More on Niebuhr
May 21, 2009

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.

The Irony of Sustainability
May 13, 2009

In lieu of a full blog post, please allow me simply to connect two dots. First, read this long passage from the preface to Neibuhr’s The Irony of American History, which was published in 1952 and primarily refers to the America’s ethical position in the Cold War:

We frequently speak of “tragic” aspects of contemporary history; and also call attention to a “pathetic” element in our present historical situation. My effort to distinguish “ironic” elements in our history from tragic and pathetic ones, does not imply the denial of tragic and pathetic aspects in our contemporary experience. It does rest upon the conviction that the ironic elements are more revealing. The three elements might be distinguished as follows: (a) Pathos is that element in an historic situation which elicits pity, but neither deserves admiration nor warrants contrition. Pathos arises from fortuitous cross-purposes and confusions in life for which no reason can be given, or guilt ascribed. Suffering caused by purely natural evil is the clearest instance of the purely pathetic. (b) The tragic element in a human situation is constituted of conscious choices of evil for the sake of good. If men or nations do evil in a good cause; if they cover themselves with guilt in order to fulfill some high responsibility; or if they sacrifice some high value for the sake of a higher or equal one they make a tragic choice. Thus the necessity of using the threat of atomic destruction as an instrument of the preservation of peace is a tragic element in our contemporary situation. Tragedy elicits admiration as well as pity because it combines nobility with guilt. (c) Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits — in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from the pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his [or her] involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony. This realization must either lead to an abatement of the pretension, which is contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.

Bearing in mind this distinction between pathos, tragedy, and irony (which includes a wonderful definition of irony for students in English class – eat your heart out, Alanis!), now read this essay by Chris Clugston on the sustainability crisis America faces. Once one is aware that our society is unsustainable, if you agree with Niebuhur there are only a few choices. One can decide that the virtue of economic growth is more important than the virtue of sustainability, embracing the “tragic” path. One can feel contrition and try to change things. Or one can continue as before, desperately accentuating the vanities of overconsumption.