Many progressives believe that history is linear, that mankind moves inexorably toward universalism and greater individual rights. Many reactionaries also believe that history is linear, that their tribe’s story moves inexorably from an idyllic past to the present pollution to a future restoration of the idyllic past. In a sense, these progressives and these reactionaries both prophesy.

In Macbeth, Shakespeare examines the notion that prophecy is not an attempt to see the future but to shape it in the broad daylight of the present. Prophetic rulers sometimes bring rapid regime change or suffer from a tragic blindness, or both. How about the ruled? They’re unlikely to act if, with respect to the future, the fix is in. Religion is not the opiate of the masses; prophecy is.

The progressive idea that, despite inevitable setbacks, history inexorably bends to progressive ends can be seen in one of President Obama’s favorite opprobriums: something or someone is “on the wrong side of history.” This notion’s underlying assumptions are tragic: the future (including the prophetic present) sees the past (and, because of it, the present) cooly and clearly, progressive values will ultimately prevail no matter what we do (or don’t do), and it is possible for the clearsighted to see his opponent in a light both objective and disparaging.

But the future is not fixed. Only history is fixed — or, rather, only the past is fixed. History is debatable, and the future is malleable. In fact, history is warmly debated in large part because the future is malleable.

One thought on “The wrong side of history

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