Friday, January 07, 2005

The Irony of American History

Alberto Gonzales tried to take the moral high ground yesterday, responding to Sen. Graham's questions by saying, first: "We are nothing like our enemy."

The Christian understanding of human nature, of course, is that we are always like our enemy. Reinhold Niebuhr called it the "Christian idea of the ambiguity of human virtue." Writing about America's response to Communism during the Cold War, Niebuhr noted the irony of our opposition to Communism:
John Adams in his warnings to Thomas Jefferson would
seem to have had a premonition of this kind of politics. "Power," he wrote, "always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God's service when it is violating all His laws. Our passions, ambitions, avarice, love and resentment, etc., possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and convert both to their party." Adams's understanding of the power of the self's passions and ambitions to corrupt the self's reason is a simple recognition of the facts of life which refute all theories, whether liberal or Marxist, about the possibility of a completely disinterested self. Adams, as every Christian understanding of man has done, nicely anticipated the Marxist theory of an "ideological taint" in reason when men reason about each other's affairs and arrive at conclusions about each other's virtues, interests and motives. The crowning irony of the Marxist theory of ideology is that it foolishly and self-righteously confined the source of this taint to economic interest and to a particular class. It was, therefore, incapable of recognizing all the corruptions of ambition and power which would creep inevitably into its paradise of innocency.
In any event we have to deal with a vast religious-political movement which generates more extravagant forms of political injustice and cruelty out of the pretensions of innocency than we have ever known in human history.

Niebuhr was writing about the tendency of America to become like the Marxist system it then fiercely opposed, often with the same language of facing a "new enemy" in a "perpetual war." But he was optimistic that matters would not decay to the point that the Marxist systems would become indistinguishable from the American one:

The liberal world which opposes this monstrous evil is filled ironically with milder forms of the same pretension. Fortunately they have not resulted in the same evils, partly because they are not as consistently held; and partly because we have not invested our ostensible "innocents" with inordinate power. Though a tremendous amount of illusion about human nature expresses itself in American culture, our political institutions contain many of the safeguards against the selfish abuse of power which our Calvinist fathers insisted upon. According to the accepted theory, our democracy owes everything to the believers in the innocency and perfectibility of man and little to the reservations about human nature which emanated from the Christianity of New England. But fortunately there are quite a few accents in our constitution which spell out the warning of John Cotton: "Let all the world give mortall man no greater power than they are content they shall use, for use it they will. . . . And they that have the liberty to speak great things you will find that they will speak: great blasphemies."

The irony now is, in the name of that same Calvinism, the current Administration is hell-bent on tearing apart all of those safeguards against the selfish abuse of power. Niebuhr saw it as The Irony of American History. What he couldn't foresee was just how ironic American history would become, and just how much like our enemy we could be, when we put our minds to it.

(Quotations are from The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Charles Scribners' Sons, New York, 1952.)

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