The “right” side of history. It’s a refrain we’re hearing a lot these days, especially since the tyrannical, unelected, black-robed demon horde known as the Supreme Court decided to scoff at the biblical interpretation of foamy-mouthed Fundi-gelicals everywhere by legalizing the rainbow plague of super-gay Homo-Sexxican Devil marriage across the formerly free-but-now eternally damned United States of Sodom and Gomorrica.
Predictably, fire-and-brimstone wingnut stalwarts went apoplectic over the Court’s decision. Perennial presidential candidate and last-remaining Ted Nugent fan Mike Huckabee blew about fifteen gaskets and advocated mass civil disobedience against the impending Homo-Hordes. “When we believe that the civil government has acted outside of nature, and nature’s god, outside of the bounds of the law, outside of the bounds of the Constitution,” Huck winged, “we believe that it’s [civil disobedience] the right and the moral thing to do.” Not to be outdone by the Huckster, Bryan Fischer — the Mississippi-based gonzo-wingnut radio jockey for American Family Radio — described the Supremes’ ruling on same-sex marriage as “the new 9/11,” and claimed to witness “Satan dancing with delight” over America’s newfound gayness. The Dark Lord Himself could not be reached to verify Fischer’s comment.
There were, however, more humane reactions to the Court’s ruling on marriage equality, many of which centered on the whole notion of a “right side of history” — and whether or not the Supreme legal Grand Poobahs had ruled on that side. Among the more thoughtful responses of this nature came from blogger and erstwhile conservative-turned-functional liberal, Andrew Sullivan. Sully — who is gay and has long promoted full marriage equality for gay Americans — re-opened his retired Dish blog to write about the historic ruling. Reflecting on his decades fighting for marriage equality, Sullivan writes that, “I recall all this now simply to rebut the entire line of being ‘on the right side of history.’ History does not have such straight lines…History is a miasma of contingency, and courage, and conviction, and chance.” Here, Sully resists the common urge to view history as a kind of triumphalist march; a long-term battle between the forces of good and evil, between the forces of “progress” and regression.
The notion of a “right” side of history has also re-emerged in the recent heated debates over the continued display of the Confederate battle flag in American public spaces. And while the state government of South Carolina (yes, THAT South Carolina) stunningly removed the Rebel flag from its fifty-plus year perch atop the state’s capital grounds, the debate over the flag’s place in American culture will rage on. This is because the controversy over the Confederate flag hinges on two competing narratives: one says that the Confederacy is a part of American history that must be preserved, the other claims that the Confederacy was not on the right side of history, and that it must be acknowledged as a mistake that should be analyzed and remembered so as not to be repeated.
So, the question is this: does history indeed have a “right” side? Heck, does history have sides at all? Can the collective experience of thousands of different human cultures, eras, thoughts, and social systems over multiple millenia really be reduced to a straightforward narrative in which the “right” side slowly but surely triumphs over the “wrong?” The answer is both no and yes.
First off, before we even consider what history means, we have to consider what history is. History is not merely the events that happened in the past; it also constitutes the stories we tell about those past events. As scholar John Arnold writes, “history both begins and ends with questions; which is to say that it never really ends, but is a process.”* Given that history is a process, Arnold continues, “we need to interpret the past, not simply present it,” because “finding a larger context for the story is an attempt to say not just ‘what happened’ but what it meant.”*
Interpreting the larger contexts of the past allows us to understand why many people protest great social changes such as same-sex marriage and the denigration of the Confederate flag, as well as to understand why others champion such changes and reject the continued observance of the so-called “traditions” and “heritage” of the past. If the past is a process, then it can never be completely beholden to traditions, because a process by definition constitutes change, just as human societies have always changed throughout history.
Those who protest same-sex marriage do so because they believe that the traditions of the past prohibit it, and that those traditions should be maintained and observed. The same goes for those who support flying the Confederate flag out of the notion that said banner represents a “heritage” that shouldn’t be dismantled merely to appease present-day notions of equality. These assumptions, however, presume a clean separation between past and present in which the past should be observed and honored but not critically examined in order to shape present-day political culture.
