The Arc of History Doesn't Always Bend Toward Justice
History is on our side. That’s a claim Barack Obama has made frequently, in his two successful campaigns for president and during his nearly eight years in office. It’s a claim that looks a little shakier this Thanksgiving holiday than it did during the Halloween holiday three weeks ago.
Obama has frequently paraphrased a statement made by Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” King, in turn, was paraphrasing the 19th-century abolitionist Theodore Parker.
They turned out to be right about this — but not without doing a considerable amount of the bending themselves. Parker was one of the abolitionists who set America on the course of abolishing slavery. King did as much as anyone else to persuade Americans to end racial segregation.
But the arc didn’t travel in a straight line. The rights of the freed slaves were effectively abolished after the rejection of the Republicans’ Reconstruction policies. Most Americans were content to let the South enforce segregation for 80 years. Millions of people lived their whole lives under this system during those years.
Many around the world fared worse. Tens of millions died in World War I and World War II. Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong caused the deaths of tens of millions more.
Americans today, few of whom have a memory going back before 1945, take it for granted that Hitler and Nazism were defeated. Millennials, most of whom have no memory of 1989, take for granted the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. Most Americans don’t remember the late 1970s, when Mao died and Deng Xiaoping put China on the path of capitalist economic growth.
None of these things was inevitable. Consider the 22 months between Aug. 23, 1939, when the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed, and June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler, Stalin and their allies in Italy and Japan swept over much of the landmass of Eurasia.
Only an isolated Britain stood in their way, while an isolationist America dreaded getting involved. It was the closest the world has come to the dystopia of George Orwell’s “1984.”
Two great leaders rose to the occasion. Winston Churchill insisted that Britain would never surrender, and Franklin Roosevelt provided American military aid to make sure it could fight on. On the deck of HMS Prince of Wales in a bay in Newfoundland in August 1941, Churchill and Roosevelt proclaimed the Four Freedoms.
They had a sense of where they wanted history to head and how to move it in that direction. Not all the decisions they made were wise, and they often faced tragic choices. We take it for granted that the arc of history moved the right way, but it took some very heavy bending by two leaders and the millions they inspired.
Obama’s vision of the arc of history is more cramped and partisan. In his view, history is a story of progress toward an ever larger government at home and an ever more assertive America abroad. But history doesn’t always move that way. In the century before World War I, Britain led the world by reducing taxes and freeing up enterprise and trade. Government restrictions were discarded as vestiges of medieval tyranny.
That’s something like American voters’ response to Obamacare and other regulation-heavy Obama policies. Obama hoped Obamacare would lead to a government-run single-payer system and never communicated a sense of how much government would be too much. American voters responded that Obamacare was more than enough. It’s another example of history’s going back and forth on the size of government.
On foreign policy, Obama clearly thinks America has too often been on the wrong side of history, an oppressor more often than a liberator. Better to cede power to international organizations and to hold out to unfriendly powers an “open hand” rather than a “clenched fist.”
So far, that seems to have produced not affection but contempt. Vladimir Putin expands Russian power into Ukraine and Syria. China advances to dominate international sea lanes. The mullahs of Iran ramp up support of terrorism and do little to conceal their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, the arc of history seems to be bending toward something other than justice. As Churchill and Roosevelt knew, history is contingent, and those who act as if progress is inevitable often prove to be sadly disappointed.
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