On ‘the wrong side of history’

None of us wants to end up there — “on the wrong side of history.” We don’t want to think that the ideas or values we’re supporting today will wind up almost universally recognized as false, wrong and destructive by those who come after us.

But on the other hand, none of us can say, with complete certainty, how history will come to regard our time. And, by definition, no one can ever enjoy any actual benefit from the potential future consolation of “being on the right side of history.” By that point, we’ll be long gone. For that matter, no one can ever experience any actual penalty from the potential future condemnation of “being on the wrong side of history.”

That’s why appeals to “the wrong side of history” can’t help resolve any disputes in the here and now. It’s a wager that neither side will live to have to pay or to get to collect.

Better, then, to heed the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount: “Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

So instead of worrying about whether or not we might one day be regarded as “on the wrong side of history,” we should concern ourselves with whether or not we are, today, on the right side in history. And the important thing to remember about being on the right side in history is that it’s not always — or usually — the same thing as the winning side.

Think of Tank Man in Tianenmen Square. He was on the right side of history. He was on the right side in history. But his side in history and of history didn’t win. Not yet anyway, almost 30 years later.

That gap — the gap between the side that was in the right in history and the side that seems to have won — is part of why we need to talk so much about the “right side of history.” We want to believe that the right side and the winning side will ultimately turn out to be the same side. We want to believe that although the arc of the moral universe may be long, “it bends toward justice.”

That’s a phrase associated with Martin Luther King Jr., of course. Last week was marked by a host of commemorations and remembrances of King surrounding the 50th anniversary of his “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

King was on the right side in history. The hagiography and near-universal acclaim he received on that 50th anniversary shows that we all can now admit that he was on the right side of history. It’s still not clear, though, whether King was on the winning side. His dream of “Jobs and Freedom” for all remains elusive.

The 50th anniversary of the march and of King’s great speech also provided a clearer picture of what it means to have been on “the wrong side of history.” Those who had been on King’s side in King’s day had an easier time of it on the anniversary. They could proudly recall and reproduce their memories of the 1963 march.

The Christian Century reached back into its archives to republish its editorials and reporting from before, during and after the March for Jobs and Freedom. The New Republic was able to do the same. Those magazines were able to celebrate both the anniversary itself and their own coverage of it. They could celebrate their own history because they had been on “the right side of history.”

We didn’t see a similar celebration from, for example, The National Review — which aggressively opposed King and the march in 1963. Or from Christianity Today, which timidly, cautiously, “moderately” avoided taking sides. Alas, not taking sides doesn’t turn out to be an effective way of avoiding being on “the wrong side of history.”

But again, what matters most today is not who was on the right or wrong side 50 years ago. What matters most today is whether or not we are ourselves, today, on the right side in history.

Problem is that it’s unlikely we will be able to assess the present honestly until we’re willing to do the same for the past.

That’s what’s dangerous about so much of the revisionist distortions we saw last week from those who felt obliged to celebrate Dr. King even though they opposed his March for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and even though they continue to oppose his ideals of Jobs and Freedom in 2013.

Consider, for example, the attempt by several conservative culture warriors to claim that Martin Luther King Jr. would support their opposition to LGBT equality. People actually said this on the 50th anniversary of a march designed and organized by MLK’s great friend and mentor, Bayard Rustin. Rustin, who taught King the practice and strategy of nonviolent resistance, was openly gay in the 1950s (and thereby also taught King — and the rest of us — quite a bit about courage).

Or consider white culture-warrior Gary Bauer, who tried to use the anniversary to conscript King’s moral authority to serve the anti-feminist side of the war on women. Bauer claimed King would have supported his crusade against Planned Parenthood — that’s a transparent lie and an audacious attempt to rewrite reality.

Such lies don’t just distort the past, they distort the present. To face the present honestly requires that we be honest about the past as well. Only then can we determine, today, whether or not we’re fighting on the right side in history.

Let me give the last word here to Mark Kleiman, who addresses the conservatives of today who want to claim King and his legacy as somehow supporting their agenda:

Martin Luther King died while on a campaign to support a public-sector labor union. You’re entitled to say that he was a bad man and a Communist, as your faction did while he was alive, and that his assassination was the natural result of his use of civil disobedience, which is what Ronald Reagan said at the time. You’re entitled to say that he was a great man but that his thoughts are no longer applicable to the current political situation. But what you’re not entitled to do is to pretend that, if he were alive today, MLK would not be fighting against you and everything you stand for. He would.

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  • John

    Wow… speaking of the wrong side…

  • Lori

    You wanna flesh this out a little more? Who are you addressing?

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Do elaborate, Mister Banks.

  • John

    Sorry… looks like a troll’s comment posted just as I finished reading has been deleted. Now I look like a troll.

  • Lori

    That’s really interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a troll’s comment deleted from here. Huh.

  • john

    I don’t want to mention the name for fear of invoking the presence again. But glad to see that kind of housekeeping is done occasionally.

  • Emcee, cubed

    Am noticing that several posts by a certain troll have now disappeared from other threads as well. Wonder if he got himself arrested again…

  • Baby_Raptor

    Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll keep him this time.

  • Emcee, cubed

    Ain’t that the truth. Did think it was interesting that this latest round of posts were from a Disqus account that used his actual name, the activity showing the same post on a ridiculous number of blogs…

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    What is really annoying about those who are on the wrong side is they never – or almost never – openly surrender. They just quietly slink off and acquiesce as little as they possibly can to the new state of affairs.

    In Canada, right-wing political parties are implicitly admitting they are on the wrong side of their views on how repeated tax cuts will unleash ever-more risk-taking and innovation while boosting government revenues.

    Quietly, the local BC right-wing party has been increasing tax rates on the wealthy and on large corporations, while federally, the Harper government recently raised taxes on the banking sector.

    They will never openly admit it, but they are conceding as reluctantly as they can that for all the caterwauling about businesses packing up their toys and moving, the fact is most of them are bluffing in order to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary workers.

    I am not surprised that even less concession to the fundamental truths of justice and equality is being made by social conservatives.

  • LoneWolf343

    More reasonable than our right-wing party. They keep doubling down, despite the evidence.

  • Charby

    How screwed up is it that that actually sounds really, really good to me? Yeah, making them eating crow might be fun but getting them to do the right thing is more substantively useful for society as a whole.

  • MikeJ

    According to National review, King was both a Republican (when they wish to use his moral authority) and a communist (when they are forced to talk about what he actually stood for.)

    Poll after poll has shown that young people don’t have the visceral hatred for “communism” or “socialism” that their elders have. I think it’s because the only working definition for communism in their lifetimes has been “anything Republicans hate right now.”

  • J_Enigma32

    That’s probably what it is. They’ve watered the word down so much they’d never recognize a real communist or socialist running for office. And if they did, they’d be out of insults and attacks; it’d be like the boy who cried wolf: when everyone you don’t like is a socialist, and everything you don’t like is socialist, what do you do call something you run afoul that actually is socialist?

    Answer: Medicare, and the stinkin’ gubbamint better keep their grubby mitts offa mine.

  • Loki1001

    The word “Socialism” now has something around a 30% approval rating among Americans despite almost no one alive hearing it in any context where it was not vilified in their lifetimes. Which means some people are smart enough to actually look at our economy and say to themselves “if socialism is the opposite of this, then it must be pretty good.”

  • Charby

    It’s probably mostly that, and the fact that if you call half of the country socialists then eventually people are going to start slowly associating socialism with something that they agree with.

    I’m at the point whenever I heard some radio crank call some random stranger a socialist I just assume that that person is probably a decent person who is being slandered, even if I don’t know anything about them and I think a lot of people are getting there too. They made a mistake when they started using that word for mainstream politicians and other reasonably popular public figures — it demystifies it quite a bit.

  • christopher_y

    Bernie Sanders used to call himself a socialist, I think- don’t know if he still does. His brother Larry, who was a friend of mine when we lived in the same town in England, is definitely a socialist, but he’s a member of the Green Party (UK) because there’s no other home for him.

  • FearlessSon

    They’ve watered the word down so much they’d never recognize a real communist or socialist running for office. And if they did, they’d be out of insults and attacks; it’d be like the boy who cried wolf: when everyone you don’t like is a socialist, and everything you don’t like is socialist, what do you do call something you run afoul that actually is socialist?

    “You all saw that- a wolf got him.”

  • Dave Pooser

    Heh. Glad I’m not the only one here who (a) reads Oglaf and (b) thought of that strip

  • cyllan

    Oglaf is awesome.

  • MaryKaye

    We currently have an avowed socialist, Kshama Sawant, running for Seattle City Council. Her previous electoral try was an attempt to unseat the Speaker of the State House, who has been in office since forever; she got 27% of the vote, which is better than any of his previous challengers managed. She got 35% of the vote in the Council primaries, in a 3-way race. I believe she has some chance to win; the incumbent got less than 50% of the vote and is quite unpopular.

    I have seen next to no negative commentary on her socialism, but I may not be reading the right sources. What I’ve seen is concerns that she is proposing too much change too fast (for example, the $15 minimum wage proposal seems too radical to many commentators–they might recommend a lower increase).

    (I voted for her both times, and I’m 50. But I tend to be an outlier in my age group. A grad student once told me that he had an infallible question to tell over-30 from under-30–“which edition, 3rd or 4th?”–and when I said “Pathfinder” rolled his eyes and said “Except you.” It worked on everyone else in the room….)

    This is, of course, in Seattle; about as blue as a town can be. It’s still remarkable in my experience. The sting of “socialist” has really worn off here. (Sawant would be facing an uphill campaign no matter what, as her opponents have been long-term incumbents. Given that, her result against Conlin was very strong indeed.)

  • Guest

    Well that’s just not true at all…I’m 27 and I pretty much loathe 4th edition. Of course I’ve pretty much moved on from D&D to other RPGs in general (though if I’m going to play something like D&D, I share your preference for Pathfinder). And moving on, in case people actually want to comment on the substance of your post rather than the sidebar.

  • Omnicrom

    I’m not sure why he thought you were an outlier, Pathfinder is basically 3rd Edition.

  • Guest

    Or 3.75.

  • Shayna

    I would not pass that question either. I am 27, and my group in high school still played 2nd edition. I’ve played 3rd & 4th since then & prefer 3rd between the two.

  • http://www.ghiapet.net/ Randy Owens

    Dammit, we’re supposed to avoid comments that are just “First!” here, and yet, here I am.

  • Albanaeon

    Wonder what he would said about my reply of “2nd.”

  • MaryKaye

    No, no, the diagnostic answer isn’t whether you say “third” or “fourth” or “Pathfinder”, it’s whether you say “What are you talking about?” which is indeed what everyone else over 30 in the room said.

    (I agree it’s not as diagnostic as all that, but it was amusing.)

  • Carstonio

    which is indeed what everyone else over 30 in the room said

    Even the ones who followed that particular type of recreation in the 1980s with earlier editions?

  • http://redwoodr.tumblr.com Redwood Rhiadra

    I’m 38, and the last game I ran was 4th Edition (as Randy Owens knows :-). Although I would really have preferred to try the Rules Cyclopedia edition, but most of my players could only get 4e.

  • Loki1001

    It’s all part of a rather long history of capitalists doing everything possible to crush socialism. Here’s a really great article on the subject and our warped perceptions of the Cold War.


  • Carstonio

    I would describe it more broadly – people aiming to protect their wealth and social position by crushing ideologies that might threaten that position. Specifically, ideologies that favor equality of opportunity and oppose hierarchies based on wealth. The plutocrats do this by wrongly equating any kind of social safety net with wholesale government ownership of the means of production. Even if the US had Medicare for all, that wouldn’t be socialism unless the government took ownership of all the medical facilities and all the health care workers became civil servants.

  • Laurent Weppe

    I’ll keep reapeting its until it sinks in: the USA is a nation of closeted socialists browbeated into pretending otherwise by a continuous mediatic campain equating social democracy with stalinism.

  • Loki1001

    One of the most infuriating things in recent years has been the attempt to rebrand Martin Luther King Jr. as some sort of right-wing hero. Alveda King has made so much money off passing that lie around it makes me want to scream.

  • aunursa

    Martin Luther King Jr. is not a right-wing hero. He is not a left-wing hero. Rather, he is an American hero. Americans don’t celebrate his birthday as a national holiday because he was (allegedly) a Republican or a Democrat. Neither side can claim him for their own. His birthday is a national holiday because of his iconic role in advancing civil rights (via nonviolent means.)

  • David S.

    In other words, he no longer gets to be a person. A complex human being with complex opinions, and suddenly you make him a national hero and all that goes away, just leaving the type of 2-D caricature that’s we can all accept.

    MLK was pretty far left, especially for the early 21st century. Like it, hate it, but you can’t deny it. You have no right to retroactively force him to be bland, to only hold opinions that are widely accepted in the early 21st century US.

  • Hexep

    Being a hero has costs; the loss of one’s individual identity before the power of myth-making is one of them. It happens to everyone once they achieve that stature,

  • David S.

    That’s not natural law. That’s something we can control. That’s something that we are discussing the control of. If we mention who King was everytime he comes up, it will matter.

    For the US founding fathers, the alternative is letting them be written as a bunch of Christian theocrats or a bunch of deists, and ignoring the depth and complexity of their real religious (mostly Christian or Christianesque) beliefs.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The tendency to culture-heroism is in some degree unavoidable. But that shouldn’t stop us from continuing to have a nuanced view of the people who have been writ large on the national scene in one’s country.

  • Albanaeon


    Which, exactly, of Dr. King’s positions do the right support exactly? Civil rights? Labor? Peace? Don’t make me laugh…

    This is precisely the stupid watered down, outright ignoring of facts, flat out lying that let’s the Becks and Bauers whitewash King into their own narratives that are contrary to everything Dr. King stood for.

    You can keep your panacea King, to make yourself feel better, but its an insult to the actual person.

  • MikeJ

    Neither side can claim him for their own.

    Liberals can most certainly claim them for their own. Sure, it’s not a Republican or Democrat thing. But King was as liberal as any American who ever lived, and his enemies, the community that howled for his blood, were conservatives.

  • Donalbain

    That’s a very handy way of ignoring facts. He stops being a man who campaign for public sector unions, a man who campaigned for a minimum wage that today would be more than $15 an hour. Instead he just becomes an amorphous “American Hero”.

  • malpollyon

    Do you ever get tired of being so transparently, self-servingly, disingenuous?

  • EdinburghEye

    Which reminds me, thank you from over a year ago for steering me to that history about Planned Parenthood and Martin Luther King, via the discovery that The past isn’t dead: it isn’t even past.

  • Hexep

    One would think that, as our resident Chinaman, I would have some kind of input on Mr. Tank Man up there, and what he represented, and what those tanks represented, and the significance of the events pf 6-4 and the significance of their memory. And that’s fair – I don’t know much of anything about Martin Luther King, nor do I have any reason to.

    But all I’m going to say is that what happened back then, and what happened in the days leading up to it, and what happened in the aftermath of it, are both much more complicated and much more horrible than most outsiders understand.

    To quote a great, sad man, we are already old and it doesn’t matter to us…

  • Michele Cox

    It has occurred to me more than once that, if everything goes as well as I hope it will, I will *probably* end up on the ‘wrong side of history’ — because no matter how hard I try, there are going to be injustices in our current culture that I can’t see, because I’m ‘soaking in it.’ That has happened over and over to reformers of various stripes — what we see we work to change, but what the next generation sees was invisible.

    So — please — may we all end up on the ‘wrong side of history’ — and on the right side, as much as we can.

  • Hexep

    I don’t think it’s as bad as all that, so long as you keep your focus pure. I mean, has anybody ever criticized Dolores Ibarruri, say, for the lack of attention she gave to trans* issues?