In the Niebuhrian sense

I’ve noticed that the word “Burkean” is slowly being replaced by “Niebuhrian” in certain circles, perhaps because the latter is harder to spell and therefore more impressive.

You all were very helpful with Burke. I now understand that his philosophy was essentially starbursts for Marie Antoinette. Can Niebuhr be summed up as succinctly? Does “Niebuhrian” mean more or less the same thing as “Burkean”?

Thanks in advance for your help with this.

104 replies
  1. 1
    Ash says:

    I have no idea who the fuck Burke and Niebuhr are or what they did/said.

    I suspect that I am a better person for this.

  2. 2
    Max says:

    Apparently, Obama is it, according to Sully.

  3. 3
    Yutsano says:

    @Ash: Ditto. I may play with teh Google once I get home just to see what the fuck all these people are talking about.

  4. 4
    John Cole says:

    Col. Bacevich cited Niebuhr a great deal in his book the Limits of Power, and all of the quotes were pretty interesting.

  5. 5
    DougJ says:

    Col. Bacevich cited Niebuhr a great deal in his book the Limits of Power, and all of the quotes were pretty interesting.

    Then why do Sully and Brooks like him so much?

  6. 6
    Zam says:

    @John Cole: Define interesting.

  7. 7
    Kennedy says:

    OT but President Lieberman is apparently concerned that the Democrats haven’t given enough concessions in the health care bill

    Shorter Lieberman: The bill isn’t sufficiently shitty enough for me to withhold my vote eventually anyway.

  8. 8
    dmsilev says:

    Hmm. Consult The Google! Wikipedia:

    In the beginnings of his work as a vocal social justice proponent, Niebuhr was a strong democratic socialist. Having once railed against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as being unattainable, after the war Niebuhr became more pragmatic. He began to support the New Deal and the vital center of the Democratic Party. Niebuhr’s work contributed to concepts that supported a role for government in protecting and supporting people

    Holy water for Republican vampires.

    -dms

  9. 9
    Max says:

    From the Google.

    Niebuhr Quotes

    Wow! He’s pretty impressive.

    Recognize this one

    God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

  10. 10
    trollhattan says:

    Because of internet tradishuns, I am aware of the following.

    Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
    Who was very rarely stable.
    __
    Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
    Who could think you under the table.
    __
    David Hume could out-consume
    Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,
    __
    And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
    Who was just as schloshed as Schlegel.
    __
    There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya
    ‘Bout the raising of the wrist.
    Socrates, himself, was permanently pissed.

  11. 11
    The Dangerman says:

    I say be “Neighborly”
    You say be “Niebuhrian”
    Let’s call the whole thing off.

  12. 12
    Leelee for Obama says:

    Go to GOS and read the Audacity to Listen. It’s a fabulous piece.
    Niebuhr is the shiznit! I’m surprised you guys don’t know him. I’ve mentioned him a few times in relation to Obama’s mindset.

  13. 13
    GregB says:

    Nougatbuhrian.

    Brought to you by Snickers.

    -G

  14. 14
    CJ says:

    @DougJ:

    At least for Sully, doesn’t he stand for a more thoughtful, pragmatic approach to things?

  15. 15
    Punchy says:

    You say Niebuhrian, I say glod-bless-you.

  16. 16
    DougJ says:

    At least for Sully, doesn’t he stand for a more thoughtful, pragmatic approach to things?

    Why does a thoughtful, pragmatic approach require philosophical justification? It’s only batshit crazy ideas that require philosophical justification.

    If you’re just going to do something sensible, you can just cite your sensible reasons for doing it without talking about philosophers no one else has heard of.

  17. 17
    keestadoll says:

    @Max: This is a good one as well:

    I think there ought to be a club in which preachers and journalists could come together and have the sentimentalism of the one matched with the cynicism of the other. That ought to bring them pretty close to the truth.

  18. 18
    Davis X. Machina says:

    It’s a modern Augustinian world view.

    The perfectibility of man is a chimera, and people are flawed, and we have to deal with it. Societies will never not need some element of coercion as a result, and while there are better and worse ways, more and less unjust ways of applying that coercion, it isn’t going away.

    Nation-states aren’t any better, and are probably worse, so that while expecting a world without war is chimerical, the American habit of conducting wars to save the world from wars is even more chimerical.

    He’s claimed by both right and left. A notable Social Democrat, originally opposed to FDR as a peddler of half-measures, he would wind up a Vietnam war opponent, but in the Cold War an advocate of US containment policies in opposition to pacifist movements like the UK’s CND.

  19. 19
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    Is someone using “Burkean” and “Niebuhrian” more or less interchangeably? I can’t think why.

