Philosophically, the expression is abhorrent because of its “Marxist twang” (to borrow historian Robert Conquest’s phrase). The idea that history moves in a predetermined, inexorable path amounts to a kind of Hallmark-card Hegelianism.
Marx, who ripped off a lot of his shtick from the philosopher Hegel, popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history is scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our program.
Later, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others would use this reasoning to justify murdering millions of inconvenient people. It was a “God is on our side” argument, minus God.
In fairness, I doubt Barack Obama and John Kerry have Marx or Hegel on the brain when they prattle on about the right and wrong sides of history. They more properly belong in what some call the “Whig school” of history, coined in 1931 by historian Herbert Butterfield. The Whiggish tendency in history says the world progresses toward the inevitable victory of liberal democracy and social enlightenment. Again, I doubt Obama and Kerry have ever cracked the spine of Butterfield’s book.
Still, this administration has used the “wrong side of history” phrase more than any I can remember. They particularly like to use it in foreign policy. In his first inaugural, Obama declared, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Ever since, whenever things haven’t gone his way on the international scene — i.e., on days that end with a “y” — he or his spokespeople have wagged their fingers from the right side of history.
Lately, Obama and Kerry have been talking a lot about how Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is on the “wrong side of history.” Before that, Obama announced that Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said that Assad himself was on the wrong side of history. And so on.
Note the difference in usage? In domestic affairs, it’s a sign of strength. But in foreign affairs, invoking history as an ally is a sign of weakness. On social issues like, say, gay marriage, it amounts to a kind of impatient bullying that you can afford when time is on your side; “Your defeat is inevitable, so let’s hurry it up.”
But in international affairs, it is an unmistakable sign of weakness. When the president tells Putin he’s on the wrong side of history, the upshot is: “You’re winning right now and there’s nothing I can (or am willing to) do to change that fact. But you know what? In the future, people will say you were wrong.”
The phrase is utterly lacking in feck because it outsources the bulk of the punishment to an abstract future rather than the concrete here and now. But the fecklessness goes deeper than that because people like Putin and Assad either completely disagree about what the future holds, or they think they can change the future. And the people who try to bend the future to their benefit tend to be the sorts of people who believe they can.
Now, I don’t think in the long run things look great for the tyrants and totalitarians either, but that’s just a guess. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Maybe there is a direction to history. But if there is, it doesn’t move in anything like a straight line. It zigs and zags and U-turns all the time. And there’s no telling how long any detour will last.
In the meantime, people can’t eat the future judgment of history. They can’t live decent, free lives because history might eventually work out for their grandkids or their great-great-great grandkids. In short, being on the right side of history in the long run counts for little when in the here and now the guy on the wrong side of history has his boot on your neck.
Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online.