Skip to content

Well when you put it that way . . .

“In other words, I’m in favor of defending the American empire, such as it is, because I’m an Establishmentarian. While not inclined to romanticize current arrangements, which are undoubtedly unjust and cruel and riddled with human sinfulness, I very much oppose revolutionary attitudes that make the terrible error, all too common among progressives, of imagining that nothing could be worse than the status quo.”


  1. Myles wrote:

    C’mon Halden…context. You’re better than that. He also says:

    “In fact, the very idea of national destiny strikes me as wrong-headed. Yes, God oversees the affairs of men, guiding the course of history in accordance with his Providence. However, as Abraham Lincoln recognized during the Civil War—a conflict about the very meaning of the crucial American idea of freedom—it is impossible to assign divine favor to one side or the other. He was a far better theologian than those who formulated the slogan of Manifest Destiny.”

    His point in the quote you cite here is (while sympathetic to the Niebuhr-Weigel reading of Augustine) that the alternative to deplorable acts by one’s government is not simply the continual turning over of the status quo for its own sake, but for a positive vision. One doesn’t have to go with Reno’s establishmentarianism to say that critique has to do more than simply point out inequities, as critique comes from (or should come from) the presupposition of some kind of alternative.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:18 am | Permalink
  2. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    It’s R. R. R. R. R. Reno on First Things.

    It’s an utterly muddle-headed column. He claims to have deep misgivings about national destiny and American empire, but in the end he rationalizes all of it to himself by contending that our moral perspectives can only extend to the short term. (He claims the imprimatur of Augustine for this.) In other words, he doesn’t romanticize “unjust and cruel” arrangements. He just doesn’t want to think beyond them. Life is just too good for him and the likes of him in the here and now. It’s a another lachrymose, Niebuhrian way of saying fuck everyone else. Oh, the Tragedy of It All, that many must suffer to make my way of life possible.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:19 am | Permalink
  3. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Myles — The problem is that Reno punts on precisely the issue of “a positive vision.” Many of us on the left have precisely such a vision — Reno just doesn’t like it. And it’s not enough for him to dismiss “revolutionary attitudes.” Any “positive vision” is going to entail a magnitude of changes in society, economy, etc. No matter how much he whines in Niebuhrian fashion about the Tragedy of It All, what Reno’s really saying is that he’s really quite satisfied with the present injustice and cruelty.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink
  4. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Myles, do you honestly think that Halden inappropriately took this out of context?

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  5. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    I mean, context or not, the guy still says this kind of shit: “My patriotic impulses, which are quite deep and potent, tell me that Assange should be hanged.” It looks really bad even when put into context.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:38 am | Permalink
  6. Myles wrote:

    The quote above makes Reno sound like a slightly-qualified defender of the status quo. What he says in the piece (while still problematic) is that to posit revolution apart from constructing an alternative is bogus. Yes, it’s problematic for him to continue affirming Empire (yoinks!) knowing what it is, but I take his suspicion about revolution without another end to be fair.
    That’s all I’m saying. I’ve got no interest in defending Reno, but if we’re going to talk about it, let’s talk about it and not lob grenades. I’d hate to see this series turn into a variant of the “supercool blogger” motif of the previous post, where instead of ‘refraining from comment’, quotes are put up in an ironic fashion that likewise avoids conversation with the substance of the piece.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:45 am | Permalink
  7. Could a wicked, head-rolling revolution with no clear end really be considered that much worse than the status quo at this point? I get that Reno doesn’t believe in “progress” so to speak, but progress goes on whether he believes in it or not. We should at least recognize “status quo” for the malignant form of “progress” it is.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  8. One wonders how we progressed out of caves with this kind of selfish attitude. The only one who could spout such an unjust doctrine, is someone who is very comfortable in their present life. If Jesus had had such an attitude, would we have an Christianity?

