The Right — and Wrong — Side of History

Discussions of the right — and wrong — side of history have constituted one of the major memes of Barack Obama’s presidency. Indeed, the president is so fond of citing “sides” of history, always on his side of course, that the media have taken notice. While conservatives have castigated Obama’s frequent citations of this as an empty banality, even liberal outlets — Slate not being known for right-of-anything views — have asked if Obama is laying it on a bit thick.

There’s no doubt that Obama likes to cite his side on myriad issues, foreign and domestic, as being the “right” one, historically speaking, with the clear implication that others are on the wrong one. There’s not much new about this, at least in outline. An essentially positive and progressive look at the world’s forward movement seems hardwired into the American psyche, with a belief that things are getting better, even if slowly, being the default setting.

Historians call this the Whig interpretation, the faith — and, make no mistake, it’s basically a religious faith we’re talking about here — that liberty, freedom and enlightenment move ever forward, with occasional bumps in the road, of course. The American Whig faith seems so ingrained in our national character, more than two centuries in, that even major bumps like our catastrophic Civil War didn’t cause undue pessimism for very long.

But the sort of preaching about the right and wrong side of history that progressives have publicly embraced since 2009 is something different. As a historian it’s impossible not to notice it, plus how frequently the administration and its supporters confidently cite “history” being on their side. It’s applied liberally, to nearly every issue: gay marriage, race relations, feminism, the Arab spring, Russia — there seems to be little that “history” can’t do. What was once bad is now good, or at least getting that way, and “history” has dictated it so. Resistance, therefore, seems pointless.

Of course, we’ve seen all this before. Communists confidently stated the same, right down to the collapse of the Bolshevik edifice in Europe between 1989 and 1991. It’s one thing to think History has a defined path — every monotheistic faith does — but it’s a step further to think that you can detect it in more than outline. Marxists, of course, saw the course of History clearly, indeed it was a core tenet of their faith. Hence there’s something unavoidably Marxistoid about the current confident embrace of the “right” side of the flow of events, along with denunciations of “old think” that seem positively Maoist (it’s special when the New York Times puts out pieces denouncing Republican Old Think, without a hint of irony). One suspects struggle sessions are imminent.

Events this week in Baltimore ought to bring some necessary perspective. The riots that burst forth in response to the burial of a young black man who died in police custody — today’s news brings word that state prosecutors believe he was murdered — laid bare before the world the defects of that city. None of this was exactly news to anybody who’s paid attention to Baltimorean realities for the last several decades: I’m from Maryland and I’ve lived in Baltimore, so the extent of societal degradation there was news to me in the sense that the sun rising in the East tomorrow demands a headline.

Nevertheless, President Obama gave the public the customary blather about root causes, implying that nobody really had known how bad inner city Baltimore was until rioters took to the streets. As the black scholar John McWhorter eloquently noted, the progressive narrative about Baltimore, which emphasizes over-policing, has vast blind spots, particularly about the enormous social costs of Federal policies pursued since the mid-1960s.

Indeed, any dispassionate look at Baltimore over the past fifty years would seem to demolish any optimistic take on History. A fair-minded assessment would have to conclude that, in terms of social impacts (criminality being just one of those, but an important one in the inner city given the number of lives it impacts), reforms in Baltimore since the mid-1960’s have been a mixed blessing. While the city now has a black mayor (there have been many in recent decades), a black police chief, a black-dominated city council and a police force nearly half black — all appropriate given Baltimore’s demographics — it also has appalling levels of violent crime, incarceration, poverty, and what cannot be called anything but societal rot characterized by illegitimacy, addiction, and anti-social behavior. That fifteen of its neighborhoods have a lower life expectancy than North Korea is really all that need be said, not to mention something all Americans should be ashamed of.

We can debate endlessly why Baltimore is so deeply dysfunctional, and I have no doubt talking heads will be doing so for months to come, but that the city is mired in appalling dysfunction cannot be questioned. If this is where History is taking us, we ought to ask History to stop at once. If we’re lucky, and God continues to shine His providence on fools, drunks, and the United States of America, as Bismarck famously noted, we will avoid the terrible fate of Yugoslavia, though as I’ve explained before I think it’s too soon to tell. Baltimore’s dysfunction seems a bad enough fate, and something we should all be working to prevent. A necessary first step is admitting we don’t know where History exactly is going. It would also help to stop denouncing those you feel are on History’s “wrong” side, as they’re fellow citizens too and, like it or not, we’re all in this adventure together.