On July 1, 2011, thirteen US senators opposed to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) participated in a video that is meant to encourage gays and lesbians to persevere and to be optimistic about the future. One of the thirteen, Senator Robert Wyden (Democrat from Oregon), said: “DOMA, folks, is on the wrong side of history”.
Of course I had heard the phrase many times before. But I had never really reflected about it. Now I did. Two questions immediately suggested themselves. If the DOMA folks are on the wrong side, what is the right side? And how does Senator Wyden know what it is? The first question is easy to answer: It is a situation in which same-sex marriage is solemnly legitimated by all relevant authorities, secular and (for those so inclined) religious. A utopian vision: The first lesbian President of the United States, hand in hand with her partner, is received in a private audience by the Pope (who, perhaps in the best tradition of the Borgia papacy, is himself bisexual). The second question is more difficult. It Implies a general theory of history, which the Senator may not have fully articulated.
Before I went any further with this inquiry, I noted that being on the wrong side of history is not just a deplorable condition, but a morally reprehensible one. It is a disease—call it OTWSOH—for which the patient is responsible. Sort of like cirrhosis of the liver. The Senator does not say to the DOMA folks, “You poor people, who suffer from OTWSOH,” but rather, “You wicked characters, repent and get out of the way of history.” In other words, OTWSOH is not just a diagnosis, but an accusation.
I was curious as to who else had recently been using the phrase. I googled it. Within 0.12 seconds I was informed that there were 1,380,000 results. My relationship with my computer is roughly that of a chimpanzee to a Boeing 707. I was duly overawed. I could not even imagine what would be included in all these results, let alone how Google could find them in 0.12 seconds. All I could do is surf a bit, concentrating on results from the last couple of years. Here is a sample:
Accusations of OTWSOH came from the left as well as the right. The Huffington Post criticized President Obama for saying that Qaddafi is OTWSOH: “Who is this president to decree which way history is going?” A fair enough question, though it is my impression that Arianna Huffington has not been shy about issuing such decrees herself. The American Spectator, the robustly conservative journal edited by Emmett Tyrrell, accused the NAACP of being OTWSOH because it opposes charter schools.
Some other cases: The Denver Post said that Republicans were OTWSOH for killing a bill supporting civil unions in Colorado, while Common Dream, a blog which claims to be “for the greater good,” hung the label on the United States for supporting Middle East dictators for the sake of stability. Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, wrote that those opposing the Obama health plan were OTWSOH. A German commentator described his own government as being OTWSOH because it did not support the allegedly humanitarian intervention in Libya, while the Israeli writer and peace activist Uri Avnery assigned the epithet to Binyamin Netanyahu, for his policies “maintaining Israel as a garrison state.” Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister, described the left as being OTWSOH for having resisted his economic reforms in West Bengal and Kerala, the two states it controlled for a long time. Most if not all of these presumably come from the left of the political spectrum. It would not be difficult to find contemporary examples of similar cocksureness on the right, even if the OTWSOH phrase is not used. I am thinking, for example, of the Tea Party Republicans, who are serenely convinced that their unbending opposition to even a minuscule increase in taxes puts them in the vanguard of a historic restructuring of government.
Of course I could not count. But I think it is likely that the phrase “on the wrong side of history” comes more naturally to those on the left. Progressives, almost by definition, think that they know where history is going. After all, they are children of the Enlightenment and thus inheritors of the idea of progress. Marxists have been most cocksure about this. They knew where things were headed, in the long run. Like all believers in predestination some of them were willing to wait more or less patiently for the inevitable culmination, others wanted to speed up the process by violent efforts of their own. Of course the story of Marxism is one of false predictions. Less grandiose versions of a philosophy of progress have not been much better in discerning the “right side of history.” There were indeed some conservatives who also claimed to know the inner logic of events. Hegel, no less, thought that history culminated in the Prussian state. In the first half of the twentieth century, miscellaneous fascist movements were convinced that they embodied the irresistible wave of the future. But conservatives tend to be much more cautious in the way they look at the future. They are instinctively suspicious of grand assertions of historical inevitability, especially the idea of progress. They are typically more pessimistic. This inclination was classically expressed by William Buckley’s definition of the conservative attitude as “standing astride history and yelling, Stop!”. Heimito von Doderer, a twentieth-century Austrian writer, had a more whimsical definition of conservatism: the insight that “the old aunts were right after all”.
It seems to me, though, that there is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by reasonable people on both sides of the ideological divide: 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. This postulate of ignorance need not lead to paralysis. It necessarily leads to a measure of humility.