More on Obama and Niebuhr

The New Republic online has a very interesting essay by Casey N. Blake, professor of History and American Studies at Columbia University, on the David Brooks column about Obama and Reinhold Niebuhr that I blogged about last week.

Professor Blake makes two important points. First, he rescues Niebuhr from the useful caricature he has become by both the right and the left:

Neoconservatives like Brooks summon up Niebuhr's ghost to counter what they see as the naiveté of liberal and leftist social programs that ignore humans' limitations and propensity for evil. Niebuhr's work serves them as a Burkean corrective to hubristic, utopian schemes for ending poverty, crime, and ignorance through "social engineering." For their part, liberal hawks make common cause with conservatives in reading Niebuhr as a prophet of a "muscular" foreign policy. Democrats like Peter Beinart and the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. have drawn on Niebuhr in excoriating the left wing of their party for its sentimental approach to international affairs. Curiously, many of Niebuhr's contemporary admirers miss the irony (as it were) of enlisting their hero in the service of projects to remake the Middle East that are stunning in their naiveté, hubris, and utopianism.

Obama's brief summary of Niebuhr's ideas is a refreshing alternative to the usual conservative and liberal appropriations. Although Brooks is quick to shoehorn Obama's words into an argument about foreign policy, it doesn't take much parsing--especially in light of what we know about Obama's background as an Alinskyite community organizer--to see that his counsel against "cynicism and inaction" indicates more than a passing acquaintance with Niebuhr's social ethics. (His reference to "hardship and pain"--words rarely uttered in neoconservative and liberal-hawk circles--are the giveaway.) Here the key text is Niebuhr 1932 classic, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which remains a penetrating meditation on how the quest for social justice must advance in a fallen world marked by conflict and self-interest. Moral Man employs a Marxist rhetoric that Niebuhr quickly dropped as he moved toward the laborite liberalism that defined his stance on domestic issues for the rest of his life. But the central issues that Niebuhr addressed in 1932 about the relationship between power, ethics, and structural inequality did not disappear from his thought as he moved into the orbit of the New Deal. Niebuhr's insistence that the powerful would only relinquish their privileges when confronted with organized force--not moral appeals or progressive education--remains indispensable to any realistic effort to win dignity and a decent life for ordinary people. And his argument that "non-violent coercion and resistance" was the most humane form of mass protest still inspires with its hope for future reconciliation and forgiveness between adversaries. Non-violent protest, a strategy Niebuhr explicitly recommended to African Americans, "binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues." No wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa found wisdom in Moral Man. It is not far-fetched to imagine that the young Barack Obama who moved to the South Side of Chicago to become an organizer was equally drawn to this theme in Niebuhr's work.

Second, Professor Blake also notes where Obama has thus far fallen short of what Niebhur was saying:

Moral Man offers a bracing challenge to Obama's presidential campaign. As Leon Wieseltier has remarked, much of what Obama has offered to date is "just uplift," the high-minded rhetoric of modern Mugwumps like Adlai Stevenson, John Anderson, and Bill Bradley. Obama is clearly a thoughtful man, as Larissa MacFarquhar's profile in the current New Yorker demonstrates. He deliberately refrains from demonizing his opponents and seems genuinely committed to overcoming the crude name-calling of the culture wars. All well and good. But at a certain point, he will have to demand something from people who are disinclined to give up much of anything for the commonweal. (John Edwards has run a far more honest and substantive campaign, in this regard.) Whether that means taxing the wealthy to pay for health care or instituting mandatory national service for young Americans, Obama will have to demonstrate his seriousness--political and moral--by moving from biography to proposals that don't go down as easily as his eloquent rhetoric. "The injustices in society," Niebuhr wrote, "will not be abolished purely by moral suasion." Or, one might add, by appeals to civility and bipartisanship.

Read it all. I think that Blake is right on both counts--Niebuhr was a true realist about power, and he expressly rejected the efficacy of moral persuastion decoupled by political power. I also agree that Obama cannot run on a theme of civility alone. Based on his record, however, I do not expect that he will.


Anonymous said…
I am deeply relieved to have found the information about the Obama/Niebuhr connection in a Newsweek lying about in my favorite cafe. It has led me to research this great philosopher, who I never knew about before. Such postings as this blog are also a huge relief, as, although I voted for and worked for Obama on instinct, I have long noted the moral relativism of my natural party, and have wished for a stronger acknowledgement of the existence of evil in the world, for it does, sadly co-exist with Good upon this earth. The 1970s through current times have been the times of such sweeping of evil under the Democratic Party's carpet that I have even been tempted to vote for the elephants. I am glad to know that my instincts have been proven right about this skinny salad eater.

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