We, not history, will judge Bush & Co.’s legacy

By Ashley P. White-Stern

So Condoleezza Rice is our new secretary of State, replacing Colin Powell. It was to be expected, I suppose. It is not, however, any less worrisome for having been anticipated. Indeed, some of my fears were voiced by Barak Obama in his statement to Rice during her interrogation on Tuesday and Wednesday. I, like Obama, fear that Rice will end up as a puppet of the Bush administration, defending it and working from a basis of faith, rather than working with facts and leading it. I, like Obama, worry that faith will override fact for Rice and the rest of the Bush cabinet.

More disturbing, however, was an all to frequent refrain in Rice’s reply to Obama. She noted that she would always do her duty in leading the President. She passionately declared that “history would have to be the judge” of her work and the work of her peers in the White House.

We have heard this whining claim, that history will judge the actions of our elected officials, often enough by now. Just this week, Karl Rove made a comment on NPR that he would be in a nursing home “by the time history has judged” whether or not his Medicare reforms have been successful. Bush himself has stated on a number of occasions that his actions will only be able to be judged in the future.

What does the Bush cabinet mean by this, and how does it serve their aims? We must admit that the statement has an alarming aura of the religious about it. In this formulation, the “history that will judge” is not unlike the messianic force (i.e. Jesus) to come at a future date: evaluating and judging our actions and deeming whether or not we’ve acted correctly.

To say that judgment is a process that can be resolved only at a future moment serves precisely to stifle the immediate effects and criticisms of the here and now. Sure, the meanings and effects of actions are never fixed: Something that is seen in the moment as a painful or damaging action can have long-term beneficial results. Medicine tastes icky, but we take it to feel better. Medicine, however, can only be a metaphor; in public policy and politics we are not talking about a zero-sum game of sickness versus health. Rather, we are talking about complex processes of alternatives that have unclear results in both the short- and long-term. It is immoral to stifle judgment simply because it comes “too soon.” Citizens have a right and a duty to criticize their officials at any and every moment.

Thus: The message “history will be the judge” gives citizens a false sense of relief from duty, taking them off the hook of vigilance. There is no such thing as a mechanism called “history” that waits for us at the end of our actions and calmly evaluates our actions. What we have learned from history—and here I mean the history as a discipline in the academy—in the last half-century is precisely that history is not a grand, stable, divine force. Rather, we create history in our own image. History is not an external operating force to our own social, political, and economic structures of meaning. To anthropomorphize history, and turn it into a being that supercedes our own instantaneous reasoning is to excuse us from having to think hard, right now.

Anyway, who is Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, or George Bush to tell us what we can and cannot judge? “History” as an object is not affected by their decisions. It is you and I who must live with the decisions our government makes. How ironic that just as we are spoon-fed rhetoric about freedom and democracy, we are systematically conditioned to expect less freedom (consider the Patriot Act, or the cameras in the traffic lights here in Chicago that can capture images inside people’s homes) and less critical democracy (consider the democratic arena of the U.N. brought under siege by the U.S. declaring war on Iraq with or without international aid or approval). It is my deepest hope and most sincere prayer that in the next four years, we will sharpen, not blunt, our critical skills and hold the government accountable for its actions. We, not history, will judge.