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The Right Side of History

It’s been said that advertising is the world’s oldest profession, with the devil needing only a clever marketing campaign to get Adam and Eve to eat the apple. Whether or not that is true, it certainly is true that we can be swayed by slogans and jingles into doing the silliest things. “You deserve a break today,” so spend money at McDonalds. I fail to see the connection. “Just do it.” What? Lay out a hundred dollars for a pair of Nike shoes.

They are called “taglines” and designed to make us think that a certain way of behaving is, well, just the right thing to do. They are catchy, if dubious. I suppose even Madison Avenue needs to make a living. These become problematic, though, when turning from products to people. For example, “Manifest destiny.” Manifest? To whom? The Americans moving west? Or the Native Americans getting pushed out of their homeland? And “destiny”? That’s a nice way to avoid responsibility. One such expression that has been popping up lately is “the right side of history.” We’re encouraged to support a cause, or at least not hinder it, so we’ll be on “the right side of history.” How so?

First of all, we’re dealing with history; that is, with something that has already happened. Telling someone to be “one the right side of history” is like telling him on Friday to be on the right side of Thursday. Besides, “history” is notoriously capricious. Just ask the residents of Harper’s Ferry, (West) Virginia.  It changed hands twelve times during the Civil War. “History” must have seemed like a roulette wheel to them. Even seemingly unstoppable movements hit the rocks. Every major (and, I suppose, most minor) civilization and historical movement from the pharaohs to the Communists thought they were on “the right side of history” and would last forever.  France went from an absolute monarchy “by the grace of God” to a “republican” government shouting “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” while slicing off heads to an upstart imperialism within a generation. The Nazis went from being the “master race” in control of Europe to a bombed out bunker in thirteen years. The “right side of history” seems to depend more on who won the last election or war rather than on the truth or justice of the cause. You could be on the “wrong side” of history just because of your birthday.

In what other subject do we say that someone is on the “right side” of it? We don’t say, “Smith is on the right side of botany” or “Jones is on the right side of math.”  No, we just say, “Smith is right about roses” or “Jones is wrong in his long division.” There’s no “right side” to it. It may be that some talk this way because history deals with people. It would seem to me that this would make one even more circumspect about declaring the “right side.” People are fickle. A rose can’t alter its mind; the multiplication table can’t vary its point of view. A man, though, can change his opinion depending upon whether his toast has been burnt.

Read more at Crisis Magazine. 

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