    I don’t know much about Reinhold Niebuhr but he is reputed to be Obama’s favourite philosopher — I can’t remember if that was in one of his (O’s) books or if it came up during the campaign — but it makes sense as Niebuhr was a proponent of the “just war” which Obama articulated both at West Point and in Oslo. Also, he supposedly wrote the “serenity prayer” although there seems to be some question about attribution.

    But your guess about his name being harder to spell therefore more impressive to the Villagers is probably right. Especially if it’s, oh, Bobo invoking Niebuhrean Niebuhristic Niebuhrism.

  20. 20
    martha says:

    DougJ, I don’t think it’s fair to put Burkean and Niebuhrean in the same category. I just reread his Wiki page in an attempt to answer your question succinctly and I realized that, to do so, I’ll screw it up. Basically, I don’t believe he was an ideologue (at least, for long)…he was willing to examine his views and learn. Started as a pacifist and then WWII and the Nazis made him realize that there were such things as “just wars”…a democratic socialist on social issues. Quite a pragmatic man about the world “as it is”…

  21. 21
    J.P. says:

    You’re awesome, but this post, along with the previous Burke one, suggest a sort of prideful ignorance that’s downright Republican. These aren’t exactly obscure thinkers, and the best way to understand them isn’t to solicit pithy one-liners that will reinforce your prejudices.

  22. 22
    DougJ says:

    Is someone using “Burkean” and “Niebuhrian” more or less interchangeably?

    I can’t tell because I’m not sure what they are trying to say.

  23. 23
    Face says:

    OT:

    This just made me want to puke. From MSNBC (too lazy to link):

    “I think it’s going to pass out of the Senate before Christmas,” President Barack Obama told CBS’ “60 Minutes” in an interview airing Sunday night. Lieberman said there was a chance, if Democrats “bring in some Republicans who are open-minded.”

    This is so farcical as to be mind-blowing. Lieberman simply wont vote for anything. Period.

  24. 24
  25. 25
    General Winfield Stuck says:

    I will just stick to Yogiurian.

    “we went to different schools together”

    Now if that won’t blow yer mind, nothing will.

    “same difference”

  26. 26
    Max says:

    @martha:

    that there were such things as “just wars”…a democratic socialist on social issues. Quite a pragmatic man about the world “as it is”

    Sounds like someone else we know.

  27. 27
    DougJ says:

    These aren’t exactly obscure thinkers, and the best way to understand them isn’t to solicit pithy one-liners that will reinforce your prejudices.

    I’m sorry if I’ve upped the snark too much on these. I actually did read a bit about Burke and am also interested in learning more about Niebuhr.

  28. 28
    Keith G says:

    @Max:

    Forgiveness is the final form of love.

    I bet Tiger hopes so.

  29. 29
    General Winfield Stuck says:

    Dead Wizards

    We are ass deep in them.

  30. 30
    Kirk Spencer says:

    John [edit, I mean DougJ], one of the best summaries of who Reinhold Niebuhr was in context of Obama I’ve seen can be found here.

    FWIW, both Reinhold and his brother Richard were significant theological voices in the US through the first half of the 20th century and later. Their theological impact was variously described as post-liberal, neo-realistic, and nationalism masked by the language of morality. (among other labels).

  31. 31
    CJ says:

    @DougJ:

    After an administration whose philosophical thought was composed of creating their own reality, pragmatic and thoughtful are alien terms.

    Although, from a name dropping standpoint, most references to Niebuhr are just to make something sound better. I somewhat remember an Obama interview where he was tersely asked about Niebuhr, implying he was some under-educated peasant. Obama fired right back with a vengeance because he had actually read Niebuhr’s work.

  32. 32
    J.P. says:

    @DougJ: And I’m sorry if I upped the self-righteousness too much. Carry on with the good work.

  33. 33
    JK says:

    Review of Reinhold Niebuhr Revisited
    http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/118556.html

  34. 34

    @trollhattan:

    John Stuart Mill, of his own free will
    On half a pint of shandy was particularly ill

    Plato they say, could stick it away
    Half a crate of whiskey every day

    Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle
    Hobbes was fond of his dram
    And René Descartes was a drunken fart
    “I drink, therefore I am”

    Yes, Socrates, himself, is particularly missed
    A lovely little thinker
    But a bugger when he’s pissed

  35. 35

    @CJ: Maybe it was this one with David Brooks:

    Out of the blue I asked, “Have you ever read Reinhold Niebuhr?”

    Obama’s tone changed. “I love him. He’s one of my favorite philosophers.”

    So I asked, What do you take away from him?

    “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.”

    via GOS The Audacity To Listen, rec’d above. (I second the rec.)