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 10:13 am | Permalink
  9. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Myles — Agreed, but Reno’s point about revolution without an alternative is unremarkable at best and ideological at worst. First of all, “revolution” is a buzzword among Reno and others on the right — it partakes of and sanctions the Obama-is-a-Kenyan-Muslim-socialist hysteria. As much as Reno and other “respectable” First Things types might want to distance themselves from that kind of rhetoric, their own discourse lends it credibility. Second, and perhaps more important, the right-wing invocation of “revolution” serves to malign and discredit any alternative that’s actually put forward. In other words, I am accusing Reno and his ilk of bad faith: they really don’t want an alternative, at least not one that’s going to cause them any discomfort. Caught between the Gospel and the baubles of the Empire, they sing their Augustinian melancholy.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  10. Rod wrote:

    Halden, keep these awesome quotes coming. I need more to laugh at.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink
  11. Bruce Hamill wrote:

    Reno should surely realise that there is a big difference between being able to imagine and explore a scenario better than the current empire (with respect to which we might judge the empire evil) and thinking there is nothing worse than the status quo.

    I have no problem affirming the former and denying the latter.

    What’s more, it is not merely the fact of an idea that is at stake in american imperialism, but the very particular idea of ‘neoliberalism’ as an economic structuring concept which creates the evil of the empire whose centre of power is America.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 1:08 pm | Permalink
  12. Lee wrote:

    People need to stop dragging R. Niebuhr’s name through the mud by associating him with stuff like this. The author of Moral Man and Immoral Society was hardly defednding the status quo.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  13. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Leo — No, I have to disagree with you. Niebuhr was a socialist in the 1930s and 1940s, but during the first two decades of the Cold War he really did become a member of the Establishment. In fact, the journalist Richard Rovere referred to him as “the theologian of the Establishment.” Richard Fox’s biography — as well as my own book, Christian Critics, if I may be so vain — both make very clear that, as much as Niebuhr recoiled from conservatism, he lost his radical edge after World War II.

    One Protestant intellectual who issued a stinging critique of Niebuhr was A. J. Muste, the magnificent pacifist and socialist who often teamed up with Dorothy Day. I have no doubt that Reno would find Muste dangerous, which is precisely why Muste is so invaluable.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  14. saint egregious wrote:

    Have you read Gene’s critique of Niebuhr in his book Christian Critics, Lee? It’s pretty damning.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm | Permalink
  15. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Thanks for the plug, St. Egregious.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  16. Lee wrote:

    Certainly Niebuhr became more conservative as he aged, but I don’t think he ever exhibited this level of complacency. (He spoke out rather forcefully, if belatedly, on Vietnam, for instance.) He also, in his later work, clarified that he was not a conservative and that he opposed the conservative defense of the economic and social status quo. He may have been part of the Establishment, but I don’t think it’s fair to associate him with Reno’s shallow apologia for Empire.

    I will try to track down a copy of Prof. McCarraher’s book, though.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 6:30 pm | Permalink
  17. Neil wrote:

    I think that Reno’s piece is very useful – I do not say good – precisely because it is so obviously conflicted, so “muddle-headed,” despite the rather professorial beginning (“empire comes from the Latin imperium …”).

    Reno really should be a paleoconservative because he

    1) distrusts abstract ideas, preferring a “communion of people” to an “ideology,” and “history” to a “manifesto,” and so on.
    2) worries about the effects to a “circumscribed self-governing national life” caused by empire -the inevitable dominance of “global corporate interests” and a “multi-cultural elite.”
    3) is very much aware of the problematic aspects of American influence, such as an acidic global “consumer culture”
    4) grasps that “manifest destiny” and other “imperial fantasies” are theologically problematic.

    Why, then, does he support the status quo? There appears to be only one reason: there is a “perennial human impulse toward violence, chaos, and destruction” that absolutely must be restrained.

    But this won’t do. One can ask obvious questions: Does “violence, chaos, and destruction” always concern the United States? Does the United States really have the strategic foresight to play a constructive role in restraining “violence, chaos, and destruction”?

    Reno doesn’t even ask these questions because he’s so fascinated by the “forces of chaos, which are real and pitiless,” the “present day Vandals abroad.” They must be contained and the UN is hopelessly “inept,” and therefore an inescapable moral responsibility for the United States arises.

    The real question has to do with the nature of Reno’s fascination with these “forces of discord, disorder, and destruction.” Where, really, does it come from?

    Back to lurking … I apologize in advance.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site