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President elect Obama's reading list has been coming under close scrutiny recently. Some commentators, such as James Crabtree, have noted he is reading up on Lincoln's presidency. I want to come to that via the theologian-cum-political-theorist Reinhold Niebuhr (also on Obama's reading list), and land back in the topic of yesterday's post on cultural theory.

President elect Obama's reading list has been coming under close scrutiny recently. Some commentators, such as James Crabtree, have noted he is reading up on Lincoln's presidency. I want to come to that via the theologian-cum-political-theorist Reinhold Niebuhr (also on Obama's reading list), and land back in the topic of yesterday's post on cultural theory.


Niebuhr is perhaps best known for his analysis of the dangers for the US of private unselfishness transmuted into national egoism through the conduit of moralistic patriotism. He also made a compelling case against post-war isolationism. But the book to which Obama adds a back-sleeve comment, The Irony of American History, is largely a sermon warning of the potential for slippage from vainglorious yet corrigible power, to vainglorious yet incorrigible power. The most interesting part of the book presents a nuanced theory of how a specific layering of ironies can keep the powerful humble enough to avoid such slippage.


The first level of irony that Niebuhr explores is exemplified by the Americans being saved from the excesses of individualism by, well, the excesses of individualism. The former kind of excess is the inveigling illusion that American style liberal-democracy is the perfect political system, to be spread everywhere, brooking no dissent; the second, the economic collapse of 1929 that brought about the social-democratic reforms of the New Deal. Soviet Russia for Niebuhr was not similarly saved, acting out the totalitarian tendency that also lies at the heart of the American polity ('evils which were distilled from illusions, not generically different from our own,' is how Niebuhr puts it). The lesson of this level of irony is that your enemy resembles very much yourself, and that America's avoidance of totalitarianism was perhaps only a matter of luck.


The second level of irony is one where a hero is caught up in 'pretensions which result in ironic refutations of his pride.' This is the level at which individuals or nations become aware of the ironies of their own corruption by power. Niebuhr, mordantly parodying Kipling's 'If', puts it thus: 'If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it [oh the prescience!]... in all such cases the situation is ironic.' By highlighting this level of irony Niebuhr sought to wake America up to its complicity in producing these pretensions and so to cause an 'abatement' in them. The operative tenor that those who have learnt the lesson of irony should strive for is humility, in this case self-critical and reflexive. When such humility abides, the virtues that have reversed into ironic pretensions can be saved.


The third level of irony is where individuals or nations are brought to see that there is something constitutively faulty with a whole system that presents itself as good – that by being and intending to be good, the system, by that very fact, cannot be wholly good. The model here, as David Bromwich points out in his excellent LRB article, is that of Don Quixote. The reader, by the end of that book, has been moved to see that there is something wrong with the very idea of a noble knight – that is, a knight whose nobility convinces him he has an intrinsic grasp of the way the world is, will by definition have no way of distinguishing his illusions from reality.


But the idea at this level of master irony (as it were) is not to mend the systemic faultiness. It is rather to accept it as inevitable and always to factor in its effect. In the case of America the master irony is that only the guiltless and good should wield power, embodied in the Founding Fathers. But by wielding power it becomes impossible for them to remain guiltless and good (because power, by its nature, corrupts). Moreover, and perhaps more important, if a nation takes itself to embody moral good without remainder, it will, by an inexorable logic of irony, actually do evil (its peremptory attitude to opposition will eventually lead to totalitarianism). Again, the way to head off this possibility is not only to try to correct the evil out there, but to be aware of the evil within oneself – to see the beam in one's own eye as well as the mote in the other's.


Niebuhr says that: 'If we [America] should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by some accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.' Yet he is so sensitive to the subtleties of ironic pretension that he warns against taking the self-reflexive humility achieved by understanding the three levels of irony as itself a form of exceptionalism – that is, he warns against a form of vainglory which says: 'our system is  morally perfect because of its inbuilt humility.'


This brings me to Lincoln, whom Niebuhr praises - 'chooses as his hero', to paraphrase Heidegger. Lincoln waged war on the South with circumspect humility – with an awareness of how the waging of even a righteous war damages the wager. After the war, Lincoln was not triumphal but humbly contrite about the North's ironically reversed good intentions (the North's oppression of the South was an inevitable and regrettable product of its pursuit of good through war for Lincoln). So Lincoln is a true hero for Niebuhr because he ascended to the master level of irony and never lost sight of the humility thereby entrained.


Obama writes on the sleeve notes of Niebuhr's book: '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.' Does this quote and Obama's (perhaps) choosing of Lincoln as his hero point to his having travelled the three levels of irony? The quote is revealing, it seems to say: 'there is a limit to how much good we can do out there, history has taught us that.' This makes it sound like Obama has only reached the first level of irony – the level where liberal capitalism is seen as imperfect, and contingent factors are reckoned into any journey of social progress.


If Obama is to be a truly great president, like perhaps Lincoln was, we would have to hope he has reached the third level of Niebuhrian irony – that he has realised that one constant brake on the doing of good is the need for a self-reflexive, circumspect humility about the beam in one's own eye as well as the mote in the other's.


Americans see Europeans as having internalised these levels of irony and to having as a result ended up as nihilistic and decadent self-doubters. It is no accident that Niebuhr is a theologian as well as political theorist. He sees the need for a divine judge who 'laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.' If Obama has reached the level of Niebuhrian master irony, then no doubt he wards off European-style nihilism through his faith.


In the end, it doesn't really matter how one gets to this highest level of irony, it is the attendant attitude of humble self-criticism that is the goal. But can an atheist or agnostic stay afloat at this level? Here there is perhaps a deeper truth. Modernist anti-heroes epitomise the impossibility of achieving the apparent potential of Enlightenment rationality. But they still rely on the idea that it is at least intelligible that this potential could be achieved. What if we got rid of that idea? What if we thought of our rationality, as cultural theorists do, as a constant shifting of emphasis between different stances towards the world? On that view there is no perfect endpoint, just the constant challenge of re-jigging social reality in order to best serve our ends (whatever we decide they are).


Is there a humble yet striving pathos that can come of such a conception? Nietzsche, in his so-called 'middle period', the period of 'the cheerful science', thought that this was the pathos of the post-metaphysical age (the age where 'God is dead'). But then Nietzsche couldn't himself stay within the pathos, becoming shriller and more hyperbolic as he digested what it's like to live amidst dizzying layers of irony. Can those of us who are non-religious keep hold of the gentler pathos of circumspect humility? Perhaps a first step would be to rid ourselves of the idea of a single perfect endpoint of Enlightenment rationality. And perhaps cultural theory can help us do that. In the meantime, we can always just choose Lincoln as our hero. Let's hope Obama does.


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