Magazine | April 18, 2011, Issue

‘The Right Side of History’

Guevara and Castro: Are they on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of history? Or simply monsters? (AFP/Getty)
It’s bunk

In politics, as in clothes, there is fashion. And that includes fashion in political language. About 15 years ago, everybody in Washington started to say “kabuki dance.” I don’t know why — they just did. Every process or procedure or exercise was a “kabuki dance.” My impression is, that term is fading out a little. But it is still in frequent use. Last month, a writer for The Atlantic spoke of “the kabuki dance that is our justice system.” The term has even crept into the sports pages: “NFL Talks Were a Kabuki Dance,” read a headline, also from last month.

“Double down” is an expression very, very recent. Until about a year and a half ago, I don’t think I had ever heard the expression in my life. It comes from gambling, from blackjack in particular. Suddenly, the expression was in every political conversation and every political article. President Obama and the Democrats, despite some setbacks, were “doubling down” on their health-care efforts. Anyone who was intensifying his activity, in any direction, was “doubling down.” Seldom are people more herd-like than in matters of language.

Lately, “the right side of history” is everywhere. We have long had the phrase. But people are doubling down, or tripling down, on their use of it. A close cousin of this phrase is “the tide of history” — a tide not to be resisted. When Jody Williams won the Nobel peace prize in 1997 for her campaign to ban landmines, she said that President Clinton was “outside the tide of history” — because, under him, the United States refused to join the Mine Ban Treaty (chiefly because treaty organizers refused to make an exception for the demilitarized zone between the Koreas). The laureate also said that Clinton was “on the wrong side of humanity” — and a “weenie.”

Back to “the right side of history.” When they say it, what do people mean? They may mean “my side,” or “the good side,” or “the side that posterity will smile on.” People may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. Or they may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of socialism, or a stricter form of collectivism. For generations, the Left has assumed that history marches with them: Get out of the way, or be crushed.

Robert Conquest, the British historian, notes that “the right side of history” has a “Marxist twang.” (He knows a thing or two about twangs, being married to a wonderful Texan.) Andrew Roberts, another British historian, says that “the right side of history” is “profoundly Marxian,” although the phrase is used by people of varying political stripes. Yet another historian, the American Richard Pipes, says, bluntly, “The whole notion is nonsensical.” History does not have sides, although historians do.

The recent upheavals in the Arab world have occasioned an outbreak of right-side-of-history-ism. Obama, defending his erratic posturings on Egypt, said, “History will end up recording that at every juncture . . . we were on the right side of history.” Commenting on the Libyan drama, he said, “I believe that Qaddafi is on the wrong side of history.” Speaking more broadly, he said, “I think that the region will be watching carefully to make sure we’re on the right side of history, but also that we are doing so as a member of the world community.” That means (if I may interpret), “George W. Bush was right about the power and necessity of freedom, but I’d rather swallow cyanide than say so.”

#page#At a White House press briefing, a reporter had a little fun with the presidential press secretary, Jay Carney: “You mentioned . . . that Mubarak [the ousted Egyptian leader] was on this ‘wrong side of history.’ Is the Bahraini monarchy also on the ‘wrong side of history’?” (This monarchy is another American ally, embattled.) Faced with this, the press secretary had to do a little dancing.

Travel back to 1984, when Jesse Jackson was running for president. He said that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who were self-declared Marxist-Leninists, were “on the right side of history.” He also had some thoughts on the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. “Unfortunately,” said the reverend, “sometimes the best of people lose their way.” These particular best of people lost their way by murdering over 20 percent of the Cambodian population. Condoleezza Rice had, and has, a view of history much different from Jackson’s. In a 2000 speech, she recalled her days in the White House of the first George Bush: “I was working very long hours, but I was working on the right side of history. And I started to wonder what it must be like to go to work every day in the Soviet Union, working on the wrong side of history.”

