Friday, July 08, 2011

Bending the Arc of History

"Bending the Arc of History"
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
July 6, 2011
The Marianas Variety

In his speeches President Obama likes to quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous statement that the arc of history, or the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. He used this in his Nobel Prize speech last year, to talk about how things may work slowly sometimes and it can be frustrating, but ultimately they do get better.


Like so much about Obama, he uses this quote because of how it is inspiring, comforting and yet also conservative. A key part of his road to the White House was the way he captured in his "Yes We Can" speech,” a brief history of how different people at different points in American history refused to accept the status quote and had risen up to force the country to change.

Obama is the current spiritual/political figurehead of the US (which is one of the reasons why the birther movement has emerged), and that means that his rhetoric is something people look to in terms of finding ways to navigate the mixed past of the United States. The use of the quote by King is ideal for trying to find a way to straddle that line between the good and bad in history, and how a nation should or should not be eternally stained for past sins. But more generally, Obama himself represents a way that the United States can seek to celebrate the good things it has done and the difficult progress that has been made, while enabling people to forget horrible things that the nation did not too long ago.

When you listen to Obama's history of the US you cannot help but feel that assumed bending of things towards justice. It is like some blind, abstract force which is just always out there. He even wrote a children's book about it this year titled Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters which chronicles that invisible hand of history, where the heroes of American progress are named and glorified, while their foes are turned into abstract forces such as "fear" and "hate" and the intensity of the violence of their lives and their communities are reduced to "sacrifices" for their sometimes forced incorporation into the US nation.

But this is the result of an unwillingness to talk about what happened, and try and take advantage of the progress that was made and not deal with the horrible things which produced the need for said progress. When you take the bad guys out of history, you end up with a weird, glaringly incomplete narrative, which most people are still satisfied with. When you celebrate the ways people defeated slavery, fought for equal rights and so on, if you do not recognize the people who did the fighting and the people who openly or privately fought against said change, you then end up with that blank bending of history. It could even be given some nationalist core, where things changed or got better because that is what the US does. The US is about freedom and justice and so eventually everything just works out for the best. The problem is that such isn't true. If the arc of history does bend towards justice, it requires bending by people to get it there. Such has always been the case, and the people who do the bending can sometimes seem small and crazy at first. But they are the ones who do not simply trace the lines of history, they are not the ones who go with the flow and hope for the best, but the ones who push back against the naturalized violence or oppression of the time. They are and always have been the activists; feared and maligned in their own time, but if their struggle is successful, immortalized as those who charted a new and more just course.
It remains to be seen how well Obama will do in the election of 2012. His election in 2008 was fueled by the desire of millions of Americans to be those who did not accept the course history, but bent its flow in a new direction. Once victorious, everything changes. The activists which created the means for a black man to no longer be considered 3/5 of a person or a piece of property can be celebrated in the past as heroes, but those who continue on the fight for equality or racial justice are interests groups to be appeased and neutralized today. Although the election of Obama was an dream come true for many activists, the reality of his presidency is a reminder of the cursed prize for victory. Even if you do change the world, you risk becoming a newly minted stranger in it.

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