There is No “Right Side of History”

Because no one chooses to be on the wrong side of history—everyone thinks they’re right

It’s Memorial Day in the US. This is the day we honor those who’ve died in military service to the US. 

I considered making a case for peace and not war today. But I’m fairly certain I don’t have to convince you of this. 

So instead, I’m going to touch on something a little bit different. 

Because the problem for me is that I have a lot of unfavorable thoughts about war, and when we honor so, so many who die in service to any country, I remember the Jean Paul Sartre quote: “When the rich wage war, it’s the poor who die.”

What is “the right side of history” anyway? 

We sometimes hear this judgy pronouncement about being “on the right side of history.”

It’s supposed to mean something along the lines that falling for Hitler’s bullshit, for example, would have landed a person squarely on the “wrong” side of history rather than the “right” side. 

Or that if you’d been one of those who forced native Americans to behave, speak, and dress like white people, you’d have been on the “wrong” side of history. 

Other “wrong” side of history behavior might be having been a slave owner in the colonial United States. 

Or perhaps having been a slave owner in ancient Mesopotamia around 2000 BC, where people also listed human slaves as part of their property would also count as being on the “wrong” side of history. 

Maybe being a 1950s  scientific researcher  who convinced doctors that cigarettes were not only harmless, but actually good for us would land a person on the “wrong” side of history?

Or maybe being one of the researchers back in the 1970s paid to convince Americans that fat, as in avocados and butter, was bad and carbohydrates, as in store-bought bread and fortified breakfast cereal, were good was choosing the “wrong” side of history?

And perhaps going along with England’s King Henry VIII’s execution of over 50,000 people who disagreed with him would put a person on the “wrong” side of history.

Then there’s the Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600s—surely you and I would have stood with the accused and not the accusers. Surely you and I would have been on the “right” side of history.

Revising history is what we’re doing

Using this logic, people “on the right side of history” would be those who didn’t turn in runaway slaves headed for the Underground Railroad.

And those on record for saying Oh Hell No to the US invasion of Iraq. (I’m not just talking about lawmakers here. I mean, the New York Times, for example, heavily supported the US invasion of Iraq. And I don’t have to tell you how many educated people read the NYT.)

Also, perhaps people who said Oh Hell No to the atomic bombs that the US dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II were “on the right side of history”? Sounds pretty noble to me. 

The big, big, giant problem with black and white pronouncements, such as there even existing a “right side of history,” is what’s known as revisionist history.

Revisionist history is why “Colonial Williamsburg” used to adorn their buildings with all manner of citrus-and-pineapple-laden garlands and wreaths and floral arrangements for tourists at Christmastime. And it’s why the tourist site in my town still does this. Revisionist history.

Turns out, even the wealthiest colonists simply didn’t have crates and crates of lemons and oranges and pineapples to do crafts with. Turns out, in fact, that they decorated very little at Christmastime, let alone with special shipments of tropical fruit that would never be eaten and would rot instead. 

But silliness like Christmastime at Colonial Williamsburg aside (as recently as the 1990s, mind you), we humans are very, very prone to rewriting history to suit ourselves. 

Selective seeing

We’re pretty damned selective about what we believe has happened. And we’re pretty sure of who we believe we would have been at the time. So we mentally include our own self whenever we hear talk of “the right side of history.”

In other words, we just know that we’d have seen through the likes of Adolf Hitler. 

Yet it doesn’t take much research to learn that the reality was that Hitler’s enormous number of adherents wasn’t due to there being an overflow of ignoramuses in Germany. These people were smart were well educated!

We’re absolutely certain we’d have known better—and done better—than the majority of society around us. We just know we’d have been among the not-so-gullible and not-so-susceptible in any given moment in history.

We just know we’d have turned our back on familiar society in order to work alongside Harriet Tubman. 

Really? Really.

We just know we’d have said Oh Hell No before the US invaded Iraq on the heels of September 11th, 2001. 

Oh wait. 

