This Is You, on the Wrong Side of History

HistorySo you’re you, yes? A person of conservative or traditional or simply unloony views walking your campus with your head in the clouds, wondering what it would be like to enjoy the minimal existence of a featherless biped without $50,000 in student loans, when some refugee from an all-nighter accosts you with the antiseptic assertion: “You are on the wrong side of History.”

Now you, being you, had always assumed you were on the right side of history, or at least that what’s your mother told you after all the kids laughed at your MC Hammer action figure, which you picked up for a steal on eBay. Now what? You immediately do a 360, determined to find the median you had inadvertently crossed, this in an effort to get back on History’s good side and thus avoid all those fines.

But no luck. You find it virtually impossible to determine exactly where and when your internal gyroscope went all wackdoodle. But fear not. History’s vice-regent is more than happy to set you straight, aided by some pointed barbs and a lot of words ending in -ist and -phobe. A heated discussion ensues, then some rolling in the grass, arms flailing, which some perverse onlookers mistake for a political statement but is merely some amateur fisticuffs gone terribly wrong.

Allow me to give you an effective response to such an assault, one that will not soil your khakis. When told you are on the wrong side of History (and please note the capital letter—History gets testy when not accorded the proper respect, as if it were merely human), put the following questions to your jackanapes of an accuser:

  • If you had asked Hernan Cortes whether the ease with which his army routed the mighty Aztec nation put him on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had caught Robespierre’s ear between executions and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had pulled Napoleon aside and asked, after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, whether he was on the right side of history, whether he was the change History had been waiting for, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had interrupted a Francis Galton lecture on the new “science” of eugenics and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had asked the Leninist agents who stood over the bullet-riddled bodies of the Romanovs whether they were on the right side of History, what do you think they would have said?
  • If you had asked Hitler moments after he escaped a bomb blast that should have killed him but resulted only in the executions of such would-be assassins as Dietrich Bonhoeffer whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • For that matter, when Progressives, feminists, and Evangelicals linked arms to pass the Eighteenth Amendment, what side . . .

You get the point.

Empire builders and revolutionaries, reformers and moral scolds, civil libertarians and uncivil prohibitionists—all believe History is on their side. Beware anyone who imputes to History an inevitable, self-directed, Forward march, as if it were as fixed as a bar code, as predetermined as male-pattern baldness, as sovereign as any voluntaristic deity. Most risible are atheists, old or new, who act as if the expanding energies of a supposedly random and causeless Big Bang could even possess an ultimate purpose. (Also beware the self-appointed prophets of God who have gleaned from the pages of Holy Writ the mind of the Almighty on every conceivable subject, from the date of the Second Coming to whether the Dowager Countess should keel over in season 4 of Downton Abbey.)

Who, exactly, will stand at the goal line of History, yellow legal pad in hand, ticking off all the criteria for satisfying ultimate Justice, Equality, and Fairness?

Anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

Confusing what you think immediately, politically desirable with the Will of History, Evolution, or God is almost certainly an excuse to stop thinking altogether.

That doesn’t mean what you want is always wrong. It does mean that it is not necessarily right.

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  • Nyte

    I am not quite sure that this article resolves whether one is on the right side of history at the time in which the history is being ushered in or out.
    I think it’s more a manner of acknowledging the political, military, social or any combination of the afformentioned in light os change.

  • JohnM

    I get the point – and it’s a good one. The examples are a bit mixed though. I’m sure some of them didn’t care what side of history they were on, in the sense intended. Of course the scary ones are the ones who do.

  • GregMatt

    History isn’t ushered in or out. It’s a constant river, always moving and heading toward its destination.

    WHAT that destination may be is cause for speculation, but that’s the point the writer was making. Do not listen to anyone that tells you YOU are on the wrong side of history, as if they know and are absolutely sure where all this is headed and that they are on the right side and you are not.

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  • http://twitter.com/gregkrehbiel gregkrehbiel

    Saying someone is on the wrong side of history is just a slightly more polite way of calling them a backwards ass. It doesn’t have any real meaning.

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  • Pk

    Thank you! This whole thing has changed in a matter of months. I feel like rip van winkle!

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  • Daniel Betti

    “You’re on the wrong side of History!”
    Silly Progressive, what makes you think History is on the side of humanity?

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  • tarcil

    I know this article is over a year old now, but thank you. That sort of comment, about being on the right or wrong side of history, has always struck me as shockingly arrogant and presumptive. Notably, this rhetoric comes most often from those who would describe themselves as liberal and/or progressive; even President Obama has been recorded as speaking in this way.

  • Carl Hart

    What passes for History is as subjective, incomplete and superfluous as what passes for News. Consider the dynamics of social conventions, political agendas and the tender mercies of all the ersatz intellectuals, experts, analysts and “scholars” which exemplify those who construct our historical records. These records are as often a product of ego-driven paradigms and propaganda as they are objective empirical records of true events.