Wednesday, January 03, 2018

A prescient warning of national weaknesses

I've occasionally been advised I could not consider myself properly educated if I haven't read some of the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a left-leaning, but anti-Communist, public intellectual who tried to explain this country to itself in the 1940s and '50s. He argued for "political realism" -- Barack Obama claimed Niebuhr's thought as a major influence. Though he's no household name, he left a substantial mark on U.S. culture by writing the Serenity Prayer popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous.

Back at the dawn of American empire, Niebuhr highlighted aspects of our national history and experience which made us suckers for launching dumb wars, a warning that feels completely current as that blustering ignoramus in the White House spouts threats against Korea and Iran.

... the European nations, more accustomed to the tragic vicissitudes of history, still have a measure of ... fear that our "technocratic" tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations.

The political term for such an effort is "preventive war." ...

The power of such a temptation to a nation, long accustomed to expanding possibilities and only recently subjected to frustration, is enhanced by the spiritual aberrations which arise in a situation of intense enmity. The certainty of the foe's continued intransigence seems to be the only fixed fact in an uncertain future. Nations find it even more difficult than individuals to preserve sanity when confronted with a resolute and unscrupulous foe.

Hatred disturbs all residual serenity of spirit and vindictiveness muddles every pool of sanity. In the present situation even the sanest of our statesmen have found it convenient to conform their policies to the public temper of fear and hatred which the most vulgar of our politicians have generated or exploited. Our foreign policy is thus threatened with a kind of apoplectic rigidity and inflexibility. Constant proof is required that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor....

Nieubhr had our number, I fear, though some residual impulse toward modesty and sanity kept our rulers from initiating annihilation during the long years of Cold War.

Niebuhr's little volume, The Irony of American History, is available online as a .pdf and probably from every older library in the country. It is worth snagging. I am sure I'll find myself quoting further from it in the future.

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