Weekend reading: ‘The Irony of American History’ by Reinhold Niebuhr

I last read this book in my Philosophy of History class, which I took in my senior year of college with my roommate Corey. (Here’s the thing: The class ended at 9 p.m. on whatever day Lost used to air. So we’d have to pretty much run down Court Street at the end of every session to catch the beginning of the episode. Super goddamned frustrating. Plus, Season Six, which aired that year, sucked.)

Anyway. A quote, which relates to something my friend was describing last night:

If the academic thought of a scientific culture tends to obscure the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness, the social forms of a technical society frequently endanger the realities of his life. The mechanically contrived togetherness of our great urban centers is inimical to genuine community. For community is grounded in personal relations. In these the individual becomes most completely himself as his life enters organically into the lives of others. Thus our theory and our practice tend to stand in contradiction to our creed. (Niebuhr 10)

I underlined that paragraph in early 2010, and I’ve only just revisited it today.

My friend last night pointed out that personal growth can’t occur in a vacuum. It’s only when we interact with others — and share an evolving history — that we as individuals grow and, in turn, that we as a community grow. Niebuhr was writing against the backdrop of the Atomic Age — 1952 — and he feared the rigid structure of American defense industrialism, the economic and social forces that defined our country’s great cities in that era. Now, however, with the onslaught of Internet values and mainlined digital communications, I think his words are more prescient than ever.

I remember a series of conversations I had during that same time period — early 2010 — with my professor and mentor, Thomas Suddes, he of the Plain Dealer editorial board and the Scripps School of Journalism. He referenced Marshall McLuhan‘s work around the same time that my Philosophy of History professor was pitching Niebuhr my way. We discussed how society was, on one hand, becoming more connected than ever before in history, while on the other hand becoming horrifically segmented.

I see it everyday: People don’t know how to communicate, because they don’t know themselves. Given the way society has become restructured — so quickly, too! — we lend ourselves no time for true personal relations. (I’m talking on a broad societal scale here.) The Great American Advertisement for freedom and prosperity has become less attainable than ever, because true freedom results not from doing and buying whateverthehell you want, but from knowing yourself truly and committing yourself to thinking about the world in an open and engaging way.

The trajectory of American history is brutally ironic.

(Another thing: Our professor would pronounce Niebuhr kind of like “Neebler,” which led Corey and I to think of Nibbler from Futurama, because at that point in our lives basically all we did was get very stoned and watch cartoons. Given the chance, I’d fry a few brain cells to time-travel back to that world again — just for a week, even — and to experience the roller-coaster of weirdness at 85 North Court St., Apt. 203A, again. I miss that place dearly.)

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