Friday, January 20, 2017

How will history view Obama?

For the past week, one of the most repeated questions has been, "How will history view Obama?"  That is really a meaningless question.  How has history viewed Thomas Jefferson?  Sixty years ago, he was something like a Greek god:  the author of the Declaration of Independence, the president who had the foresight to buy the Louisiana Purchase, and a scientist to boot.  Today he is more likely to be condemned as a slave owner and an expansionist.  How has history viewed Andrew Jackson?  He has cities and counties named after him, and his face is still on the $20 bill -- but that honor is scheduled to be taken from him, due in no small part to his role in Indian removal.  How has history viewed Queen Elizabeth I of England?  How has history viewed Christopher Columbus?  How has history viewed the emperor Constantine the Great?  How has history viewed the pharaoh Ramses the Great?

There really is no entity called "history" that forms a stable judgment on the past.  Instead, each generation forms a new judgment based on their own values and concerns, and of course based also on a longer view of how actions in the distant past have had consequences for future events.

Nevertheless, a good rule of thumb is that, from a more distant perspective, the human flaws of a hero make him seem less remarkably good, and the initial innocence and occasional virtues of even a monster make him less completely a monster.  The heroism may be real, and the crimes may be real, but their true significance is often exaggerated in the heat of the moment.

My guess is that in a century or so, our descendants will certainly not see Obama as a kind of American Messiah, but nor will he be seen as a kind of demonic force driving America to perdition.  He is more likely to be seen as a kind of willing cog in the machine of the Zeitgeist.  He will not be seen as a Chernabog, but more of an Eichmann; he willingly cooperated with evil, and bears responsibility for that, but the evil would have happened without his cooperation.

One way or another, it will take some time to reach a "verdict of history".  It will require a generation with no emotional attachment to his presidency, whether positive or negative, with information on the long-term effects of Obama's choices, and (rarest of all) with the honesty to refuse to make him a cardboard figure for their own propagandistic dioramas.  If you voted in the 2016 election, it is safe to say that you will not live to see that kind of dispassionate evaluation.

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