Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Over on TNR-Online Casey Blake has an entry entitled “Obama and Niebhur” ( Obama has been quoting Reinhold Niebuhr to spackle up himself and the overall Democratic position.

His heart’s in the right place, certainly. And he’s heading in the right direction. But, given the limitations imposed by the current Democratic ‘base’, he’s not gonna be able to go far enough along the runway to achieve liftoff.

Asked (by the histrionic David Brooks) what he thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, Obama replied “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.” Now of course, since Darth Bush also had a favorite philosopher, back in the days when he was still the jug-eared, folksy moderate who was looking to take government off everybody’s back in a humble and compassionate sorta way, then maybe by this point a lot of folks will have sworn off philosophy and maybe even Jesus, but surely off any aspiring candidates verbally hugging busts of this or that cerebral Dead White European Male guy.

But Obama had done some homework. What Obama “takes away” from Niebuhr is “the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate these things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter cynicism.” Woof! Woof-Woooooooof! Most impressive – Obi Wan has taught you well (to borrow a phrase). At this point in a college class in ’68, more than sufficient material would have been generated to justify the prof leading everybody outside onto the lawn under a tree to groove on the high of such concentrated stuff, such radically good stuff. Today, one imagines, students would be urged to circle their desks and share their most painful and outrageous experience of being victimized by bitterness and cynicism. God writes straight with crooked lines.

You can only applaud the Dems’ efforts to head back to the high ground, so hastily abandoned three decades ago. It has to be embarrassing when the only grounds for opposing the catastrophe in Iraq is that we’re losing, leaving unspoken the malodorously bloody implication that if this premeditated, mendacious, invasive gambit had worked, the Dems would have no objection or at least no grounds upon which to make an objection.

And they – and Obama – have culled Niebuhr for precisely those issues and prescriptions which recall the Dems’ Progressive and New Deal heritage: a clear-eyed acknowledgement that there is evil and hardship and pain in the world; the requirement that We be modest and humble in our efforts to eliminate those things (may the colloquial ‘totally’ and the more sinister official ‘zero tolerance’ finally be put up on blocks in a locked garage?); the necessity to relinquish the naivete that resulted in the whole-hog embrace of “utopian schemes” and “social engineering”; a sober abandonment of the “sentimental approach” (at least “to international affairs”).

But while it’s a lot, it’s not going to fly. There is no Meta, no sense of the Beyond that was the very fount and origin and sustaining energy of Niebuhr’s en-Visioned world: of the evil that cannot simply be reduced to misfiring neurons or human greed (individual or ‘institutionalized’) or ignorance or self-interest; of the Promise of Grace that fortifies and sustains the children of light far beyond the power of their own merely human motivation; of the workings of Grace that complement the inevitably imprecise and incomplete efforts of humans and upon the faith in which believing humans foreswear more ‘thorough’ and ‘efficient’ means of bringing about Good ‘by whatever means necessary’. Without that truly High Ground, without the Higher Belief – I guess we’d have to call it nowadays – then the simple recitation of Niebuhr’s derived observations and prescriptions are free-floating and unanchored, un-trellised and ungrounded.

The Dems, of course, can’t easily or quickly retake the High Ground without admitting that their previous decades’ of effort – and all the wrack and ruin caused thereby – were a colossal miscalculation, and – not to put too fine a point on it – fundamentally wrong-headed and wrong-spirited. It’s a dangerous thing to come about during a sea race or a sea chase: if you lose the wind, if she misses her stays, everything could be lost. And this is the run-up to a presidential election.

But on the course they’re headed, the Dems will have no real alternative to the spirit-proclaiming (albeit actually shallow and mendacious) Republican call to ‘prayer’, prayer preferably flag-wrapped. The Rove-ian Republicans are still the only folks talking ‘spirit’, however swinishly they manipulate God-talk to their own treacherous, reptilian ends.

And if the Dems are simply trying to talk-the-talk, then they really still don’t ‘get it’: there is most surely a Meta, and most of the citizenry sense that, and most of the citizenry will not rest easy with a Party that cannot carry that precious cargo for them; indeed, they may entrust their passage to the Party that assures them that it will carry that precious cargo regardless of that Party’s unpleasant baggage. And it may be a truly demonic temptation for the Democrats that in order to avoid biting the bullet of doing what it takes to reclaim the High Ground of the Meta they simply hope that the Republicans will have sooooo much unpleasant baggage that the Dems win by – for all practical purposes – default. And that We will then be subjected to years of government by the Party of Default (i.e. ‘At least we’re not Bush and the Rove-ian Republicans’). And if the Republican Party as it once was manages to exorcise the Rove-ian demons, and still possesses its lease on the High Ground, then the Dems will be knocked away again.

