Thursday, December 18, 2014

Reinhold Niebuhr Explains Modern Politics

David Gushee looks to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) for an explanation of America's ongoing racial troubles:
Written to pierce any surviving liberal optimism as the Roaring ’20s gave way to the disastrous ’30s, Moral Man and Immoral Society concerns the effects of sin on human society and, in particular, on human collectivities or groups. Niebuhr says that all human life is marked by sin, especially in the forms of ignorance and selfishness, but at least the individual sometimes demonstrates the potential to rise above ignorance and selfishness to reach rational analysis and unselfish concern for others. Human groups, on the other hand, are both more stupid and more selfish than individuals. They seem especially impervious either to rational or moral appeal, easily prone to self-deception and demagoguery, and apparently needful of the imposition of a power greater than their own power if they are to accede to any changes that cut against their own self-interest. . . .

Moral appeals to the holders of great economic power and privilege are almost always fruitless, Niebuhr says. Their tremendous power must be countered by the effectively organized collective power of the workers, either in the form of revolution (which has its own dangers) or through political processes that gradually win gains for the proletariat through collective bargaining and government regulation to mitigate inequalities and ensure a measure of worker rights and economic security.

Niebuhr recognized that racial injustice in America could be subjected to the same kind of analysis that he offers of the economic problem. Scattered throughout his book he offers some insightful, though not always satisfactory, commentary on the plight of black Americans in a land of white privilege. Some of this commentary resonates deeply today.

For example, Niebuhr notes that “it has always been the habit of privileged groups to deny the oppressed classes every opportunity for the cultivation of innate capacities and then to accuse them of lacking what they have been denied the right to acquire.” He then applies this insight to white attitudes toward black Americans, at the time the issue being white opposition to full voting rights for blacks based on the claim that they were incompetent to exercise said franchise. . . .

Moreover, privileged groups have an extraordinary ability to “identif[y] [their] interests with the peace and order of society.” Self-deception reigns among the privileged because, among other reasons, to see reality more truly would place an unbearable moral pressure on such groups to resign privilege in favor of greater justice. Instead, privileged groups call in the forces of state power in the purported interests of the “peace and order” of society as a whole, but in fact to suppress movements of the oppressed for social change and greater justice.
I find the analysis spot on. But what to do? Marx called for Revolution, which mainly brought us concentration camps and secret police. Niebuhr called for more religion, but I am dubious of the notion that a more religious society would necessarily be a more just one. (Consider medieval Europe.) As for the “effectively organized collective power of the workers,” that got us a certain distance toward justice but seems incapable of taking us any further. I suppose Niebuhr would have said that our sinful nature sets severe limits on how just a society we could actually build in this world, and while recognizing that this may be true I am not willing to stop trying.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

"I find the analysis spot on. But what to do? Marx called for Revolution, which mainly brought us concentration camps and secret police. Niebuhr called for more religion, but I am dubious of the notion that a more religious society would necessarily be a more just one. (Consider medieval Europe.)"

There's always the option of educating people, and of striving to promote values in the culture which, once accepted, would naturally promote the kind of progress we desire. In practice this is... difficult... but it does seem at least somewhat possible.

The Civil Rights era, for example, had a largely religious wing led by figures such as King and a largely revolutionary wing led by figures such as Malcolm X, but in the end it seems to have owed more to simple exposure and the passage of time.

There was no revolution, and plenty of people championed justice for reasons other than religious motivation. But there was a lot of visibility of African Americans, and a lot of dialogue between subcultures. And most important of all, there was a lot of restraint, patience, generosity and sacrifice from parties on both sides of the cultural division. People managed to stop shouting at each other long enough to get each other to listen and find common ground.

That's not to suggest it was simple, easy, or anything other than a grueling struggle that took years of hard work to accomplish. But it happened.

A similar progression happened with homosexuals. There's not much of a religious element to speak of in favor of ending descrimination against them, and there's never been anything close to resembling the possibility of a "homosexual revolution". And yet, over time, acceptance and understanding have sprung up. Why? Dialogue. Exposure. An exchange of cultural values. Patience and non-threatening behavior even in the face of brutal oppression. There's still a long way to go, but the acceptance homosexuals have earned in the past few decades is incredible, and it's all the product of cultural dialogue. No religion or revolution necessary.