Sunday, 14 June 2009

The irony of American history

I am halfway through an obscure little book from 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History. It is a discussion about the nature of the American project and how it has been able to avert disaster through the limits imposed on itself by its republican constitution and love of individual liberty. It shares the messianic arrogance of other powers but an elegant messiness in arranging its affairs have prevented it from acquiring the power to hurtle itself towards nemesis.

Well, as I say, it was written in 1952 and George W Bush had not been president at that point. If there was just one thing that could have saved America from its foreign policy and military disasters over the last few years, it is this book. The introduction is written by Andrew Bacevich whose book, The Limits of American Power called for a neo-Niebuhrism. It was that book and an anecdote from the the New York Times columnist, David Brooks, in which he described being taken aback when the new president demonstrated a strong grasp of Niebuhrian philosophy in a passing conversation that alerted me to Niebuhr.

Now, I could quote endlessly from this book. It actually is much broader in scope than even its sweeping title suggests. It flows into religion, psychology, as well as politics and foreign relations. The most astounding passage of the book so far is Niebuhr's discussion of happiness about which he states: "happiness is the inner concomitant of neat harmonies of body, spirit, and society; and these neat harmonies are bound to be infrequent." So flash a wry smile at anyone who sees politics as being about making people happy. The Declaration of Independence and its 'inalienable right' of the 'pursuit of happiness' is about the best we can hope for.

I would like to quote one passage which literally took my breath away. If you can't be contemplative on a Sunday when can you be?
"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness."
The Irony of American History (2008 edition, p.63)
Hope, faith, love, forgiveness- there you are: some things to chew over with a Sunday roast. The limits of history, its ironies, and the inherent dangers of messianic creeds come into sharp focus with the situation in Iran. There is a regime that lacks the intrinsic humility that is necessary for virtue. Niebuhr could teach their elites a great deal as they hurtle towards domestic disaster and international humiliation.

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