More on Niebuhr

Expect continued light blogging for a little while longer. I’m currently blissfully experiencing the world around me instead of trying to analyze it. It happens every springtime, I suppose.


But I do want to say briefly that holy shit Reinhold Neibuhr is obnoxious. As suggested in my last post, I’m reading his Irony of American History since it seems to dictate the thinking of most of our current political establishment . Neibuhr has some good points, like the one about irony from last week, and he convinced me with his argument that intellectual consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue and that it’s important to embrace contradictions and hold one’s positions lightly.

But oh my God please stop glorifying the common man so ridiculously. He reads like a more vituperatous version of David Brooks (which makes sense, since Brooks often writes about how great Niebuhr is), extolling the virtues of the glorious American small businessman who follows his own common sense and scorns those foolish utopian intellectual types who try to come up with “scientific theories” of human behavior to “perfect” society. Here are two examples out of many (emphasis mine):

“Though we [Americans] are not without vainglorious delusions in regard to our power, we are saved by a certain grace inherent in common sense rather than in abstract theories from attempting to cut through the vast ambiguities of our historic situation and thereby  bringing our destiny to a tragic conclusion by seeking to bring it to a neat and logical one”

“The [practical men of affairs] on the other hand have fortunately been able to disregard the admonition of our wise men because they could still draw upon the native shrewdness of the common people who in smaller realms have had something of the same experience with human nature as [themselves]”

I really don’t understand this anti-intellectualism. What the fuck is so great about common sense? Sure, it works well in common situations, but who would seriously rely on it for conducting international affairs? Common sense is extremely vulnerable to framing, by which I mean that you can manipulate the presentation of a dilemma to make almost any decision seem intuitive. Frank Luntz’s advice (pdf) for Republicans arguing against health care reform is one easy example of this. And some situations are actually complex, or even worse, deceptive, and to make good decisions you need some actual expertise and the intuitions that stem from mastery of a discipline.

Now, obviously, common sense (and moral intuitons in particular) are important, and Niebuhr’s right that the most catastrophic policies usually result from people holding too tightly to their pet theories in flagrant disregard of common sense or common decency. But his constant mockery of any attempt to analyze human behavior or to improve society really grates on me. It’s part of the vicious strain of anti-intellectualism that runs throughout American history just as much as Niebuhr’s “irony”. Holding too tightly to this worldview is what leads people to bullshit like venerating Joe the Plumber.


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