Wednesday, August 20, 2008

"The honesty of knowing that we are not honest"

"Power," observed Adams, "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."
Believe it or not, I thought of Niebuhr while watching Bill Moyers' interview of Andrew J. Bacevich. Then I found the introduction to his latest book on Moyers' website:
The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making. In assessing the predicament that results from these crises, THE LIMITS OF POWER employs what might be called a Niebuhrean perspective. Writing decades ago, Reinhold Niebuhr anticipated that predicament with uncanny accuracy and astonishing prescience. As such, perhaps more than any other figure in our recent history, he may help us discern a way out.
Is it any coincidence that Niebuhr was a theologian, or that the crises Bacevich identifies are, at their root, spiritual? I think not. Because here's Bacevich on Niebuhr:

In Niebuhr's view, although history may be purposeful, it is also opaque, a drama in which both the story line and the dénouement remain hidden from view. The twists and turns that the plot has already taken suggest the need for a certain modesty in forecasting what is still to come. Yet as Niebuhr writes, "modern man lacks the humility to accept the fact that the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management."

Such humility is in particularly short supply in present-day Washington. There, especially among neoconservatives and neoliberals, the conviction persists that Americans are called up on to serve, in Niebuhr's most memorable phrase, "as tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."
Evolution, anyone? Evolution usually regarded as the counterpart to religion that everyone praises and no one understands? That pernicious notion of "progress" that means we are all moving toward a telos, and that telos, of course, is "perfection". Whether you claim your telos from some apocalyptic vision provided by "God", or from some sense of the proper direction of human endeavor and "survival," you are pursuing the same goal with the same hubris. Or, as Bacevich puts it:

Despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, modern man, Niebuhr writes, clings to the view "that history is the record of the progressive triumph of good over evil." In that regard, President Bush certainly fits the definition of a modern man. So too do those who announce that with history having "ended" plausible alternatives to democratic capitalism cannot exist, who declare categorically that globalization will determine the future of the international system, or who prattle on about America's supposed "indispensability" as the sole remaining superpower. All of these deep thinkers fall prey to what Niebuhr described as "the inclination of wise men to imagine that their wisdom has exhausted the infinite possibilities of God's power and wisdom." The limits of their own imagination define the putative limits of what lies ahead — a perspective that, as we learned on September 11, 2001, serves only to set the observer up for a nasty surprise.
I find that observation about good triumphing over evil particularly salient to those who lament the rise of the GOP from Ronald Reagan forward, or perhaps going back to the defeat of Barry Goldwater. We have not moved from a time of enlightenment to a time of darkness. We have gone neither forward nor backward. As Bacevich concludes in his interview with Moyers, we're really stayed in one place for quite a while, no matter who occupies the White House. And there are warnings about neglecting that truth that go back to the tragedies of Sophocles, and are as current as Niebuhr 40 years ago:

Let me make the case more directly: to read Niebuhr today [is] to avail oneself to a prophetic voice, speaking from the past about the past, but offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, Niebuhr warned that what he called "our dreams of managing history" — dreams borne out of a peculiar combination of arrogance, hypocrisy, and self-delusion — posed a large and potentially mortal threat to the United States. Today we ignore that warning at our peril.

Since the end of the Cold War the management of history has emerged as the all but explicitly stated purpose of American statecraft. In Washington, politicians speak knowingly about history's clearly discerned purpose and about the responsibility of the United States, at the zenith of its power, to guide history to its intended destination.
That sentiment, Bacevich points out, is distinctly and truly American. He quotes George Bush on how the Middle East will be remade, a claim Bacevich asserts could be made by any President, from Jefferson to Kennedy to Reagan. It is, says Bacevich, a narrative the American people believe in: our power to change the world, and make it better, by making it over in our image. And there's a reason that narrative is so compelling:

