History, Heroes, and Haters

I read a piece today about Jesse Jackson, Jr., and the race-baiting he learned so well from his father.  The ultimate way to end a debate when you don’t have the intellectual, factual or logical backing to win is to call your opponent a racist (or some other epithet insinuating a similar level of malicious prejudice).  It’s the nuclear (or “nuke-yuh-lar” to some) option for debate.  Losing a debate?  No problem.  Declare your opponent a racist.  BOOOOM!!!!  Problem solved.

Fortunately the piece linked above does a great job not only debunking Jackson’s claims of racism but also exposes the ignorance with which Jackson makes his arguments in the first place.  Jackson’s sense of history (or lack thereof) is almost staggering.  It’s this sense of history (or lack thereof) that got me to thinking this morning about a phrase I hear pretty regularly nowadays regarding history: “the wrong side of history”.

To say something or someone is on “the wrong side of history” is virtually meaningless for at least two reasons.  First, events in the present cannot be judged in a historical sense. (Peter Berger wrote that “We cannot say who or what is on the wrong side of history, because we cannot know who or what is on the right side.”)  It is only in retrospect that events, ideas, or people can be judged in any kind of historical sense.  And even in retrospect, a long view is required to be sufficiently accurate.

It is for this reason, I prefer to stop around the mid to late ’90’s (usually including the disputed election of George W. Bush) when teaching Western Civilization or US History.  Why? Because we are just now learning the full effects of the events of the last twenty years or so.  And the last ten years are more properly considered “current events” rather than “history”.  The 11 September, 2001 attacks, for example, are recent enough that they are still dictating foreign policy, security measures, and government intrusion on a grand scale.  They are certainly fodder for debate as well as sources for numerous conspiracy theories but their historical significance will not be clearly known for years.

Second, not only is the phrase “the wrong side of history” basically meaningless because it ignores the retrospection needed to understand history, it is meaningless because history is a set of interpretations that vary from person to person, from group to group and from generation to generation.  Who was on the “right side of history” in 1917 as Europe emerged from the Great War?  “The Allies won the war,” you may say.  “Obviously they were on the right side of history.”  But were they?  The punitive measures of the Treaty of Versailles left Germany is such a state that the “peace” treaty virtually guaranteed further conflict down the road.  The champions of “self-determination” who had fought to make the world “safe for democracy” ignored the pleas for self-determination in places like Ireland and set up the quasi-colonial mandate system.

Who was on the “right side of history” in 1861 as war broke out in the United States?  Slavery is recognized as a blight on a society that prides itself on freedom and liberty, so obviously the South was on the “wrong side of history” and the abolitionist North was on the “right side of history.”  This simplistic understanding glosses over the facts.  Every other civilized nation in the world that abolished slavery did so without bloody conflicts through gradual and compensated emancipation.  Lincoln himself said in 1858, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races” and was a proponent of colonization instead of equality.  To keep from having Washington, D.C. surrounded by states that had seceded from the Union, Lincoln sent troops into Maryland, instituting martial law and suspending habeus corpus rights in the state to force the state legislature to reject secession.  Lincoln also supported the unconstitutional creation of the state of West Virginia.  All this after previously having stated that “any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better.”  Finally, with his Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln avoided freeing any slaves that fell under the Union’s control (border states like Kentucky and Missouri and Confederate areas held by Union troops like Tennessee) and symbolically declared free slaves in states where he had no authority.  A cowardly, politically motivated move that has put Lincoln on the “right side of history” to many people.

This is not to say that the Germans or Ottomans were on the “right side of history” in 1914 or that slaveholders were on the “right side of history” in 1861.  It is to say that reducing history down to simple black/white, right/wrong, good/bad dichotomies ignores the true complexity of history.

So where does this line of thinking lead?  If we’re honest, I think we’ll find there is no “right” or “wrong” sides to history.  There is enough good and evil in everyone that we find history to be a long line of human shortcomings, some on a grander scale than others.  It’s difficult to be honest about history because we all have our heroes that we love and villains that we love to hate.  And sometimes one person’s hero is another person’s villain.  The same is true for the present – Jesse Jackson, Jr., is a villain to some and a hero to others.  We would all do well to focus on the ideas that drive our world instead of the people who put them into place.  People come and go…ideas are the real heroes or villains.

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