Rhetoric

The wrong side of history

President Obama recently called out Republicans, who opposed his economic stimulus package, as being on “the wrong side of history.” The phrase is rhetorically potent, and at first, as a supporter of the stimulus and Obama, I found his usage of it powerful. He employed it before in his campaign and his inaugural address to describe repressive regimes. But now I just find it sort of frightening. It’s as if he’s equating opposition to the stimulus package with southern slave-owners and Nazi appeasers and Islamic terrorists. And how the heck do you defend yourself against those sorts of implied accusations, especially coming from the President?

History is, by definition, a thing of the past, and Obama’s use of this phrase suggests that he already knows how the future is going to turn out. That, to me, is a terribly dangerous proposition, and one that is surprising in its source. President Obama’s campaign was based largely on its giving citizens the power to rewrite the future and on the idea that history doesn’t exert an inescapable and inexorable pull forward that we must accept or else reject at our peril. It’s a reiteration of Bush’s you’re either with us or against us simplified worldview. 

Out of resistance is borne hope—that’s the message that Obama sold so well. And now to suggest that resistance is futile is just wrongheaded. The President is smart and prescient enough to avoid using such pretentious language to silence his critics. Reason, not rhetoric, is why we elected him, after all.