This narrative renders the past in ways that purport to reveal the future. Its defining features are simplicity, clarity, and conviction. The story it tells unfolds along predetermined lines, leaving no remove for doubt or ambiguity. History, the president goes on to explain, "has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty." Furthermore, at least by implication, the Author of Liberty has specifically anointed the United States as the Agent of Liberty. Thus assured, and proclaiming that "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one," the president declares that "We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom."
It is a human thing, to want a narrative that reveals the shape of the future. One of the powers of stories like that of the Great Selchie, is that some creature on this planet can explain the shape of things to come and can, through magic, explain that shape to us; even if what is to come is fatalistic. But remove the fatalism, and all that can be left is inevitability, an inevitability that, of course, means we will prevail. The opposite of that is also proposed: for every self-confident American, sure of the rightness of the present course, there is an American sure the present course can bring nothing but doom and disaster. The current label for such discussions is "partisanship," by which both sides are derided but neither side critiqued. And again, everyone hacks at the branches of the tree of evil, while only a theologian and occassionally a Professor of International Relations, tries to get at the root.

Niebuhr, as I said, was a theologian (a point almost lost on Bacevich; or more likely he downplays it because theology, once the mother of all the sciences, is now at best a bastard stepchild), but obviously not one you will hear quoted from the pulpit of Saddleback Church. As Bacevich says:

Niebuhr has little patience for those who portray the United States as acting on God's behalf. In that regard, the religiosity that seemingly forms such a durable element of the American national identity has a problematic dimension. "All men are naturally inclined to obscure the morally ambiguous element in their political cause by investing it with religious sanctity," observed Niebuhr in an article appearing in the magazine Christianity and Crisis. "This is why religion is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm." In the United States, he continued, "The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry." The emergence of evangelical conservatism as a force in American politics, which Niebuhr did not live to see, has only reinforced this tendency.
Idolatry comes in many forms. This is just one of them:

RW: The answer is, we must do all we can. People say America is not the policeman of the world. We may not be, but the Bible says, if you have been blessed, then you are to care for people who can't care for themselves, you are to speak up for people who can't speak for themselves, and to defend the defenseless.

There is a difference between that and living under oppression, living with fear for your life. That's why whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is beside the point. Saddam and his sons were raping the country, literally. And we morally had to do something. If you have a Judeo-Christian heritage, you have to believe it when God says that evil cannot be compromised with. It has to be resisted, it has to be overcome.
To step away from Niebuhr for a moment, and make the point from the Hebrew Scriptures: there is a reason Mosaic law does not forbid the owning of slaves, or command the people of Israel to go and make the earth pure in a post-Noah vision of apocalypse for the purpose of paradise. The law of the Torah makes clear that the widow, the orphan, the slave, the oppressed, are to be treated fairly, and given consideration. They are not elevated above the powerful, but neither are they to be the footstools of the king. (The line to the kingdom of God where the first are last and the last first, is a direct one.) It is not a vision, actually, far removed from Candide's conclusion that we all must tend our own gardens. The people of Israel: the leaders, the wives, the widows and orphans, the slaves and aliens, were all the "garden" Israel had to tend, and sufficient unto the day was the work thereof. Israel's vision of a peaceable kingdom came to embrace all of creation through Isaiah's visions after the Exile. But the salient feature of those visions was that Israel would be peaceful and prosperous, and all the nations would see that and come to Israel to share in that peace and prosperity. When swords were beaten into plowshares it wasn't to be after those swords had vanguished evil and converted the world to one religion: it was because Israel's vision would inspire the world to come and learn from them, from the people truly blessed by the Creator of the Universe, and through them the blessing would flow.

It's a peculiarly Christian, and American, vision that we must help that kingdom come by imposing it through force of arms, or through force at all. The problem of evil, after all, is a particularly Christian one; as with all such thorny problems, we tend to deal with them by blaming someone else for the situation. The splinter in their eye, a reflection of the log in our own; and nothing bothers us so much as what we see in the mirror:

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, I've been troubled by the course of U.S. foreign policy for a long, long time. And I wrote the book in order to sort out my own thinking about where our basic problems lay. And I really reached the conclusion that our biggest problems are within.

