Wrong about Being Right

“You’d be surprised how condescending people can be.”

Peter Dinklage

“What makes me mad is arrogance, pretension, putting on airs.”

David Duchovny

The phrase began in 1935. Politicians and pundits from both sides of the political spectrum, but mostly the left, claim that they are on the “right side of history.” Washington Governor Jay Inslee, conservative writer Ben Shapiro, and former President Barack Obama are just three of many who have belabored the phrase. After studying history for almost sixty years and teaching it for forty-four, this phrase makes me want to scream, “History has no side!” History is simply the factual story of what happened and its cause and effect.

Do those who sanctimoniously use the phrase really think that the Nazis didn’t believe that they had history on their side? How about Pol Pot, or Stalin and Lenin, Shutruk Nuhunte, or Nero? Those leaders didn’t claim that they definitely knew what future generations of mankind would think about their legacies, though. They certainly assumed that they were acting rightly, but they didn’t insist on predicting all perceptions of their actions. C.S. Lewis wrote:

Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

Those who arrogantly claim to be “on the right side” proclaim a false premise, since it assumes those in the future will agree with their current positions. Tell that to the native tribes on the Trail of Tears.

History has no sides; it is simply what happened. Who are these individuals to tell us what people in the future will think or believe? Look at today for proof that the future holds more than anyone can predict now. Their claim of foreknowledge is placing personal, moral, or political desires on an assumed pedestal of virtue.

This arrogance has raised objections from progressive commentators like William Deresiewicz. “To believe in ‘history,’ in progress as a metaphysical principle,” he warns, “is to believe in the existence of a progressive class: the ones who push history forward, the ones who are filled with the future.” We might also describe it as the feeling that the speaker and his supporters are the ones for whom history has been waiting. They perceive themselves as the soon-to-be benevolent despots, who will teach the ignorant dissenters how truly oblivious they are.

A rudimentary study of history shows how quickly it can slam into reverse or change course without warning. The assassinations of the Archduke Ferdinand and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., the invention of artificial intelligence, the leap from feudalism to capitalism, 9/11, social media, and COVID represent but a few events that hardly any saw coming. The varied opinions on the changes that followed make it clear that history has no side. It simply includes what happened and how humans reacted to it.

Examples abound of historians’ opinions changing over time. Both History in the Making and History Lessons by historian and professor Kyle Roy Ward provide historiographical evidence of this. In each book, he takes excerpts from history texts about dozens of events and topics over the years, showing how opinions dramatically vary in different eras.

One illustration of these fluctuations might be the legacy of President John F. Kennedy. When he was tragically taken from us, prevailing opinion thought him figuratively worthy of a sculpture on Mount Rushmore. As time has progressed and more has become known of the man and his administration, opinions have altered or become more mild.

Historian James Hankins put it simply: “Real historians know that historiographic models change along with history.” 

The self-righteous who claim to be on the “right side of history” are censorious at best. One individual with whom I’ve had this argument told me that being on the “right side of history” means being on the side of morality. Really? Whose moral standards will we be using as a standard? Will there be universal agreement on these positions? Neither smugness nor condescension make an argument rightly posited.

No one knows the future. No one is omniscient. No one has the knowledge or foresight to hypothesize or state as fact what people will think in the future.

The incomparable historian Paul Johnson put it best when he wrote the study of history is a “powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance” and that “there are no inevitabilities in history.”  Nor is there a “right side” of it.

Author: Thomas F. Sleete

Thomas F. Sleete is a retired American History teacher and educational consultant with over 44 years of experience. That from which he derives the most enjoyment in this world is his interaction with, and love for, his grandchildren. The Lord guided and comforted him through the loss of his wife, and one way he seeks to glorify the name of Jesus at every opportunity is through his writing.

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