Recently, as everyone knows by now, Harry Reid compared critics of ObamaCare to apologists for slavery:
Instead of joining us on the right side of history, all the Republicans can come up with is, “slow down, stop everything, let’s start over.” If you think you’ve heard these same excuses before, you’re right. 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, things aren’t bad enough.”
Most responses to Reid have furiously concentrated on his spurious slavery analogy, but I’d like to call attention to his expression of what has become a staple of liberal thought that is even more disturbing: the accusation that those who reject liberal nostrums are “on the wrong side of history.”
For some reason, the Democratic caucus these days seems to be filled with deep thinkers who have cracked the code of the meaning and direction of history. Just a couple of weeks ago the sage of Ohio, Senator Sherrod Brown, told the New York Times that “I don’t think in the end, anybody here in our caucus wants to be on the wrong side of history.”
This uncanny ability to get in step with history is, of course, not limited to Democrats who are elected. For example, a recent Nicholas Kristof column, “The Wrong Side of History,” charged that if moderate Democrats “flinch” and health care reform fails, “they’ll be on the wrong side of history.”
In fact, it’s not limited to Democrats at all, as evidenced by John McCain’s comment on Face the Nation last June “that the United States needs to be on the ‘right side of history’ in responding to the disputed Iranian elections and ensuing protests.”
Thus history, it must be noted, does not have a narrow, one-track mind. Its commands, clearly visible to those standing on its right, i.e., left, side, are not limited to the enactment of ObamaCare; they extend over the full range of the liberal agenda.
For example, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone transmits the message from history’s lips to Huffington Post’s ears that all those who fail to accept “the moral analogy between discrimination against blacks and discrimination against gays … have simply blinded themselves to reason” and, you guessed it, “are on the wrong side of history.” (I have recently discussed this “moral analogy” and some questions it raises here.)
Stone, of course, is not alone. As Politico reports:
The movement to expand marriage to include gays and lesbians has gathered force from the perception that it’s a historic civil rights battle and that its foes are, as advocates often say, on the “wrong side of history.”
Although claiming that God history is on our side is not limited to Democrats or even liberals, it is, not surprisingly, endemic among those who are fond of calling themselves “progressives.” Indeed, the idea of progress itself implies that history is fundamentally linear, that it advances from a dark past produced and still defended by conservatives and reactionaries to a brighter future that, no doubt coincidentally, embodies the enlightened policies favored by today’s liberals and radicals. Progressives are thus all Whigs at heart, and progressivism is grounded as much in teleology (“Change We Can Believe In”) as in political or economic theory.
Whig history is typically sunny and optimistic, a record of the road from the repressive past to the tolerant, inclusive present (complete with clear signposts, to those on history’s “right side,” to the still more tolerant and inclusive future to come). There is, however, a prominent strain of what might be called pessimistic progressive history, although I will argue that it is more an apparent than a real exception to the picture I have painted above.
For the pessimistic progressives, perfectly exemplified by Howard Zinn (brilliantly skewered here on PJM by Ron Radosh), history is a continuing circular struggle of “the people” going round after round against “the elites.”
Radosh quotes a penetrating critique by the historian Michael Kazin:
History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed.
The elites may always win, in this view, but “the people” never give up, always keep fighting, and may win some day with the help of historians like Zinn, who, Radosh writes, “knows that history is not about ‘understanding the past,’ but about ‘changing the future.’” Thus Zinn may be a pessimist when he looks at the past and present, but he must keep his faith in a progressive future or there would be no point in writing his books and thereby attempting to change the future.
A People’s History of the United States, Radosh notes, is “the single best selling text of history that has ever been published — selling over two million copies — some 128,000 each year since his first edition was published over twenty years ago!” Zinn, in short, may not assume that the course of history is fixed, but he is as certain of where it should go as any member of the Democratic caucus or New York Times columnist.
The notion that history is clearly marching toward a progressive future and that we’d all better get with (or against) the program has also been shared, somewhat oddly, by conservatives, the most famous personality perhaps being William F. Buckley. His November 19, 1955, mission statement for his fledgling National Review grandly declared that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
A modification appeared in 2000:
We recently asked readers to suggest a motto for National Review Online. The motto will appear on stationery, coffee cups, etc. It will also be tattooed to the foreheads of all future — and past — interns. Our working version is a play on the original slogan of National Review, which appeared in the original 1955 mission statement, about the duty of conservatives to stand athwart history yelling, “Stop.” Our modified version is “NRO: Standing Athwart History, 24 Hours a Day or Seven Days a Week.”
The trouble here, on both sides, is that history is not written in stone (or even Stone). Although theologians of both Marxism and other faiths may disagree, history has no mind, no purpose, no foreordained destination, and hence — Harry Reid, Sherrod Brown, Nicholas Kristof, et al., notwithstanding — no “right” and “wrong” sides.
There is only one thing that is absolutely certain about the future, and that is that it hasn’t happened yet, and so is still unknown and unknowable.