There is no more bullying or empty piece of rhetoric in political conversation today than to accuse someone of being on the wrong side of history.
And yet, we do it all the time. Over the past month, we've heard that the Washington Redskins are on the wrong side of history because of their refusal to change their name. Vladimir Putin, of course, is an enemy of the future. Politicians who are against gay marriage, them too. Even poor Scarlett Johansson is set to fall under the opprobrium of tomorrow.
These days, the phrase is most often deployed against social conservatives. But in the 1980s, it was often aimed at advocates for strong labor unions, tight industrial policy, and trade tariffs.
At its most innocent, telling someone they are on the wrong side of history is an assertion that they stand in the way of others who will deservedly soon acquire more power and respect.
But often, the phrase has the ring of a threat. To tell someone that the story of history will be the story of their demise is to make a bet on your future power and to make a frightening promise: The arc of the moral universe is long, and those who disagree with me should be impaled on it.
The verdict of history is never really final. At one point, absolutist kings could spit in the face of smaller lords that history would vindicate them. For awhile, they were right. But in time, monarchy too fell under a similar judgment. In the early 20th century, enthusiastic eugenicists went about sterilizing the unfit and planned to manage every mating in the civilized world. They thought themselves a vanguard as well.
The moral horrors of the Soviet Union were justified as the necessary steps to usher in the verdict of capital-H "History," which, for some Marxists, was the inevitable collapse of capitalism before the dictatorship of the proletariat. America's own foreign adventurism, from the Philippines to Iraq, has appealed to the same fallacy.
Closely related to appeals to history is the lame observation that the "the sky didn't fall." There may be some zealous fools who believe the next step the government takes in a direction they do not like will rend the heavens. But the record of human horrors in the modern world is long, and the number of times the sky has fallen remains at zero.
Before you employ tumbling sky rhetoric, think about the Pitesti prison in Romania — an experiment to see if counter-revolutionaries could be transformed into communist "new men" through brain washing and torture. Beaten and drugged, priests were forced to trample on crucifixes and celebrate Masses with their own excrement and urine replacing bread and wine. Recounting the grisly experience of his time in the camp, Father George Calciu recalled a particularly cruel sight: sunshine.
When we went out, we saw that the world had not changed. This vegetation, these flowers — hurt us. It was like an insult to us, because we were suffering, dying… but the universe did not care about us! The sun was going down and there was a golden light. Everybody was shining like gold.
The sky still hung in the air, sending sun and rain on the just and unjust alike. The sky hung silently over genocide in Rwanda as it does in North Korea today. The gravest crimes of man may be accompanied by birdsong and temperate breezes.
We invoke the future's verdict of guilt precisely because we'd like to smuggle back into our politics the moral force of Divine judgment. But our appeals to progress are a pathetic substitute for the concept of Providence. The former stifles critical reflection about the past. The latter is at least flexible enough to account for the sudden flowering of great evil, even in an age as advanced as ours.
What we do know from history is that the future often rejects the past. Political ideals are often abandoned, rarely refuted.
And so we are thrown back on ourselves. If your cause is just and good, argue that it is just and good, not just inevitable.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
- 10 things you need to know today: August 27, 2014
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- In defense of Obama's golfing
Subscribe to the Week