‘Wrong Side of History’ Seems to Be on the Right Side of It

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Mary Cheney, right, also claims that side of history. (The other one? That's Liz.)
Photo: Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

When Mary Cheney heard her sister’s remarks about gay marriage — the start of a family feud their father spent this week trying to break up — she reached for a condemnatory showstopper.

"You're just wrong," Cheney wrote on Facebook. "And on the wrong side of history."

Her weapon of choice, a classic rhetorical two-step, has found new life among the pundit class. As a context-free measure of usage, the phrase “wrong side of history” has appeared in more than 1,800 articles this year, compared to 1,485 in all of last year and 524 in 2006, according to research by Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. Book citations, gauging by one imperfect metric available through Google, indicate a steady fivefold climb spanning the past three decades.

 Say, for example, a New York Times columnist wants to stick it to the congressional Republicans who shut down the government: Those guys, “bunkered in gerrymandered districts while breathing the oxygen of delusion, are now part of a cast of miscreants who have stood firmly on the wrong side of history.”

Like so many linguistic fads – those game-changing phrases that, at the end of the day, never really shift the paradigm – “the wrong side of history” knows few bounds. In the past month or so, a Washington Post columnist has used the phrase to criticize the NFL commissioner's stance on the name of the local football team. A music industry columnist at TechDirt has made the same charge against musicians resisting technological change. And the Patriot-News of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has even made an effort to cross sides on one particularly settled matter of history: the Gettysburg Address. In 150 years of hindsight, wondered a headline writer, had panning the speech placed the newspaper “on the wrong side of history?"

The fuzzy little guy in the middle of the photo gave a good speech that day.Photo: Library of Congress

Something does sound stirringly idealistic about the notion that history has right and wrong sides, with morality and chronology in close alignment. One problem, of course, is that history actually seems to favor some things that are hard to describe as absolute moral victories for universal good: global warming, the injection of more untraceable money into politics, and the world’s expanding wealth gap spring to mind.

But cast against a backdrop of dueling partisan echo chambers, the phrase has evolved into a culturally emblematic rhetorical device: the soft bullet of utter dismissiveness. Progressives have made it their mark of Zorro. They do have the wind at their backs, after all. Some of their favored social causes, notably gay rights and marijuana legalization, have achieved romping victories at a time when conservatives have been forced to settle for stalemates on abortion, gun rights, and affirmative action.

When I called Shapiro, the first usage he could find came from a 1908 book review in The Spectator, which seemed to use the phrase in nonjudgmental terms to describe the paths not taken. It took a sharper tack nine years later, in the account of a sermon assuring soldiers that their German opponents “are on the wrong side of history and in the end they cannot but fail.” For many decades, though, that form of argument gained little traction (with a few possible exceptions; it is hard to discern what Jean-Paul Sartre meant by his 1947 usage in the Virginia Quarterly).

See a trend?

“It is remarkable that it was used so infrequently back then,” Shapiro said, “even though you had these great world struggles going on.”

The notion gained momentum during the civil-rights campaigns of the sixties, when progressives frequently accused their rivals of accepting change only for political expediency. The first black member of the Georgia Senate since Reconstruction, for example, quoted in a 1963 issue of Ebony, explained a white politician’s shift on integration as a transparent effort “to be on the right side of history.”

Conservatives, for their part, have done plenty to advance this way of thinking. In 1990, for example, writing about the “astonishing march of democracy throughout the world,” Charles Krauthammer declared that “the left's record of being on the wrong side of history is unbroken.”

In the last few years, though, social liberals have claimed the right side of history aggressively enough to inspire a political backlash — “It’s bunk,” wrote Jay Nordlinger in the National Review — and even a religious one: “Jesus,” noted a headline on an opinion piece in the U.K., “will have the last word on who is on the wrong side of history.” 

Deployed to full effect, the phrase “suggests that you are wise for having checked the tea leaves and rolled the knuckle-bones and your pig-headed, short-sighted, dull-witted opponent is not and has not,” said Grant Barrett, co-host of the public radio show "A Way With Words." “So there's some shaming involved here, where warning someone that they are on the wrong side of history means that they are ignorant of the inevitable outcome, and that they should give in to it, and join history in the making.”

History, for its vexatious part, rarely gives answers that prove clear, complete, or convincing, much less sturdy. A noted lefty did once say it tends to repeat itself — first as tragedy, then as farce.