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Exposing the 'right side' of history

| Friday, March 21, 2014, 8:57 p.m.

The right side of history is bunk.

In domestic politics, people (mostly liberals) tend to say, “You're on the wrong side of history” about social issues that are breaking their way. It's a handy phrase, loosely translated as, “You're going to lose eventually, so why don't you give up now?”

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.

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 that the world progresses toward the inevitable victory of liberal democracy and social enlightenment.

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, he or his spokespeople have wagged their fingers from the right side of history.

In international affairs, it is an unmistakable sign of weakness. When the president tells Vladimir Putin that 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 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. 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 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. Pat Buchanan is off today.

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