Friday, January 14, 2011

David Brooks on Niebuhrian Need for Renewed Sense of Sin: Where Does Incivility Arise in American Society?

Moderate conservatives like David Brooks are eager to bring civility back to American society--to retie the now-frayed ties that bind us.  And, as a critique of any theological and political analysis that might point to a progressive solution to our problem of civility, moderate conservatives like Brooks propose a highly selective reading of Niebuhr which removes from Niebuhr's theology its very foundation: the social gospel presuppositions out of which this theology moves, even as it eclipses those presuppositions with Christian realism.

Brooks and other moderate conservatives debase Niebuhr and his complex, multifaceted thinking, because they want to capture Niebuhr's insight that all social groups are sinful and all human beings have a penchant to do evil for one reason alone: they want to remind all the dispossessed of their society that rebellion fueled by utopian longing for a better life runs the risk of rebellion against God and against the limitations imposed by reality.  In the imagination of moderate conservatives, the ties that bind us are fraying because people at large--middle- and working-class people--are forgetting how to behave properly, how to be civil, how to live soberly and decently within the confines of the world as God made it.

The critique of sinful selfishness and of fraying bonds of civil society is never directed, in the selectively Niebuhrian analysis of moderate conservative thinkers like Brooks, at the tiny elite of grossly rich folks who own almost everything in our society.  This group is never accused of behaving uncivilly, of dissolving the affective and obligatory bonds that hold us together in civil society.  This group is never preached at when moderate conservatives trot out Niebuhr and talk about sin, selfishness, and sober social realism.

And so Brooks can argue--astonishingly--that here is the problem that now plagues American society and from which we must recover if we expect to overcome our addiction to violence:

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves.

In fact, in the last forty years, we have gone from a society in which the middle and working classes felt an investment in the well-being of the body politic because they had some ownership in it, to a society in which wealth is now radically maldistributed, with a tiny percentage of people owning almost everything.  The problem that confronts us now is not the incivility of the many who are struggling to make ends meet, and who are becoming selfish and losing civility.

The problem that confronts us now is the incivility of the few who own almost everything, and who are uncivil in their very approach to ownership and the social responsibility entailed by their wealth, in their assumption that they have the right to hoard the riches of the earth and not to build a humane society for everyone--and not only for themselves.  The problem of incivility in American society does not stem from the many who are dispossessed today.  It stems from the few who own the vast amount of the goods of the world, in gross excess of what they themselves need.

If preaching about sin, selfishness, and incivility is to take place now, that preaching ought to be directed to those who clutch at a disproportionate share of the goods of the world, and are increasingly unwilling to use their wealth to build a solid, healthy society in which everyone has a chance at a humane existence.  But that is not at all the tenor of Brooks' Niebuhrian preaching.

It is the working and middle classes to whom Mr. Brooks directs his message.  They are the ones who need to re-learn civility, and the old virtues of hard work and self-denial, Mr. Brooks and his moderate conservative cronies propose.  This message does not target the owners of the world, because it is, in fact, being delivered to the rest of society precisely on behalf of the owning classes, for whom Brooks and other moderate conservative thinkers speak as they preach to the dispossessed of our world about how the dispossessed need to learn to behave themselves.

No comments: