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Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

Getting Labor Day Straight


Doll Images of Henny and Ernie 1930s working class parents at Zuccotti Park and the Occupy Movement


Labor Day comes upon us as the end of our summer vacation and the beginning of the school season.  There is very little in the celebration of Labor Day that tells the story of the history of the struggles that working people have gone through or the ones they are still battling.  Everywhere else in the world the struggles of working people are celebrated on May 1st..

May 1st actually began in the United States with the fight for the eight-hour day in Chicago and the Haymarket affair of 1886.  Already in the making was corporate power in alliance with the press and civic authorities, which sidetracked and suppressed the issues of the workers represented by the Haymarket event.   Labor Day in the United States, instead of memorializing the continuing struggles of working people, has come to represent the end of summer and the beginning of the school year.

As we approach Labor Day in 2014, it doesn’t take much common sense to recognize the gross inequities in the U.S. economic system.  The Occupy movement came into being as a 21st century witness to the loss of the economic equalization process that happened in the post-Reagan era.  The voices of the 99% were pointing to the tremendous imbalance in the sharing of the rewards of the productivity of the U.S. work force.  In the 1947 through 1979 period the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 108% and the family income of the top 1% grew by 63%.  In the period of 1979 through 2007 the family income of the lower 80% of the economy grew by 16% while the family income of those in the 1% grew by 224%.  This great imbalance can be attributed, in part, to the loss of the bargaining power of the labor union movement.  It was the ability of organized labor during the mid-century period to increase middle-class incomes.

As we approach the 2014 mid-term elections, the power of the oligarchy in the United States to shape Congressional elections and legislation favoring their interests is unparalleled.  The celebration of Labor Day becomes a farce in speaking for working people’s justice in our economy.  This is especially true as we recognize the loss of the voices of the marginalized in our society. Conservative forces continue to eviscerate social programs related to the well-being of low income and middle income families, i.e., children’s education and health, child care programs for working mothers, affordable medical programs for low income people, and preserving the hard earned social security benefits for retirees.

In the political arena, legislative actions are already underway in some states to target vulnerable people’s right to cast their vote.  In other states and regions, the program and policies of the Tea Party and similar conservative groups are ardent in turning back the social justice gains of the last century.  The very people who are part of these conservative movements have gained their own status by the sweat and the perseverance of their own forbearers, who fought the very entrenched economic interests to win their fair and just rights from them. Thomas Frank illuminated this story in his 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America.”

In the 1930s, the farmers and the workers of Kansas faced the depressed economy and fought those forces that would keep them in poverty.  This was the story for many Kansas families.  Jump ahead a half century: the offspring of these folk having forgotten their family’s struggles are now listening to voices that direct them to the moral issues of the times, i.e., abortion and gay marriage.  Lost to their attention are the new economic power players who would keep them from seeing the real social and economic issues of the day.  Working people are often blindsided by those voices calling for so-called moral values and vote against their own best interests.

New attention must be paid to Labor Day as it tells the story of the inequities which still exist within the U.S. scene, and it calls for a new reckoning with these inequities through the political process.  Let us get the meaning of Labor Day straight in 2014.

The Metamorphosis of the Tavern on the Green

AFC 175047This past February 5th the New York Times carried a story on the reopening of the Tavern on the Green on the west side of Central Park.  The Tavern on the Green, which has lasted almost a century and a half,  has seen  many transformations.  Back in 1871 it began as a sheepfold when Central Park was one great green pasture.  Over the years the sheepfold had become a miniature zoo which had come to include camels, bisons, pumas, llamas,  and buffalo, besides the sheep.  By the 1930s the sheepfold had been transformed into a  small restaurant.  The  wildlife  had been auctioned off or moved to Prospect Park in 1934. The caretaker of this menagerie, Frank Hoey, the last shepherd on Manhattan island, was transitioned into caring for the sea lions and bears in the Central Park Zoo.  The Tavern of the Green, bereft of its animal life, went through many stages of life growing from a 8,000 square foot sheepfold to a 10,000 square foot restaurant and on to a series of expansions into the late 1970s reaching  a 30,000 square foot  elegant restaurant and dancing pavilion.