  36. 36
    Jim says:

    I wouldn’t dismiss Niebuhr or Burke because they’re selectively quoted by a bunch of assholes. Same thing happens to Jesus, Madison and Lincoln.

    Niebuhr has been on my to-read list for a long time. But first I’m going to youtube to memorize the philosopher song

  37. 37
    Thoroughly Pizzled says:

    Philosopher’s Song is brilliant, but I have to say this is even better.

  38. 38
    Keith G says:

    @Janet Strange:

    “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….

    Wow. That’s some major bullshit. I sure didn’t need to read a 20th cen American theologian (who spouts out quotable phrases like a Hallmark employee on meth) to know that there is serious evil, hardship and pain in this world.

    But then, I have an advantage – many years as a bartender.

  39. 39
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Janet Strange: Thanks for the GOS link. “The Audacity to Listen” is a keeper.

  40. 40
    superking says:

    My political philosophy was once wisely summed up by a fictional high school student before an epic day of truancy:

    “Not that I condone fascism, or any -ism for that matter. -Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off people.”

    Fuck Niebuhr, whoever he was and whatever he thought. Philosophy–pretty much any theory–doesn’t matter if you don’t have a car, metaphorically speaking.

    Yes, I realize that this makes me a pragmatist/nihilist. -Isms are inescapable as descriptors. That doesn’t mean I have to believe in them propectively.

  41. 41
    jenniebee says:

    @Janet Strange: sounds strangely similar to both Miguel de Cervantes and Harper Lee. Dream the impossible dream, courage is knowing that you’re licked before you start, and starting anyway, etc.

  42. 42
    geg6 says:

    I’m more than a little shocked at the seeming lack of awareness of Niebuhr. Pretty influential thinker of the last century and someone I always viewed as a realist with a social conscience. I have a lot of sympathy with his ideas myself. Damn, haven’t thought of this stuff since undergrad days drinking beer and eating fries upstairs at the O.

  43. 43
    vg says:

    This site needs more loud mouth know nothings on the front page. How can I feel secure in my narrow view of the world with just one guy telling me everything I don’t know is bullshit?

    I’ve been wondering lazily about Niebuhr for a whole week after seeing Sully talk about him and I don’t mind saying I felt vaguely threatened that whole time. The thought that there are educated people all around me who know and appreciate this guy I don’t know anything about makes me feel small. I only wish DougJ would’ve reminded me that it’s all just a bunch of bullshit a week ago. God, what a relief.

  44. 44
    joe in oklahoma says:

    like many modern day neo-cons, Niebuhr started out on the left and moved to the right, becoming a defender of the powerful, and a promoter of American empire. He gave the powerful the theological and ethical grounds for the kind of politics we have today. Any movement that advocates nonviolent resistance, nuclear abolitionism, and solidarity with the poor, that puts justice before “effectiveness”, will be criticized and confronted by Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy in American church and state.

  45. 45
    mcd410x says:

    Posted yesterday or the day before Jimmy Carter’s Law Day Speech (1974) given to the genteel alumni of the University of Georgia Law School because it’s in part based on Niebuhr and Dylan (or so he says).

    Hunter S. Thompson called it “the heaviest and most eloquent thing I have ever heard from the mouth of a politician.”

    P.S. Apologies for the re-post,

  46. 46
    Betsy says:

    @geg6:
    This.

    Niebuhr is the Christian who makes Christianists uncomfortable.
    ETA: Or he would, if they’d ever read him.

  47. 47
    Leelee for Obama says:

    @jenniebee: Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

    There’s also a thread in Niebuhr’s thinking that has to do with the corrupting influence of power. Not sure exactly how to put it but wielding power while knowing it will corrupt you, and striving to do what you you know to be right, regardless of that influence. I remember reading something about that during the campaign, and I think Obama might have been the one discussing it. It’s been a while.

  48. 48
    MikeJ says:

    you can just cite your sensible reasons for doing it without talking about philosophers no one else has heard of.

    Really I would have expected most college educated adults to have heard of if not actually read Niebuhr. Doubly so for liberals.

  49. 49
    Nellcote says:

    James Fallows is going with Niebuhr too:

    http://jamesfallows.theatlanti.....eech_1.php

  50. 50
    Max says:

    More from Sully.

    Niebuhr interviewed by Mike Wallace, circa 1958.

    http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/mult.....nhold.html

  51. 51

    I used to live around the corner from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, which is on Reinhold Niebuhr Place (120th St). He’s big in protestant circles (non-evangelical), and influenced MLK and Bonhoeffer a lot.

