“They will be on the wrong side of History*.”
We hear that expression, or some form of it, every day. It is, perhaps, the ultimate Straw-man argument. For, if we think about it logically, we must conclude that there are but two sides to History: the “right” side, and its correlating “wrong” side.
Not only does this over-simplify any argument into a simple “us versus them” conflict, but it is, in fact, completely incorrect in its assertion that there are–and can be–“sides” to History at all.
And whose “right” and “wrong” are we using? We certainly don’t agree on those.
I prefer another expression: “History is written by the winners.” I hope that we could all agree that this expression is more true than any other about History in a general sense. Only by winning the conflict, be it a military action, a social change, or any other aspect of human existence, can History finally come into being, recorded by those left standing, victorious on the field of battle, into the canon of the past.
History does not exist until it is written. It is brought into being by the pen of those left to record it, or some version of it, for those that come after.
Much as Orwell predicts in 1984, control of History brings with it control of the present, of how that History will influence the here-and-now, and how the here-and-now can be shaped into a desired future.
History has no “sides.” It is but a series of moments strung together by the historian**.
Had Hannibal conquered Rome, the mighty Roman empire might be remembered only as a monstrous, malevolent plaque, spreading across Europe and Africa, subjugating the civilizations of more peaceful people.
Had Germany won the second world war, how would that war be remembered? Perhaps as the liberation of the subjects of Imperial Britain and the restoration of the freedoms of the oppressed German people?
Had the army of the Confederate States of America marched into Washington D.C. following the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run, for all my fellow Yankees) and captured the White House, wouldn’t Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee be remembered as great defenders of State’s rights instead of being purged from the annals of the United States of America? Abraham Lincoln, instead of being considered one of the greatest presidents in History, would be remembered only as another president of a likely failed country, who tried desperately to maintain the coherence of an aspiring global power at the expense of half its citizens.
Would Lincoln, then, have been on the “wrong” side of History? By popular definition, yes.
But that wouldn’t be true, would it?
Dredd Scott? Gay Marriage? Obamacare? Separate but equal? All of these issues have been adjudicated, some more than once, some reversed, and some not yet, but does that make previous decisions “wrong?” Not at the time. Does that make current decisions “right?”
While we might be able to determine the status of such things as either legal or illegal, we cannot impose a finding of “right” or “wrong” on them absolutely. At the time, they were right. Later, some have been found to be wrong, at least in humanity’s eyes.
But in the eyes of “History…?”
So be careful when you start arguing that someone is on the “wrong side of History.” History has a way of making the historian look like a fool.
History is what it is, not what humans would have it be. Any history turned and tortured into a weapon of humanity isn’t history at all, but propaganda.
And someone who tells you that their version of History is the “right” one? I’ll let you figure out what that makes them.
*I will be capitalizing “History” to remind everyone that it is an entity unto itself, a proper noun, if you will.
**”historian,” however, will not be capitalized, as the historian is but a human being, fallible and inconstant.