Saturday, July 26, 2008

Brooks Channels Niebuhr?

David Brooks assessment of Obama's Berlin speech included these two statements:
Last year, he spoke about his affinity for Reinhold Niebuhr, and their shared awareness that history is tragic and ironic and every political choice is tainted in some way.

His Berlin Victory Column treacle would have made Niebuhr sick to his stomach.

I am disappointed in the David Brooks column.

Do you, Christian scholars, students of Niebuhr, agree with Brooks?


Chris Dowdy said...

I'm not sure that reading Niebuhr correctly will help us get foreign policy right, but for what it's worth, I think Brooks is a little off here. It's a pretty standard liberal move for me to make, but I think it's more appropriate to see Obama's vision for the exercise of power in a non-polar world as analogous to Niebuhr's pre-WWII social commentary. Those arguments focused more on the complex struggle for economic (and, infrequently, racial) equality, keenly attending to the power of non-state actors. Given the passing of the epochal struggle between two great world powers, the current non-polar world benefits more from reflection on Niebuhr's words to his world in the 20's and 30's. Obama's overtures in Europe and the Mediterranean seem designed to strengthen the multilateral relationships that the new, similar landscape requires.

For instance, Obama used the break-down-walls metaphor to point towards genuine cultural pluralism. So challenging Europeans to break down barriers between Christians, Jews, and Muslims is not toothless utopianism. Not that America has this pluralism thing down, but our record on political and social inclusion for immigrants is surprisingly good (and, according to some, the basis of our prosperity/stability). We might tire of it being repeated, but Obama simply embodies a solution to the demographic challenges Europe has only really begun to grapple with in the last twenty years. Plus, it's an oblique challenge to Americans to be more tolerant and live up to our ideals.

On a related, but largely ad-hominem note, I allow that it's perfectly Niebuhrian to critique the implicit messianism in Obama's rhetoric, but I'm fairly certain that same critique ought to apply to every other word that came out of Reagan's mouth, whatever specific demands he made in his Brandenburg Gate speech. Effusive rhetoric was certainly ingredient to Niebuhr's critique of Kennedy.

On the other hand, Niebuhr had some seriously harsh things to say to those who thought so little of politics that they refused to see it as an instrument for the accomplishment of good things. He once said that there are some things that only the majesty of the state can accomplish. There is a similar potency in the way Obama's candidacy in general and his overseas trip in particular re-inscribes the story of Americans abroad, whether he offers a host of detailed policy solutions to crowd of 200,000 people or not.

Mark Elrod said...

Brooks has disliked Obama for many reasons for some time now.

It's surprising he found anything he liked in the Berlin speech.

Maybe Brooks really likes Niebur and he's mad at BO for invoking his name in a speech.