NO ONE EVER SAID IT'D BE EASY: Our text for the evening, taken again from James Poulos, largely because he's poking around my own view of foreign policy:

You can see what kind of tautology that is — Communist politics was driven by Marx’s prose poetry, and that was pretty horrible — but Rorty was all about dodging that critique by inspiring us to live up to implementing the most ambitious utopian poetry in ways that accorded responsibly and humanely with our small-l liberal project — namely, the project of making everyone in the world like us in a nonviolent way that let free encounters produce whatever ways of life were most appealing to the people doing the encountering.

Yet Rorty admits something that should be troubling to those who like his and Niebuhr’s (and Michael Gerson’s) message: our ideas may not need any more revolutions, but other people in the world may very well need political revolutions to get the goods we enjoy. The question is begged: what is our relationship to those people? What, given the resources at our command, can, or should, we do to help them? The neoconservatives have a pretty forthright answer to this question: be prepared to fight for them; be prepared to overthrow wicked regimes for them; be prepared to use military force for the benefit of Man.

The reality of this option, even now, is so robust, and so easy to turn to, that Niebuhr’s carefully calibrated disposition toward particulars and finitude looks small and defeatist to those looking for an excuse to do away with the reticence it implies. The fact is that Niebuhr’s recipe, at least stated here, provides its own grounds for impatience with its own impasse. Instead of throwing us back again on the question of what, specifically, we mean by a world community — as opposed to just a dazzling vision of solidarity — it invites us in spite of itself to lunge for it first and ask questions later.

The answer, I would think, is to go back to Augustine: the political world is a complicated place, where disordered will and desire lead to unpleasant results. From the perspective of a Christian, to mix in the political world is to run a certain risk of one's own soul--this is the impulse that leads the Stanley Hauerwases of the world to give up on politics. The alternative is to accept it.

Rorty is a bad example here in an important way--he wants a certain political and social world to come into being, but his means to achieve it have little, ultimately, to do with politics (it's all literature and rhetoric). In fact, the quotidian nature of politics often reinforces our worst impulses by trading off short-term interests for longer-term states of the world. Thus, his equivocation on whether it would make sense for a Nazi to resist the temptation to commit violence against Jews, and the sentiment he expresses in his Amnesty lecture, that 'we' hate the victims of genocide in Bosnia just as much as we hate the people who did it. Politics demeans us, and it's only in the flight to something more abstract and utopian that we can possibly redeem the future.

Niebuhr points in the opposite way. One has to reject all utopian options; none will ever come to pass, at least not in this world. However, we need to recognize the reality to which the utopia is pointing--that there is real moral order to things, that we should prefer better to worse, and act to make things better where we can, guided always by the vision of moral order as it should be, but recognizing that we live in a vale of tears and will always fall short. It is, in its way, an analogue to Camus--we must see the world as it is, and be prepared to act after seeing without illusion.

Poulos is right to point out that in weaker hands, Niebuhr's view becomes a pretext for too much adventuring in world politics. In that, it's hardly unique: spend enough time studying world politics, and one realizes that everything is made into a pretext when expediency demands it (see, e.g., Russia's claims during the Georgian crisis). But I think we can, and should, separate the question of solidarity from its applications. Pick your theory, someone's abused it. But Augustine, and Niebuhr insomuch as he follows from that tradition, give a plausible approach to world politics.

No comments: