The Right Side of History

Posted by WiredSisters on June 30th, 2014 filed in Dreams, Feminism, History, Moral Philosophy, Race

In the admittedly rarefied realms where I read political opinion, a lot of people seem to worry about “being on the wrong side of history.” We need to rethink this meme ASAP. Except for orthodox Marxists, I suppose. Orthodox Marxists believe history is on their side, and therefore cannot be blamed for wanting to be on its side. The rest of us, not so much.

Whose side, after all, is history on, and when can you tell? There was certainly a time, in the 1930s and early 1940s, when history seemed unquestionably on the side of fascism. (I’ve been watching the History Channel’s biography of Mussolini, which gives a really clear view of that era.) For that matter, history has at various times appeared to be on the side of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the “Evil Empire”, none of which are around today. I am not literate enough to know which side history was on in Asia during the same eras, but I do know that there were empires in the Western Hemisphere on whose side history appeared to be for a while. Not to mention the umpteen dynasties in ancient Egypt. You get the idea.

Today’s thinkers who talk about the “wrong side of history” are mostly talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia. It is getting easier to believe that those pernicious ideologies are on the “wrong side” of history, if by the “wrong” side, we mean the losing side. It helps if we don’t actually know much about history. The liberation of African-American slaves from both slavery and discrimination appeared to be the winning side during Reconstruction, remember? Now Reconstruction is a mere footnote. Various people within the last thirty or forty years have, for instance, been elected “the first African-American senator/ congressional representative/ governor from ________ since Reconstruction…” If Reconstruction had in fact been the tide of 19th-century history, such appellations would today be nonsense rather than footnotes.

Feminism appeared to be the right side of history in the 1920s and 1930s. That was partly, of course, because we were looking at “history” only in the Western industrialized world. But mostly it was because it took us a while to discover that the right to vote was not the ultimate goal of feminism. And, for that matter, I can remember a time when passage of the Equal Rights Amendment looked like a slam dunk. Forty years later, it is still a mirage.

In Middle Europe in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Jewish culture and community looked like the tide of history, the born leaders of the intellectual and financial world. Yeah, right.

As a religious Jew, I am required to believe that history, in the perhaps very long run, is on the side of the Holy Blessed One. But, as Keynes pointed out long ago, in the long run we are all dead. In the shorter run in which we live our brief narrow lives, history is morally neutral at best. At worst, it is the enemy. It has certainly been the enemy of most ethnic minorities—or have you lunched with a Lydian, or supped with a Scythian, lately? The Kurds may actually pull off a state of their own. But betting on them hardly constitutes being on the right side of history.

If we oppose racism, sexism and homophobia only because they are going to win, what does that make us other than opportunists with a long view? Getting back to Judaism, while we believe in the coming of the Messiah, we also believe he “may tarry.” Quite a while, perhaps. In the meantime, we are not supposed to worry that much about being on the right side of history—we just want to be on the right side. Period.



One Response to “The Right Side of History”

  1. HelenS Says:

    I’ve always parsed “on the right side of history” as meaning that the good guys later on (if there are any left) will think we were right. Great deeds that were not wholly vain, and all that. I hadn’t thought of it implying a Whig view of history as progress.