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There is no ‘right side’ of history

Over the last several years we have heard the ominous warning that some people are “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to their moral or political points of view. During U.S. President Obama’s second term, the phrase saw an increase in popularity. At the end of 2013, New York Magazine quantified the surge in its popularity, estimating that while in 2006 there were 524 articles making use of the phrase, the number had grown to 1,800 articles featuring it in 2013.

President Obama’s fondness for the phrase was not seen as merely coincidental to its sudden popularity. Jonah Goldberg wrote in the New York Post that nobody had ever wielded the phrase as much as Obama, whom he believed helped popularize its use among others on the left. Other critics argued that Obama was overusing the phrase in the form of a threat or warning to those who opposed his policies.

As a rhetorical flourish, the phrase is fairly effective in terms of its psychological or emotional influence on people. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of history. The question is, why not? And what, for that matter, does it mean to be on the wrong side of history? And how do we know who will wind up on this presumably shameful side of history when those in the future write it?

Back to the future
Let’s consider these questions as our means of assessing the threat of being on the wrong side of history. First, what exactly does it mean? It certainly does not refer to being on the wrong side of what we now call history. For us, history is what has transpired up to now.

But people today appear both to know and care less than ever before what those in our history believed. So that doesn’t explain the concern. 

The “history” to which the phrase refers is, ironically enough, the future. For those in the future, these days in which we are now living will be part of their history. Therefore the fear has to do with being on the wrong side of the future, not the past. You wouldn’t want the more enlightened people of future generations to repudiate your views, to feel ashamed of you or to laugh at your beliefs or perspectives, would you?

Another important aspect to this language of being “on the wrong side of history” is its presupposition about the trajectory of history. One of the main criticisms Jonah Goldberg levied against the phrase in his article is the way it smacks of Marxist terminology. We should be reminded of the confidence and swagger with which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told the capitalist West in 1960, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.”

Knowing what is meant by the phrase, we can rightly ask: Is this view of history’s progress accurate? More specifically, does the current progressivist worldview really represent the positive march toward a better tomorrow?

Much could be said here. I am suspicious right from the start when those who claim a prophetic vision of the future seem themselves to have so little regard for the past. I cannot resolve this juxtaposition of such slight regard for our history, on the one hand, and a claim to see clearly and care passionately about our future, on the other. 

So one of my initial responses to a progressive who says that I am on the wrong side of history is to find out whether he or she knows anything about our own history. My contention is that historical ignorance and the move away from traditional religious and moral beliefs are tied together. 

‘Those’ people
“History is a hill or a high point,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “from which alone men see the town in which they are living and the age in which they live.” Just as a well-travelled person gains better perspective on his own culture, to borrow an analogy from C. S. Lewis, so a student of history gains perspective on his or her own cultural era.

By contrast, if you care so little about history that you remain in comfortable ignorance of it, you rob yourself of the necessary vantage point from which to better assess your own society. Worse than comfortable ignorance is the simplistic condemnation of our past as a legacy of unscientific, racist, oppressive, unevolved and unenlightened barbarism that we need not bother to study in depth since we have risen above all of that.

This childish view of history is an exercise in falsely honouring ourselves simply for living in one time period over another. It is what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” and it is an ideological poison in the waters of many colleges and universities. For people who think this way, all of history is on the “wrong side.” All of the people of history are distant strangers they tend not to trust. They’ve never gotten to know “those” people; they only know the negative rumors about them. They act like xenophobes when it comes to the generations of the past.

If you know history, you know the present. You have a cultural identity. You know how we got here. And only then are you in a position to speak intelligently about where we are going. None of us can really know how people will think 150 years from now. In that case, why does it matter so much?  

Since you cannot know the future, but you can know (at least to some extent) the past, why not gain the wisdom that is available by knowing your own cultural roots? Think of everything we take for granted. What about the fundamental guiding principles, ideas, works and achievements that form the foundation of the Western world?

The Bible, the classics, the founding of the university system, the great debates, the wars and conflicts, the best and worst examples, the heroes and villains – these are key influences. They shaped everything. The events of the past are the “prequels” of this current historical episode. You can’t understand the current episode, let alone future ones, without knowing the ones from our past. We should stop worrying about being on the “wrong side” of history while ignoring history. If instead we actually come to know and understand history, we will serve the future far better. 

Author

  • Clint Roberts has spent many years teaching philosophy courses to graduates and undergraduates. He's also sometimes a preacher, coffee roaster and goat-herder. His eight-member family runs what feels like a small farm within city limits. He participates in a couple of fantastic podcasts called Theology Unplugged and Apologetics Unplugged.

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