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What exactly is the "wrong side of history"? (Part 1)

I want to tell you about something I saw on television earlier this week.  My longtime readers are well-acquainted with how certain phrases in common use in political, philosophical, and historical discourse, are meaningless to me.  Do you remember what some of them are?  Another of these phrases, which appeared on and off in American television over the past several years (maybe a decade or so), and is back again here recently, is the spurious idea of being “on the wrong side of history.”  This judgment is always made self-righteously and solemnly, and is usually made as punishment for taking a stance opposing that of its speaker or writer, on a late-20th century or early-21st century American political issue.  But the punishment does not fit the crime.  Actually, there is no crime in opposing a piece of legislation, or a President’s decision to sign it, or the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold it.  And as I hope to explain to you here, from people who scold others for being on “the wrong side of history,” there is no real punishment.

There is no punishment because there is no “wrong side of history.”

Do the disembodied spirits of the Persians who defeated the Spartans at Thermopylae care whether or not the 21st century United States is a just little socialized or significantly more socialized?  Probably not.  Do the spirits of the founders of the Tokugawa Shogunate in feudal Japan care whether or not the United States responded to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing with war, with diplomacy, with federal criminal charges, or with none of the above?  Doubtful.  Do they care how forcefully or how diplomatically we responded to 9/11?  I don’t know, because I do not have access to the realm of the afterworld, or even know if one exists.  But if I were guessing, I would guess there is little or no cosmic connection between these historical actors, and modern American politics.  History is not a deity that passes judgment on anything.

Furthermore, the serious, academic study of history at the university level instills in a person a certain awe and a massive respect for the word “history” and for what it implies and what it signifies.  This is true even though a single person cannot comprehend all that it implies and signifies.  And other people who casually throw around such phrases as “the right side of history,” and “the wrong side of history” strike us as how middle school students trying to divide by the number zero must seem to more advanced mathematicians.    Sometimes an accusation of being “on the wrong side of history” is made naïvely, by someone who can argue for his position in other ways if he wishes to.  But at its worst, describing something or someone as being on “the wrong side of history” is sometimes merely a rhetorical trick used by people who know quite well the term doesn’t mean anything, and whose arguments otherwise have no merit at all.

Just as with “we’re all the same,” and “we’re all human,” there are the phrases that people say, and then there is what these people really mean.  Around four months ago, I explored some of the things people who use “we’re all the same” and “we’re all human” really mean.  And I think with “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history,” what people sometimes mean are “winners of the vote,” and “losers of the vote,” respectively…nothing more.  Sometimes they mean “winners of the war,” and “losers of the war,” respectively…nothing more.  Sometimes they mean “morally right” and “morally wrong,” respectively…nothing more.

Now…surely you notice something…  Being a winner or loser of a vote in the legislative assembly, or of a war, is usually a matter of historical record.  The question of which side won or lost is settled.  But the description “morally wrong” is a value judgment and is not settled so easily.  Moreover, “morally wrong” does not sound nearly as authoritative and nearly as damning as “on the wrong side of history” sounds.  The criticism “morally wrong” sounds kind of preachy as a matter of fact, and is sometimes (correctly) brushed aside as a self-righteous criticism by those to whom it is directed.  But “on the wrong side of history” grabs our attention right away.  Politicians and talking heads who argue over moral issues know this.  The judgment “on the wrong side of history” sounds truly ominous, almost as if the person being described is possessed by a demon…a problem much more serious than simply being of the minority party in the legislative assembly.  And the criticism gives at least a moment’s pause to anyone on the receiving end of it, no matter how accustomed they are to being insulted.

(See here…even users of these meaningless phrases understand deep down the amazing rhetorical power of the word “history,” even though they probably have little knowledge of, and even less respect for, the discipline.  Recipients of the insult also sense its power, even if their better judgment tells them it’s hollow trash talk.)

Use of “morally wrong” exposes a speaker or writer to possible charges of hypocrisy.  “On the wrong side of history” however, shields the speaker or writer from charges of hypocrisy because it refers to something (“history”) that no one, not even professionals in the discipline, can quite define without being vague.  What is “history”?  Is it as simple as “everything that has happened prior to this instant”?  Is it more nuanced than that?  Is it less?  If we do not have a concrete understanding of what history even is, then how are we to know what “being on the wrong side” of it means?  And how are we to give a response to someone who lectures us that we are “on the wrong side” of history, if we do not know what it means?  Assertion of something so vague that it does not permit of refutation has long been a tactic of people who have lost an argument in the court of public opinion, even if not a vote in the national legislative assembly.

Anyway…  In an undergraduate historiography class, I can remember being warned solemnly against something called “Whig history.”  Many modern professional historians understand that history is not, as Whig historians claimed (and still claim, where they exist), “an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy.”  Try not to laugh at this…and I would just ask Whig historians, where they exist, whether humanity has now entered some kind of second age, disconnected completely from the first.  If not, then Whigs could not have been more wrong.  Liberal democracy is now trampled upon by oligarchy right here at home and in some places in Europe.  And constitutional monarchy is now discouraged as old-fashioned in both Europe and Asia.

(Besides, what if an asteroid hits Earth next week?  Marxists, Whigs, and explicitly Christian historians are three common holdouts insisting on various inevitable “directions of history.”  Perhaps people on the Right, at least, would dispense with the phrases “right side of history” and “wrong side of history,” if they understood that the entire concept of there being a “right side of history” and a “wrong side of history” is Marxist in origin.  I have explained my opposition to determinism and my adherence instead to free will in a previous post.)

Many modern academic historians understand that history actually moves in fits and starts, sneaks away and mocks us from afar, sneaks back up to us and plays “guess who” with us, takes U-turns and shortcuts, goes in reverse and sits in neutral.  Of course it does not literally do these things.  I mean this figuratively.  But to use phrases such as “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history,” and to mean them sincerely, a politician or talking head must necessarily believe that history has an inevitable “direction.”  He must, even if he claims to detest “Marxism” without knowing what it is, subscribe to the very important Marxist tenet that history has an inevitable direction.  That history has an inevitable direction is something vehemently denied by not a few professional historians who realize that history moves more like a fumbled football or a knuckled hockey puck than it does a coin dropped from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower.

(A very commonly heard phrase, which is the result of a Marxist flavor of hardcore historical determinism simplified, boiled down, and given an acceptable public veneer, is “the course of history.”  It is a phrase I therefore shun, although public discourse is so shot through with Marxist phrases that I will not get angry at you for using the phrase, if you are not or were not a history major.)

Now, before you crucify me on a sour apple tree…  Do I believe that certain ideologies facilitate evil?  Do I believe that but for the rise of Soviet communism, or Chinese communism, or German national socialism (to name a few examples), millions of people would not have died of starvation or been murdered during the 20th century?  Yes, I do.  But were the adherents to these ideologies on the wrong side of history (whatever that phrase means)?  Or were they just…wrong…morally?  There is a difference.  And it is certainly no kinder assessment to call something like communism or Nazism simply “morally wrong,” than to say it is on “the wrong side of history,” especially when the former actually has a meaning, and the latter does not.

(I suppose if someone wants to argue that these ideologies are or were morally right, I would not try to stop him.  But I think defense of such historical positions encounters many difficulties, and I would bet against defenders convincing very many people of the correctness of their views.)

Maybe this will help explain the difference.  I want to go back in time with you, as I have done a number of times before.  Imagine Adolf Hitler has just been appointed Chancellor of Germany.  That makes it about…1933.  Popular as he was for his promises to save Germany from an extended economic depression (through the implementation of collectivist and anti-capitalist policy, by the way) there were also early political opponents of Hitler.  Now imagine if high-ranking Nazi supporters had scolded Hitler’s opponents with the Marxist insult that they could wind up on the “wrong side of history.”

