11/25/08 - reinhold niebuhr

In today's excerpt - Reinhold Niebuhr, Missouri-born theologian and cassandric commentator on American culture in the mid-twentieth century is invoked by a twenty-first century cassandra Andrew Bacevich in his commentary The Limits of Power:

"As pastor, teacher, activist, theologian and prolific author, Niebuhr was a towering presence in American intellectual life from the 1930s through the 1960s. Even today, he deserves recognition as the most clear-eyed of American prophets. Niebuhr speaks to us from the past, offering truths of enormous relevance to the present. As prophet, he warned that what he called 'our dreams of managing history' ... posed a potentially mortal threat to the United States.' ...

"Niebuhr wrote after World War II [that] ... a position of apparent preeminence placed the United States 'under the most grievous temptations to self-adulation.' ...

"Niebuhr once wrote disapprovingly of Americans their 'culture soft and vulgar, equating joy with happiness and happiness with comfort.' ... In Niebuhr's words, they will cling to 'a culture which makes 'living standards' the final norm of the good life and which regards the perfection of techniques as the guarantor of every cultural as well as every social-moral value.' ...

"Niebuhr [also] wrote, 'One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.' ...

" 'The trustful acceptance of false solutions for our perplexing problems,' Niebuhr wrote a half century ago, 'adds a touch of pathos to the tragedy of our age.' ... For all nations, Niebuhr once observed, 'The desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognize this fact, they usually realize it too late.' "


Andrew J. Bacevich


The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism


Henry Holt and Company, LLC


Copyright 2008 by Andrew J. Bacevich


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