A recent cartoon in the New Yorker magazine depicts a politician asking his staff this question: “Have you figured out how I can be on the right side of history without being on the wrong side of now?” His aide looks dumbfounded by the question and for good reason. How can anyone know if they will ultimately be on the right side (or wrong side) of history?
Inevitably, there are identifiable historical forces at work that will cause a change in prevailing viewpoints at some time in the future. We may not want to acknowledge them, but they are there. There will also be other events we cannot envision that will help change the course of history.
Donald Rumsfeld, who may hold some sort of time-speed record for so quickly being held on the wrong side of history (see Iraq War results), called these events, the “unknown unknowns.”
The phrase “right side of history” is most often heard in political debate when politicians accuse each other of being on the wrong side of history. Few politicians take the time to review historical data to bolster their argument. For a 30-second TV sound bite, that needs research?
“There is no more bullying or empty piece of rhetoric in political conversation today than to accuse someone of being on the wrong side of history,” wrote Michael B. Dougherty, senior correspondent at the TheWeek.com.
I am not sure that this is the most empty piece of rhetoric these days; there is a great deal competition for that title. I agree, however, it certainly does not help meaningful civil discourse between politicians with opposing viewpoints.
Moreover, since recorded history, I can think of no case where merely telling a despot he was on the “wrong side of history” stopped his murderous actions. In the last century, does anyone think that accusing Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot — just to name a few of history’s villains — of being on the wrong side of history would have stopped their atrocities? Doubtful, especially given the fact that at least for some period, they appeared to be on the right side, or more accurately the winning side, of history. In more recent years, condemning the mass murders in Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan, or Bosnia as being on the wrong side of history would not have stopped the genocides.
Where the confusion comes in is when the moral connotation of being “right” is equated with an eventual and decisive winner. The philosopher R.G. Collingwood noted in The Idea of History that the historian “stands in a peculiar relation to something called evidence,” which leaves him free to interpret, but forbidden to invent.
History does not deliver guarantees for the righteous or the evil.
Is there a place in our public discussion of important issues for arguing that certain ideas are on the right side of history? Columnist Dougherty does not think so. He writes, “If your cause is just and good, argue that it is just and good, not just inevitable.”
I disagree. I think there is a place in our public discussion of basic American values for arguing the inevitability of certain outcomes. Dr. Martin Luther King often said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” quoting the 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker.
In support of the movements, campaigns, and struggles that bend toward justice in the U.S., I believe it is reasonable to enlist the “right side of history” argument. These movements are anchored in equality, honesty, morality, and the U.S. Constitution. For example, the civil rights struggle, the battle for women’s rights, gay rights, child labor laws, and age discrimination come to mind immediately.
But for most issues that politicians must make decisions about — increase or lower taxes, military spending on specific things —I would agree that they do not rise to the level of the “history” argument. The notion is not like the cheer at a football game: “One, two, three, four … who the heck we rootin’ for? The Right Side of History!” No, when the yardstick you use to measure issues by is the promise of the American dream, then it becomes plain that school lunch programs, adequate medical care, programs for the elderly, basic civil rights, all are placed on the right side, the moral side, of history.
Today, to use a broad-brush approach, I believe the movements that work for healthy and prosperous lives for everyone without causing further destruction to our planet are on the right side of history. Advocating for a stronger democracy certainly is.
Will these movements succeed? Only time will tell.