One of the most welcome things about last night’s State of the Union was its treatment of history: how it unfolds and, specifically, what propels it forward. Obama began his speech with an admonishment that nothing in history is inevitable: “It’s tempting to look back on these moments and assume that our progress was inevitable--that America was always destined to succeed. But when the Union was turned back at Bull Run and the Allies first landed at Omaha Beach, victory was very much in doubt.” Then, toward the end of the speech he added this: “We can do what’s necessary to keep our poll numbers high, and get through the next election instead of doing what’s best for the next generation. But I also know this: If people had made that decision fifty years ago or one hundred years ago or two hundred years ago, we wouldn’t be here tonight.” Here again, Obama was talking about inevitability--about the fallacy that anything in history is preordained.

Contrast this with what George W. Bush said toward the end of his 2004 address: “Our nation is strong and steadfast. The cause we serve is right, because it is the cause of all mankind. The momentum of freedom in our world is unmistakable--and it is not carried forward by our power alone. We can trust in that greater power who guides the unfolding of the years.” The success of America and its ideals, Bush was saying, is somehow inevitable.

This notion of inevitability sounds like it belongs more on the right than the left, since, as it did in Bush’s rhetoric, it can contain a religious element. But inevitability surfaces all over our political spectrum. One of the most self-sabotaging uses of inevitability as a political argument in recent years has occurred on the left, in defense of gay rights. The demographic data shows that young people support gay rights, the reasoning goes; therefore, the triumph of gay rights is inevitable. But this isn’t true, because nothing in politics or history is inevitable. The triumph of gay rights is certainly likely. But, even given its likelihood, how that triumph will occur is an open question; it may occur in fits and starts, or occur at an unacceptably slow place, with the result that any given historical moment may not contain much progress at all. Moreover, the upshot of all this talk of inevitability has been to provide politicians (including Obama) with an excuse for failing to take the concrete actions that will actually move history forward. After all, why should a politician risk his neck for something that is going to happen eventually anyway? In that sense, it was very appropriate that Obama made such a strong statement on “don’t ask, don’t tell” in a speech framed by a rebuke to those who talk of historical inevitability.

The question of inevitability also surfaces in regard to our foreign policy, particularly human rights. Over the years, plenty of people have argued that the spread of capitalism will inevitably lead to the spread of democracy. China has proven this wrong. Now there is a technological triumphalism in some quarters when it comes to human rights: The Internet will make the spread of freedom inevitable. But as Hillary Clinton pointed out in a speech last week, dictatorships have proved very good at policing this technology. Here again, there is nothing inevitable about progress. And here again, Obama’s lines about America’s obligation to stand on the side of human rights, particularly in Afghanistan, made sense in the larger framework of his speech. If human rights aren’t inevitable, then we and others have to do something in order to make them a reality. But, along these lines, he really should have included a stronger reference to the Green Movement in Iran; that this cause will succeed is, unfortunately, anything but inevitable, and it therefore needs all the assistance and moral support it can get.

That our country or our ideals are invariably destined for success is a comforting thing to tell ourselves, which is why Bush (and I’m sure plenty of other presidents) implied it. But at a political moment when health care reform is about to live or die based on the actions of a handful of politicians, it was nice to hear a president speak honestly about the fact that history doesn’t necessarily have to work out for the best.

Correction: Contrary to what I originally wrote, Obama did allude to the Green Movement, albeit quickly. I’ve updated the post to reflect this.

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