Lexicon Valley

Is Obama Overusing the Phrase the Wrong Side of History? Are We All?

You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I wanna be on the wrong side of history?” Well, do ya, punk?

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

When Vladimir Putin seized Crimea, President Obama said, “Russia is on the wrong side of history on this.” Secretary of State John Kerry concurred, using exactly the same phrase. They were hardly breaking new rhetorical ground for the administration. In his first inaugural address, Obama stated, “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” Later, Obama declared that Putin was on the wrong side of history for supporting the Assad regime in Syria. He also said that Assad was on the wrong side of history.

In a recent column, the conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote that the Obama administration “has used the ‘wrong side of history’ phrase more than any I can remember. They particularly like to use it in foreign policy.” Goldberg claimed that for Obama this is “a sign of weakness. … Whenever things haven’t gone his way on the international scene—i.e., on days that end with a ‘y—he or his spokespeople have wagged their fingers from the right side of history.” (Goldberg didn’t mention it, but Republicans have invoked WSOH as well. During Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings as secretary of defense in January 2013, Sen. John McCain berated Hagel for his opposition, as a senator, to the Iraq “surge”: “I think history has already made the judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it.”)

Goldberg argues that Obama’s use of the “right side of history” formulation, by contrast, is 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.’” Gay marriage is indeed the apposite example. Attorney General Mark Herring of Virginia announced, in reference to his decision to oppose in court the state’s same-sex marriage ban, “I’m proud to say today the Commonwealth of Virginia stood on the right side of the law and the right side of history.”

To which Mike Huckabee replied, in essence, “History shmistory.” He recently said, regarding his opposition to same-sex marriage, “You’ve got to understand, this for me is not about the right side or the wrong side of history, this is the right side of the Bible, and unless God rewrites it, edits it, sends it down with his signature on it, it’s not my book to change.”

The earliest use of R/WSOH I’ve been able to find is from a 1903 book called In Old Egypt, by a rabbi named Henry Pereira Mendes. He writes of “Nachbi, whose grandson, like Setur’s was destined to make a name, though not on the right side of history.” Later incarnations show up in the 1930s, as in this from a left-wing journal called Equality: “Of course the people on the wrong side of history suffer! Of course the Southern aristocrats suffered when they were wounded, and suffered like nobody’s business when they could no longer maintain themselves by the enslavement of other”—and there the excerpt on Google Books cuts off.

The use of the phrase in Equality is no coincidence, as the idea behind it is consistent with a Hegelian or Marxist view of time marching toward a desirable endpoint. In any case, the popularity of both the “right side” and “wrong side” versions steadily ascended, as this graph from Google’s Ngram viewer shows:

Goldberg’s critique of Obama’s repetition is fair. The president loves the idea so much that he even mangled a quote frequently invoked by the Rev. Martin Luther King, but originally formulated by the abolitionist Theodore Parker, so as to resemble it.  The Parker/King quote is, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Obama wrote in 2010, “while you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it ‘bends toward justice.’” (For a complete account of that quote’s provenance, see this post by The Quote Investigator.)

But I have no objection to R/WSOH itself. It is no better and no worse than any other way of asserting that an action or position you find wrong or reprehensible will be exposed as such with the passage of time. Similar arguments have long been made by people of all political persuasions, including Parker and King. Yet I’m struck by the dramatic rise in use from the 1970s to the present. I don’t have a sense that this is a period when people have developed a particularly penetrating understanding of history’s arc. If anything, the opposite.

Moreover, overuse has removed most of the formulation’s flavor, in the manner of a piece of much-masticated chewing gum. Its trickling down from the great issues of the day to more mundane matters has further weakened it, probably to the point of uselessness. This was brought home to me while reading an article several weeks ago in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Referring to a Penn State basketball player named Maggie Lucas, who had led the Nittany Lions in a comeback, the article said, “She refused to let the Lions fall on the wrong side of history—not in this tournament, not on her home court in State College, Pa.”

A version of this post appeared on Lingua Franca, a blog of the Chronicle of Higher Education.