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The Irony of American History by Reinhold…
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The Irony of American History

by Reinhold Niebuhr

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In 2007, David Brooks interviewed candidate Obama and almost randomly asked him if he'd ever heard of Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama replied "I love him," and proceeded to give him a detailed summation of Niebuhrian thought. This was rehashed again in January when NPR's Speaking of Faith hosted a forum on the subject. You can download the discussion and other Niebuhr-related info.

I was apparently oblivious to all of this at the time. When Obama gave his Nobel acceptance speech, the media pundits all noted its Niebuhrian themes and that piqued my curiousity. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be the book most often referred to when speaking on the philosopher/theologian.

To quote Obama via Brooks:

“I take away,” Obama answered in a rush of words, “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 those 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 realism.”

This is a good summary. In short, Irony is about the ways America grew from post-colonial free-market isolationism to a reluctant superpower. Published in 1952 at the beginning of the Cold War, I find Niebuhr to be quite prescient. He is also very informed about microeconomic principles, which I found impressive. Either everyone was back then (as opposed to now), or Niebuhr is just special.

Here are points that stick out to me:

1. Americans tout their higher standard of living as a sign of their superiority over Communism, while Marxists tout that high standard as evidence of their guilt. Marxists/Communists assume that property rights are the cause of all economic ills and that if a nation has rich people they only became rich on the backs of the poor.

2. Americans have always been pragmatic about government. While personal liberty has always been the predominant goal of our society, we're pragmatic about the limits of it. Hence, we are always balancing growth with regulation.

3. Calvinists (Puritans) and Jeffersonians both (at least eventually) saw prosperity as evidence of God's favor. The prosperity of America makes it somewhat prideful in the eyes of the world, something useful to be mindful of.

4. America as the "Arsenal of Democracy" is one of the ultimate Niebuhrian ironies. We have to maintain a military force but beware of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" as Eisenhower would soon note.

5. Newly independent, developing nations are poor simply because their economies aren't developed and their land not yet productive. These countries need Western support but mostly time. But Marxists point to these countries as evidence of Western exploitation. The gap between poor and rich is always seen as a result of the rich exploiting the poor.

6. Communist countries uphold justice for the poor as the ultimate ideal, and yet their oligarchy oppresses the poor and always make them always worse off--another irony.

7. We can't export democracy or eradicate all evil in the world through it. Many countries just don't have the culture or mindset for it to flourish.

8. From #7, Niebuhr would have opposed the 2003 Iraq war while probably supporting the Persian Gulf war of 1991.

9. Niebuhr feared that America would engage in a fatal "preemptive war" against Communism that would destroy the world rather than simply wait for history to take its toll on Communism. Glad he was not proved right here.

10. Niebuhr looks down on "American Exceptionalism," the idea that America has a unique, world-enlightening role to play in history. He points out that most countries & civilizations have a history of that same belief. Obama has also stated that he does not believe in American Exceptionalism any differently then the French believe in French Exceptionalism, etc.

David Brooks argues that Niebuhr (and Obama) are wrong on this point, as would most conservatives I know.

In all, I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5. Having read it, I feel a little more caught up with other "bourgeois" people. ( )
  justindtapp | Jun 3, 2015 |
Surprisingly quoteable and surprisingly dry, all at the same time. One of those
prescient historical books that makes you wonder if we ever really learn anything.
Not a book to relax with, but one that has important things to say about today's
situation. A product of its time, there is (for today) an inordinate focus on Marxism,
but a lot of the tenets are applicable to today's world situation nonetheless. ( )
2 vote Atomicmutant | Oct 3, 2009 |
Very interesting read, highly appropriate to today's circumstances. Some things never change.
  jaygheiser | Jul 23, 2008 |
I already had on file a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr when I came across The Irony of American History (University of Chicago Press, $17.00) in a spring catalog, so my interest was already piqued. Sagely seizing on that interest, my venerable sales rep Henry J. Hubert sent me a copy to review. I'm glad I chose to order it before I reviewed it, because I can add it to our staff picks shelf immediately.

This is a timely reissue of a book originally published in 1952. Due to Barack Obama identifying Niebuhr as one of his favorite philosophers, attention has once again been directed to the writings of this once influential theologian, and rightfully so. Niebuhr's purpose in identifying the ironic forces at play in American history is to increase awareness of them, as awareness of irony dispels it. The book collects a pair of lectures Niebuhr delivered in 1949 and 1951 regarding the danger of American polemics which elevated American democracy by vilifying communism. Niebuhr does define the evil traits of communism, but the focus of his lectures was a clarion call to American policymakers to forsake the Messianic complex that developed along with the opposition to communism.

In the one and only creative writing class I took in college, I wrote a short story that involved the Russian mafia presence in Miami. My classmates could have pointed out any one of the multiple flaws and failings of that story, but instead their comments were limited to the fact that the Cold War was over and I needed to update my antagonists from Russians to terrorists. If that was the feeling in the late 90s, how could a Cold War-era book on communism be timely today? Niebuhr deems communism, though officially atheist, as functioning as a fanatical religion, and treats it accordingly. One need only substitute the term terrorism for communism and The Irony of American History comes across as a new release rather than a re-release.

The similarities are uncanny: the folly of a preemptive war, the misguided notion of spreading democracy in totalitarian agrarian nations, and the delusions of a powerful nation believing it is the master of its own destiny are all discussed. In the wake of 9/11, Niebuhr's speculation that a skyscraper could symbolize the Tower of Babel and thus become a target for destruction is downright eerie. In the book's introduction, Andrew J. Bacevich refers to Niebuhr as a prophet, and hindsight would seem to concur. Bacevich's statement that The Irony of American History is the "most important book ever written on U.S. foreign policy" struck me as hyperbole, as it comes in the second paragraph of the introduction, but, although I still wouldn't agree with it, it wasn't as much of a sticking point for me after I read the book. It is unfortunate that our current administration is still operating under the influence of ironic forces, but that may change with the next administration, and that is encouraging. ( )
  JACrobat | May 6, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0226583988, Paperback)

“[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] 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 those 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.”—President Barack Obama
 
Forged during the tumultuous but triumphant postwar years when America came of age as a world power, The Irony of American History is more relevant now than ever before. Cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Niebuhr’s masterpiece on the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality is both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against the arrogance of virtue. Impassioned, eloquent, and deeply perceptive, Niebuhr’s wisdom will cause readers to rethink their assumptions about right and wrong, war and peace.

 “The supreme American theologian of the twentieth century.”—Arthur Schlesinger Jr., New York Times

“Niebuhr is important for the left today precisely because he warned about America’s tendency—including the left’s tendency—to do bad things in the name of idealism. His thought offers a much better understanding of where the Bush administration went wrong in Iraq.”—Kevin Mattson, The Good Society
 
Irony provides the master key to understanding the myths and delusions that underpin American statecraft. . . . The most important book ever written on US foreign policy.”—Andrew J. Bacevich, from the Introduction

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:07:06 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

?[Niebuhr] is one of my favorite philosophers. I take away [from his works] 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 those 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.??President Barack Obama Forged during the tumultuous but triumphant postwar years when America came of age as a world power, The Irony of American History is more relevant now than ever before. Cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, Niebuhr?s masterpiece on the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality is both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against the arrogance of virtue. Impassioned, eloquent, and deeply perceptive, Niebuhr?s wisdom will cause readers to rethink their assumptions about right and wrong, war and peace.… (more)

» see all 2 descriptions

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