  52. 52
    neill says:

    reinhold niebuhr was a great christian socialist until he became the great reinhold niebuhr…

    then he gave greater thought and ‘christian’ concern to how his messages would affect his stock portfolio…

    reinhold niebuhr sold out before selling out was cool…

  53. 53
    joe in oklahoma says:

    Mary Jane, that was the early Niebuhr that influenced Bonhoeffer and King. the later Niebuhr defended the war in Viet Nam, which King correctly analyzed in a challenge to Niebuhr.

  54. 54
    MBSS says:

    @joe in oklahoma:

    like many modern day neo-cons, Niebuhr started out on the left and moved to the right, becoming a defender of the powerful, and a promoter of American empire. He gave the powerful the theological and ethical grounds for the kind of politics we have today. Any movement that advocates nonviolent resistance, nuclear abolitionism, and solidarity with the poor, that puts justice before “effectiveness”, will be criticized and confronted by Reinhold Niebuhr’s legacy in American church and state.

    sounds flippin’ great. where do i sign?

  55. 55
    Lex says:

    One decent work of Niebuhr’s that won’t take a hugely long time to read is “The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness.”

  56. 56
    Joel says:

    who was the guy that said everything is fire?

    that’s my guy.

  57. 57

    Joe in Oklahoma – yes I know their paths diverged, but he did influence them just the same, remaining truer to the early Niebuhr ideals than Niebuhr himself.

  58. 58
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    Personally, I wouldn’t call someone who talked about “evil” a realist.

  59. 59
    Nellcote says:

    OT Howard Zinn on the History Channel now. “The People Speak”

  60. 60
    kwAwk says:

    I’m sure I’m being a jack-ass here, but can anybody imagine somebody besides Obama accepting the Nobel Peace Prize with a speech extolling the sometimes necessary virtues of war?

    Is it possible to be a bit too nuanced?

  61. 61
  62. 62
    Joe Buck says:

    I’m sure that what the conservatives like about Niebuhr is his theological justification of the cold war and nuclear weapons (he wrote a lot about “just war”). On the other hand, he opposed the Vietnam war. Like some neocons, he was once a socialist and moved to the right, but he was more dovish than modern “liberal hawks”.

  63. 63
    Leelee for Obama says:

    @kwAwk: Of course, FDR didn’t live long enough to get the Peace Prize, but if he had I’d bet he would have given a similar speech. He stated early on that he hated war, and then went on to wage, and win, one of the most important wars in history.

    @Notorious P.A.T.: There are some things that cannot be described as anything else but evil. Slaughtering innocents, child abuse, political rape, genocide. What other word would you use, and why is it unrealistic to use that word when it’s the correct one?

  64. 64
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    You almost never find anyone, whether it’s in a weapons plant, or planning agency, or in corporate management, or almost anywhere, who says, ‘I’m really a bad guy, and I just want to do things that benefit myself and my friends.’

    Or you get respected moralists like Reinhold Niebuhr, who was once called ‘the theologian of the establishment’. And the reason is because he presented a framework which, essentially, justified just about anything they wanted to do. His thesis is dressed up in long words and so on (it’s what you do if you’re an intellectual). But, what it came down to is that, ‘Even if you try to do good, evil’s going to come out of it; that’s the paradox of grace’. And that’s wonderful for war criminals. ‘We try to do good but evil necessarily comes out of it.’ And it’s influential. So, I don’t think that people in decision-making positions are lying when they describe themselves as benevolent. Or people working on more advanced nuclear weapons. Ask them what they’re doing, they’ll say: ‘We’re trying to preserve the peace of the world.’ People who are devising military strategies that are massacring people, they’ll say, ‘Well, that’s the cost you have to pay for freedom and justice’, and so on.

    Noam Chomsky, 2007

    http://www.counterpunch.org/schivone08032007.html

  65. 65
    Xecky Gilchrist says:

    @Zam: Define interesting.

    “Oh God, Oh God, we’re all gonna die?”

    /Serenity

  66. 66
    Notorious P.A.T. says:

    Of course, FDR didn’t live long enough to get the Peace Prize, but if he had I’d bet he would have given a similar speech.

    I doubt that.

    He stated early on that he hated war, and then went on to wage, and win, one of the most important wars in history.

    The Empire of Japan attacked us, so we defeated them. That is a totally different situation from bombing Afghanistan flat because 100 of our enemies might be hiding there, and we sure hope that if we can harry them enough the independent terrorist cells they have sent out to other countries will somehow be unable to function.

    why is it unrealistic to use that word when it’s the correct one?

    There are plenty of words to use for abhorrent crimes: immoral, illegal, unjust, etc. Calling something “evil” usually removes it from the plane of reason and turns it from a problem to be solved to a mortal enemy that must be destroyed. It is chasing at shadows.

