“The right side of history” is an odd phrase to me. It’s been cropping up on my feeds lately, and it always makes me quizzical. I try to imagine what it will be like one hundred years after I’m dead, and how I might feel about some distant progeny looking down and backward on me from the future for my antiquated opinions. She will say, “My great-great-great grandfather was ‘on the wrong side of history.'” If I am able to hear her, I will muster up as much embarrassment and contrition as possible in whatever state of existence that is and say, “I was trying to be on the right side, but I always tended to get picked last. I didn’t learn until later that there were only two sides.” Somehow, in my imagination, she won’t hear me responding.
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first encountered the idea. I was in graduate school, and in the summer time, I was attempting to read everything that Martin Luther King Jr. had ever written. I uncovered that famous quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I found it a startlingly optimistic eschatology for someone who had been raised in the more dismal, Teutonic climes of intellectual history. I remember envying the confidence it engendered in me to do actual work in the world.
A couple months ago, I had a delightful conversation about all this with the composer Sean Kirchner. His optimism on the topic is infectious. He really thinks that things are getting better and that our current political crisis is the last riposte of a dying empire. In some ways, it is the inevitable waxing and waning of political moons that are ultimately “bending towards justice.” I hope he’s right, but I’m never so optimistic.
The idea of history “progressing” in a positive direction is really a modern idea. I’m not sure that “history progressing” is the same thing as MLK’s “moral arc.” I wouldn’t suggest that the concept was completely unknown in the classical world. I would just suggest that the ancient world tended toward the apocalyptic. They ancients tended to believe that the universe would ultimately be set right, but it wouldn’t happen in some gradual sense. The idea of “historical progress” is really one of the children of the Enlightenment. It is the buoyant offspring of the scientific method that was raised and nurtured by Hegel.
I find it problematic. After 2-300 years of “progress,” we got the 20th century which was the most violent and destructive of any in the history of civilization by pretty much any metric you want to use. Advances in science allowed for destruction of human life on a scale that would have previously unimaginable. The promised “progress” gave us modern medicine, technology, and the internet, but it came with the price tag of global warming and the break down of a sense of community.
Now the idea of a progressive history is being wielded as a weapon to justify a lot of things that I personally agree with, but I’m convinced that it’s the wrong tool for the job. A culture that is bankrupt of spiritual values will always resort to violence to compel the behavior it wants. In this case, it seems to me a covert ad populum argument. I’m supposed to support, for example, women composers because I want to be on the “right side of history.” If I don’t, people will look back on me when I’m gone and think ill of me, and I wouldn’t want that. I will have to spend eternity fretting away at what people are thinking of me hundreds of years later. The threat of that kind of symbolic violence is not really the same thing as ethical behavior.
We may well discover that the 21st century will outstrip the 20th in terms of violence and destruction. I personally don’t think that the idea of another Jewish or the possibility of an Islamic Holocaust by a Western country is that far-fetched an idea. The idea of history being more analogous to Charybdis than a gradual climb from the primordial ooze to vanquishing racism, Whether or not you agree with me on my ideas about history, the fundamental approach to ethics is different.
I want to support women composers because it’s the right thing to do. I want to do it even if history winds up going askew and pushes them down to the bottom of the barrel again. I want to do it because the women that I know imagining sounds are great composers. I don’t want to do it to be on the “right side of history.”
And somewhere, I think this is all really possible because of people like St. Gregory of Nyssa. Long before history was “progressing” and before the moral arc of the universe had bent very far, he managed to write one of the most scathing diatribes against slavery that has ever been composed. He did this all in the middle of a culture — and even some parts of his own religion — that counted slavery as an acceptable practice. He didn’t do it to be on the right side of history. He did it because he believed in the dignity of every human being. In fact, if history is any guide, slavery is worse today than it has ever been with some organizations suggesting there may be as many as 40 million slaves in the world today. History seems to be bending toward slavery. St. Gregory is going to go against it every time.
Anyway, I’m just suggesting you think twice before using the phrase. History is a fickle lover, and the people that are the most optimistic about it are the people who don’t know it very well.