Atheism and the Arc of History 1

Does history have a "right side"?

A few years back, The Atlantic magazine came close to actually criticizing President Obama.  After discussing his many references to events in the past, their punch line was:

... the president has repeatedly deployed a series of phrases - especially "the right side of history" and "the wrong side of history" - that suggest a tortured, idealistic, and ultimately untenable vision of what history is and how it works[emphasis added]

We agree with The Atlantic's observation that President Obama referred to "history" as if it were some sort of intelligent, controlling force, able somehow to bring about what he considered to be the right outcomes in human affairs.  He also used this idea of history as an unstoppable benign guiding force in discussing the fight against terrorism:

"My fellow Americans, I am confident we will succeed in this mission because we are on the right side of history." It's a phrase Obama loves: He's used it 15 times, in debates; at synagogues; in weekly radio addresses; at fundraisers. Obama is almost as fond of its converse, "the wrong side of history," which he has used 13 times; staffers and press secretaries have invoked it a further 16.  [emphasis in the original]

Regarding themselves as the cutting edge of the historical progression from ignorance to enlightenment and from savagery to civilization, progressives are convinced that everything would be perfect if only the ill-educated rabble would submit themselves to the progressives' wonderful ideas.  Their rhetoric about the social programs they propose made it clear that they believe that government has the power - indeed, the obligation - to clear away the obstacles that prevent men from being perfect and that they, if permitted to spend enough money, could perfect all citizens everywhere and bring about heaven on earth.

Liberals are firmly in agreement with those who believe in the "noble savage" idea - that men are born perfect but are corrupted by imperfect environments.  This can be seen all up and down the policy spectrum: Ideas such as urban renewal are based on the conviction that cleaning up the neighborhood will perfect the residents.  Prison reformers believe that making prisons nicer will make the prisoners nicer when they get out.  Educators claim that making kids feel good about themselves - that is, bolstering their self-esteem - will make them more successful in life, ignoring ample evidence that the opposite is true.

In contrast, Christians who believe in original sin and that only God can reform fallen mankind regard such ideas as close to blasphemy.  A key principle of Christian thought, also subscribed to by all of our Founders, is that man is inherently sinful and fallen and that great efforts must be made to force him to behave or to teach him to control himself.  As James Madison put it in Federalist 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Our Founders believed devoutly that good government would not "just happen."  They would have laughed to scorn any idea that "the arc of history" pointed in the direction of freedom, liberty, prosperity, or anything worth having.

The Arc of History

President Obama mentioned "the arc of history" a dozen times in his public speeches.  He isn't the only Democrat who suffers the delusion of seeing history as a force:

Bill Clinton referred to "the right side of history" 21 times over his time in office, while his staffers added another 15. Clinton also mentioned the "wrong side of history" several times.

Interpreting history in this manner sees the past as a constant, irreversible progression whereby human nature improves over time, going from darker, more dangerous, ignorant times toward the ever-improving enlightened present, and the glorified, inevitable heaven-on-earth future - but only if Democrats stay in power, of course.

Republicans Do It Too

Democrats are by no means alone in holding such ideas and aren't the only ones who're overly optimistic about history being a force for good. In his first inaugural address, President George Bush II said:

Yet it is mistaken and condescending to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government. I believe that God has planted in every human heart the desire to live in freedom. And even when that desire is crushed by tyranny for decades, it will rise again.

Mr. Bush didn't use Mr. Obama's term "the arc of history," but he expressed essentially the same blind faith that our side would triumph in the end.  Unfortunately, Mr. Obama learned little or nothing from Mr. Bush' misadventures with the arc of history in Iraq.  In a speech to the British Parliament on May 25, 2011, he said:

For both of our nations, living up to the ideals enshrined in [our] founding documents has always been a work in progress. The path has never been perfect. But through the struggles of slaves and immigrants, women and ethnic minorities, former colonies and persecuted religions, we have learned better than most that the longing for freedom and human dignity is not English or American or Western — it is universal, and it beats in every heart.

President Bush wrongly believed that the spread of liberal democracy was inevitable and that the Iraqis would react joyfully when given the chance to vote for humane, decent, civilized leaders once our forces had deposed Saddam Hussein.  In the event, "history" didn't come through for Mr. Bush's "nation building" efforts, nor for Hillary's efforts to improve Libya by helping to depose the tyrannical, murderous Qaddafi.

Yes, both of these dictators were evil men, but getting rid of them didn't allow the "arc of history" to bend toward enlightenment.  In both places, the exact opposite took place as the ISIS barbarians battled other militias for power.  Both countries' unfortunate citizens and the rest of the world at large are now far worse off for the experiment.

The Lazy Politician

This misbegotten concept of "the arc of history" has importance far beyond the philosophical for an extremely practical reason: Assuming the inevitability of the outcome you prefer frees you from having to do the hard, thankless, down-and-dirty political work of making it happen.  If you're going to win in the end anyway, why sweat it?

Consider the work involved in getting a rock down from the top of a building, vs. getting it up there in the first place.  Getting it down is easy: just shove it out the window.  In contrast, getting it up there requires, time, planning, and a great deal of effort.  Both Presidents Obama and Bush viewed "the arc of history" as working like gravity pulling in the direction they wanted to go; if anything, our Founders would have viewed it the opposite way.

The difficulty is that the enlightened Western nations are opposed by ISIS, who not only proclaim that the arc of history is on their side, they are also willing to exert strenuous effort up to and including getting killed in order to bring about the result they believe to be inevitable.  As The Atlantic put it,

Perhaps ISIS's barbarism proves that they are on the wrong side of history - but what if, terrifyingly, it's evidence that they are on the right side of history, and Western civilization is on the wrong?

As we see it, history is a vast panorama of events of all sizes, from the large-scale "clashes of civilizations" down to the meanest fights between street gangs in our immigrant-rich cities.  The fact that history doesn't prefer one outcome over another and that many more government programs fail than succeed seems to us to be self-evident.  As the poet Robert Burns put it in verse:

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley.

Were Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush, Hillary, and the left lying yet again as things ganged a-gley, or is there another force at work?  In the second half of this article, we'll examine the concept of a driving force behind history from a different perspective.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Politics.
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...