The wrongness of "the right side of history"

Whatever comforting story we tell ourselves, history does not have a “right side”. Progress is not guaranteed. The only way to ensure a better future is to create it

February 06, 2018
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Being bombarded by information online, you start to witness language change. Phrases have always come and gone, arriving as fashion and departing into cliché. At what point, though, does overuse and insincerity render a phrase effectively meaningless—or even a sure sign of dishonesty? Looking through the headlines of the past few weeks, one phrase appears ad nauseam: “the wrong side of history.” Kellyanne Conway accused Democrats of being thus, regarding the U.S. government shutdown. Theresa May risks being it, the Director of the Electoral Reform Society in Wales indicated, if she opposes votes for 16-year-olds. New Jersey Senator Cory Booker accused Jeff Sessions of it, in terms of the Attorney General interfering on states legalizing marijuana. Cryptocurrency naysayers; the Cleveland Indians baseball team; Winton Churchill; those in the Vatican opposed to a deal with China; the gallery that temporarily took down the painting “Hylas and the Nymphs”—they all join a long, frequently-contradictory list. While we can certainly question the equivalence of all these issues, the sheer ubiquity of the phrase, from multiple points on the political spectrum, drains it of impact and meaning. Where it does still have some potency is in demonstrating the exact opposite of what it proclaims. Far from being settled or predictable, the volleys and ricochets of this term show that history is a perpetual shifting battlefield. “The wrong side of history” is not a new phrase or idea but it has peaked in recent years, especially with the Obama administration. At that time, it came close to being a presidential catchphrase. It mirrored Obama’s fondness for a phrase of similar sentiment, shared by Martin Luther King, Jr in his powerful ‘Our God is Marching On!’ speech: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The president had this quote join four others, from earlier presidents, on his Oval Office rug. What was less frequently noted was that the Civil Rights leader was, in fact, paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who’d preached, "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see, I am sure it bends towards justice.” The source of the quote and its lineage are vital in understanding its strengths and its limitations. The essence of the idea is a religious one, coming from and rooted in the teleological Judeo-Christian tradition. The universe is not chaotic nor is it cyclical. We are moving towards something that might be said to be God’s kingdom. Even secular Marxism emerged from this train of thought, with its historical materialism, dustbins of history and so on. In all the numerous variations of this outlook, with all the disputed messiahs and expectant end times, it has always been a matter of faith. Where there is faith—in fact, often when it is professed most ardently—there is also doubt. The assertion that we are on a path, guided by unseen ultimately-equitable forces may be admirable and it certainly reassuring but, in its totalising view, it is a naïve and questionable panacea for our ills. It may also obstruct the very justice it seeks.


It’s easy to cast aspersions on ideas of progress. Historically, the advances of civilisations have often come at the expense of other peoples and been buoyed up by the suffering of their own. “Whose progress and at whose cost?” are valid questions. Yet the gains of modernity are all around us, if we’re fortunate. In this narrow strip of space and time, we live longer, we appear to murder one another less, we are technologically more advanced than our grandparents, and some hard-fought though grossly-incomplete freedoms have been won socially and politically—at least for the time being. The latter point is key. What has been achieved is by no means guaranteed to expand and it can be reversed. We know this is the case because it has already happened repeatedly in the past. History is full of periods of bust, decline, reaction and even collapse. It is here with us too in the present. There is little comfort to be had, in terms of the belief in liberal progress, in a stagnating fearful UK, to say nothing of the machinations taking place in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, the Philippines, Russia, the U.S. and other nations. “These are anachronisms” we tell ourselves, “blips on an otherwise righteous journey”—even when the support, power, and resources of our opponents are huge, and when they too believe God is on their side. The hope of many liberals seems to be to ride out this time of turbulence, regard it as an unfortunate diversion, pick up the baton where it was dropped and carry on the path where they left off. Except it’s not the same path anymore, or, indeed, any path at all. Context is crucial. When Martin Luther King Jr. gave his ‘Our God…’ speech, it was a visionary exercise in morale-boosting and symbolism. He acknowledged that the battle for Civil Rights had been hard-fought and costly—and, crucially, would continue to be. There was the implication, even from a man of intense faith, that none of it was inevitable. Liberation came about from the radical efforts, bravery, stamina and decisions of individuals (hence the double-edged references to “You shall reap what you sow”). It was revitalizing. This was a very different atmosphere to the hubristic complacency of the liberal establishment (from centre left to pretty far into the right) on the eve of Trump’s victory, the day of the Brexit result and even now. Francis Fukuyama was roundly mocked for “The End of History?” but many in Western political circles answered him in the affirmative. When confronted with forces that brutally understand that things can be very different, the response has been one of despair and disarray. The shock we witnessed at recent election results is that of the stunned believer in sudden disbelief, mumbling “This wasn’t supposed to happen.” The point is that nothing is—but it can, has and does anyway. Things may be bad but, contrary to “the right side of history,” they can get much worse and show signs of doing so, as climate change and global conflict exacerbate inequality and the rise of petty nationalisms. The well-intentioned but self-aggrandising nature of the stories we tell ourselves, that this is all an aberration from the true path, leave our causes vulnerable. This is a cynical age and the issue is no longer about being dragged into the past.


In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt identified the differences between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The latter have, she wrote, not only a different view of power but of reality itself, characterised by “supreme disregard for immediate consequences rather than ruthlessness; rootlessness and neglect of national interests rather than nationalism; contempt for utilitarian motives rather than unconsidered pursuit of national interest; idealism i.e., their unwavering faith in an ideological fictitious world, rather than lust for power.” We see these features increasingly at work today. In such conditions, history does not bend; it breaks. The desire to cling to comforting stories remains. Liberal commenters seem desperately keen to anoint Trump as ‘presidential’ to assuage their fears that the world is heading for catastrophe and to encourage the status quo to resume again. Reality differs somewhat. The faith in progress, in moving towards a benevolent universe, no longer seems just untenable, it also seems callous. We have generations now who are or will likely be considerably worse off than their parents: generations who face housing shortages, precarious employment, a gutting of health and education, and the dismantling of any safety net. Societies blighted by huge unsustainable disparities in wealth. Every day in the papers there are stories of escalating childhood poverty, homelessness, and the failure of care systems. In the UK, we face the obscenity of children being malnourished in a society that congratulates itself at being superior at every given opportunity. This is to say nothing of the gift we’ve given future generations in the form of a ravaged environment, which may well be too far gone. “Life is a copiously branching bush,” as Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, “continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress.” The hope, if we have one, is not being on “the right side of history.” It is that history is not yet written. We will need other lessons that speak to the immediate present, where the challenges need to be met, and against the paralysis of both complacency and despair. The following quote is from Abraham Lincoln, held onto in dark times as well as light, but the sentiment is both ancient and eternally relevant: “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!”