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.”