But as Mary Fulbrook observes in her book Historical Theory, we simply can’t escape the influence of the past. “We inhabit a world full of signs of the past, of survivals, reconstructions, commemorations. We are born into worlds which were previously lived in,” she writes. Thus, Fulbrook notes that “historical consciousness is an inevitable part of the human condition; we are intrinsically beings who live within some conception of time, some knowledge that certain things have gone before, are changing, and will change in the future.”* The past is living, not dead; it isn’t “back there,” it’s “right here,” and we, as contemporary Americans, must deal with the past, warts and all.
Human societies have always changed, but have they changed for the better? Should we view change as a contest between the “right” and “wrong” sides of history? Well, let’s first be clear that history has no “sides.” The totality of human cultures and ideas doesn’t constitute any type of linear narrative. Nonetheless, if history doesn’t have sides, it does constitute a vast mishmash of ideas, some of which have existed to expand human rights and flourishing, and others to constrict — even deny — human rights and flourishing. When certain symbols and ideas from the past continue to influence the present in ways that support the denial of basic human rights and dignities, those ideas and symbols should be critically examined and, if necessary, changed or reinterpreted to enable the continued expansion of individuals human rights. The latter process is what we mean when we claim to support people, ideas, and institutions that are on the “right side of history.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean that those we consider to be on the “right” side of history staked their positions out of noble intentions. Contemporary supporters of the Confederate flag, for example, are quick to note that during the Civil War era, racism was epidemic in the North and the South, a point they make in order to try to downplay the central role that slavery played in the Confederate cause. On one level, Rebel flag apologists are absolutely right. For example, the thousands of Midwesterners who fought in General Ulysses S. Grant’s Union Army of the Tennessee were indeed racists. In fact, EVERYONE in the 19th century was a racist in some form or another. Yet even though Yankee soldiers usually held the same racial biases as their Confederate counterparts, they nonetheless fought for the side that vowed to end slavery, albeit for practical (i.e. wartime necessity) more so than altruistic reasons. One might say that Union soldiers fought for the right cause but for the wrong reasons. Such is the complex web that is history.
Of the two ideologies that clashed during the Civil War — pro-slavery and antislavery — the former sought to deny basic human rights, the latter to expand them, however imperfectly. With this is mind, to fly the Confederate flag today is to embrace, however tacitly, a banner that once symbolized the perpetuation of slavery. Neither side during the Civil War was even remotely perfect, but one side grudgingly chose to expand human rights rather than to constrain them, and it’s the memory of this side that we as Americans should embrace and build upon.
The same goes for marriage equality. If proponents of so-called “traditional marriage” appear to be on the “wrong” side of history, it’s because their cause is fundamentally rooted in denying basic human rights and dignities to their fellow human beings. Although opponents of same-sex marriage cite Scripture to justify limiting marriage to heterosexual couples, their stance grants inherent privileges to one group of people while denying said privileges to others. Same-sex marriage opponents’ stance is rooted in an artifact of the past — the Bible — which boasts traditions and teachings they claim (wrongly) to be inerrant and unchanging. Their claims notwithstanding, human interpretation of the Bible, just like human interpretation of history, has always been fluid rather than static. To support a stance that denies human rights based on questionable notions of “tradition” may not put you on the “wrong” side of history, but it sure does suggest that you’re swimming in historical waters that, for good reason, are about to dry up.
So while history is clearly not a linear thing with “right” and “wrong” sides, it is indeed a continuing process of interpretation and reinterpretation based on new evidence, new ideas, and new conceptions of what constitutes the necessary conditions for human freedom and dignity to thrive. These conditions should be unencumbered by those who would use past-traditions in the service of present-day oppression. When we talk about the “right side of history,” we rightly indicate a preference for a world in which all people can live freely so long as they don’t inhibit the freedoms of others. Those who take opposite stands in favor of inequality and oppression tend to risk the ultimate fate of being consigned to history’s dustbin, the final resting-place of tradition for tradition’s sake.
* See John A. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 5, 8.
* See Mary Fulbrook, Historical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2002), 143.