Alex Beam

On the cynical side of history

Pompous rhetoric and political spin aside, only time will tell who’s in the ‘right’ — or will it?

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / April 12, 2011

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I have a new least favorite phrase. It’s not an odious cliche such as “going forward,’’ “boots on the ground,’’ or the now unavoidable “thank you for reaching out.’’ It’s much more pompous, meaning that you can reliably expect to hear it springing from the lips of stentorian posers such as Senator John Kerry. It is the speaker’s oft-repeated claim that he or she is on “the right side of history.’’

In a public radio interview this year, Kerry condemned the Republican “ideologues’’ of the 112th Congress and expressed the hope that the 2012 election “will be turned into a major referendum about the future of our nation.’’ Quoth Kerry: “I know where Barack Obama will be, and I know where I will be in respect to those issues — I think on the right side of history.’’

But of course. Obama himself favors this trope. He has placed Iranian protesters in Tehran and the ongoing dissident rebellions in the Mideast on the right side of history. Hilariously, he has called Senator Harry Reid, the Casper Milquetoast of Capitol Hill, “a good man who has always been on the right side of history.’’

You might associate this rhetorical flourish with liberal cant, but I first heard it in a speech on global warming delivered by Republican spin doctor Whit Ayres in 2006. At the time, Ayres speculated that Senator Lindsey Graham was supporting climate change legislation because he wanted to be on the right side of history.

Either history took a U-turn or Senator Graham did. “The science about global warming has changed,’’ he told a press conference last year. “I think they’ve oversold this stuff, quite frankly. . . . The whole movement has taken a giant step backward.’’ Wait, I thought. Oh, never mind.

The idea that history is a river, moving in a certain direction, with banks on either side — call them the Wrong Bank and the Right Bank — is very German, first promoted by Hegel and then by Marx. “I agree with that tradition,’’ says Francis Fukuyama, a philosopher and political scientist probably best known as the author of “The End of History and the Last Man,’’ published in 1992. “Look at what is happening in the Middle East,’’ he continues. “Finally the Arabs are catching up to where the rest of the world is. They have been living in societies without rights, and we are witnessing a certain process of modernization.’’

Does he agree with the famous Martin Luther King Jr. quote, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’’? “I do,’’ he answers. “Look, that’s why we have something called the Agency for International Development, in the hope that someday Somalia might look like Norway. It’s called progress.’’

I doubt that Somalia will ever resemble Norway, politically or in any other way, and I think belief in the forward motion of history is just that — a belief. Written history is a nice story. Real history is far more chaotic. Just 20 years ago, the arc of history rescued Eastern Europe and promised to put Russia on the path to justice. Would you like to start a pro-democracy movement in Vladimir Putin’s Russia? I say: God bless you. That is a dangerous undertaking.

Let’s take one example. If ever a man sat on the right side of history, it would be Winston Churchill, Great Britain’s wartime prime minister and subject of innumerable heroic biographies. Churchill railed against the inequities of the Treaty of Versailles, he stood up to Hitler’s Nazism, and took the measure of Josef Stalin’s tyrannical ambitions more astutely than almost any contemporary politician.

But there was another Churchill, the man who enjoyed pursuing “jolly little wars against barbarous peoples.’’ The man who despised Gandhi and who said, “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.’’ Churchill created the British postwar gulag in Kenya, a massive detention campaign that swept up, among many others, Obama’s grandfather. “Hussein Onyango Obama, was imprisoned without trial for two years and tortured on Churchill’s watch, for resisting Churchill’s empire,’’ Johann Hari wrote in The New York Times. “Obama never truly recovered from the torture he endured.’’

It’s sweet that the John Kerrys, the Barack Obamas, and the Harry Reids have staked out their places on the “right’’ side of history. I would say to them: Don’t count on it.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is