That wasn’t that long ago.

And it turns out that a lot of people have changed their mind about that invasion. Turns out a lot of pretty smart people thought it was indeed a good idea at the time to head off to Iraq and look for “weapons of mass destruction.” Turns out a very large number of pretty smart people thought that the US ought to invade Iraq. 

Turns out that even though a lot of pretty smart people who thought George W. Bush was “like a rock, only dumber” went along with him, come 9-11-2001. 

Then, lo and behold, many who thought that was the only redeeming moment of his entire two-term presidency and continued to trash his intelligence (and not without reason), ended up parading him around as a sweet old grandpa who’s taken up oil painting in his twilight years. 

Whoa. Talk about revisionist history, because that dude’s still a war criminal. 

So what changed?

And why do we keep changing our stories?

The glossifying

This ability to rewrite and re-remember our stories is a helluva creative talent. 

We sure can turn a story around and place ourselves on the right side of history in a hot second, when that may, in fact, be quite a long way from the truth of the story.

We’ve believed our history books as though they were written by the hand of God, only to find out later that a whole lot was wrong or missing in those books we wrote for ourself. 

We watch movies about some historical event or circumstance and take that in as the story itself, as though we’re actually watching historical events unfold before our eyes in 80 to 120 minutes.

(And seriously, if the creators of the 2019 Harriet Tubman movie were blind to Janelle Monae’s glow-in-the-dark teeth as a depiction of Harriet Tubman’s teeth, what else did they glossify in that movie?)

We reframe all manner of history into good-guy-bad-guy narratives that have a neat and clean plot, when the reality is there’s a ton of nuance. A ton. And a ton of stuff we may or may be right about at the time.

We glorify and vilify the heroes and the bad guys, as though they’re two-dimensional paper-people when we look back to revise and glossify and make up stories and about the right and wrong side of history.

But our real stories are complicated, sloppy, illogical, and even contradictory. 

We don’t discuss and debate or even question so many things because we assume we have enough of the story to go on. It’s easier this way. We like it when we’re given our information in tidy packages.

And we really like good-guy/bad-guy stories best, which works great for fantasy and storybooks, but for our actual history… not so much, because we tend to get it wrong a lot.

Even right now we’re all over the good-guy/bad-guy stuff because it’s so easy and convenient to assign one or the other to each other. Obviously we’re the good guy and “they” are the bad guy. We’re doing this in our workplaces and neighborhoods and families!

And assuming we’re the good guy means we’re “on the right side of history.” But of course human history is full of stories that prove otherwise—and, of course, we’re part of human history right now, as we speak. 

The stories we tell ourselves are full of holes

And honestly, there’s no other way to tell them, because we only know what we know, and we’re learning as we go. 

The trouble comes when we lay it all out like there’s nothing more to know, even while it’s happening. And when conventional culture is hellbent on turning every damn thing, history included, into a glossified, watered down, shallow representation of what really is, that doesn’t make any of it real.

Real life/real living/real being is so much more than a matter of being on the right or wrong side of history. Talk of being on the right or wrong side of history is just another exclusionary, moralistic, us-and-them hashtag of a slogan that’s meant to keep us away from each other.

And it relies entirely on a revisionist-history mindset, because no one ever lives their life believing they’re on the “wrong” side of history. 

What to remember instead of trying to be right

So, to honor those throughout time who’ve died in service to their country, my wish is that we humans who walk the earth, beginning now, un-cloud our minds, un-revise our history, un-divide our hearts, and remember our shared humanity on this island home. 

Peace, shalom, namasté, and gentle blessings to us all. 

The black-and-white photo above is my great-grandmother, who I was named after, and one of her sons. They’re at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, where the family would go every Memorial Day to have a picnic alongside the grave of my great-uncle who was killed in action at age 19 in Iwo Jima. I make a point to honor him every Memorial Day. Here he is below:

image for The Shiny Butter Blog | There is No "Right" Side of History — Coco's great uncle

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