At long last, when it comes to guns, President Obama is on the “right side of history.”
In a piece published in The Atlantic on Dec. 21 of this past year, David A. Graham delivered a crushing critique of what he called President Obama’s “untenable vision of what history is and how it works.”
The central theme of Graham’s diatribe was essentially that Obama, in his assessment of the nature of history, made the fatal error of assuming that if time moves on, humanity will inevitably progress and be better off than it was yesterday. Such a theory is inherently flawed, Graham argues, because it “imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist.” Graham particularly attacked the President’s use of the phrase “the right side of history,” an expression that Obama has used 15 times throughout his Presidency in various oral addresses.
Graham’s greatest qualm with the phrase is that it “assumes that progress is unidirectional.” This assumption is faulty, and “history is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course,” Graham contends. While this type of revelation is certainly not very comforting, it must be noted that Graham is absolutely right.
Just because time moves on, it does not necessarily stand to reason that humanity will progress as a result.
Yet, while Graham’s logic is fundamentally sound, he is simultaneously wrong to claim that the unidirectional assumption of history is inextricably linked with Obama. The president’s recent explication of his executive action on gun control is a case in point.
The measures themselves were actually quite unremarkable, and a far cry away from the sort of comprehensive reform that Obama urged Congress to enact over three years ago.
But, it was perhaps Obama’s analysis of the essence of the gun issue in this country that was more striking. While one might think that Obama, who has been notorious for presuming that progress will inevitably come with time, would claim that the gun issue will be eventually assuaged by the incoming president, he actually did no such thing.
In an uncharacteristically emotional speech, Obama did anything but assume that progress is unidirectional: “A woman’s right to vote didn’t happen overnight. The liberation of African-Americans didn’t happen overnight. LGBT rights, that was decades’ worth of work. So, just because it’s hard, that’s no excuse not to try,” he proclaimed.
In an op-ed piece for the New York Times published on Jan. 7, Obama went on to say that “meeting the crisis of gun violence” will call for “relentless focus, over many years, at every level.”
This type of rhetoric is clearly not representative of a unidirectional view of history. President Obama does not at all assume that progress with regard to gun control will inevitably occur simply because time moves on.
Time has moved on, and more Americans’ lives have been cut short by gun violence all the same.
“Ultimately, this is about all of us,” Obama wrote. “We must find the courage to mobilize, organize and do what a strong, sensible country does in response to a crisis like this one.” Mobilize. Organize. Relentless focus. Are these the kind of words that we associate with a president who merely sits back and assumes that progress will occur just because time moves on?
Therefore, when it comes to the issue of guns, it is clear that the president is on the right side of history, a side that knows that progress does not simply occur by magic. He would do well to apply that same unfettered passion and urgency to other issues during the remainder of his presidency.