Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Two things

Two unusual things. It's not often that I think something from Albert Mohler deserves a serious, intellectual response. And this will more than likely be the only time I ever say that Mohler is more insightful than Martin Peretz, the publisher of The New Republic.

Oh, where to begin? Well, Peretz published this rant on what he perceives as the intellectual tiredness of liberalism. Among other things, he castigates liberals for having no vision, particularly not one supported by intellectual heavyweights like Reinhold Niebuhr. Where are the books? Peretz wants to know:
It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying. The most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened, perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature. However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history, liberals have no patience for such pessimism. So who has replaced Niebuhr, the once-commanding tribune to both town and gown? It's as if no one even tries to fill the vacuum. Here and there, of course, a university personage appears to assert a small didactic point and proves it with a vast and intricate academic apparatus. In any case, it is the apparatus that is designed to persuade, not the idea.

Mohler picks up on this critique (pardon the repetitions here):
The liberalism of the Roosevelts bears little resemblance to the ideological radicalism of today's political left. Peretz's hero is the Protestant
theologian Reinhold R. Niebuhr, whose frank recognition of the structural realities of human sinfulness shaped liberalism's view of both human nature and the political prospect. Now, Peretz laments that Niebuhr "is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke and listened." Peretz wonders if Niebuhr's understanding of sin is the essential problem. "However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history, liberals have no patience for such pessimism," Peretz explains.

As he sees it, this dismissal of Niebuhr and the classical liberal legacy would be bad enough. Nevertheless, no one has come along to fill the vacuum left by Niebuhr's absence. "Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture? Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There's no one, really. What's left is the laundry list: the catalog of programs (some dubious, some not) that Republicans aren't funding, and the blogs, with their daily panic dose about how the Bush administration is ruining the country."


Peretz ends his article by eulogizing liberalism as a movement that once offered ideas of transformational power that now is "peddling one disaster scenario after another." In the end, Peretz offers hope that liberalism can be "liberated from many of its own illusions and delusions." Time will tell.


Furthermore, the worldview of classical liberalism--precisely that worldview understood and defended by intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr--understood the necessity of respect for social institutions like marriage and family. The hostility of the political left to such "bourgeois" notions owes more to the radical left of European and American intellectual life than to the reasoned political discourse of the classical liberals.


If conservatives rebounded into intellectual vitality and political influence in the Reagan revolution, perhaps a new liberal standard bearer will appear on the horizon. That would be an interesting prospect, but conservatives should welcome a genuine debate with classical liberals over issues ranging across the political divide and the spectrum of ideological conflict. One of the greatest signs of sickness in our current political culture is that conservatives have virtually no one with whom to engage in a lively and substantial political conversation. The left has simply splintered into so many forms of ideological radicalism, that political discourse has become all but impossible.

There's a lot going on here, and neither Peretz's nor Mohler's positions should be dismissed out of hand. The Mahablog has a good overall response to Peretz, so I'll limit myself to the Niebuhr argument.

Both Peretz and Mohler get it wrong when they say that Niebuhr had a "gloomy view of human nature." Niebuhr appreciated human potential, but he also appreciated the human capacity to screw things up. We just said it in last Sunday's "Word for the Week": Niebuhr thought that our nature was neither good nor bad, but conflicted. The conflict at our core derived from twin pulls: the need to do right for the individual and the need to do right for what is greater than the individual. Furthermore, Niebuhr framed this not in terms of personal morality, but social ethics, which is to say in how power was used in society. The "illusions and delusions" that Peretz mentions are endemic to anyone who would exercise power; no person or group of people is capable of surmounting the overestimation of our abilities. Hence the need for grace.

It is a shame that Niebuhr's work isn't as influential as it might be these days. However, that has more to do with an intellectual underappreciation of religious thought on both the left and the right than with his view of human nature.

More important, it has to do with the overall state of political discourse today. As the Mahablog points out above, there hasn't been any truly new political thought in going on thirty years--again from the right or the left. What there has been is an awful lot of naked power plays, particularly in the current administration. As much as a Harvard professor like Peretz would wish it were otherwise, the liberal answer to the situation is not a new and better vision of what our society could be. It's to fight like hell to make sure that someone other than the far right wing has a say in determining the future course of that society. If Peretz bothered to read the blogs more carefully, he'd come to understand what Niebuhr understood: that great ideas don't always arise from careful consideration in a professor's study. More often than not, they begin in the hasty, imperfect dialectic of immediate action. You do something, you talk about why you did it that way, and you try to refine your tactics for the next time around. Eventually somebody refines it and writes it down. That's political philosophy.

As for a professional quasi-fascist like Mohler: Niebuhr's faith was not in institutions or received forms of authority. It was in God, in God's grace, in walking humbly, and having a good laugh at human imperfection. He would have been the first to look at Mohler's cant about "political conversation" and dismiss it for what it was: another arrogant and self-deluded attempt to inscribe political power as an ultimate good.


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