Sunday, January 1, 2012

I'd like to introduce Glenn Greenwald to Reinhold Niebuhr

I had a very strong reaction to reading Glenn Greenwald's latest article titled Progressives and the Ron Paul Fallacies. But if you'd like a raging post about the evils of Greenwald, I'm afraid you're going to have to look elsewhere. My plan is to try to respond reasonably - whether or not he would be inclined to do so in return. I'll also fall short of tackling everything Greenwald said that I disagree with. Instead, I have a particular point to make and for today, I'll stick with that.

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.


  1. Hi SP
    This stunning, brilliant and beautifully written! Thank you for the clarity you so generously offer to the world. I will send this around as I usually do and attach a fervent wish that everyone read it. Some will but some wont. For those that wont it will be their deep loss.
    Thank you!

  2. ebogan63 here.

    Brilliant commentary SP! And loved how you included Saul Alinsky in this as well.

  3. Beautifully written. Thank you. @>----

  4. Thanks everyone!

    This was a labor of love to some of our very wise forbearers. We can learn a thing or two from them.

  5. this is wonderful off to the twitterverse with it thx and have a great new years day

  6. Brilliant! Thanks, Smartypants, and Happy New Year!

  7. This is such a wonderful, powerful piece. You gave voice to what I've known all along and struggled to express. Thank you for that!

  8. Brilliant! Pragmatic Progressivism defined.

  9. Thank you for writing this wonderful, thought-provoking article. Your article will be linked as the topic of tonight's Campus Question at

    Good day and good nuts.

  10. Outstanding, Ms. Pants. Just outSTANding!

    And, a loving rebuke to us all and particularly they who just like to sit at key boards and throw bombs.

    They that have gone before and, now, PBO's hair goes quite gray for a REASON.

    As always


  11. Wow! Just wow! Fantastic article. Thank you.

  12. Perfect, just perfect. Thank you SmartyPants. Chips.

  13. This is really wonderful. Thank you for an insightful, educated piece on the tensions faced by the president.

  14. Thank you Smartypants for the excellent essay, and for introducing me to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

  15. You conflate accepting uncertainty and living with doubt with acceptance of what you breezily call "the collateral damages of our choices."

    Living in doubt and uncertainty means struggle, working through the ambiguity of the world and trying to make responsible choices. Living with "collateral damage" (which translated into plainer, less pre-fab English means tolerating the fact that the US kills massive numbers of civilians in its wars and drone campaigns) doesn't cost you anything. It's easy for someone living in America, far from the consequences of our decisions (as far as warfare and foreign policy go) , to "live with" those decisions. You don't have to face the consequences of these decisions.

    Accepting the fallen nature of the world is one thing. Tolerating aerial bombardment when you're far away from the aerial bombardment doesn't you a tragic Niebuhrian thinker. It just makes you insulated.

  16. ...doesn't MAKE you a tragic Niebuhrian thinker, that is.

  17. Um

    You make a huge assumption that it doesn't cost me anything.

    I have no idea where you got the idea that I refer to collateral damage "breezily." But it certainly has nothing to do with anything I said in this post.

    So I can only assume that's your own baggage on display.

  18. What does it cost you, then?

    "Collateral damage" is a euphemism designed to obscure what it's supposedly describing. Or at least to make brutal facts---death of civilians and destruction of property caused by warfare---more palatable. You must know that. ANYONE who uses the phrase "collateral damage" literally and unironically is speaking breezily and euphemistically.

    And what's this about baggage? What are you even talking about?

  19. Um

    If you'll notice, the idea of collateral damage was introduced in the quote from Wilfred McClay about Niebuhr that was written 10 years ago. My use of it was merely a way to tie what I was saying back to Niebuhr's views.

    Your baggage is about reading into what I wrote things that simply aren't there. I guess you just skipped by the several times I talked about struggling and being uncomfortable with these decisions President Obama has made. Instead you want to paint me as something that doesn't relate to what I've said. My only conclusion is that those things must come from you because they are clearly not about me.

  20. I read the full essay.

    I don't see how what you write in your latest comment negates what I say about the use of the "collateral damage" euphemism. The fact that some guy who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee uses the term means it isn't a euphemism designed to make murder respectable?

    You "struggle" and feel uncomfortable about drone strikes that maim and incinerate Afghans and Paikistanis. That must be very hard for you. I'm sorry for you have to deal with these uncomfortable feelings.

  21. Um

    I'm not interested in your judgments about me or your desire to engage in some sort of empathy olympics.

    So I'll just say - have at it and flame away.

    If/when you'd like to talk about what I've actually written here, I might be interested in further discussion.

  22. Good job.

    I'm reminded of the character of Lloyd Dobbler from the movie "Say Anything". His character was defined by what the writer/directory called "Optimism as a Revolutionary Concept". The idea being that you can accept that the world is ugly but you don't have to accept the despair that seems to come with that understanding. And, if you choose to, you can fight back and make the world a slightly better place than it would otherwise be.

    I've given up on trying to save the world. But making things a little brighter for those around me is an achievable and acceptable goal.

  23. My favorite line: "Even the most surgical action creates collateral damage." This doesn't mean that that damage ought to be dismissed or not taken into account. Instead, it recognizes the fact that every political act has consequences both intended and unintended, desirable to some end or undesirable.

    I am unsure how I feel about drone attacks. I agree that they are efficient in destroying al-Qaeda, which I take to be a worthwhile goal. But I also believe that al-Qaeda would be more efficiently destroyed through supporting native, pro-democracy movements in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.

    The question that I wish Greenwald would seriously consider is: What would the collateral damage of his preferred policies be?

