Brooks Misreads Niebuhr

In light of my recent conversation with Peter Beinart, it’s worth noting that David Brook’s latest atrocity is also a shallow recasting of the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr, except that meh, it’s not.

If you’ve read Moral Man and Immoral Society, you’ll know that Niebuhr was indeed concerned with the tradeoffs in moving from individual to social relationships. As the book’s title implies, Niebuhr thought it was easier for individuals to be moral, because they didn’t carry the burden of representing a group and its interests. Groups lead to ideology which leads to blindness which causes sin, according to Niebuhr.

But if you’ve read Moral Man, you’ll also know that Niebuhr doesn’t waste a minute on bipartisanship. To do anything worth doing, you have to work with groups, he knew. Moral life takes us beyond the life of ones and twos and into society, which means, inevitably, playing with the fire of sin. It’s that paradox that consumes Niebuhr, not Brooksian post-partisanship, which really means “Democrats should let the Republicans do whatever they want.”

Like I say, if you’ve read Niebuhr, you know that. If you haven’t, you’re better off picking up Moral Man for yourself and skipping David Brooks’ Cliff Notes version.