cuff summary of Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History. My second impression is that his campaign is an attempt to thread the Niebuhrian needle, and it’s really interesting to watch. . ."
(David Brooks, "Obama, Gospel and Verse," New York Times, 4/26/2007)

Today's Rune: Journey.


the walking man said...

I am fairly certain that because since WWII the world has changed to the global model of economic that the philosophy that is currently guiding it is going to be a failed model, but that which replaces it has not been thought of nor writ yet. I think that there is a huge train wreck a coming down the tracks and very possibly a global conflagration is not really that far off. Think about how them who hold debt are going to collect from basically bankrupt countries.

Charles Gramlich said...

Any time we try to walk a good line in the world among other people we are threading the needle.

Erik Donald France said...

Well, gentleman, it's all interesting, eh?

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