Reading dry academic books so you don’t have to… :) Niebuhr tackles what he sees as contradictions in the base make up of American culture. He uses a plethora of words to say what he means, but importantly, he zeros in how important collective action is – even in a society that claims to be ruggedly individualistic.
“Sometimes the irony in our [US] historic situation is derived from the extravagant emphasis in our culture upon the value of dignity of the individual and upon individual liberty as the final value of life. Our cherished vales of individualism are real enough; and we are right in preferring death to their annulment. But our exaltation of the individual involves us in some very ironic contradictions.
On the one hand, our culture does not really value the individual as much as it pretends; on the other hand, if justice is to be maintained and our survival assured, we cannot make individual liberty as unqualifiedly the end of life as our ideology asserts.”
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 mechanistically contrived togetherness of our great urban centers in 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.
But if our academic thought frequently negates our individualistic creed, our social practice is frequently better than the creed. The justice we have established in our society has been achieved, not by pure individualism, but by collective action. We have balanced collective social power with collective social power. In order to prevail against our Communist foe we must continue to engage in vast collective ventures, subject ourselves to far-reaching national and international disciplines and we must moderate the extravagance of our theory by the soberness of our practice. Many young men, who have been assured that only the individual counts among us, have died upon foreign battlefields. We have been subjected to this ironic refutation of our cherished creed because the creed is too individualistic to measure the social dimension of human existence and too optimistic to gauge the hazards to justice which exists in every community, particular in the international one.
-Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony Of American History p.7, p.10.