  24. I still can't believe people actually use the term "collateral damage" seriously. I figured that by now most people had read this essay:

  25. Anonymous @ 8:22

    That line you reference reminds me that we always have to remember that everything is the universe is connected. That's one of the reasons why we always have to weigh the collateral damage resulting from any intervention. And yes, weighing those is where the struggle is centered.

    As we saw with the situation in Libya - doing nothing also has potential consequences that have to be weighed.

  26. @Um

    Good point: "Collateral Damage" is the epitome, in many ways, of a kind of political newspeak.

    However, it expresses precisely what McClay intends.

    If speaking in euphemisms is a part of political discourse, then rejecting them - as libertarians would do - is also a rejection of that discourse, in other words, a decision not to participate.

    Greenwald seems to believe that, by simply refusing to participate, one could ride oneself of the messiness of "collateral damage," in this case, the blood of innocent Muslim children. This, I believe, is a naive position. [At best - in Ron Paul, I think it is actually more malicious than that.]

    Collateral damage exists to be measured, weighed, calculated, and used to help us make informed political decisions. To dismiss it as merely empty or pernicious language is to rid oneself of the responsibility of making weighty decisions that have very serious consequences.


  27. Also:

  28. Smarty pants, brilliant essay. As a person who always has a middle finger response to greenwald and his insufferable minions, I appreciate your attempt to dialogue and measured response to one of his patented screeds. I may not agree with all the president"s decisions, but appreciate his thought process and the seriousness in which he takes his position thank you again!

  29. Can you make a few more excuses for people not doing what is humanly right and just?

    "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."

    The world may be that way, but it is perpetuated with your vein of thinking which effectively supports the ongoing crimes of a relative few. Nor need the world be that way if you, and others with your 'I live in the real world' motif, actually had the intellectual courage to stand tall and hold fast to your highest principles.

    Regrettably, you are blind to to your own collusion with the men who commit the greatest of crimes, some even getting the Nobel Prize for making a speech on war. Three simple words should be enough to strike a chord in all minds of our culture: "Do unto others...". Be the man or woman you truly want to be, and if we all did just that, we would not be having this discussion.

    I.M. Loos

  30. Gee, such a lovely little post here. If only we were in some little college campus discussing this in Philosophy 101.

    This entire notion that we must defeat Al Queda by bombs and invading and killing and terrorizing is so misplaced as to render you useless. Ther is no defeating Al Queda. Just as there is no defeating crazy or the desire to be free.

    Every single day our troops remain over there is another day a radical is created who wants our destruction. Every Freedom Bomb dropped by a Drone of Liberty creates another Freedom Fight, er, I mean terrorist who wants to kill us.

    You see, we will never be able to eliminate evil in the world. Because really, what is evil? Using that loose metric, then the US should be the first to be eliminated what with the atomic bombs and genocide and so on.

    So make your beef with Geenwaldwald and accuse him of living in a fantasy world. But it's very easy: end the stupid War on Drugs and Wars on Muslims and so on.

  31. I see the greenwald warriors have strapped on their Birkenstocks and trotted over to defend the boy from ipenema. You folks should think about the olympics. - the amount of twisting and turning you have to do to fawn after either greenwald or pa and sftill consider yourself a progressive should qualify you for the silver medal, at least.

  32. Tell it to the little girl visiting the US for surgery after being burned nearly to death by President Obama's drone strikes: "Shakira was one year old when Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Barack Obama ordered the 2009 drone strike in Pakistan's Taliban-infested Swat valley that nearly killed her."

    Oh, and make sure to explain to her that she's just "collateral damage." Seriously, no Liberal treats the victims of war as "unpeople" the way Smartypants here does. Shameful. Look at that picture of Shakira before you swallow any of what this sociopath is selling.

  33. When you enter a conversation with someone for the first time and your best argument consists of calling them a sociopath, its clear there's no point to engagement.

    Buh-bye Tired.

  34. "Niebuhr was friendly to the white South, was not an active supporter of the civil rights movement and refused to sign petitions when asked by King." That's from the wiki article on Niebuhr, just to clarify what he was about. He was a red scare mongerer, who criticized McCarthy for not catching enough people in that shameful chapter in our history. He is also probably not the best person to look for moral guidance from on middle east policy: "As early as 1942, he advocated the expulsion of Arabs from Palestine and their resettlement in other Arabic countries." Please check out that new Chris Hedges article on Truthout (I left a comment on your other post about it as well). His perspective on Niebuhr seems closer to the truth.


    "Niebuhr claimed that North America was a “virgin continent when the Anglo-Saxons came, with a few Indians in a primitive state of culture.” He saw America as being elected by God for the expansion of empire, and, as Cone points out, “he wrote about Arabs of Palestine and people of color in the Third World in a similar manner, offering moral justification for colonialism.”

  36. Forthewin

    (copying my response from the other comment thread)

    Interesting then that Neibuhr was one of the people who greatly influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.

    In his final year at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania (where he obtained a bachelor's degree in divinity), King studied Reinhold Niebuhr, a Protestant theologian who impressed him profoundly...King was intrigued by the key ideas in Niebuhr's theological book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (1941). He later recalled having been excited by Niebuhr's concept of man representing both a child of nature and a spirit who stood outside it. He felt that Niebuhr led him to a fuller understanding of group behavior, human motives, and the connection between power and morality. In King's own words: "Niebuhr helped me to recognize the complexity of man's social involvement and the glowing reality of collective evil."

    I suspect that Rev. King was a bit more adept than some of our current day leftist puritans at being aware that no human being is perfect, but there is still the potential to learn from our imperfect brothers and sisters.

  37. Forthewin

    One other note:

    If all you know about Niebuhr is what you've read on wiki and from Hedges, I suggest you delve a bit deeper.

  38. Wel aslong as you believe in it.


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