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the arc of history


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  • "It's the answer that led those who've been told for so long by so many to be cynical and fearful and doubtful about what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day."

    I love the idea of bending history, not by rewriting it but by redirecting its forces into the future.

    November 5, 2008

  • This is lovely. I noticed the phrase, too, when listening to Obama's victory speech. One of the thoughts that went through my mind was: "Wow, we're going to have a president whose speeches will one day be collected, published in series like The Library of America, studied and memorized by future generations of high school students." The Republicans spent a lot of time belittling Obama's skills as an orator, damning him with faint praise, as if the ability to express one's ideas cogently, eloquently, and persuasively were not one of the essential skills a president needs to be effective. Bill Clinton was, and is, an effective orator, but we haven't seen a president of Obama's caliber in this regard since John F. Kennedy.

    November 5, 2008

  • Yes, Doris Kearns Goodwin on CNN (or MSNBC) noted that the president-elect "has a sense of history." And, naturally, given my lifelong interest and my vocation and profession, I think this is a terrific thing: to have a president who's consciously aware of history and of our generation's place in the continuum.

    November 5, 2008

  • Funny...when I first heard the speech I thought "ark" rather than "arc." But somehow it still made sense.

    November 5, 2008

  • Oh, that's why I didn't recognize it in the transcript today! I thought 'ark' too! As in 'Raiders of the Lost...'

    Huh. Well. No wonder it looked new and brilliant to me in the morning. *smacks head*

    November 5, 2008

  • Me too!!! Ark, as in ark of the covenant (and yes, Raiders), the arc in which was enshrined a promise

    So I heard it as suggesting something vaguely like "a shrine to the promise of history". Which still seems more sensible to me than "arc of history".

    I mean, does history really arc (whether in an electrical sense or a spatial sense)? I always think of history being a relentlessly linear thing, for all that it repeats itself, like the history lesson.

    Edit: I shouldn't be flippant about "arc of history" not making sense. Truth is: when I heard it as "ark" I puzzled briefly and captured only the spirit/sentiment and not the beauty of the rhetorical concept. Upon reading it, here, just now, it did actually make sense as a beautiful, empowering image.

    November 5, 2008

  • Frindley, your "edit" paragraph sums it up perfectly for me too. Well said.

    However, I think of history as a huge, messy curlicue with many arcs. :-)

    November 5, 2008

  • Oh yes, I agree with reesetee. History to me is not linear--or should I say progress is not always linear. The fact that many people think it is nothing but linear is testament to how we as a culture/society/whatever teach history. It just makes me want to work harder in my job. :)

    But the arc of history to me does resonate as a meaningful phrase. And the idea of bending it to create the future we want, as a people, rather than just allowing it to flow on like a river we cannot control, I think is an excellent metaphor to use in a presidential speech. In that sense the connotation of electricity also is relevant.

    Edit: reesetee, I see it as a bunch of messy little curlicues but with one, sometimes invisible but always present, central arc, like a spine, that's malleable. But then, I'm kind of freakish about this subject...

    November 5, 2008

  • We need people who are freakish about history, chained_bear. More power to you.

    Incidentally, an ad for this site just appeared on this page. Interesting stuff. :-)

    November 5, 2008

  • My visual image of history is a kind of loose, erratic coil.

    It's linear in that it goes through time and so must follow a "line", even though that line curls and, yes, bends, and loops up on itself. The spiral/coiling aspect of my image helps me deal with the way history repeats itself: it keeps curling back and picking up something that's happened before, but in a different plane, before heading off again. (Kind of like good teaching, too.) Oh, how I wish I could just draw a picture in this comment box. Perhaps for me history is like a big, unruly slinky.

    November 5, 2008

  • :)

    November 5, 2008

  • When Obama talked about taking hold of the arc of history, I thought of a rainbow as in the French word arc-en-ciel ("arc-in-the-sky").

    November 5, 2008

  • Ooh, that's lovely, rolig!

    November 5, 2008

  • Clearly an evocative phrase, then. :-)

    November 6, 2008