  67. 67
    Keith G says:

    @kwAwk:

    I can, but maybe that is because I am somewhat older and jaded. I do not believe in theological evil, but I do acknowledge that man is still a creature of the savannahs and the steppes. I wish violence was not, at times, necessary. It is and sometimes a workable peace only comes only after the barbarism of armed conflict. Humans are not evil, we just suck.

  68. 68
    Scott de B. says:

    Fuck Niebuhr, whoever he was and whatever he thought. Philosophy—pretty much any theory—doesn’t matter if you don’t have a car, metaphorically speaking.

    Huh? A goodly number of the world’s great philosophers — Epictetus, Jesus, the Buddha, Bion, Boethius — either started with nothing or ended up with nothing. I hardly think material possessions are a prerequisite for philosophy, and would be prepared to argue the opposite.

  69. 69
    kwAwk says:

    @Keith G.

    There is a difference between recognizing that sometime war is necessary and giving a cynical speech about how peace is unobtainable.

    The contrast is amazing between hopeful campaign Obama and cynical President Obama.

  70. 70
    burnspbesq says:

    @joe in oklahoma:

    All due respect, that is a bizarre view of Niebuhr. Back it up, por favor.

  71. 71
    Keith G says:

    @kwAwk: I guess i just did not see him being cynical. I really didn’t. If you can point out his cynicism, I might understand.

  72. 72
    MBSS says:

    it’s funny that people always want to find something that personifies evil or fully embodies it. rarely is that the case. usually the darkest evil resides in our own hearts, and we need to deal with it ourselves. there is no grand external battle. there are no dragons, in that case.

    maybe that’s why some people work so hard to paint some other as personified evil. it projects their own evil out into the world, and allows them to destroy what they hate in themselves. unfortunately, that’s where propaganda comes into play, as it takes work to make a real, live human being appear as evil incarnate.

  73. 73
    Leelee for Obama says:

    @MBSS: You obviously don’t know my ex-husband. Just sayin’.”.

  74. 74
    MBSS says:

    @Leelee for Obama:

    rimshot.

    oooohhhhhh,

  75. 75
    kwAwk says:

    @Keith G.

    I think the cynicism comes into play at the very notion of accepting an award for peace and giving the audience a lecture on the necessity of war.

    Perhaps he felt like receiving this award was going to box him in on a foreign policy front, but he could have given and inspiring message about the meaningful peace that could be achieved in our lifetime.

    I somehow do not believe that the Nobel Committee gave him this award because they thought he was going to end all war and eradicate ‘evil’ from the world.

    I remember not to long ago how we all used to make fun of a certain Republican President for insisting he was fighting ‘evil’.

  76. 76
    bago says:

    It might be my youth and inexperience talking, but isn’t it wrong to kill anyone who isn’t seconds away from killing you?

  77. 77
    Yutsano says:

    @bago: I think that statement right there labels you as a DFH. Librul.

  78. 78
    Mr. Svinlesha says:

    I would be careful about putting too much weight on Chomsky’s interpretation of Niebuhr: it’s an oversimplification in my opinion.

    Chomsky has an “optimistic” view of human goodness and the ability of groups to act morally; Niebuhr has a “pessimistic” view. That’s their fundamental philosophical difference, as I see it, but I think Chomsky does disservice to Niebuhr in his summaries, usually.

  79. 79
    KS in MA says:

    Another thing about Niebuhr: he was closely involved in the founding of the Highlander Folk School in 1932 (founder Myles Horton was one of his graduate students at Union Seminary) and served on its board for many years. If you don’t remember the Highlander School, it helped to train a great many people who became leaders of the Civil Rights movement, including King.

    I think it would be much more accurate to call him a theologian than a philosopher.

  80. 80
    mclaren says:

    No, Niebuhr wasn’t a classic conservative like Burke. In fact, most traditional Goldwater-style conservatives would consider Niebuhr a liberal.

    People who describe Niebuhr as a neocon tend to forget the liberal idealism that stands at the center of the neocon philosophy: the neocons are actually trying to put into practice JFK’s crazy promise:

    “We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

    “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” – John F. Kennedy, Inaugural address, 21 January 1961

    If you want to know why American are fighting futile pointless crazy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s your answer right there — Wilsonian/JFK idealism in American foreign policy, making “the world safe for democracy.” People who describe Niebuhr as a neocon aren’t making sense — how can a guy who was a pacifist in the 1920s, who bitterly criticized the anti-communist hysteria in the 1950s and opposed the Viet Nam war be a neocon?

    Niebuhr was a political realist who changed his mind a lot of times throughout his life. He favored political activism to help liberate oppressed peoples around the world (and to that extent he has some vague distant similarity with neocons who also want to make the world safe for democracy) but unlike the neocons today, Niebuhr was enough of a realist to favor containment rather than the hard-line conservative rollback position during the Cold War. (“Rollback” was code for a NATO invasion of the Soviet Union, and the consequent nuclear war.)

    By any of these measures, Niebuhr qualified as a liberal and a political realist. Poles apart from Burke, who supported an aristocracy, despised democracy, and thought liberal secularism would destroy society.

    Burke and Niebuhr have nothing to do with one another aside from the fact that pervasively ignorant pundits name-drop both of ’em.

  81. 81
    SGEW says:

    This is kind of a disappointing post, Doug.

    I mean, Niebuhr isn’t exactly Heidegger, or Foucault, or someone like that. His work is pretty approachable, and even the wiki summary should be enough to give one an idea of his main ideas, if you don’t have the time and/or interest to actually read any of his work.

    But then, you still seem to think that Burke’s philosophy can be summed up as “essentially starbursts for Marie Antoinette,” so what should I expect, eh? (I am hardly a Burkean, but come on! He was much more than just the Rich Lowry of his time.)

    Snark is all well and good, of course, but I kind of feel that philosophy should be given a little more of a serious take, at times. But that’s just me, I suppose.

  82. 82
    Mnemosyne says:

    @joe in oklahoma:

    Mary Jane, that was the early Niebuhr that influenced Bonhoeffer and King. the later Niebuhr defended the war in Viet Nam, which King correctly analyzed in a challenge to Niebuhr.

    Sorry, where are you getting the “Niebuhr defended the war in Vietnam” thing from? Everything I can find says that he opposed that war. Apparently some people claimed that some of his work of the 1940s and 1950s was used to justify that war, but I can’t find any evidence that Niebuhr himself supported the war.

  83. 83
    mcc says:

    Can Niebuhr be summed up as succinctly?

    Slacktivist, and I can’t find the specific post I remember this quote from, once tried to explain what the “realist” part of “Christian realism” meant, and he had this wonderful phrasing something like:

    “The most important question is not ‘what is right?’ but rather ‘what is going on?'”

    The implication being that you cannot find an accurate answer to the first question unless you first work out the answer to the second question.

    I am not sure whether this is actually an accurate summary of what Niebuhr thought. It certainly doesn’t seem to have anything to do with modern conservatism.

  84. 84
    reality-based says:

    @trollhattan:

    OT – (insomuch as there IS a topic) –

    well, the Philosopher’s song is cool – what’s the tune? – but have you ever heard the “Impressionist Two Step”, by Pop Wagner?

    sample lyrics –

    CHORUS: Monet concerned himself with atmosphere and light.
    He worked on lots of canvases at the same time
    And as it got darker, he just painted on down the line.
    Manet did some stuff that’s really out of sight.
    Some other guys in that league were Rodin, Cézanne,
    Lautrec, and don’t forget Paul Gauguin.

    Well now, Vinny Van Gogh was way ahead and far above.
    He had an eye for perspective and an ear for love.
    Camille Pissarro was older than the rest of the bunch.
    He was scoping out a brand new style.
    He was missing the point, so every once in a while
    He’d go up to Montmartre and talk it over with the others over lunch.

    Pop Wagner’s web site –

  85. 85
    mclaren says:

    Niebuhr can’t be summed up succinctly because he had a complex view of human nature.

    He believed people are fundamentally flawed, but that it’s possible to work to improve the human condition. Niebuhr believed that sometimes you have to make compromises and hard choices to improve the human condition, and sometimes you have to bide your time. Above all, Niebuhr was a realist and a pragmatist.

    He would have been appalled by the 2003 invasion of Iraq because it was so clearly an exercise in wishful thinking. Niebuhr would have greeted the idea that American troops would be greeted with flowers and parades with the utmost derision and skepticism.

    Niebuhr would have been even more opposed to our current crazy project of nation-building in Afghanistan. You can’t force people to accept your values at the point of a gun, and Niebuhr said as much, repeatedly:

    “We are tempted to the fanatic dogma that our form of community is not only more valid than any other but that it is more feasible for all communities on all continents.” [The Structure of Nations and Empire, 1959]

    Niebuhr was just as critical of holier-than-thou pacifist isolationists as he was of gung-ho jingoistic superpatriots:

    “Our idealists are divided between those who would renounce the responsibilities of power for the sake of preserving the purity of our soul and those who are ready to cover every ambiguity of good and evil in our actions by the frantic insistence that any measure taken in a good cause must be unequivocally virtuous.”

    People who are painting Niebuhr as a neocon have got it completely wrong. Obama’s summary of Niebuhr’s alleged beliefs is incoherent and embarrassing. Niebuhr’s beliefs are complicated and cannot be encapsulated as sound-bite one-liners. I highly recommend reading his books, particularly The Irony Of American History in which Niebuhr explored the very timely contradiction between American idealism and our tendency to engage in pointless wars in foreign countries and kill innocent civilians in order to “make the world safe for democracy.”

    ““We cannot simply have our way, not even when we believe our way to have the ‘happiness of mankind’ as its promise.” [The Irony of American History, 1952]

  86. 86
    russell says:

    Niebuhr was a proponent of the “just war” which Obama articulated both at West Point and in Oslo.

    Except Niebuhr’s “just war” was against Nazis.

    Just saying.

  87. 87

    The fact that Rich Lowery has only achieved the literacy of a middle-schooler, and ability to string words together in an amusing fashion without realizing the underlying stupidity of the idea doesn’t make him less equal to Burke’s inability to be other than stupid. Eloquence does not equal thought or rationality unless you somehow equate a longing for the non-existant “good ole days” as somehow … smart. Taking Burke seriously would mean at any time in history some previous incarnation of government/society was superior until one reached…what? If ideas reduce to absurd when stripped of fanciness, they are absurd and nothing changes that.

  88. 88
    Bob says:

    Niebuhr doesn’t fall neatly under a category. It’s like trying to combine a synthesis of Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

    Here’s TNR in 2007, shortly after the David Brooks piece.

    http://www.tnr.com/blog/open-u.....nd-niebuhr
    http://www.tnr.com/blog/open-u.....nd-niebuhr

    Obama And Niebuhr
    TNR Staff * May 3, 2007 | 5:19 pm

    […] “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.” […]

    […] Neoconservatives like Brooks summon up Niebuhr’s ghost to counter what they see as the naiveté of liberal and leftist social programs that ignore humans’ limitations and propensity for evil. Niebuhr’s work serves them as a Burkean corrective to hubristic, utopian schemes for ending poverty, crime, and ignorance through “social engineering.”

    […] Curiously, many of Niebuhr’s contemporary admirers miss the irony (as it were) of enlisting their hero in the service of projects to remake the Middle East that are stunning in their naiveté, hubris, and utopianism.

    […] Obama’s brief summary of Niebuhr’s ideas is a refreshing alternative to the usual conservative and liberal appropriations. […] (His reference to “hardship and pain”–words rarely uttered in neoconservative and liberal-hawk circles–are the giveaway.) Here the key text is Niebuhr’s 1932 classic, Moral Man and Immoral Society, which remains a penetrating meditation on how the quest for social justice must advance in a fallen world marked by conflict and self-interest. Moral Man employs a Marxist rhetoric that Niebuhr quickly dropped as he moved toward the laborite liberalism that defined his stance on domestic issues for the rest of his life. But the central issues that Niebuhr addressed in 1932 about the relationship between power, ethics, and structural inequality did not disappear from his thought as he moved into the orbit of the New Deal. Niebuhr’s insistence that the powerful would only relinquish their privileges when confronted with organized force–not moral appeals or progressive education–remains indispensable to any realistic effort to win dignity and a decent life for ordinary people. And his argument that “non-violent coercion and resistance” was the most humane form of mass protest still inspires with its hope for future reconciliation and forgiveness between adversaries. Non-violent protest, a strategy Niebuhr explicitly recommended to African Americans, “binds human beings together by reminding them of the common roots and similar character of both their vices and their virtues.” No wonder that Martin Luther King, Jr. and the architects of the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa found wisdom in Moral Man.

    […] “The injustices in society,” Niebuhr wrote, “will not be abolished purely by moral suasion.” […]

  89. 89
    geg6 says:

    Anyone who says Niebuhr was a neocon or that he supported the Vietnam War is simply too ignorant of the subject to even be discussing it. I stand by what I said earlier: he was a realist with a social conscience whose ideas have very much influenced my own points of view about political and social action. And his views on a “just war” did not encompass Vietnam and would undoubtedly would not have encompassed Iraq. There MIGHT be a justification for Afghanistan, but I’d have to reread him to see if that might be true. The fact that it troubles me so leads me to think probably not.

  90. 90

    @mclaren: “…If you want to know why American are fighting futile pointless crazy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s your answer right there—Wilsonian/JFK idealism in American foreign policy…”

    Nope. You are mistaking the figleaf for the junk behind it, which is part profiteering and part sadism towards wogs.

    There’s a hell of a book in the parallels and contrasts between Wilson and George W. Bush, though.

  91. 91
    AlanDownunder says:

    Russell here“:

    Except Niebuhr’s “just war” was against Nazis” (unlike our esteemed Nobel laureate’s “just wars”)

    LOL, and not exactly a Godwin violation either.