So, no Meta, no real Niebuhr, and efforts to embrace his derived prescriptions and observations will be no more substantive than sitting up the corpse of a dead king on the throne and claiming that the governance of the realm is in good hands.

Worse than that: Obama quotes from a Niebuhr of the early 1930s when – under the influence of the New Deal but also of the ‘revolutionary’ organizing that had been floating around in American labor (and understandably so) for decades: entrenched wealth and power would yield its privileges only to organized force; appeals to morality and progressive education would not suffice. Now this makes sense (and it implies that entrenched wealth and power constitute one of the great evils bethumping this world). But that ‘organized’ and that ‘force’ start to move us – and move Us – beyond the realm of democratic process, no matter how Good the cause, the intention, the desired outcome.

And Niebuhr’s exhortation to “non-violent coercion” moves Us further down that dangerous path. For while the Gandhian ‘non-violent’ is a refreshing and stimulating note, especially against the free-wheeling violence (official as well as unofficial) of those times, the ‘coercion’ once again moves Us dangerously beyond the ‘persuasion’ that is at the heart of democracy’s civic process. And this is precisely the point of fatal divergence where in the later 1960s and in the 1970s the Democrats – in Good causes – enabled the ferocious corrosion of democratic process and the very spirit of democracy, under a glowing parti-colored conceptual umbrella of Theory’s revolutionary process and the reflected glow of Martin Luther King’s Gandhian praxis (without, as always in America, the askesis).

So, Leon Wieseltier is right when the article notes that he calls Obama’s offerings “just uplift”. To really achieve take-off velocity, and to sustain flight, the Dems are going to need a fuel more substantial than hot air. And while Obama’s position is “thoughtful”, it perforce smells too much of the lamp: a shrewdly culled list of sound-bite ready phrases ungrounded by any quintessential core moral commitment to the Meta, to the High Ground.

As Christopher Sarandon’s vampire sneered to Roddy McDowall’s posturing cross-carrier in 1985’s “Fright Night”: “you have to have faith for that thing to work on me.” The Democrats are figuring to kill the vampire without having to go through the long Journey and Climb of Faith (the descent down from Faith was, after all, such kewl creative destruction). In seeking to avoid the hard spiritual work, this makes them as quintessentially American as the Bible Bhagwans. But it also ensures that the Party will remain only a wraith-like shade, without a true soul, and merely a shadow of those days now long ago when great Democratic souls walked the earth.

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Blogger David said...

An element of the christian worldview that is often overlooked is the 'brokenness' of the world. This does not have to be understood in terms of some original sin inherited from Adam.

It can be understood as a statement about a seemingly inert lithosphere which is, in fact, evolving into biosphere. With the rise of reflex consciousness, the biosphere begins to support ever higher levels of complexity and self awareness which, at some point, might properly be called spirit as it begins to transcend the perspectives and interests of the conscious self and orient itself toward the whole in a disinterested manner.

The fact that, in the individual instance, such complexity reaches its peak and then invariably begins a process of gradual decomposition need not distract us from the marvel of increasing aggregate consciousness on a global scale.

A spiritual perspective helps keep the focus on the marvels of the whole enterprise of being and thus sustains motivation for purposeful actvity on behalf of the whole.

Any 'spirituality' is good which can bring us to this point and sustain us in a universal perspective without recession back to the parochial, self-aggrandizing interests of some isolated instance of composite being which, as a single unit of attention, always ends in painful disintegration and death.

Selfishness is the default position of a biosphere which has not yet attained sufficient complexity to reflect on its own consciousness. This is the world of instinctual drives which characterize the animal kingdom. It is not evil. It is what it is. Human beings who operate on this level for the most part have failed their potential.

Man is a transitional form: an animal still largely powered by pre-conscious drives which reaches for self-transcendence by bringing his animal nature into the light of reflective consciousness and taming it by consideration of values beyond mere survival and propagation.

The special insight of christianity - embodied in the cross - is that if you do not love, you have failed as a human being and are thus, in a sense, already dead except as an example of unreflective animal life.

Due however to the partially evolved state of being-in-the-world, if you do somehow reach some measure of self-transcendence, you will be attacked and probably killed by those less evolved.

As christians, we are invited to share God's fate: to be broken by an evolving world which needs our self-sacrifice to continue reaching toward its as yet unknown potential expressed in such terms as the reign of god, nirvana, the withering away of the state and other colorful, poetic expressions.

8:01 AM  

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