I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and probably a tendency on the part of many Americans to think that the problems we face are problems that are out there somewhere, beyond our borders. And that if we can fix those problems, then we'll be able to continue the American way of life as it has long existed. I think it's fundamentally wrong. Our major problems are at home.

BILL MOYERS: So, this is a version of "Physician, heal thyself?"

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, yes, "Physician, heal thyself," and you begin healing yourself by looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as you really are.
But can we be honest enough to be honest with ourselves? Aye, there's the rub. As Bacevich says in the introduction to his latest book:

The impulses that have landed us in a war of no exits and no deadlines come from within. Foreign policy has, for decades, provided an outward manifestation of American domestic ambitions, urges, and fears. In our own time, it has increasingly become an expression of domestic dysfunction — an attempt to manage or defer coming to terms with contradictions besetting the American way of life. Those contradictions have found their ultimate expression in the perpetual state of war afflicting the United States today.

Gauging their implications requires that we acknowledge their source: They reflect the accumulated detritus of freedom, the by- products of our frantic pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Freedom is the altar at which Americans worship, whatever their nominal religious persuasion. "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans," the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once observed. Yet even as they celebrate freedom, Americans exempt the object of their veneration from critical examination. In our public discourse, freedom is not so much a word or even a value as an incantation, its very mention enough to stifle doubt and terminate all debate.
Think about how accurate that is. Freedom is what allows us to worship as we choose, or to get religion as involved in politics as any individual wants it to be. Freedom is also what allows us to critique religion, and deride it's place in politics. All exercises of freedom, but what is the point of the exercise, except to flex our particular freedom, to intone our particular version of the incantation so as to ward off the evil spirits of mythology or atheism? Do those who most strongly assert their freedom of, or from, religion, ever critically examine that which they venerate, and ask why it is so important? Or do we blame it on the fundamentalists and the atheists, and aver we cannot be free until we are free of them? "No one sings odes to liberty as the final end of life with greater fervor than Americans." Yet, if you catch that car, what do you do with it?

In his interview with Bill Moyers, Bacevich praises Jimmy Carter and the famous "malaise" speech (even though, as Bacevich points out, Carter never used that word in the speech). He understands why Carter failed and Reagan triumphed, though. Carter called us to be responsible; Reagan told us we were Americans, and so responsible to no one. Party on!

BILL MOYERS: I was in the White House, back in the early 60s, and I've been a White House watcher ever since. And I have never come across a more distilled essence of the evolution of the presidency than in just one paragraph in your book.

You say, "Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, "the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation's charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one." I would say you nailed the modern presidency.

ANDREW BACEVICH: Well, and the - I think the troubling part is, because of this preoccupation with, fascination with, the presidency, the President has become what we have instead of genuine politics. Instead of genuine democracy.

We look to the President, to the next President. You know, we know that the current President's a failure and a disappoint - we look to the next President to fix things. And, of course, as long as we have this expectation that the next President is going to fix things then, of course, that lifts all responsibility from me to fix things.

One of the real problems with the imperial presidency, I think, is that it has hollowed out our politics. And, in many respects, has made our democracy a false one. We're going through the motions of a democratic political system. But the fabric of democracy, I think, really has worn very thin.
We are not responsible; we just elect the people who are responsible. Hmmmm...nice work, if we could get it. But of course with responsibility goes authority, and with authority goes power, and pretty soon the people as the sovereign is just an empty phrase. And then what....?

I started off saying this was a spiritual problem, not a political or even material one. The abdication of responsiblity is a spiritual issue, an issue that opens the door to acedia, as we abandon responsiblity and authority and are soon left with what Graham Greene calls the unforgiveable sin: despair. But sometimes we need to get down that low to see we are truly at the spiritual lick-log:

Although politics may not be exclusively or entirely a quest for power, considerations of power are never absent from politics. Niebuhr understood that. Borrowing a phrase from John Dewey, he reminds us that "entrenched predatory self-interest" shapes the behavior of states. Even if unwilling to acknowledge that this axiom applies in full to the United States, Americans might as a first step achieve what Niebuhr referred to as "the honesty of knowing that we are not honest."

