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Brooks on Niebuhr

I want to applaud David Brooks ("A Man on a Gray Horse," The Agenda, September Atlantic) for reminding us of Reinhold Niebuhr in these troubled times. As one who studied at Union Theological Seminary in the 1960s, I wonder nearly every day (and not just since 9/11) what Niebuhr would say about America's role in the world. Fortunately, he does appear to have influenced writers whose views of the world are not, in Brooks's phrase, "small and wonky." For me that list includes Robert D. Kaplan, E. J. Dionne Jr., and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., among other chastened optimists.

But Brooks deserves one loud cheer instead of three. He mistakenly claims that Niebuhr naively underestimated the human need for zeal, hope, and confidence. To suggest that Niebuhr lacked enough zeal to draw self-centered people into politics ignores the theologian's status on the college circuit as well as on the national scene. The uncomfortable truth is that the inspiring power of love requires the coercive power of justice as an ever-present corrective. The figure whose trenchant analysis of social evil informed the dream of Martin Luther King was scarcely naive about how to engage a society. He just knew that the gains of idealists are short-lived unless and until they can be backed by law. In the 1940s that realism fired up America to do battle with Hitler. In the twenty-first century a comparable Niebuhrian realism would doubtless oppose terrorism, but not without trying to mitigate our complicity in the violence we oppose.

We enact our hopes best when our eyes are fully open.

Richard Crouter
Northfield, Minn.

I found David Brooks's analysis of Reinhold Niebuhr's work to be succinct and accurate save on two points:

1) No student of Niebuhr would ever accuse him of being "naive." The whole thrust of his thought was to combat the naiveté and sentimentalism of both religious and political liberals. The root of this naiveté for Niebuhr was man's fatuous assumption that love of neighbor was a simple human possibility. Niebuhr knew that man's self-interest always distorts his ability to love disinterestedly and to really perceive the needs of his "neighbor," be that neighbor an individual or another nation. Niebuhr defined "sin" as this self-centeredness and in later years expressed regret that he had used the term "sin" instead of "selfishness."

2) Brooks fails to understand Niebuhr's zealous promotion of the need to work for justice and democratic ideals. In his younger years he ran for Congress, and he was a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action. Niebuhr believed that democracy would not work in a culture where citizens did not audit and chasten their lives by values that transcend self-interest, and he felt that the Judeo-Christian tradition provided such values and, at its best, inspired such self-criticism. The problem is that such ruthless self-criticism is absent from sentimental, self-serving versions of religion, and sentimental religion seems to be the order of the day, from Bush to fundamentalists of all varieties.

Larry A. Jackson
Greenwood, S.C.

Arguing for more moral passion, David Brooks claims, "Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists." How does he know that? My reading of American history suggests that the often arrogant zeal of the abolitionists served mainly to harden slave owners in their moral blindness and make inevitable the Civil War, with its tragic consequences reaching down to the present day. Other contemporaneous slaveholding nations gave up slavery without civil wars. In due time—without the benefit of zealots—might we not also have done the same?

William Schrempp
Billings, Mont.

I have read with interest David Brooks's article on Reinhold Niebuhr, in which Brooks accuses the theologian of lacking idealism when idealism is the creative force of history. "Slavery would not have ended without the zeal of the abolitionists." It is certainly true that for Brooks as for Hegel, great things cannot be accomplished without idealism—the necessary fire that defeats the human inertia that is part of man.

Niebuhr was not against idealism as such but against the idealism removed from the world of reality. As an example, he saw the realization of perfect justice as an illusory idea, but at the same time, he was in favor of "proximate justice," which is vividly expressed in his statement that "the saints are tempted to continue to see that grace may abound, while sinners toil and sweat to make human relations a little more tolerable and slightly more just."

Niebuhr, as a believer in the view that "man is a sinner in his deepest nature," could not bring himself to state that justice, happiness, and perfection are obtainable, though he encouraged the attempt to come close to them. This does not negate idealism, but it gives idealism a quality grounded in reality and not in dreams or illusions.

The theologian also saw in this search for the realization of perfection the effect of human deception: the human deception in thinking that perfect solutions to historical problems are within our control. Thus Niebuhr, especially now that the United States is on the brink of taking far-reaching decisions in foreign policy, strikes me as being a profound and cautious guide.

Angelo A. De Gennaro
San Antonio, Tex.

Homeland Insecurity

After reading Charles C. Mann's description of Bruce Schneier's opinions about the application of technology and the importance of human beings in security ("Homeland Insecurity," September Atlantic), I was struck by the similarity of his portrait to much of what is wrong with modern medicine. Bureaucrats, managers, lawyers, legislators, most lay persons, and many physicians try to pigeonhole patients in some algorithm that they understand, or anchor them to some statistical analysis they are familiar with. It doesn't work, because each patient is unique, and human judgment must be applied to individual circumstances. One in a million doesn't matter if you are the one.

The computer (and fiber optics) provides us with fabulous new eyes to see and fix human ailments and creates enormous amounts of data about each patient. Nevertheless, an inquiring mind need only ask "Why?" two or three times to again be at the edge of knowledge. Then human judgment, a good brain, and a kind heart must apply multiple algorithms to the one person who matters—the patient with you at that moment.

John R. Dykers Jr.
Siler City, N.C.

Charles Mann makes the important distinction between brittle and ductile security systems: the former are more centralized and subject to significant failure; the latter are compartmentalized and adaptive—a breach in the security of one component does not threaten the entire system. Locks on the doors of airplane cockpits, and passengers willing to take on hijackers, offer ductility, whereas centralized databases of personal information, whether for intelligence or business purposes, do not (in the extreme). I was surprised that Mann did not mention one incredibly ductile system, with which we are currently at war: al Qaeda. Its autonomous-cell organization and generally decentralized command structure make it an excellent example of an adaptable, hard-to-breach system. (Robert Heinlein describes this sort of organization in his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.) The U.S. government, with recent efforts to create a centralized Department of Homeland Security, appears to be moving toward increased brittleness (though wrangles over turf might actually forestall some of this). Can we hope to combat al Qaeda's threats with such a move, even in the very long term? In the end we will probably realize that we are left with less security and less freedom. Perhaps we need to work in the opposite direction, as Mann's article implies.

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