John Adams: Mark me, Franklin... if we give in on this issue, posterity will never forgive us.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: That's probably true, but we won't hear a thing, we'll be long gone.
Lately, I've been hearing the phrase “the wrong side of history.” Often it's in the context of “Politician X is on the wrong side of history” or “the people who voted for Y are on the wrong side of history.” I find this a very curious saying 1) for its rhetorical power and 2) for its inanity
Announcing that history is on your side is a popular device. It makes your point sound epic, beyond the scope of the here and now. Ronald Reagan famously said that “freedom and democracy will leave Marxism and Leninism on the ash heap of history.” This is ironic, since Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky said of his enemies that they go where they “belong from now on – in the dustbin of history.” Apparently history needs a large janitorial staff to wipe up all the dust and ash.
And there is a lot of dust and ash and obfuscation. When I invoke history I touch on the entire story of mankind. Human history is a story. And in every good story there are heroes and villains. Not everything is black and white, but we know who we root for in a good story. And history is the great story of us and how we got to this moment. When I talk about history's wrong side, I invoke the powerful images of all those we have deemed as universal sinners, so much so that their names are maledictions: Benedict Arnold, Hitler, Judas, Attila, Torquemada, John Wilkes Booth, etc. These were men who made horrible choices and brought either great evil to the world or intended to bring greater evils than they were able to accomplish. And sadly, there were those who attended them and followed them. They too have their names linked to their evil. They are the Samuel Mudds. This is the clear, dramatic meaning of what it is to be on the wrong side of history.
But when I invoke history into a present issue, I not only look to the past but also to the future. The vast expanse of humanity's unwritten pages lay naked before us. History has always turned on the decisions of those in the present. Do I want those in the years that follow to look back on this present moment and pinpoint the choice I made that put me on the wrong side of the our future heroes? I am called upon to think of the generations hence that will either look on me as one of the brave pioneers or the callow antagonists of my age.
Calling on us to keep history in mind is a powerful way to stir the hearts of men.
And it is also total crap.
First of all, a lot of our judgments of those in the past are based not only on data, but our own cultural circumstances. Now I am not saying that you cannot look back in history and make judgments. What I'm saying is that the judgments we do make are often colored by our present culture. While this may be an obvious point, I would look to a historical event like the Crusades.
The popularity of the Crusades goes in and out of fashion. Read the works of those a hundred years ago like Beloc or Chesterton and the Crusades were the great campaign to save Western Civilization. Read today, some would argue that the Crusades were a genocidal campaign aimed to annihilate non-white culture. Tancred and Pope Urban were on the right side of history 100 years ago, but they are on the wrong side now. They didn't change their minds. They're dead. But society changed. And we somehow assume that our current culture or something like it will view history the same way.
Second, what really is the appeal to not being on the wrong side of history but an ad ignominium. This is the logical fallacy that uses an appeal to shame in the place of an argument. We are meant to feel shame at the thought of how the history books of the future will treat us because of our behavior. That sounds epic and momentous. But what that all really boils down to is: “NOOOOO! THEY'RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU! THEY'RE ALL GONNA LAUGH AT YOU!” People, most of whom you haven't even met nor will ever meet, in the future might form a negative opinion about you and this is suppose to determine the rightness or wrongness of your actions? Take out the part about the people being from the future and can use the exact same argument for giving in to current public opinion. “Don't vote for X because most people don't are against it.” Why do we assume more wisdom of the future people rather than the ones who are with us here and now? This only makes sense if we know that the people to come will be our betters. But this leads to my third and final point.
No man knows the future.
The people who come after us could be our moral superiors and judge our actions with a keener eye. Or they could moral degenerates who marry their sex robots (I know that people in the present are working on them now, so I assume they will have those in future). The point is that we don't know. We have no idea what will happen to us in the next 24 hours, let alone the amorphous “future history.” We do the best with what we have, but what we do not have is a crystal ball to give us a roadmap to progress. I do not know if my vote for or against candidate X or issue Y will put me on the right or wrong side of history. Only God knows.
And I mean that last part literally. The only One Who knows the future is the One Who is already there. God is at the beginning, the middle, and the end of history. He reveals to us the little that we know of what is to come. And we believe Him because He is in the future, looking at it now. He is the only rational source for grounding any beliefs about the future.
But notice that God does not gear us towards looking to our future days as much as He has us look at our present. Someone once asked Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta if she knew she would be as successful as she was in her ministry because God was on her side. She said, “God doesn't call us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful.” Success or failure is ultimately not in my hands. The Apostles did not concern themselves with whether or not they were on the wrong side of history. They didn't want to be on the wrong side of God. God has reached into the human experience and given us a path of how to live faithfully. We must live life here and now according to His commandments and His example of love on the cross. We must live our lives for God, who is the author of the great story of human life.
And in the end, we do not want to be on the wrong side of His Story.