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20130731 The Irony of American History

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Written at the height of cold war this book by Reinhold Niebuhr is an interesting look at irony of two competing systems: Communism and Americanism. Being theologian RN brings to this discussion an awful lot of religious background, but his points are much more secular. The biggest irony of all for him is what seems to be a conflict of two competing messianic views: Communist mainly represented by real life implementation in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China versus American incarnation of liberal democracy.

There are many fine points in this book that are absolutely correct, but the bottom line in my opinion is somewhat off the target. I think RN fully and correctly identified Communism as messianic religious movement, but he is not completely correct about Americanism. He seems to consider it as another much more benign form of messianic movement which nevertheless has something in common with communism – the intention to expand itself to other countries all over the world as alternative to existing unsustainable condition of post feudal world.

He dedicated the whole chapter or about 30% of the book to “The innocent nation in innocent world” notion, that is to analysis of American innocence and how it was lost after reality of two world wars. Actually this view makes sense if one considers country as “collective man”. In reality there is no collective man, but rather millions of real men and women each of which had to deal with real life upon achieving adulthood and there is no place for innocence. The difference between America and whole other world is that individuals in America historically had a lot more freedom including economic freedom which means that their well being depends to much higher extent on their own actions and luck then on anything else. In this situation people tend to care about their local life and consider outside world more as nuisance then anything else as long as outside world does not invade their lives. The democratic form of government made this attitude to influence politicians in government and it made America to consistently attempt to avoid participation in world political game of conquests, balance of power and such.

Unfortunately two parallel developments moved America to the forefront of world politics. The first was internal – end of frontier and with it free land and relative economic independence of individual. This inevitably led to increase of power of government as hierarchical structure of bureaucrats and politicians who for the last 100 years successfully fought and won majority of battles against traditional American individualistic culture taking bigger and bigger share of resources from individual use under its own control and making individuals more and more dependent on handouts from the government. The switch of America from isolationism to highly active political and military role in the world was just one of many side effects of this change.

The second development was the growth of world wide communist movement which represented real and clear danger to American way of life. Paradoxically it was communism that provided justification for growth of American government way beyond limits imposed by constitution. Interestingly the messianic movement of communism attracted wide majority of non-technical and non-business intellectuals who happily embraced the notion of wise philosopher-scientist kings leading clueless population to happiness. Actually they are happy to play role of such kings especially when it comes with very significant wealth redistribution to their benefits.

RN did not live long enough to see it, but here comes the biggest irony of all – after Communism self destruct at the end of XX century due to nearly complete elimination of incentives for individuals to work, the Americanism, as philosophy of self-reliant individuals working independently and hard to achieve happiness, found itself on the death bed in early XXI century cut down by cancer of growth of unlimited government and welfare state.

The prognosis does not look good now, but I am optimistic that old religious tale of resurrection will work out again in the future and Americanism will revive itself in the new much more sophisticate, effective, and efficient form bringing into its embrace whole humanity by demonstrating its usefulness in achieving happiness.


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