It was when I got to the part in Greenwald's article where he extolled a piece written about Ron Paul by Matt Stoller that I thought of Reinhold Niebuhr.
As Matt Stoller argued in a genuinely brilliant essay on the history of progressivism and the Democratic Party which I cannot recommend highly enough: “the anger [Paul] inspires comes not from his positions, but from the tensions that modern American liberals bear within their own worldview.” Ron Paul’s candidacy is a mirror held up in front of the face of America’s Democratic Party and its progressive wing, and the image that is reflected is an ugly one; more to the point, it’s one they do not want to see because it so violently conflicts with their desired self-perception.
He then goes on to list all of the "heinous" things President Obama has done - mostly in his execution of the battle against al Qaeda.
I won't claim to be an expert on Niebuhr's philosophy, but I did spend some time reading both his work and things that were written about him when I heard about this exchange between then-Senator Obama and 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.”
Niebuhr was a Christian theologian/philosopher who lived from 1892-1971. He began his career as a pastor committed to the social gospel and pacifism. The rise of fascism and the events of WWII caused Niebuhr to question these commitments in a way that holds the tension between "the world as it is" and "the world as we want it to be.'
The most cogent description of this tension comes from Wilfred M. McClay who surrounds it with alot of verbiage that is steeped in religion. As someone who doesn't hold to the Christian faith, I find this a powerful statement when I exchange the word "Christian" with "liberal" or "progressive."
Niebuhr dismissed as mere “sentimentality” the progressive hope that the wages of individual sin could be overcome through intelligent social reform, and that America could be transformed in time into a loving fellowship of like-minded comrades, holding hands around the national campfire. Instead, the pursuit of good ends in the arena of national and international politics had to take full and realistic account of the unloveliness of human nature, and the unlovely nature of power. Christians who claimed to want to do good in those arenas had to be willing to get their hands soiled, for existing social relations were held together by coercion, and only counter-coercion could change them. All else was pretense and pipedreams.
This sweeping rejection of the Social Gospel and reaffirmation of the doctrine of original sin did not, however, mean that Niebuhr gave up on the possibility of social reform. On the contrary. Christians were obliged to work actively for progressive social causes and for the realization of Christian social ideals of justice and righteousness. But in doing so they had to abandon their illusions, not least in the way they thought about themselves. The pursuit of social righteousness would, he believed, inexorably involve them in acts of sin and imperfection. Not because the end justifies the means, but because that was simply the way of the world. Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage. But the Christian faith just as inexorably called its adherents to a life of perfect righteousness, a calling that gives no ultimate moral quarter to dirty hands. The result would seem to be a stark contradiction, a call to do the impossible.
Niebuhr influenced many of the people who went on to influence President Obama, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Saul Alinsky On the later:
Alinsky was a self-described radical and Niebuhr was a devout Christian but neither man was an idealist. Both tended to see morality as a kind of cover story used by groups who, in Niebuhr's words, "take for themselves whatever their power can command." That doesn't mean that these two men believed that nobody had the ability or will to change the world for the better. However, anyone who attempts to do so better be ready to get his hands dirty.
So it should come as no surprise that you can hear the echos of Niebuhr in Obama's acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize.
We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations -- acting individually or in concert -- will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.
I make this statement mindful of what Martin Luther King Jr. said in this same ceremony years ago: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones." As someone who stands here as a direct consequence of Dr. King's life work, I am living testimony to the moral force of non-violence. I know there's nothing weak -- nothing passive -- nothing naïve -- in the creed and lives of Gandhi and King.
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism -- it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.<...>
So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another -- that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.
So part of our challenge is reconciling these two seemingly inreconcilable truths -- that war is sometimes necessary, and war at some level is an expression of human folly.
You see Glenn, the tension Stoller thinks is generated by Ron Paul is present in any liberal who has actually had to get their hands dirty with the work of facing down the realities of power, coercion and evil in the world. We don't need Paul for that.
What folks like you seem to be saying is that we should just ignore those realities and live in some kind of naive liberal/libertarian nirvana. In doing so, you demonstrate your own lack of experience with taking on the world as it is and simply pine for the world as you want it to be.
To tell you the truth Glenn, I've struggled with some of the decisions President Obama has made. When I watch him closely, what I see is that he has struggled as well. When you take on the mantle of leadership and all of the responsibilities that go with it - that's part of the price you pay. As Niebuhr pointed out so well, there aren't any clean hands around when it comes time to take on those very real challenges. Your options rarely come without some kind of collateral damage. An example would be the question of whether or not the US should take military action in Libya or watch a potential massacre.
After 9/11 President Bush declared a "global war on terror" and invaded two countries killing hundreds of thousands of people. Almost immediately after assuming office, President Obama rejected the GWOT and instead began to work on getting us out of those two wars. And yet he obviously supported the idea that it remained important to defeat al Qaeda as the perpetrators of 9/11 and other acts of terrorism. It is true that the drone strikes he's used against them in Pakistan and Afghanistan have killed innocent people (including children). But I have to wonder if you can imagine a humane way of taking on an avowed enemy like al Qaeda. Or, as I said before, should we just run the risk of ignoring them in search of our liberal/libertarian nirvana?
These are exactly the kinds of choices Niebuhr was talking about that President Obama faces every day. And yes, I struggle with them. There is no comfort to be found in any of this. It reminds me of a quote from another philosopher, Bertrand Russell:
The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
Niebuhr would tell us that facing the world as it is involves giving up the comfort of surety and learning to live with the tension, doubt and collateral damages of our choices...all while remaining resolute in our commitment to our ideals. To me, that is the true calling of any liberal.