Obama’s Naïve View of History
Dr. Mark S. Latkovic
August 29, 2014
History with a capital “H” has been in the news of late. For instance, Obama likes to toss the word around while he’s talking about various persons (Putin), groups (Islamic State), or issues (same-sex marriage) being on either the “wrong” or “right” side of history. I think he thinks it makes him look sophisticated. It actually has the opposite effect. Besides being ignorant, as well as quite simplistic and deterministic (cf. Victor Davis Hanson, http://www.nationalreview.com/article/386498/obamas-hazy-sense-history-victor-davis-hanson), this view loses the moral focus precisely because it loses the notion of moral agency.
This weak understanding of history on the part of the president and his odd use of it as a moral argument, reminded me of what Forrest McDonald, the esteemed emeritus historian at the University of Alabama and author of a great book on the presidency, said in his memoir, Recovering the Past (University Press of Kansas, 2004), when discussing Carl Becker’s and Charles A. Beard’s understanding of history (see Ch. 2, especially pp. 26-29). Historians Becker and Beard wrote in the first half of the 20th century under the banner of the “New History” (McDonald, a famous and fierce critic of this view, speaks of it as “the subjective-relativist-presentist position” (p. 22).
Going “beyond Becker,” Beard, notes McDonald, “declared that historians must consider the totality of historical occurrences in one of three ways. History is chaos, history moves in cycles, or history ‘is moving in some direction away from the low level of primitive beginnings, on an upward gradient toward a more ideal order.’ None of these is entirely satisfactory, but the historian must choose one as ‘an act of faith’ … Beard’s guess as to the desirable and probable movement of history was that it was toward ‘a collectivist democracy.’” (p. 29).
It’s clear, if we work with these models, that Mr. Obama has chosen, naively and against all evidence to the contrary, the third: history for him is moving toward “a more ideal order.” Or, to use two of the president’s favorite words, one that is more “fair” and “just.”