Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Standing athwart history, yelling Stop!

Hearing a politician say that those he disagrees with are "on the wrong side of history," Peter Berger "noted that being on the wrong side of history is not just a deplorable condition, but a morally reprehensible one. It is a disease—call it OTWSOH—for which the patient is responsible. Sort of like cirrhosis of the liver." Berger did a Google search for the phrase and discovered 1,380,000 results in 0.12 seconds. And, although he didn't do a count, he is pretty certain who is most likely to use it:
...I think it is likely that the phrase “on the wrong side of history” comes more naturally to those on the left. Progressives, almost by definition, think that they know where history is going. After all, they are children of the Enlightenment and thus inheritors of the idea of progress. Marxists have been most cocksure about this. They knew where things were headed, in the long run. Like all believers in predestination some of them were willing to wait more or less patiently for the inevitable culmination, others wanted to speed up the process by violent efforts of their own. Of course the story of Marxism is one of false predictions. Less grandiose versions of a philosophy of progress have not been much better in discerning the “right side of history.” There were indeed some conservatives who also claimed to know the inner logic of events. Hegel, no less, thought that history culminated in the Prussian state. In the first half of the twentieth century, miscellaneous fascist movements were convinced that they embodied the irresistible wave of the future. But conservatives tend to be much more cautious in the way they look at the future. They are instinctively suspicious of grand assertions of historical inevitability, especially the idea of progress. They are typically more pessimistic. This inclination was classically expressed by William Buckley’s definition of the conservative attitude as “standing astride history and yelling, Stop!”. Heimito von Doderer, a twentieth-century Austrian writer, had a more whimsical definition of conservatism: the insight that “the old aunts were right after all”.

It seems to me, though, that there is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by reasonable people on both sides of the ideological divide: We cannot say who or what is on the wrong side of history, because we cannot know who or what is on the right side. This postulate of ignorance need not lead to paralysis. It necessarily leads to a measure of humility. [more]
The Buckley quotation was actually from his mission statement for National Review in 1955: "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop..." It is a sensibility that refuses to believe in the inevitability of "Progress." Oddly enough, it is optimistic, believing that even the worst trends can be reversed, that as T.S. Eliot wrote "There are no lost battles because there are no won battles."

On The Wrong Side of History | Religion and Other Curiosities