In the past many weeks, as we all have watched the incredible, historical events unfold in Tunisia and Egypt, I have been puzzling over an old, familiar phrase: what it means to be “on the wrong side of history.” The mainstream commentary on the United States’ ambivalent role in and response to the popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak has often included this idea of being fundamentally and in perpetuum in the wrong.
For example, when Joe Biden refused to identify Mubarak as a dictator in his January 27th interview with Jim Lehrer, the blogosphere was on fire with condemnations of the vice-president that inevitably included his relegation to the “wrong side of history.” Indeed, if one is to go by the rhetoric of the news media, it seems that what is at stake for the United States is not the rebirth of the possibility of liberty, democratic politics, and revolution as such, but the need to be on the right side of seeming historical “progress”—which is not only (or even primarily) about “right” policy, but also about “right” sound bites.
Despite decades of critical scholarship on the philosophy of history and the idea of progress, the idea of history’s having “right” and “wrong” sides continues to have salience in our discussions and understanding of past and present events. To the extent that history is written by the victors, being on the wrong side of history might simply mean being on the losing side, like the South in the Civil War. Certainly, given the trajectory with which we are all familiar, the Confederacy was on the “wrong side of history.” But what exactly does that mean? The idea that the South was on the wrong side of history has more to do with the Confederate maintenance of slavery than the assertion of states’ rights. Similarly, Japan and Italy assumed their places on the wrong side of history by throwing their hats in with the Germans in World War II. In these cases, “wrongness” is not losing, but having committed grievous ethico-moral sins.
These are two dramatic examples of historical assignment: to have been “for” slavery is to have been on the wrong side of history; to have been “in league with” the perpetrators of the Holocaust is to have been on the wrong side of history. Of course, we say that today. But I think it important that we remember that slavery was not only widely but juridically accepted in the United States before the Civil War (no, Michelle Bachmann, the founding fathers did not “work tirelessly” to eradicate slavery; they entrenched it in the articles of the Constitution). Which means that the “wrong side of history” is a space occupied not only by present criminals, but by those whose actions are deemed crimes by the moral jurors of the future. What if the South had won the war?
Of course, there is “coming back” from the wrong side of history. The future may not forget, but it seems that there is such a thing as historical forgiveness. The Roman Catholic Church is not presently being punished for the Crusades—at least, not in terms accessible to those of us on the mortal stage. The British have gotten off, if not scot-free, then remarkably unsullied by their adventures in empire building. This may seem like a contentious claim; there are, of course, those who not only remember but currently think and write about the decidedly sullied history of colonialism as well as the fraught pasts, presents, and futures of post-coloniality. But which histories remember the British as criminals, first and foremost? Was the Empire ultimately on the wrong side of history? Or do those who “make” history escape such certain judgment? How?
We individuals all make mistakes, and I would venture a guess that all states, countries, and parties, players major and minor, have at some time or another been on the wrong side of history. So how “right” is the right side, anyway? If, in early February, President Obama had asked Mubarak to resign and not merely not to stand for reelection, would the United States have been any more in the historical “right,” any more meaningfully on the side of democracy and liberty?
I’m not so sure. I have also begun to wonder what other progressive narratives are unfolding, with respect to which we are each constantly taking stands on the “right” or “wrong” sides, perhaps even unknowingly. There’s a part of me that obviously balks at the language of “right” and “wrong” (what in the world is so clear cut?). Still, the rhetoric of historical assignment is fascinating.
Is it possible, for instance, to be on the wrong side of technology? The Manhattan Project developed the atomic bomb with its monstrous capabilities, but it also resulted in an institutional framework including many of the most important scientific research facilities in the United States, as well as possibilities for harnessing nuclear power which may serve an important role in a sustainable future. Right or wrong side of history?
Right or wrong use of technology? Dirty or clean tech?
If Facebook, Twitter, and other online applications, social networks, and tools have played a substantive role in enabling the democratic movements in Egypt and elsewhere, then what does that say about those of us who would deny their utility, even condemn their ubiquity, never mind champion their revolutionary potential? Those of us who have not drunk the Twitter-Kool Aid, those who spend more hours per day offline than on, those who pointedly commit Facebook-suicide? We may not be on the wrong side of history in some grandiose way, but are we on the wrong side of the present?
Are we blind to the narrative being written as we (don’t) tweet?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.