Why is this so important? Because self-awareness is an essential precondition to Americans acquiring a more mature appreciation of history generally.

On this point, Niebuhr is scathing and relentless. Those who pretend to understand history's direction and ultimate destination are, in his view, charlatans or worse. Unfortunately, the times in which we live provide a plethora of opportunities for frauds and phonies to peddle such wares.
These two convictions are tightly entwined. Those convinced they know the shape of history, convinced history has a telos and they are enlightened as to what that telos is, are also convinced they have the authority, if not the responsibility, to clear away the obstacles to that eschaton. Whether they are religious fanatics hoping to spur Armaggedon, or entrenched atheists sure they are liberating humanity from the shackles of ignorance and mythology, the goal is still the same: their vision is the one worthy of achievement, and nothing must stand in its way. Or, in a milder form, their vision is the one that will save humankind, or life on the planet, and it must win the day. Because the end of history can be known, and the purpose of our lives today is to achieve the proper, not the improper, end.

History as a comic book, in other words. History in which we alone are honest, and those who oppose us are dishonest, and whatever meliorating factors there may be on our side, they pale in comparison to the fecklessness of the opposition, and so we must prevail and impose our purer, if not wholly pure, vision on the world.

We easily forget honesty is born of humility; and hubris blinds us to the cliff we are about to step over. And yet we should have learned that lesson by now, eh?

Niebuhr regarded this line of reasoning [the validity of pre-emptive war] with horror. "The idea of a preventive war," he wrote "sometimes tempts minds, whose primary preoccupation is the military defense of a nation and who think it might be prudent to pick the most propitious moment for the start of what they regard as inevitable hostilities. But the rest of us must resist such ideas with every moral resource." In Niebuhr's judgment, the concept of preventive war fails both normatively and pragmatically. It is not only morally wrong; it is also stupid. "Nothing in history is inevitable," he observed, "including the probable. So long as war has not broken out, we still have the possibility of avoiding it. Those who think that there is little difference between a cold and a hot war are either knaves or fools."

Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, such cautionary views, shared by American presidents, helped avoid a nuclear conflagration. Between 2002 and 2003, they did not suffice to carry the day. The knaves and fools got their war, which has yielded not the neat and tidy outcome promised, but a host of new complications. Yet that has not dissuaded those still committed to the proposition that military power offers simple solutions to otherwise daunting problems. Keen to dispose of the difficulties we have brought upon ourselves in Iraq, they are now calling for an even wider application of the Bush Doctrine, with Iran the next target.
Notice we are back, again, to the notion that the future can be known, and that we, privileged by God or fate or the Enlightenment as we are, can know it. And if things didn't work last time, well that's only because we didn't try hard enough, or support the troops firmly enough. The Big Idea never fails; only its acolytes prove all too human.

So where does this leave us? On a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night? In the final redoubt of prayer, pinned in our cells by our apathy and rejecting action? I prefer the insight of John Fowles in such matters: "Whole sight; or all the rest is desolation." Bacevich says:

The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises. The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: They are of our own making.
I think he's right; which is why I call the crises, at base, spiritual; and why I think a spiritual solution is the only one available. Because what Bacevich is calling for is a whole sight, is a brutal and ruthless honesty that is not possible absent the despair brought about by the destruction of all we hold valuable, or by profound self-examination. The first is the way of war, and the hope of war: that from the ashes something new and pure will arise. We all know the lesson that hope actually teaches. The second is the way of religion, of religion that is responsibility, or it is nothing at all. Whether we can, in this age and nation of "mega-churches", is another question. But I think Professor Bacevich is right in this: this is what Paul Tillich, another 20th century theologian, contemporary and friend of Niebuhr's, would probably label as our nation's "ultimate concern."

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