Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Wrong Side of History

In his inaugural speech yesterday, President Barack Obama spoke the following words: "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history." [President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address]

Anyone who thought those words were directed at the Cubans or the Iranians or the Filipinos or Israel or Jimmy Carter or Microsoft would have been alerted to their true target by the swift censorship of the Chinese authorities, which excised these words from the Chinese translation (along with some unfavourable references to communism and blaming the West) [BBC News 21 January 2009].

As BBC Journalist James Reynolds reminds us, President Bill Clinton used similar words before making a "friendship" visit to Beijing in 1998. "When it comes to human rights and religious freedom, China remains on the wrong side of history" [CNN, June 1998]. And in his speech at Beijing University [BBC News, 29 June 1998] he asked his hosts "How do we work together to be on the right side of history together?" Apparently Clinton's views on history were shared by disgraced former Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang [New York Times, 25 June 1998] See also Jonathan Fenby [Guardian, March 2008]

Does history have a right and wrong side at all? Is history some kind of bully, that we have to stay on the right side of or get beaten up? Is there an inevitable march of progress and freedom, or is that just what Butterfield called The Whig Interpretation of History? (See commentary by Dr John Warren). Butterfield charged earlier historians who believed naively in such progress, especially Macaulay, with "fatuous and complacent optimism". Carl Becker levelled similar charges against Jefferson (see David Noble, Historians Against History, p 91).

Pray Obama does not succumb to fatuous and complacent optimism.

No comments: