Friday, November 07, 2008

On the Road to Somewhere

In line with what I've been saying, Andrew Bacevich:

Grandiose undertakings produce monstrous byproducts. In the eyes of critics, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo show that all of Bush's freedom talk is simply a lie. Viewed from a Niebuhrean perspective, they become the predictable if illegitimate offspring of Bush's convictions. Better to forget utopia, leaving it to God to determine history's trajectory.
This is Niebuhr in a nutshell, but it's quite a nutshell: the conviction that history is in the hands of the Creator, and our task is to manage as best we can with the tools we have, rather than to take charge and play Lord Protector. Wounded Bird links to a surprising example of Obama recognizing this, but even more interesting is the subject of the conversation between the first gay Episcopal Bishop and the soon to be first African American US President:

They did not discuss Anglican issues in great depth. 'He certainly indicated his broad and deep support for the full civil rights for gay and lesbian people but frankly we talked more about - I pressed him on the Millennium Development Goals. I wanted to know whether he thought more about them than just they were a good idea but whether he had any intention of pushing for their full funding and so on.'
Anyone who wants to recall Elijah and the widow, or any other story of plenty in a world of scarcity, is free to do so. I would add that Paul Krugman this morning is defying the prophets of doom even in the face of the economic handouts promised to Wall Street. If you don't have faith in the God of Israel, perhaps you can rely on a Nobel prize winning economist.

Bacevich casts this in distinctly Christian terms not because he is a theologue, but because Bush is; or at least claimed to be. Obama is not a theologue either,but we could do worse than have a President who is aware of the insights of Reinhold Niebuhr. Not that I think Niebuhr is all that and a bag of chips, but this is a point of view given short shrift in theological circles, or even evangelical ones:

At the root of Niebuhr's thinking lies an appreciation of original sin, which he views as indelible and omnipresent. In a fallen world, power is necessary, otherwise we lie open to the assaults of the predatory. Yet since we too number among the fallen, our own professions of innocence and altruism are necessarily suspect. Power, wrote Niebuhr, "cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest." Therefore, any nation wielding great power but lacking self-awareness - never an American strong suit - poses an imminent risk not only to others but to itself.

Here lies the statesman's dilemma: You're damned if you do and damned if you don't. To refrain from resisting evil for fear of violating God's laws is irresponsible. Yet for the powerful to pretend to interpret God's will qualifies as presumptuous. To avert evil, action is imperative; so too is self-restraint. Even worthy causes pursued blindly yield morally problematic results.
Some (Joel Osteen, hem hem) have abandoned original sin altogether. More commonly, it is used as a club to condemn "sinners" who are NOK. When probably understood, we all stand under judgment, and while that's a problematic issue when tied to salvation, it is certainly a beneficial issue when a strong dose of humility and limitation of one's reach are in order.

And that limitation is almost always in order.

Can Barack Obama bring America to a stronger sense of self awareness? Are we more mature than Gail Collins presumes?

About the inevitable disasters: I am sorry to tell you, excited youth of America, that Barack Obama is going to make mistakes. And the country’s broke. Perhaps we should have mentioned this before.
I'll go out on a limb here and assert that the "excited youth of America" are neither so naive nor so feckless as that. I think they understand what's coming, and that getting there will not be a matter of blind ideology. They have their cherished beliefs, but then, so do Republicans. Karl Rove, after all, is now claiming that Barack Obama won because he disguised himself as a conservative. Right now, I'd point those fingers at the adults on the GOP side of the aisle, who are busy tearing each other apart. Compared to them, the "excited youth of America" are models of statesmanship. Nobody booed when Obama told the crowd gathered to hear his acceptance speech that hard work lies ahead, and sacrifices will have to be made. That should tell us something.

Alice Walker, via the indispensable Wounded Bird, illuminates another spiritual issue in this:

A good model of how to 'work with the enemy' internally is presented by the Dalai Lama, in his endless caretaking of his soul as he confronts the Chinese government that invaded Tibet. Because, finally, it is the soul that must be preserved, if one is to remain a credible leader.
I think there are many ways of "preserving the soul," and not all of them have to do with intense self-care. Neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor even Jesus or Paul, after all, are portrayed as intensely self-conscious and self-caring persons, not, at least, in the sense with the most currency in modern American culture. But it is ironic that George Will, decades gone now, wrote a book Statecraft as Soulcraft. I'm still not sure where that takes us, but it seems we are going somewhere new and interesting.

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