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The False God Of History

In the April issue of New Criterion, James Bowman batted around the progressive notion that there is such a thing as the “right side of history,” which liberals love to invoke as assurance that whatever innovation they favor at the moment is somehow fated and blessed by the God of History. Bowman’s piece is subscriber-only, but Maclin Horton has quoted a portion of it at length. Read Maclin’s entire post for the full Bowman quote, which is worthwhile. Here’s an excerpt:

Mr. Kerry, when interviewed on Face the Nation about Russia’s “incredible act of aggression,” found his credulity taxed. It was because “You just don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth-century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pretext.” Well, you don’t. Other people, who haven’t got the memo about history’s changeover from nineteenth- to twenty-first-century international norms, might still behave differently—“incredible” as that may seem to someone grown, as so many progressives have grown these days, accustomed to regarding “history” as a compliant imaginary friend. A wiser man than Mr. Kerry might have taken the Russian démarche as a sign that “history” is not what he thought it was. He might even see one or two other signs that the twenty-first century is going to look a lot more like the nineteenth century—or even the eighteenth century—than anyone might have supposed only a few years ago. My own darkest suspicion is that it is likely to be the seventeenth century, with its religious wars, that will provide the better model for our future.

Bowman goes on to point out instances in which President Obama has cited “the right side of history,” but has been wrong. It’s a Whiggish illusion to think that history unfolds according to the wishes and expectations of contemporary progressives. Maclin Horton adds:

What exactly is it in the nature of things that would cause unguided evolution-driven “history” to aim for something that progressives would consider to be utopia, which is implicitly their expectation? Or to aim at all? Nothing, as far as I can see.  The shark and the cockroach, we’re told, are fabulously successful, from the evolutionary point of view.

For much of the 20th century, progressives (and even a dour conservative like Whittaker Chambers), thought that the Soviets were on the right side of history. There were many, many people — intelligent ones — who thought that various iterations of fascism were historically inevitable. Anthony Sacramone asks some important questions about this:

  • If you had asked Hernan Cortes whether the ease with which his army routed the mighty Aztec nation put him on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had caught Robespierre’s ear between executions and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had pulled Napoleon aside and asked, after the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, whether he was on the right side of history, whether he was the change History had been waiting for, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had interrupted a Francis Galton lecture on the new “science” of eugenics and asked whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • If you had asked the Leninist agents who stood over the bullet-riddled bodies of the Romanovs whether they were on the right side of History, what do you think they would have said?
  • If you had asked Hitler moments after he escaped a bomb blast that should have killed him but resulted only in the executions of such would-be assassins as Dietrich Bonhoeffer whether he was on the right side of History, what do you think he would have said?
  • For that matter, when Progressives, feminists, and Evangelicals linked arms to pass the Eighteenth Amendment, what side . . .

If you had asked the Romans and the Sanhedrin on the day Jesus of Nazareth was buried whether they were on the right side of history, how do you think they would have replied?

When anyone claims that their cause is on the “right side of history,” you should take it with a grain of salt. It’s nothing more than a moralistic wish masquerading as metaphysical principle. Attributing god-like powers to History is what secularists say to assure themselves that there is ultimate approbation for their preferences. Whenever someone claims that their cause puts them on the right side of history, the only reasonable response is, “We’ll see.”

[H/T: Rob G.]

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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