Obama’s misguided in claiming he knows which is the right side of history

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Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at goldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. This article originally appeared in the October 6, 2014 issue of National Review. 

We’ve heard a great deal lately about the “wrong side of history.” It is one of the president’s favorite ways to describe whatever side he isn’t on, and it’s been a phrase on the lips of progressives for quite a while. Among the myriad problems with the notion of a “wrong side of history,” as many critics (including me) have long argued, is that in the domestic sphere it is a call for one’s opponents to surrender to the inevitability of defeat, and in the international sphere it is deployed rhetorically to avoid deploying anything real.

So, for example, on the home front, liberals insist that opponents of same-sex marriage should give up now because they are sure to lose eventually. And on the international stage, when Barack Obama castigates Vladimir Putin for being on the wrong side of history, what he’s really saying is, “Don’t worry, we don’t need to do anything, History and her long moral arc will do the heavy lifting for us.” No wonder the British historian Robert Conquest complained that the phrase has a “Marxist twang.

One irony is that although a slogan that glorifies history, it is a statement about the future, not the past. That’s because history is full of episodes that would, with a moment’s retrospection, illuminate the vacuity of the phrase. No one on the Trail of Tears took much comfort in the idea that the white man was on the wrong side of history.

Still, there’s an implicit assumption that things have been going in the right direction for a very long time and that there’s no reason to believe they will have a serious course correction in the future. It’s always comforting to believe that the unfolding evolution of the universe is your co-pilot. Unfortunately, not only was Yogi Berra right when he said that predictions are hard, “especially about the future”; it turns out that predictions about the past are hard, too. For any prediction of how the future will unfold is really an implied statement about how you think the past will — and should — be understood. All arguments about politics, in the grandest sense of the word, are arguments about what constitutes a “usable past,” in Van Wyck Brooks’s famous phrase.

We are all familiar with the idea that what we do today has consequences tomorrow. There is no shortage of high-school-yearbook-ready quotations on this subject. But the present can change the past as much as it changes the future. And while I don’t quite mean this in a literal way, I don’t mean it entirely figuratively either...





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