The story of the rehabilitation of the Tavern on the Green brings back memories of high school days in the late 1930s.  After graduation from Junior High School 30 in Yorkville on mid-town East Side, five of us went on to the High School of Commerce on west 66th St.  For three years  we made the  two mile daily trek  from Yorkville on the East Side to the High School of Commerce on the West Side.  Along the way coming and going we passed the Tavern on the Green in west Central Park.   Beginning in the Fall of 1939, Johnny Palazotto, Jack Saitta, Saul Mines, Hank Yost and myself, a miniature League of Nations, began our daily early morning two mile jog from the East Side beginning at 7:10,  Johnny Palazotto starting out at  85th and York Avenue, ringing my bell at 7:20 at 82nd and First Avenue,  picking Jack Saitta up at 81st St. and First Avenue, and then meeting Saul Mines and Jack Yost at 81st St. and Second Avenue. We headed west for the 79th St. entrance to Central Park, jogging diagonally through the park and aiming for the Tavern on the Green exit on the West Side.  When we reached the Tavern on the Green we made our mad dash for 66th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and into Commerce High  hoping to beat the 8:00 AM  late bell.  The journey was repeated in reverse each afternoon.  For three years we passed the Tavern on the Green as a major marker  on our daily circuit.  We regarded the Tavern as a special place.  We looked upon it as a symbol of success: frequented only by people of means.  On the morning of  Monday, December 8th of 1941, in our senior year, we were called to gather in the assembly hall  of the High School of Commerce.  Over the speakers that morning,  in the intense quiet of the hall, the voice of  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke the silence with the U.S.  declaration of war on Japan.  In June we graduated  into the War.  I never heard from my four high school mates again.  The Tavern on the Green closed in 2010.  The High School of Commerce is gone.   As well as Junior High School 30. The 2014 rehabilitation of the Tavern revives the good memories of my high school friends, our  jog through Central Park  to the Tavern and our race to the High School of Commerce to beat the 8:00 AM bell.  Hear the continuing story on:

Remembering New York in the Thirties

The  May 6th issue of  The Nation on the current state of New York City stirred up many memories of my growing up years in Manhattan.  Manhattan, or more specifically my Yorkville neighborhood, was the locus for many of the changes lifted up in the story line of The Nation.  

The name of Fiorello La Guardia raised some delightful images of my early years.   In the midst of  a newspaper strike during his mayoralty,  La Guardia took to the radio waves and read the comic strips that New York youngsters were missing.  I can still see him in a Pathe News film replay with the Sunday newspaper in hand, giving his all to the actions of our favorite comic strip characters.   His rotund figure, as he rolled into some event with his entourage –  in my case  a N. Y. Giants game at the Polo Grounds,  always brought delight to his New York  constituents.  La Guardia, as I came to realize in later years, and as The Nation so aptly points out, was one of New York’s few truly progressive mayors.  The demography and the nature of New York politics hasn’t been fertile ground for mayors who can bring off solid social change in the city.  La Guardia was fortunate to come into his political prominence during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Here The Nation points out the largesse that came to New York through the variety of New Deal programs that provided New Yorkers with jobs, housing and medical programs.  I still remember during grade school  traipsing  off to the Guggenheim Clinic for dental work with fear and trembling.  I may still have  ancient fillings provided by a neophyte dentist in the 1930s.  Part of New York’s change, however, came through the controversial power broker Robert Moses. Many of the still functioning public works were brought off by Moses.  He built the East River Drive Extension, now called FDR drive.  Moses used Works Projects Administration money for  building the Triborough Bridge, and  the Grand Central Parkway.   With the help of La Guardia, the  New York airport named for the mayor was also brought off.

As we agonize over the problems our cities face today, in our aging infrastructure, the despoiling of our  environment, the failure of our educational system,   our conservative politicians  need to recall the help their constituencies received  from the federal government in times when their backs were against the wall.