I was apparently oblivious to all of this at the time. When Obama gave his Nobel acceptance speech, the media pundits all noted its Niebuhrian themes and that piqued my curiousity. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr seems to be the book most often referred to when speaking on the philosopher/theologian.
To quote Obama via Brooks:
“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.”This is a good summary. In short, Irony is about the ways America grew from post-colonial free-market isolationism to a reluctant superpower. Published in 1952 at the beginning of the Cold War, I find Niebuhr to be quite prescient. He is also very informed about microeconomic principles, which I found impressive. Either everyone was back then (as opposed to now), or Niebuhr is just special.
Here are points that stick out to me:
1. Americans tout their higher standard of living as a sign of their superiority over Communism, while Marxists tout that high standard as evidence of their guilt. Marxists/Communists assume that property rights are the cause of all economic ills and that if a nation has rich people they only became rich on the backs of the poor.
2. Americans have always been pragmatic about government. While personal liberty has always been the predominant goal of our society, we're pragmatic about the limits of it. Hence, we are always balancing growth with regulation.
3. Calvinists (Puritans) and Jeffersonians both (at least eventually) saw prosperity as evidence of God's favor. The prosperity of America makes it somewhat prideful in the eyes of the world, something useful to be mindful of.
4. America as the "Arsenal of Democracy" is one of the ultimate Niebuhrian ironies. We have to maintain a military force but beware of the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" as Eisenhower would soon note.
5. Newly independent, developing nations are poor simply because their economies aren't developed and their land not yet productive. These countries need Western support but mostly time. But Marxists point to these countries as evidence of Western exploitation. The gap between poor and rich is always seen as a result of the rich exploiting the poor.
6. Communist countries uphold justice for the poor as the ultimate ideal, and yet their oligarchy oppresses the poor and always make them always worse off--another irony.
7. We can't export democracy or eradicate all evil in the world through it. Many countries just don't have the culture or mindset for it to flourish.
8. From #7, Niebuhr would have opposed the 2003 Iraq war while probably supporting the Persian Gulf war of 1991.
9. Niebuhr feared that America would engage in a fatal "preemptive war" against Communism that would destroy the world rather than simply wait for history to take its toll on Communism. Glad he was not proved right here.
10. Niebuhr looks down on "American Exceptionalism," the idea that America has a unique, world-enlightening role to play in history. He points out that most countries & civilizations have a history of that same belief. Obama has also stated that he does not believe in American Exceptionalism any differently then the French believe in French Exceptionalism, etc.
David Brooks argues that Niebuhr (and Obama) are wrong on this point, as would most conservatives I know.
In all, I give the book 3.5 stars out of 5. Having read it, I feel a little more caught up with other "bourgeois" people.