Niebuhr’s reputation as a primary American Philosopher demonstrates with stunning clarity the paucity of intellectual standards in America. He was no Sartre, Heidegger nor was even comparable to William James. He was, in fact, a tent preacher with intellectual and moral pretension. As Richard Fox’s near worshipful biography points out, time after time, Niebuhr was a craven political and moral conformist: in his days in Chicago he opined that the working class shouldn’t give up violence as a methodology and that he was Marxient thinker. Those pronouncements came back to haunt him when J. Edgar Hoover was stalking him. The political result was Niebuhr’s letter denouncing ‘The Left’, not to speak of formation the ADA, with ‘Vital Center’ author Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Protecting ‘Liberal Free Speech’ but throwing ‘The Left’ to the McCarthy/Nixon wolves and their political capo J.Edgar Hoover. Please read Schlesinger’s diary entries from the early 50’s, where he makes noises like ‘Big Jim McLain‘, the use of the word ‘commies’ is indicative of the political myopia demonstrated by sons, who edited his diaries for publication. Accurate history is more important than covering your old man’s ass! Those entries, read in the political present express both the comedy and menace of Schlesinger’s obsequious political conformity.
Niebuhr shared something in common with ‘friendly witness’ Elia Kazan: the rationalization that bound their separate careers was that they both thought that their ‘radical pasts’ should not interfere with their very important, indeed vital life mission. Kazan’s was making movies and Niebuhr’s was winning converts to ‘Christian Realism’ ,which was in sum a riff on ‘render unto Caesar’ and the central belief in ‘Inherent Evil’ of the human person. Institutional Christian Self-Hatred is Augustine’s self-loathing for being human writ large, and his later epigones.
The reader can see the why of President Obama’s admiration for this ersatz ‘American Philosopher’, both share a belief in, not just the imperfectability of the human person, but its inherent ‘Evil’, allied with a political/moral rhetoric that appeals to the aspirations of their respective audiences. Christian Realism advocates/embraces not just the idea of the saved and dammed in eschatological terms, but in terms of the Cold War ethos. That ethos has now been applied, by Obama, to the Age of The War on Terror, and the utterly catastrophic Neo-Liberal Theology, that has been operative since the Reagan era. Note that Obama never praised FDR, but was fulsome in his praise for Reagan.
Here is an excerpt from Alice Bamford’s review of Amanda Anderson’s ‘Bleak Liberalism’ in the New Left Review of May/June 2017. Which places ‘Liberalism’ and its primary thinkers like Schlesinger and Niebuhr, among others, to an examination of their political mendacity: which looks like a utter betrayal of what that ‘Liberalism’ could have been. If only its thinkers/defenders had exercised something like dissent as a singular moral/political imperative of that very ‘Liberalism’. Is the Liberal thinker/actor even capable of such an act of moral imagination?
Yet while ostensibly offering a defence of ‘political liberalism’, Anderson’s case rests on a near total abstraction from politics as such. Despite the pivotal role played by their thought in her narrative, the record of Anderson’s chosen Cold War liberals is never examined. Clergyman Niebuhr approved the atomic obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, applauded the development of the H-bomb, and advocated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Schlesinger colluded with (and lied about) the us invasion of Cuba, backed Kennedy’s wars in Indochina and counselled Americans under Johnson that ‘we must hold the line in Vietnam’, even telling Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, architect of escalation under both presidents: ‘You have been one of the greatest public servants in American history, and your departure from the government is an incalculable loss to this nation.’ Aron never spoke out against the French occupation of Indochina, or torture in Algeria; Camus not only refused to condemn France’s Algerian war, but backed the Suez expedition against Egypt. Berlin witch-hunted Isaac Deutscher out of a job in the British academy. Such particulars of the past, however, are too mundane for reference on the nebulous plane at which the history of ideas enters Bleak Liberalism.
(Added August 3, 2017 7:33 AM PDT)