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Monday, June 03, 2013


The Arc of History

Note: I exchanged a few comments and replies on the Volokh blog with a gentleman who used the phrase "Arc of history" bending toward justice and liberty.  I disagreed and thought that my last comment was worth posting.

I’m beginning to be curious about where this “arc or history” meme began. I heard Obama use it which means his speech writers read about it. I read that it may have originated with Martin Luther King but with all due respect to him , this is questionable as either history or as a guide to the future. Your examples and the examples of everyone who uses this expression defend it by using their own beginning and end points. It’s a common problem in financial reports or advertisements. Mutual fund organizations are always touting their #1 status when their statistics look great for 1, 5 or 10 years but these results are totally dependent on picking the right beginning and end points. You say that Russia today is freer than under Stalin, Lenin or the Czar. Let’s examine that but change the end points. Is the Russian freer today than 1000 years ago? You would have to study the history of that area. It’s a fairly interesting study of tribal society followed by medieval dynasties (better or worse?), of the Mongol invasion (better or worse?), of the domination of Moscow (better or worse?), of the Czars (better or worse?) followed by a revolution that was taken over by a tyranny that killed more of its citizens that the Czars ever did and which only recently gave its citizens some freedom which even now is being taken away. That’s not an arc pointing in any direction, that’s human history.
Want another example? Try Rome. Some free tribes got together and a formed a kingdom, which was turned into a Republic that became a hereditary empire which dissolved into fragments run by local kings ruling by divine right that spawned a dictatorship that lost its last war.

Many people talking about the “arc of history” seem to begin with the founding of the American republic and assume that we have reached a pinnacle from which we cannot descend. As a student of history I find that viewpoint unfortunately short sighted. It assumes that there is an impersonal force that will over time make us more and more free. I reject that. Was the Russian peasant under the Czar better or worse off than under Stalin? Was the average Frenchman better off under the Kings or under Napoleon? Under the rule of Sun King he was not marching on Moscow.
Technology has made most of us better off. We are better fed, clothed, housed and medicated. But we are not more free politically today, at least in the US, than we were 100 or 200 years ago. M.L. King may dispute me in reference to slavery, but then the Indians would dispute both of us. For the vast majority of the American people the idea that the government should have control of air, water, food, medicine, finance and the flush of our toilets would seem bizarre and if you told that 19th century man that he would be more free because of it he would laugh and call you a despot. The arc of history is a wonderful rhetorical device, but as a historical fact or a guide to the future, let’s just say it’s unreliable.
My view of history is not only informed by studying it, but by a tragic view of human nature. Mankind‘s basic nature is not improved with the passage of time. If you want a better phrase to use than the “arc of history bending toward justice and liberty” I suggest you remember that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.


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