There is no “Right Side of History”
The biggest reason this isn’t immediately and painfully obvious is because modern westerners are so horrendously ignorant of history. This was not always the case. Westerners – and Americans in particular – have a long history of actually being relatively well self-educated on the subject. And I don’t mean “long history” in the sense of “back in my day.” I mean that going back to pre-revolutionary days, Americans knew their history. Yes, somehow they managed to have a good knowledge of it despite (or is that because of?) their lack of schooling.
But the last fifty years have seen a steady erosion of historical knowledge. We can pretty much lay the fault of that squarely on our “deteriorating” (working as designed) schools. But whatever the fault, the ignorance is growing.
“Right side of history” is not a logical phrase. It’s a rhetorical device. It’s intentionally designed not to further discussion but to shut it down. It’s designed to foster two thoughts in your mind. First, that history is “progressing” toward a particular end. And second, that this is somehow a moral good.
It’s wrong on both counts. Let’s work backwards, though. In order to accept the phrase, you must first accept the idea of “right.” It’s a moral statement. But by whose morals? The phrase is intentionally left vague. It’s a rhetorical technique called “assuming the sale.” By agreeing to the phrase itself, you’re implicitly accepting the morality chosen by the speaker. But should you? Christian morality is slightly different from Jewish morality. Both are quite a bit more different from Islamic morality. None of them are really all that close to Hindu or pagan morality. Buddhist morality is in a weird zone all of its own that kind of overlaps with all of the above but never quite matches any of them. And modern secular morality is a beast all of its own.
So which one should you accept? In this case, the phrase was coined by the progressive movement – and coined for a specific purpose. The progressive movement has a specific ideology of it’s own – the idea that history is “progressing.” Historical ignorance is the only reason we don’t see this for the utterly absurd concept that it is. Anybody with any actual knowledge of history can debunk this idea in about five seconds. There is no linear progression of history.
First, in order to define progress itself you have to pick a metric. But what metric? Pick any metric you like and then plot it over time. There is no linear progression toward improvement. It does not matter which metric you pick. History doesn’t move that way. It’s ups and downs and ups and downs. There is no long term trend.
The idea that there is one is a peculiarly western – indeed, almost a peculiarly American – idea. It’s largely an artifact of the last 300 years of material improvement, due largely to the industrial revolution. But the industrial revolution itself – and that material improvement – brought a lot of other issues with it. And that’s where we see the second issue. Progress in one area almost always means regress in another. Material progress in the western world has been huge since the industrial revolution began – but it brought huge social costs with it. We’re still fighting through many of those issues, and we still will be in another hundred years.
But the third issue is almost tautological. There can’t be a right side of history when history has no sides. History itself is a harsh master. It doesn’t care one whit about your morality – or mine, for that matter. History simply is.
The idea that there is a “right side” of history necessitates concepts that many of those who use the phrase would find themselves very uncomfortable with. The concept itself requires an objective standard of reality. What those who use it don’t realize is that the idea itself is Christian in origin (if heretical), and it shows in the statement itself. The phrase was deliberately designed to invoke the feeling of “the right side of God” – only that word was deliberately changed to be more amenable to the less religious. Yet it should always be remembered that those who coined the phrase believed it as my re-phrasing.
When you drop the idea of God, however, the statement itself falls apart. Who chooses the “right side?” Without God in the picture, the phrase forces us to imagine that all of humanity is moving toward a shared goal. If you actually believe that is happening, then you’re simply not familiar enough with the way people actually behave in the real world. Also, I have a bridge for sale. E-mail me and we’ll work out a deal.
There is no right side of history. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is has lost interest in rational debate – they are instead trying to shut you down. Don’t let them. Force them to actually debate the issues on their merits.