We All Think History Will Be on Our Side. Here's Why We Shouldn'tRoundup
tags: historiography, civil rights, ethics
Priya Satia is the author of Time’s Monster: How History Makes History, available now from Belknap Press, an Imprint of Harvard University Press.
Among Americans desperate for release from the era of Trump, one particular thought has often proved a consolation. Historians in the future, they prophesy, will look back and judge President Trump an abysmal president. It is a secular hope hallowed by the faint outlines of religious belief: the idea of comeuppance, karma, a vindicating day of judgment somewhere in the future. History will do justice.
This hope for historical vindication is loud now but not new. Indeed, it is an ethical outlook that has itself had historic impact, shaping the actions of countless people in the modern period. But as that past shows, a sense of history oriented towards future redemption has inspired not only moral courage in the face of great oppression, but also the moral recklessness of oppression itself.
Progressive thinkers like the late Congressman John Lewis, “the conscience of Congress,” acted out of such an impulse and exhorted us, too, to be on the “right side of history.” He saw this as a moral obligation; we are accountable to our descendants and must be able to show them that we contributed to history’s progress. This was history understood as “a very, very long road toward freedom, justice for all humankind.” His posthumous essay in the New York Times this summer closed by calling on readers to act in a manner that would let future historians “say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed.” Vice President Biden’s speech at the DNC in August 2020 took a similar turn, employing a prayerful subjunctive: “May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight.” He builds on President Obama’s frequent allusions to the importance of being on “the right side of history.”
But the idea that history will judge can be used rhetorically by any side in a contest. Who doesn’t think they’re on the right side of history? This summer, in pushing back against Trump Administration policies, China’s president Xi Jinping assured business executives that his government was “on the correct side of history.” And indeed, Trump’s supporters too anticipate history’s condemnation of those who oppose him.
By deferring moral judgment to the future, this view of history as a source of future judgment enables people to act in a manner that they know to be morally dubious according to their present judgment. Many an avowedly great man has claimed, like Napoleon, that historic destiny put him beyond the ordinary moral world. The strongmen of our time are cut from precisely this cloth.