As Judy Garland famously noted, there’s no place like home. I always enjoy going home, even if I discover upon my return that not only do my parents have a better social life than I do, but that they have effectively transformed my bedroom into a guestroom in my absence and deposited all of my important stuff in the loft. You can tell it’s intended as a guestroom not because the walls have been painted lavender but because a double bed has been installed.
Still, there’s a lot of interesting stuff in our loft. It’s always nice, for instance, to be reminded that I once came in second in a sack race. And it’s educational to reread about the men’s bathroom at Keele Services, on the M6 motorway, which is haunted by the ghost of a 17th-century Puritan. Just consider the sensitive points of restroom etiquette that raises. How long do you wait for a ghost to finish?
Of course, people at home like to know how I’m getting on. Often they ask why I’m studying British history in America, and I happily admit that it’s chiefly due to Yale’s extraordinary generosity; not generous enough for GESO, admittedly, but plenty generous for most people. I also seize the chance to correct the misconceptions each country has about the other: for instance, there is still a surprising number of Brits who blame President Bush for failing to implement the Kyoto Treaty, overlooking the fact that it was defeated 95-0 in the U.S. Senate. It was whilst discussing Yale that I recalled the columnists who write about being on the “right side of history,” letting their bleeding hearts run away with their bloody heads. As an historian, this phrase always raises my hackles, but it was cheering to rediscover, while reading in my loft, that far more intelligent men than I have given this argument a good kicking. Claiming to be on the right side of history, even from the purest and noblest motives, does more to invalidate than support an argument. Lots of movements, not least Communism and Nazism, have claimed the same thing, and thankfully they were wrong.
Part of the study of history is to explain, as best we can, how we got here. It is also to explain, as best we can, how people in the past thought, including those who were “on the wrong side”. But it is also to confirm that what is, is not necessarily what ought to be. That last sentence is a spur to the progressive reformer, correctly understood, but not to the determinedly up-to-date New York Times reader; the perspective offered by studying history shows that “the spirit of the age” always turns to dust. C.S. Lewis described his own awakening from “chronological snobbery,” “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.” This is an understandable but utterly ahistorical mindset.
Indeed, “being on the right side of history” says nothing at all about the force of your argument. All it suggests is that whatever you happen to be supporting is currently in vogue, but nothing dates so quickly as fashion; he who marries the spirit of the age will soon be widowed. At some point, difficult though it may be to believe, the thought of the early 21st-century will be regarded by careless prophets with the same condescension as some contemporaries regard anything antedating Brown v. Board of Education.
If “the right side of history” simply means “whatever happened to succeed,” this is not merely bad history but a strange Darwinian-Nietzschean philosophy of power. Fortunately, most people see the demerits of this and take refuge in the idea that civilization is “progressing”. To which one can only reply, progressing where? To what end? “Progressive” is not synonymous with “different.” Even conservatives can be progressive if they have a definite goal, although admittedly they often aren’t progressive enough by this definition.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “the only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past.” An argument cannot be based on attempts to second-guess history. To be “progressive” correctly implies that you have a specific goal in mind, one that will not necessarily simply come to pass with the linear movement of time. Besides, time will pass no matter how much or how little we do for the world. Those supporting gay marriage, or anything at all, should be willing and able to argue from a perspective that transcends the merely contemporary. Either an opinion is right for humanity or it is not, but attempting to justify it as “the right side of history” is not so much building a house upon the sand as a castle in the air.
Nick Baldock is a first year graduate student in the History Department.