Germans are going back to work!  Piles of marks are no longer being used as fire starters!  Why, there’s a BMW in every driveway, and enough bratwurst, sauerkraut, and beer to go around!  You never had it this good!  So support our man Hitler or you will be on the wrong side of history!

Please, contain your laughter.  In hindsight, it is truly silly, isn’t it?  Within thirteen years the Allied Powers had settled their differences with Hitler in a massive war…a war which played out in the precise way it did because of millions and millions of free will choices made by millions of people living at the time, and a generation before.  But does “the right side of history” change based on which side wins a war, or wins a vote?  Many times, a declaration that one is on “the right side of history” means nothing more than “the side I voted for, won.”

Do you see how unjustifiably pompous this statement is, totally besides being a relic of Marxism?

It does not do to say “in hindsight, this is how history happened, and therefore the victors are on the right side of history.”  A consistent application of this across the ages and around the world posits all kinds of unsavory ideologies and unsavory characters as being on the “right side of history” throughout history.  Surely a moment's reflection reveals this.  Rather, it’s just “how history happened,” nothing more.  Here…do this.  Imagine if because of millions and millions of other free will choices made by millions of people, Hitler had won in Europe instead of lost.  Imagine that Germany dictated the terms of surrender instead of having them dictated to it.  And imagine that historians sympathetic to the Nazi ideology were published in the subsequent decades, in the kinds of numbers that historians hostile to that ideology were published instead.  Would modern-day members of the German Nazi party (or its ideological successor) be gloating about being “on the right side of history”?  I don’t know…but, they might.  This shows us that any judgment of “the right side of history” or “the wrong side of history” is strongly influenced by who is making the judgment.  We see now that the “right side of history” and “the wrong side of history” are not objective truths.  They don’t exist, independently of the value systems of the person or people doing the judging.

Ah, are those the Whigs and explicitly Christian historians I hear?

“But, but…who cares about that, because…history didn’t happen that way…because history was never meant to happen that way!”

Sigh…  This is not a response I will entertain as a legitimate response, since you already know I dispute the assumption that history has an inevitable “direction.”  I have a more fundamental disagreement with historical determinists than any disagreement about the historiography of World War II in particular is.  We are unbelievably fortunate to be living in a somewhat civilized world today.  You can complain about how chaotic things are getting, but for now I prefer to look at the other side of it.  It didn’t have to be even this good.  Nothing is predestined.   If you knew how close Western civilization has come to turning on a dime and going in some very different directions from where we have gone, it would shock you.  And if some of these purportedly conservative politicians and media people knew how close they are philosophically to Marxism, I’m not sure what they would do.

It bothers me that other people on the Right talk about “Marxism” without understanding what it is.  We can do better.  This spectacularly wrong way of looking at the world, called “Marxism,” is worthy of being discarded into the dustbin…don’t get me wrong.  But I always hit myself on the forehead whenever someone on the Right tells a Leftist he is “on the wrong side of history” on some issue.  I have even heard the Right claim that Marxism itself is “on the wrong side of history.”  (I’m sorry, but I have to laugh out loud!  Adopt the language of your opponent and he can control you in unbelievable ways.)

Many Ph.D. professionals in the discipline, because of their training, and through their much deeper understanding of, in Ranke’s immortal phrase, “what actually happened,” know better than to speak of a deterministic “direction of history.”  I had my own encounter with this back when I was younger, before I knew what it was called.  In my younger days I believed that history was the highly unfortunate, inevitable march toward greater collectivism, greater government control, eventual dissolution of the nation-state and of national boundaries, and eventual world government.  I still believe that we are headed in that direction.  But I no longer believe that it is predestined to end up that way, unaffected by and impervious to human free will.  I believe that some very greedy people all over the world have made some very selfish choices, with the only consideration being the increase of their own power.  Reversal of the consequences of those choices will be very difficult at this point.  But the consequences are not inevitable.  As I am fond of saying, if the New World Order were inevitable, we who work 9 to 5, go to our children’s baseball games, vacuum our own floors, tie our own shoelaces, and shop for our own groceries, would never have heard of it.