When the subject is racial, or even vaguely racial, you can expect talk of history, and its “right” and “wrong” sides. In 1983, Chicago had a mayoral contest. Walter Mondale, gearing up to run for president, endorsed Richard M. Daley (as white as his father, Richard J., the late mayor). A group of black leaders, in which Jackson was prominent, was highly displeased. They were supporting Harold Washington, a black congressman (and the eventual winner). And they had a warning for Mondale: “It is imperative that you detach yourself from [the Daley] campaign at a minimum. At a maximum, you should reconsider and identify with the right side of history and support Congressman Harold Washington.” Many years later, in 2007, Daley fils was mayor, as he had been for a long time: He was running for his sixth and final term. Illinois’s junior senator, Barack Obama, endorsed him — which stung a black candidate challenging Daley. Obama, said this candidate, William “Dock” Walls III, had endorsed “the wrong side of history.”

Over and over, Obama has made clear that he considers himself on the right side of history (if not history itself). During the 2008 presidential campaign, he said, “Listen, I respect John McCain for his half century of service to this country. But he is on the wrong side of history right now.” In other words, the Republican nominee was in Obama’s way. Some criticized the Democrat as too young and inexperienced to be president. Attacking this line of criticism, Bill Clinton said, “It didn’t work in 1992, because we were on the right side of history” — he himself was a nominee, for the first time, then. “And it will not work in 2008, because Barack Obama is on the right side of history.”

When it came time to effect their health-care transformation, Obama and the Democrats talked a lot about history. “This is history,” congressmen would say. When their legislation passed, Obama said, “Tonight, we answered the call of history.” Earlier, the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote, “It’s now broadly apparent that those who opposed Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965 were wrong in their fears and tried to obstruct a historical tide” — there’s that tide again. “This year, the fate of health care will come down to a handful of members of Congress. . . . If they flinch and health reform fails, they’ll be letting down their country at a crucial juncture. They’ll be on the wrong side of history.” The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, said, “Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all Republicans can come up with is this: ‘Slow down, stop everything, let’s start over.’” Reid had an analogy to make, just perfect for Republicans who opposed the Democrats’ health-care vision: “When this country belatedly recognized the wrongs of slavery, there were those who dug in their heels and said, ‘Slow down, it’s too early, let’s wait, things aren’t bad enough.’”

#page#In the midst of this health-care debate, Reid had an uncomfortable moment, when a book revealed what he had said about Obama’s advantages as a candidate. Obama, mused Reid, was a “light-skinned” black “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Obama leapt to his defense, absolving his fellow Democrat by saying, “This is a good man who has always been on the right side of history.”

Obama likes to talk, not only about the “right” and “wrong” “sides” of history, but about “the arc of history.” For example, he praised the uprising in Egypt as having “bent the arc of history.” In this, he is echoing Martin Luther King. Obama had a special rug made for the Oval Office, into which are woven quotations from U.S. presidents and MLK. King’s quotation is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” At the time the rug was unveiled, many pointed out that King was, in fact, echoing Theodore Parker, the abolitionist minister. But attribution was not of utmost importance here; there was no real need for a reweaving.

With every passing day, you hear something else about “the right side of history,” or the “wrong side.” Gay marriage is inevitable, people say: Better get on the right side of history. I say, gay marriage may be right or wrong, inevitable or evitable, but why drag history into it? The victorious side is not always the right one, is it? Remember what Whittaker Chambers said. After his break with Communism, he told the congressional committee, “I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side.” He turned out to be wrong — although Cubans, North Koreans, and others are still being lashed by Communism. Che Guevara was part of the winning team in Cuba. That dictatorship is now over 50 years old. Guevara, a butcher and totalitarian, gazes out from a billion T-shirts. Is he on the right side of history?

The notion that history moves toward the light, says Andrew Roberts, should have died at Auschwitz. Human beings in any age are good at hurtling the world into the pit. Sometimes history, or the trend of affairs, deserves to be reversed, or at least opposed. William F. Buckley Jr. thought so, when he founded National Review in 1955. In a mission statement, he and his crew said that they would stand “athwart history, yelling Stop” — particularly because practically “no one” was “inclined to do so.”

History may not be bunk, as Henry Ford said it was. But “the right side of history” is largely bunk. Its use may be benign and well-meaning; its use may be sinister and threatening. (We could do a whole essay, or book, on “social justice”!) In any case, we might ask whether we are on the right side of an issue, or a question, or a problem, leaving history — or worse, History — well out of it.

Like you, maybe, I favor a free-market approach to health care. I think it’s better for all. But I don’t pretend that history calls it forth.

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