Saturday, December 09, 2006

The More They Remain the Same

Arthur Schlesinger on Reinhold Niebuhr via Pastor Dan:

A democracy," Niebuhr said, "cannot of course engage in an explicit preventive war," and he lamented the "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history."
It's safe to say Niebuhr didn't mean a democracy was absolutely blocked from engaging in an explicit preventive war, and meant only that it could not justify such a war. And fundamentally, he was right, which is one more reason the Bush Administration is so determined to destroy any restraints democracy might put on its exercise of power. On the other hand, there is nothing which prevents a democracy from doing anything. And that has become the problem.

Hecate says, in comments below:

I think it would be moral for us to leave [Iraq]. Staying there isn't preventing a civil war and, more important, to me, the Iraqis want us to leave. And it's their country. Of course, it would have been better to have never invaded, but often, in life, the choice is between a number of unappealing alternatives. That's what we've got here. The moral thing to do is to leave as fast as we can leave.
I think she's right; but that doesn't end the moral question, it just shifts it. Having left Iraq, having left a situation we originated, what is our moral obligation then? What duty do we have to Iraq, or the Middle East, or the world, or just to our own citizens and how our government uses the huge military it has insisted it must have, and we have agreed we must build? Are we going to go on lamenting "inability to comprehend the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink, particularly when they try to play the role of God to history"? Very likely. But lamenting and hand-wringing are not the point, any more than seeking leverage. The point is seeking humility, which is the true irony of American history: it is our humility that has made us so sure of our sanctity. On this Niebuhr was actually quite specific, and what he had to say speaks to many comments easily discovered in left blogistan:

But whether or not we avoid another war, we are covered with prospective guilt. We have dreamed of a purely rational adjustment of interests in human society; and we are involved in "total" wars. We have dreamed of a "scientific" approach to all human problems; and we find that the tensions of a world-wide conflict release individual and collective emotions not easily brought under rational control. We had hoped to make neat and sharp distinctions between justice and injustice; and we discover that even the best human actions involve some guilt.

This vast involvement in guilt in a supposedly innocent world achieves a specially ironic dimension through the fact that the two leading powers engaged in the struggle are particularly innocent according to their own official myth and collective memory. The Russian-Communist pretensions of innocency and the monstrous evils which are generated from them, are the fruit of a variant of the liberal dogma. According to the liberal dogma men are excessively selfish because they lack the intelligence to consider interests other than their own. But this higher intelligence can be supplied, of course, by education. Or they are betrayed into selfishness by unfavorable social and political environment. This can be remedied by the growth of scientifically perfected social institutions.
The "innocence" of the American enterprise after World War II may seem clear to us now. As Niebuhr points it, it wasn't really so clear then. We still hope to make neat and sharp distinctions between justice and injustice; and our complete inability to do so, our recognition that "even the best human actions involve some guilt" (invading Iraq can hardly be classed among "the best human actions,"), plagues us even today as we consider what to do in Iraq now. Niebuhr quotes John Adams and employs the words against communism, but surely they apply to the US government as well:

"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."
What Niebuhr couldn't foresee, or didn't, was the argument that carried the day until 11/7: the President knows far more than mere mortals do, and he must be trusted to wield his power in accordance with that knowledge which is "beyond the comprehension of the weak," because, after all, Bush "is doing God's service" even as he violates all God's laws. Which is ironic in itself:

The irony of our situation lies in the fact that we could not be virtuous (in the sense of practicing the virtues which are implicit in meeting our vast world responsibilities) if we were really as innocent as we pretend to be. It is particularly remarkable that the two great religious-moral traditions which informed our early life — New England Calvinism and Virginian Deism and Jeffersonianism — arrive at remarkably similar conclusions about the meaning of our national character and destiny. Calvinism may have held too pessimistic views of human nature, and too mechanical views of the providential ordering of human life. But when it assessed the significance of the American experiment both its conceptions of American destiny and its appreciation of American virtue finally arrived at conclusions strikingly similar to those of Deism. Whether our nation interprets its spiritual heritage through Massachusetts or Virginia, we came into existence with the sense of being a "separated" nation, which God was using to make a new beginning for mankind. We had renounced the evils of European feudalism. We had escaped from the evils of European religious bigotry. We had found broad spaces for the satisfaction of human desires in place of the crowded Europe. Whether, as in the case of the New England theocrats, our forefathers thought of our "experiment" as primarily the creation of a new and purer church, or, as in the case of Jefferson and his coterie, they thought primarily of a new political community, they believed in either case that we had been called out by God to create a new humanity. We were God’s "American Israel." Our pretensions of innocency therefore heightened the whole concept of a virtuous humanity which characterizes the culture of our era; and involve us in the ironic incongruity between our illusions and the realities which we experience. We find it almost as difficult as the communists to believe that anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as they that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.
Put more simply: "They hate us for our freedom."

And I keep saying there is a moral aspect to this situation. One question will be the question of forgiveness. Vietnam was able, as a country, to look past the long, bloody war we prosecuted there, to their benefit and ours. However:

Nations are hardly capable of the spirit of forgiveness which is the final oil of harmony in all human relations and which rests upon the contrite recognition that our actions and attitudes are inevitably interpreted in a different light by our friends as well as foes than we interpret them. Yet it is necessary to acquire a measure of this spirit in the collective relations of mankind. Nations, as individuals, who are completely innocent in their own esteem, are insufferable in their human contacts. The whole world suffers from the pretensions of the communist oligarchs. Our pretensions are of a different order because they are not as consistently held. In any event, we have preserved a system of freedom in which they may be challenged. Yet our American nation, involved in its vast responsibilities, must slough off many illusions which were derived both from the experiences and the ideologies of its childhood. Otherwise either we will seek escape from responsibilities which involve unavoidable guilt, or we will be plunged into avoidable guilt by too great confidence in our virtue.
Which is, frankly, where we are now, barely 50 years after Niebuhr wrote those words.

The more things change....

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