The Right Side of History

It’s been said that advertising is the world’s oldest profession, with the devil needing only a clever marketing campaign to get Adam and Eve to eat the apple. Whether or not that is true, it certainly is true that we can be swayed by slogans and jingles into doing the silliest things. “You deserve a break today,” so spend money at McDonalds; I fail to see the connection. “Just do it.” Do what? Lay out a hundred dollars for a pair of Nike shoes.

They are called “taglines” and designed to make us think that a certain way of behaving is, well, just the right thing to do. They are catchy, if dubious. I suppose even Madison Avenue needs to make a living. These become problematic, though, when turning from products to people. For example, “Manifest destiny.” Manifest? To whom? The Americans moving west? Or the Native Americans getting pushed out of their homeland? And what of “destiny”? That’s a nice way to avoid responsibility. One such expression that has been popping up lately is “the right side of history.” We’re encouraged to support a cause, or at least not hinder it, so that we’ll be on “the right side of history.” How so?

First of all, we’re dealing with history, that is, with something that has already happened. Telling someone to be “on the right side of history” is like telling him on Friday to be on the right side of Thursday. Besides, “history” is notoriously capricious. Just ask the residents of Harpers Ferry, (West) Virginia.  It changed hands twelve times during the Civil War. “History” must have seemed like a roulette wheel to them. Even seemingly unstoppable movements have hit the rocks. Every major (and, I suppose, minor) civilization and historical movement from the pharaohs to the Communists thought they were on “the right side of history” and would last forever.  France went from an absolute monarchy instituted “by the grace of God” to a “republican” government shouting “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” while slicing off heads, and then to an upstart imperialism within a generation. The Nazis went from being the “master race” in control of Europe to their end in a bombed-out bunker in thirteen years. The “right side of history” seems to depend more on who won the last election or war rather than on the truth or justice of the cause. You could be on the “wrong side” of history just because of when you were born.

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For what other subject do we say that someone is on the “right side” of it? We don’t say that “Smith is on the right side of botany” or “Jones is on the right side of math.”  No, we just say that “Smith is right about roses” or “Jones is wrong in his long division.” There’s no “right side” to it. It may be that some talk this way because history deals with people. You would think that this would make one even more circumspect about declaring the “right side.” People are fickle. A rose can’t alter its mind; the multiplication table can’t vary its point of view. A man, though, can change his opinion depending upon whether his toast has been burnt or not.

These people who want us to be on the “right side of history” seem to imply that, because certain people are tending toward a certain direction, going in that direction is to be on the “right side,” sort of like a boat going in the direction of the current being on the “right side of the river.” You’d better be careful—rivers can lead to waterfalls. Moreover, as Chesterton said, dead things go along with the stream; only living things can go against it.

Maybe we think this way because we confuse the passage of time with progress. We think that, because we are moving forward in time, we are moving forward in virtue.  Well, as far as time goes, in what direction can we go other than “forward”? To say that progress in time equates with progress in righteousness is to confuse metaphor with ethics. It’s a sort of “Ethical Darwinism,” and, like “Social Darwinism,” just as stupid. Evolution is a theory of biology, not of morality. The “right side of history” is based on the same advertising hucksterism used to sell us technology; the latest must be the best, and so, because it just came out, Virtue 10.3 must be better than Virtue 10.2. (Don’t worry, we’ll work out the bugs later and then sell you Virtue 10.4.)

The passage of time can also lead to a “moral myopia.” We look back on cultures gone by and criticize their violence and “repressive social structure”; they would look at ours and wonder at our cowardice and licentiousness. We need to be careful of those who want to be on the “right side of history” and get rid of old culture, old customs, old habits, and old beliefs. Mao did that in the Cultural Revolution and left (at least) a few million dead.

Education doesn’t necessarily put us on the “right side of history.” The most educated nation in the world in the 1930s was Germany. Stalinist Russia probably educated more of its citizens than the Tzars did; it also sent more of its citizens to their deaths.  Neither does technological progress make for moral progress. “Smart phones” don’t make us smarter, much less more just or more compassionate.

To be “on the right side of history” has the ring of a used-car dealership urging us to “be on the winning team.”  There is too much in it of a “going along with the crowd”—an “everybody’s doing it” spirit—that should make us pause. Ideas can be just as much a fashion as clothing. The 1970s gave us “Love is never having to say you’re sorry” and bell-bottomed pants; fortunately neither survived the decade.

Just about every age has looked back at its predecessor and thought, in some way, “How could they think that?” Doesn’t it ever occur to us that future generations will think the same thing about at least some of our ideas? And it doesn’t take too much humility—or does it?—to pause and think, “Maybe they will think that about my cause?” Every movement in history has thought it was on to the “next best thing.” And while this has included democracy, hygiene, and respect for minorities, it has also included communism, blood-letting, and eugenics (still popular with certain members of the elite). It’s the hubris of it all that bothers me, the “We know better now” attitude. Some talk deprecatingly about the “mediaeval Church” and “traditional teaching.” What? Augustine, Aquinas, and Newman aren’t up to your intellectual level?

I’m not saying that we can’t make ourselves better; I hope we can. We need to be careful, though, and not slight our elders, even if they happen to be dead. What adult, so dismissive of past generations, would waste two minutes with his 13-year-old son who claimed to be on the “right side of history” and wanted the keys to the car?

You can’t be on the “right side of history” anymore than you can be on the right side of a clock. If history has a side, it is the past, and we should respect it. The past is, after all, the one thing we can know; no one knows the future. Even with the past we can be on slippery ground. Discerning its reasons requires reason, not slogans. It requires explaining why others thought they were right before you say they were wrong, not just dismissing their ideas as “prejudices” or some sort of  “-ism.”

Even the best thinking, though, can lead to disaster. For example, there was the most technologically advanced specimen of its time, the product of the best educated minds of its day, which had crowds of people clamoring to get aboard, and moved forward in time and space at unprecedented speed, and was definitely on the “right side of history”: the Titanic.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Sinking of the Titanic” illustrated by Willy Stöwer in 1912.


  • Robert B. Greving

    Robert B. Greving teaches Latin and English grammar at a Maryland high school. Mr. Greving served five years in the U.S. Army J.A.G. Corps following his graduation from the Dickinson School of Law.

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