Monday, July 18, 2011

Why Niebuhr Now? by John Patrick Diggins

I've alreay written of my anticipation of this book and my enthusiasm for both the subject and the author, so I won't go on. Much of this short book places Niebuhr within the American culture of his days. But as Diggins will do, he not only tells of Niebuhr's ideas and arguments and his place in history, but he nails the essence. Let me quote:
Today American's political and business leaders typically announce that "freedom" is the touchstone of all their efforts, the benchmark against which we are to measure their accomplishments. The term is our national creed. Centuries ago freedom was considered a passion to be controlled; today it is a principle to be celebrated. Educators teach it, poets chant it, philosophers define it, moralists preach it, politicians swear by it, the retired enjoy it, immigrants dream of it, and the poor strive for it.
The cult of freedom is so ubiquitous in American history that it continually erodes the biding force of authority, a concept carrying weight mainly in the Supreme Court rulings and the tenants of religious sects. Many Americans regard authority as inheritly alien and illegitimate and on this the extremes meet. . . . Preoccupied with the fetish of freedom, few Americans dwell on its riddles and paradoxes. We readily assume that to be free is to do what we wish. But are not our wishes often subject to passions that affect our actions? Genuine freedom consists in self-mastery, escape from external restrains and inner compulsions. Niebuhr would not forget Saint Augustine’s warning that the mind may control the body but cannot control itself. But in American life few question that freedom is anything but a self-evident truth, eternally subject to rebirth and reaffirmation.
Reinhold Niebuhr was no enemy of human freedom, but he tried to make us award of the ironies inherent in the concept. Where there is freedom, he observed, there is also power, and where there is power, there is sin and the temptation to sin. Rarely does America see itself solely in terms of power. Instead, we over estimate our dedication to freedom and forget that we are as much creatures of history as its creators.

Well, enough for now. If you care about freedom, power, sin, pride, and self-knowledge, then these two thinkers have a lot to share with you.

Teach Us to Sit Still: A Skeptic's Search for Health & Healing by Tim Parks

Product DetailsThe title, from a favorite poem, caught my eye, and a favorable review led me to grab this book when I saw it at the library. Mr. Parks, an Englishman who lives in Italy with his family and who as a career as a successful novelist (he's made it the Booker-Mann short list), developed severe problems with his plumbing, the the central culprit appearing to be his prostrate. N.B. Hear me knocking on wood, but the similar symptoms did not prompt my choice of this book. So far, so good. But as breast cancer seems a real threat to most woman, so the prostrate for men. Thus, some personal concern--but I digress. His prostrate, however, wasn't cancerous. It was . . . well, doctors weren't quite sure what was wrong. Urologists, in any event, recommended a roto-rooter of the nether regions. He didn't cotton to this idea. He searched, and then he came upon a book. Not to spoil the ending, but he ends up performing exercises and attending a mindfulness meditation retreat. All the while it seems, he protests, but it works.

I won't say more, but if you're interested in a very tell-told story of health and its elusiveness, of how our bodies and minds interact (or ignore each other), and how we can, if we open ourselves to experiences that the mind, a priori, wants to reject, we can experience some really amazing changes. A very good book and thought-provoking.

Donald Kaul & Obama

Two important things about this article: First, I think it marks that third week in a row that Donald Kaul has appeared again the Des Moines Register. Frankly, the P-C I get for local news, but the DMR is a mere shadow of its former self, across the board. Picking up the man who wrote for it going back in into the early 1970's (at least that's when I picked up the habit from my dad), is a great choice for a paper that hasn't made many great choices over the years.

As to this piece, Kaul expresses my sense of Obama to a T. I'm prepared to give Obama a lot of slack, but I do wonder why he is not more assertive. Every politician, even FDR, for example, is cautious and can't get too far out in front of the selectorate (thank Bruce Bueno de Mesquita for the term). But if you're negotiating, and trying to build your base (which politicians must do constantly), you have to bluff a bit. BTW, note that Kaul describes Republicans as "mad"--nothing like a poignant double-entendre. I don't have an answer to Kaul's question, but we need help. As he pointed out in an earlier Kaulumn, Michelle Bachmann and her ilk are positively daft, part of a growing group of know-nothings (my term, not his). I really do wish that I had an answer.