Has anyone ever taken as long to read 173 pages, as I took to read Reinhold Niebuhr's The Irony of American History? I found myself only able to consume, like, five-ten pages at a time. On my best days, I think I knocked out twenty or so. Thinking is hard work--when I did reporting for the polling piece, I had to lay down for a minute because the minutiae made my head hurt. Same for Neibuhr. I could only take so much
Anyway, the book was incredible on many, many counts. You know you've read a great book when you can think of all the beautiful things you took away, while still clear that you missed quite a bit. I was struck by a lot of things--The irony of securing freedom for the world through the threat of nuclear annihilation. The irony of Marxism, allegedly atheist, as a political religion, a kind of Apocalyptic cult. And then most powerfully how our own sense of virtue and justness is blinding.
The worst part about insisting America is always "a force for good" in the world is that it overstates our abilities, and understates our limits. It is patriotism for suckers, analagous to the parent who spoils the child in the name of love. Niebuhr's awesome insight that man's attempt to be the director of history, blinds him to his role as actor, says so much about the world. So even as we talk about making the Middle East safe for freedom and democracy, even as we mindlessly claim that the natural destiny of all mankind is freedom, we are blind to our own selfish motives, our own animal interests. Everything is tainted. And that's beautiful and fine, as long as we can admit it.
This brings me to something else. Niebuhr's book is not overly religious until the end, but all through out I could tell I was reading a book written by a theologian. Look, I came up in a house that rejected religion, and so much of what will be normal for you, will be exotic to me. I always thought of Adam and Eve as a way to blame women for the fall of man, and maybe it's that too, I don't know. But I'd never thought of "the Original Sin" as being unchecked ambition, as being an absence of skepticism and self-reflection, a foolish desire to play God--like we just did in the Middle East. I left the book as I came to it--agnostic through and through--but really curious about Catholicism, in particular, and Christianity at large. Life is too short folks. There is too much out there to know.