The emptiness of the right side of history

Published: March 25 2014 | 1:31 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:08 am in

The right side of history is bunk.

In domestic politics, people (mostly liberals) tend to say, “You’re on the wrong side of history” about social issues that are breaking their way. It’s a handy phrase, loosely translated as, “You’re going to lose eventually, so why don’t you give up now?”

Philosophically, the expression is abhorrent because of its “Marxist twang” (to borrow historian Robert Conquest’s phrase). The idea that history moves in a predetermined, inexorable path amounts to a kind of Hallmark-card Hegelianism. Marx, who ripped off a lot of his shtick from the philosopher Hegel, popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history is scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our program. Later, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others would use this reasoning to justify murdering millions of inconvenient people. It was a “God is on our side” argument, minus God.

President Barack Obama and John Kerry have been talking a lot about how Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is on the “wrong side of history.” Before that, Obama announced Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said Assad himself was on the wrong side of history. And so on.

Note the difference in usage? In domestic affairs, it’s a sign of strength. But in foreign affairs, invoking history as an ally is a sign of weakness. On social issues like, say, same-sex marriage, it amounts to a kind of impatient bullying that you can afford when time is on your side; “Your defeat is inevitable, so let’s hurry it up.”

But in international affairs, it is an unmistakable sign of weakness. When the president tells Putin that he’s on the wrong side of history, the upshot is: “You’re winning right now and there’s nothing I can (or am willing to) do to change that fact. But you know what? In the future, people will say you were wrong.”

The phrase is utterly lacking in feck because it outsources the bulk of the punishment to an abstract future rather than the concrete here and now. But the fecklessness goes deeper than that because people like Putin and Assad either completely disagree about what the future holds, or they think they can change the future. And the people who try to bend the future to their benefit tend to be the sorts of people who believe they can.

Now, I don’t think in the long run things look great for the tyrants and totalitarians either, but that’s just a guess. Maybe there is a direction to history. But if there is, it doesn’t move in anything like a straight line. It zigs and zags and U-turns all the time. And there’s no telling how long any detour will last.

In the meantime, people can’t eat the future judgment of history. They can’t live decent, free lives because history might eventually work out for their grandkids. In short, being on the right side of history in the long run counts for little when the guy on the wrong side of history has his boot on your neck.

 

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