August 5, 2002
Ironies of the American Present
-- Martin E. Marty
"Reinhold Niebuhr, where are you now when we need you?" in effect asks David Brooks, a not unastute correspondent in The Atlantic Monthly (September, 2002). He beckons the ghost of the towering Protestant theologian and social critic of a half century ago. Brooks admits that he "disagrees with two thirds of what Niebuhr wrote." He was naïve (!), unrealistic (!), too critical of the notion that America has a mission in the world. (?)
As for the other third, Brooks expounds Niebuhr accurately, and ends: "If there is going to be a hawkish left in America again, a left suspicious of power, but willing to use it to defend freedom, it will have to be revived by a modern-day Reinhold Niebuhr." His Nexis search turned up very few references to Niebuhr since September 11, and among these most were "written for conservative publications, whereas Niebuhr propounded a hard-nosed liberal view of the world." What has happened?
Absent Nexis references -- I think Nexis misses much -- Brooks re-consults Niebuhr's exactly half-century old The Irony of American History. This is not the place to detail the references he finds that apply to American foreign policy today; for that you can read Brooks in The Atlantic. It is the place to relate elements of Niebuhr's "irony" theme that apply to more than just foreign policy.
In Niebuhr's well-known view, the ironic perspective comes into play when an agent, be it nation or church or cause or party, pope or president or peasant, finds that assertive action which looked so promising and even noble, fulfills itself in broken and self-contradictory ways. The agent or actor has not remembered that inside "our" or "his" or "her" virtue there is enough hidden vice, inside the knowledge there is ignorance, tucked into the security there is insecurity, and packaged within power is a mix of enough weakness, that something will go wrong.
As I read Niebuhr, he does not employ this perspective to induce cynicism or boredom or apathy ("it's been tried," or "nothing works," or "why act at all?") but to bring theological perspective to ventures. The God who sits in the heavens and laughs at human pretension (Psalm 2:4) does not disdain human aspiration or leave mortals off the hook when moral action is needed.
The Niebuhrian ironic perspective (one scholar calls it "humane irony") that has colored much critical thought for decades does seem in place now. It applies to the ventures of too-sure Internal Security agents, once cocksure CEOs, often smug Catholic (and other church) leaders, authors like Brooks and, he hopes never to forget, the author of this column and his friends.