I am somewhat of an academic elitist as you know…and I’m telling you, most history professionals know better than to talk this way.  Dr. Fischer’s undergraduate seniors at Brandeis probably know better than to talk this way!  Yet these politicians and talking heads stand there with television cameras in their faces and presume, not only that history has a “direction” at all, but that they know what that direction is!  If these people had been history majors and history Ph.D.s instead of politicians and talking heads, they would know that finding out “what actually happened” is challenging enough.  Their talk of the “judgment of history” and similar claptrap is cheap when it does not fall to them to find out “what actually happened,” which, if they had been history majors, they would understand, is quite difficult enough, thank you!

Do I take sides in history?  Quite often I do, as do myriad others who study or who have studied history academically.  I very carefully, very rationally, and very occasionally moralize on a few historical subjects, as do myriad others who study or who have studied history academically.  Many historians take sides more often than they should, and on the wrong questions, in my opinion.  And some take sides less often than they should, and still on the wrong questions, in my opinion.  We certainly do take sides however.  And indeed we should on certain questions, as this encourages civil discussion and debate which is usually healthy and informative.  Informed debate often leads to a more accurate understanding of history.

But in all human day-to-day activities, writ large, across the ages, is there a wrong side of history?  Is there a right side of history?  Before you answer, try to appreciate just a little of what history is, and what the word implies.

I’ll wait for you.

Does the full sweep of the human experience on this planet, incomprehensible by a single mind no matter how sharp, judge right and wrong?  Does the collective experience of all life in the universe, uncollectible into a single online encyclopedia no matter how large, do any such thing?  Does history itself take sides?  When phrased this way it is obvious that it does not.  Dr. Fischer’s historiography students at Brandeis might detect the anthropomorphic fallacy in the suggestion that history itself takes sides.

But it should be understood that history does not take sides, for reasons in addition to that history is not a human being capable of taking sides.  Imagine with me, once more.  Would Clio take sides, if she were a living, breathing human being?  If she were to do this fairly, it would require that she impose a single morality upon all people who have ever lived on Earth.  After only a moment’s thought, the impossibility of this leads us to conclude she would not take sides.  And if people in modern American politics who speak of the “judgments of history” respond that they do not mean this literally, I want to know how they do mean it, because their dismissal of their opponents out of hand only “works” logically if they mean it literally.  Since we now know that history itself does not make judgments, we will be less fazed if someone ever accuses us of being on the wrong side of history.

It’s okay if you continue using the phrases “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history.”  Unlike with the patently idiotic statement “we’re all the same,” I will be forgiving to you here.  This one is a really difficult habit to break for anyone who has listened to more speeches and sound bites from modern talking heads and politicians on television than they have university lectures on historiography, historical method, and philosophy of history.  I confess I sometimes still use the phrases when I am really indignant at someone who is beating me in an argument.  But I use them in lieu of the middle finger.  And that is a mistake every time because the fact is the middle finger is always a more philosophically sound response than either one of these phrases is.

So the United States of America would have gone against the entire massive weight of all history, something no one on Earth can even come close to conceiving of…but for seven votes in the House on a single bill?

I’ll let you laugh now…  Comments are welcome.  Thanks for reading…


“To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages.  To such high offices this work does not aspire.  It wants only to show what actually happened.”  -- Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886) in his introduction to his work History of the Latin and Teutonic Peoples from 1494 to 1514

Being on 'right side of history' won't help case (Nick Baldock, a former opinion writer for the Yale Daily News)

The wrong side of history? (Jay Ambrose at www.sitnews.us)

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