  92. 92
    kent says:

    mcc @ 84: that’s H. Richard Niebuhr, who was Reinhold’s brother. H. Richard was a better theologian than Reinhold but had basically zero influence on any political debate, ever.

  93. 93
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @Kirk Spencer:

    This passage makes him sound like quite the concern troll:

    Repeatedly he blasted his liberal Protestant tradition for being too moralistic and idealistic. Niebuhr’s first attacks on liberal Protestantism called the church to throw off its moralism to join the class struggle against a dying capitalist order. Later he called the church to throw off its moralism to join the Allied military struggle against fascism. Later he called the church to throw off its moralism to support America’s Cold War against communism.

    ETA: More precisely, it seems that he consistently sided with “conventional wisdom” and the current governing policy, repackaging it as a “realistic” alternative to “morality.” Not exactly Profiles in Courage stuff.

  94. 94
  95. 95
    Chris says:

    @mcd410x
    You know I have always thought Carter was an extremely decent man (and history is beginning to be more kind to his legacy methinks). But after reading the law day speech (yours was the 2nd or 3rd time in as many days that I had been exhorted to go read it in one blog or another) I am now certain he is one of the most profoundly decent men to hold the office. A sense of fairness exudes from that speech that could have been given last week. Which I wish someone HAD given last week. A sense of fairness that is now all too often missing in the daily conduct of our nations affairs. I grow so weary of IGMFU.

  96. 96
    henqiguai says:

    @MikeJ (#48):

    Really I would have expected most college educated adults to have heard of if not actually read Niebuhr

    Even having done some philosophy coursework, I never ran across him; course, those courses centered on the classical philosophers.

    But why would one, in general, have run across them ? Unless you’re doing a program focused in that area, such things are irrelevent for, say a physical science or math student. Irrespective of one’s political bent.

  97. 97
    besteaster says:

    What a pathetic post this is from Doug. Perfect: someone who sneers (with good reason) at the teabaggers and the right-wing idiots, but then is too lazy to find out about Niebuhr, who’s hardly friggin’ Hegel when it comes to accessibility — he’s a mainstream leftish mid-century American public intellectual.

    And not only that — he reduces Edmund Burke to someone who had “startbursts for Marie Antoinette.” Yeah, right— that Burke sure was some cheap hack. You’ve got him all figured out. Maybe you can get a job teaching him at a major university, Perfesser.

    Awesome when some “liberal” “intellectual” outs himself as just another middlebrow ‘Merkan.

  98. 98
    johnatparis says:

    Niebuhrian is Obama-speak for using the concept of pragmatism to not get shit done, as opposed to Burkean conservatism as pragmatism, as source of progress.

    They probably boil down to the same thing, but Niebuhrian in its current context clearly is meant to excuse Obama/Democratic inaction under the guise of “realism” or “pragmatism,” to which all I can summon, in terms of a response, is “yawn”.

  99. 99
    superking says:

    At Scott:

    It’s not the material possessions of the philosopher that are important–that’s why I threw in the “metaphorically speaking.” My point is this: If you don’t have any money, it doesn’t matter what theory you operate on, because your choices are materially limited. I’m not interested in theories, but only the actual good and actual harm that we do to people.

    Someone who is about to lose their house to foreclosure or who can’t find a job or who can’t get an education or doesn’t have access to health care doesn’t care if Obama is Niebuhrian, Burkean, Lockean, Humean, Rawlsian, Socratic, Platonic, Aristotleian, Popperian, Straussian, Quinean, Hegelian, Marxist, Schopenhaurean, Nietzchean, Kantian, or Wittgensteinian.

    To paraphrase Ferris Bueller, even if Obama were the walrus, a lot of us would still have to bum rides off people.

  100. 100
    scudbucket says:

    @DougJ:

    If you’re just going to do something sensible, you can just cite your sensible reasons for doing it without talking about philosophers no one else has heard of.

    This sounds like an advocacy for common-sense. Are you succumbing to the allures of Palinmania?

  101. 101
    scudbucket says:

    Is it at all suspicious that the root of ‘Niebuhr’ is ‘Burke’? That ‘Neoburkean’ and ‘Niebuhrian’ sound so much the same?

  102. 102

    […] Notorious P.A.T. points me to Noam Chomsky’s (spot-on, IMHO) to answer to the question I asked about Niebuhr: […]

  103. 103
    mcc says:

    @kent: Ha! Interesting, thanks for the correction.

  104. 104
    DFH no. 6 says:

    @scudbucket:

    This sounds like an advocacy for common-sense. Are you succumbing to the allures of Palinmania?

    You meant this to be ironically humorous, didn’t you?

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