Which side of history?

Hillary Clinton recently did it, I learned on reading a newspaper article.

She’s hardly the only one, but when she said that Republicans seeking some tough measures dealing with illegal immigration were “on the wrong side of history,” I found myself suddenly wondering whether this expression is growing in popularity or I am just noticing it more. Either way, I think those who use it are on the wrong side of careful thought, and ought to cut it out.

What does it mean to say someone is on the wrong side of history? Something like this, as best I can tell: History is moving discernibly and inevitably in a uniform, progressive, good direction, and if you hold to ideas or purposes contrary to that direction, you will find yourself more or less discarded, left by the wayside, a fossil of an era that was happily wiped out.

Though my scouting about indicates conservatives may use the expression as often as leftists, it clearly has deep roots in the thinking of Karl Marx, who supposed there was an economically determined class struggle the consequences of which were clearly predictable.

He dressed his notions up with such words as “materialism,” thereby making it easier to call them scientific. They weren’t, of course, but that didn’t keep all manner of intellectuals from going loopy over the proposition that there was this grand historical unfolding in which the proletariat would have its day and capitalists would get their just deserts. To them, history became an omnipotent, unswerving god. Great misery has ensued from the faith.

I am not saying equal misery will derive from the mere use of an expression about being on history’s wrong side, but I do think that the assumptions buried in the phrase are treacherously fallacious and that bandying it about frequently could help inculcate them.

First off, of course, we don’t know where history is headed. We can study all kinds of data and make some well-informed, insightful guesses that have a great probability of being accurate, at least in the near term, but we cannot really know for sure what’s going to happen. One reason is that too much is at play.

No mind _ no computer _ is capable of taking in and weighing all the many, even millions of factors that might influence events. Remember the old saying about a horseshoe being lost because a nail was lost, and then the horse and rider and consequently a battle and finally an entire kingdom? We know there’s truth here _ small things can make a big difference _ and we know we are seldom going to take that nail into account when foretelling a kingdom’s future.

Another reason _ and a reason that history is not inevitable _ is that history is what’s done by people, and people can create new realities. They can, among other possibilities, change their minds.

At any given moment, you might think that cultural, technological and other forces are pushing people this way or that, only to find that first one and eventually many more are making up their minds differently, maybe because of a charismatic leader, a special book, a single, revealing incident or the drip, drip, drip of new information. Call this capacity of people to reverse themselves free will, orneriness or whatever you like. The fact is it keeps confounding those who thought they had this human creature finally figured out.

As for progress being the undeniable way of history, it isn’t. For hundreds of millions of us, life is better than it was a thousand and more years ago for people, but for many other millions, it is barely better, if that. Life in any society can improve and then get worse. It is conceivable that at this moment in America we are in a golden age the likes of which humanity will never again experience. What’s to come is not necessarily precious, and at any rate, what’s the final stopping place?

So if someone says you are on the wrong side of history, answer back that you are not therefore curling into a fetal position, convinced this person has sure knowledge of what tomorrow will bring, that you are absolutely powerless in the face of events or that your moral understanding will be proven in error by the sole evidence of historical outcomes. Democracy depends on citizens knowing that they can help guide their land’s fate whatever the trends of the hour, and that defeat of a belief or cause is no measure of its validity.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)