Op-Ed: The Arrogance of ‘History’
by Tom Charles Huston
The renowned historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar opines in Time magazine that, as a consequence of adopting its Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana has put itself “on the wrong side of history.” Mr. Abdul-Jabbar must have studied off-season at the knee of James H. Madison at Indiana University.
When used in the context of predicting ultimate winners, “history” is a determinist term of art. Viewed through a 17th-century Whig lens, history is the inevitable advance of progress under the tutelage of human reason. In its Marxist version, it is the dialectical process by which the proletariat inevitably prevails over the forces of capitalism. To the extent that it is deployed as more than a rhetorical crutch, historicism today is a form of Gnosticism without religious pretensions.
All who surveyed the empire of Augustus Caesar were quite confident that he was on the right side of history. On the other hand, few people of substance thought Martin Luther was on the right side when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door. The Southern sociologist George Fitzhugh and the Southern divine James Henley Thornwell arrived by different modes of thought at the shared conclusion that only some form of slavery could reconcile the conflict between labor and capital, and neither they nor most Southerners of their time lacked confidence that ultimately slavery would prevail in all capitalist societies. With the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition), Congressman Volstead did not doubt that he was on the right side of history.
Neither Lenin nor Stalin questioned whether dialectical materialism properly understood and applied would lead to the inevitable victory of Soviet Communism. Every petty dictator, every crank philosopher and every social reformer thinks he is on the right side of history.
One only identifies history’s “winners” by looking backward, and even then the claim of victory needs to be measured and cautious. There is a reason why we call the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire the Dark Ages. The most ambitious political force at work in the world today has as its purpose the restoration of a medieval caliphate that would wipe away 800 years of progress.
Most people want to be on the winning side. There is ease in swimming with the tide of the future. There is also a price, and some are unwilling to pay it. Whittaker Chambers was convinced he left the winning side for the losing side when he defected from the Communist Party. Fortunately for our sake, he was wrong.
Abraham Lincoln was a man of lofty moral vision but modest in his pretensions. He did not look to the march of history to clean up the messes made by men or to confirm by prearranged signals the political judgments he had made. The outcome of the great struggle in which the country was then engaged was, he said in his Second Inaugural Address, dependent on the will of God. Since “the Almighty has His own purposes,” all that may be expected of us, he said, is to act firmly “in the right as God gives us to see the right.”
History marches to the sound of a distant bugler. Whether what we hear is a signal for advance or retreat is annoyingly unclear.
Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review who resides in Indianapolis, served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.