July 20, 2018

The Flow of History

In the spring of 2017, I got into a heated debate with a young man who was still grief-stricken by the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. During the course of this exchange, he told me that I was on the wrong side of History. The wrong side of history?  

I have been studying history since the fourth grade and no where did I ever read about history having presumably a moral right or wrong side of history. The philosopher, Heraclitus, noted that no man ever steps into the same river twice. Similarly, history was like a flowing river where the water was always changing but it remained the same river.

I answered him that there is no right side of history…only history. It can be likened to Heraclitus’ unending stream of water or time that keeps flowing. Rivers have many alternate branches, tides, eddies and fords but none can be judged to be right or wrong.

Our lifetimes represent but a relatively small part of the flow of history. It is a body of water that sometimes we can wade in it or even swim with its currents or in President Donald Trump’s case— swim against them. It is the epitome of intellectual arrogance and tomfoolery to think that anyone is on the right side of history.

I told my benighted friend that history had no right or wrong side to it. In history there are no such things as a Good War of the Best Generation. It is usually the winners in history and college history professors who try to apply their parochial stamp on an indifferent flow of life. 

History has only winners and losers and it was usually the winners that determine what was right or wrong. His thinking was more apt to confuse winners and losers with right and wrong. Changes from one generation to another are a normal part of the ebb and flow of history. 

Because the side that one favors may appear victorious for the immediate present, it does not follow that they have any self-righteous claim to a high morality. They are all guilty of the intellectual fallacy, known as presentism, a form of relativism where one generation defines its past history by the morals of their current times.

Karl Marx popularized the idea that opposition to the inevitability of socialism was anti-intellectual and anti-scientific. The progression of history, he believed, was scientifically knowable, quoth the Marxists, and so we need not listen to those who object to our programs. 

Progressivism, a derivative of Marxism, has been around since the end of the 19th century. Even in its nascent appearance in the administrations of the Republican Roosevelt and the Democrat Wilson was characterized by an incipient arrogance that bordered on elitism.

A college president and professor long before he heeded the call to public duty, Wilson believed in the social doctrines of Jean Jacques Rousseau who wrote that people were by nature good and it was social institutions that caused evil in the world. This misses the point that social institutions permeate all civilized societies and they are administered by people.

Probably the event that exposed the mindset of liberal internationalists, such as Marx and all the liberal leaders that would populate the next two centuries, was World War I. It was President Wilson who led America into the Great War in 1917, the most violent four years of carnage that the world had ever seen. Wilson reasoned that if America was to join this bloody conflagration, it had to be fought for a higher purpose. His powerful rhetoric made World War I sound like a holy crusade because God was on our side because we were the good guys. It was in his words the war to end all wars. 

When it was finally over all of Western Europe believed that this could and must never happened again. French author Jean Renoir’s masterpiece, The Grand Illusion, popped that balloon. Their thinking that it could never happen again was illusionary and gave cause to the onset of an even greater war. Thanks to advanced technology the killing was even more widespread as civilians died by the millions.

Blinded by their arrogance, especially that of President Wilson, the liberal internationalists could not read the signs of history that literally were staring them in the face. Their erroneous belief that all world leaders would do anything to avoid another slaughter because at heart they were all good people, failed to take into consideration what the Germans call, Schrecklichkeit, the ruthlessness of and ambitions of tyrants, such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and even Churchill and the British Admiralty to a much lesser degree. 

In its current usage, the expression the right side of history came in vogue under President Barack Obama. Like Wilson, he made certain it had a moral context to it. In domestic politics, people (mostly liberals) tend to say, You’re on the wrong side of history about social issues that are breaking their way.  

It was philosophical flaw that was attendant to the arrogance of power that permeated his eight years in office. His condescending opinion of white people, Christians, gun owners, and ordinary Americans just underscored his elitist thinking. 

One might remember that after his inauguration, then House Minority Leader, Eric Kantor, went to the White House to discuss how the Republican Party could work with Obama’s Democrats. He was met with the icy self-righteousness of more of an autocrat-in-the-making than a man raised on compromise and working across party lines. Err, Eric, I won!!

For eight years, he lambasted his opponent on the domestic front to demonstrate his power, buoyed by his political success, to show how strong a leader he was. In domestic affairs, it’s a sign of strength. On social issues like, say, gay marriage, it amounts to a kind of impatient bullying that you can afford when time is on your side; Your defeat is inevitable, so let’s hurry it up.

But in foreign affairs, invoking history as an ally is a sign of weakness. Before that, Obama had vainly announced that Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said that Bashar al-Assad himself was on the wrong side of history. Yet Putin has a much greater understanding than our benighted president does when it comes to historical realities. He is trying to return Russia to his past historic greatness while Obama seemed—and seems—determined to reduce his country’s importance in history.

The final analysis is there is only the flow of history. While wars are usually fought by both moral and immoral peoples on both sides of history, the flow of history moves along, guided by the unknowable hand of Providence and the unintended consequences of Man’s free will, fears or ideology.  

Since the loss of Eden, we are only responsible to our consciences. People can be right and they can be wrong but history is entirely indifferent to that and only goes where the flow of time takes it. And while it might be OK to go with the river’s flow, it is always wise to inquire as to where the flow might be going.

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Written by
William Borst

WILLIAM A. BORST has taught at virtually all levels of education from elementary school through university, published commentaries in many local and national publications, and hosted a weekly talk show on WGNU radio for 22 years. Having recently served as editor of the Mindszenty Report, Dr. Borst is the author of two prominent books: Liberalism: Fatal Consequences (1999) and The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy (2005). He holds a PhD in American History from St. Louis University.

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Written by William Borst