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The fallacy of the ‘wrong side of history’ narrative

In Opinions, World
June 09, 2024

Over the past nine months, we have witnessed one of the most well-documented instances of genocide unfold in the Gaza Strip. Across the world, there has been a tremendous amount of mobilisation and genuine disruption in protest of this atrocity. The United States, too, has seen large demonstrations and protest actions against the government’s unwavering support for the Israeli Occupation Forces and leadership.

In the midst of this, a longstanding and useless narrative has re-emerged. Many have denounced officials supporting Israel for being on the wrong side of history and actively being in favour of what will go down in the public record as a genocide. There is an expectation that somehow history will hold them to account.

But if the historical record was truly a concern for those in power, the president of the United States would not be taking questions about the genocidal carnage unfolding daily while chowing down on a double scoop of mint chip ice cream.

This idea is borne out of a need to soothe the Western conscience. And it is not out of a lack of awareness of history that this narrative takes hold; in fact, it’s often the exact opposite. For those who learn of the many historical tragedies and atrocities that our current world order is built on, there seems to be a need for some type of higher justice. A justice more lasting than simply some bad polling for a few months and some scathing op-eds.

But what the “wrong side of history” narrative really does is undermine our ability to engage with the very real conditions of the present.

To get to the point where we can move on from viewing history as a form of karmic justice for the most powerful members of our society, we must first understand our relationship with it.

There is a tendency to treat history like a bullet-point presentation of the highlights and not the singular story of our existence on this planet. It is as if we are experiencing events in a vacuum, as if we do not actually exist in a context shaped by the past. This often leads to a superficial or incomplete perception of historical reality.

As James Baldwin wrote in a 1965 essay titled The White Man’s Guilt for Ebony magazine: “people who imagine that history flatters them […] are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world”. He is correct in this assessment but what he and many of us today fail to consider is just how far the most powerful members of our society will go to remove any of the heavy guilt of history from their shoulders. 

A good example of what I mean is the legacy of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. During his lifetime he was wildly unpopular with the American public. It wasn’t until years after his death that the minds of the majority slowly began to change.

Today some see the proliferation of Dr King’s message as proof that history can provide the sense of justice that people are seeking. I believe this is untrue for two reasons.

First, saying history vindicated MLK largely neglects the actual mechanism for change that he helped set up. It wasn’t out of the goodness of their souls that the majority of Americans embraced MLK’s message. Rather it was the day in and day out concerted efforts of the Black community that brought about that change.

Second, Dr King’s legacy has been significantly diluted in the public arena to make it more palatable to the majority. A man, whose beliefs and philosophy were based in the radical anticapitalist and anti-imperialist tradition, has been reduced to a little more than the patron saint of white guilt.

The distortion of MLK’s legacy is just one example of how history can be twisted to make it more easily digestible or useful to white supremacist power structures. This process has been brought to an extreme with recent efforts to rewrite Black history. In Florida, for example, local authorities changed teaching standards for Black history to the point that students are now taught that slavery brought “personal benefit” to Black people.

And just as history can be used in the public realm to distort the memory and understanding of struggles against oppression, it can also be used to whitewash oppressors.

In recent years, we have seen how the legacies of leaders like George W Bush and Ronald Reagan, have been carefully rehabilitated. Instead of facing calls for accountability for war crimes during the so-called “war on terror”, Bush is now enjoying retirement, painting portraits, attending public events and commenting on news developments as a respected former official.

Meanwhile, Reagan, whose atrocity portfolio stretches from funding death squads in Latin America to supporting the racist apartheid regime of South Africa, is celebrated by Democrats and Republicans alike for his moxie and past policies.

It is not that the most powerful people among us do not care about their legacies when they make decisions. It is that they know they have the resources and sway to change public perception while they are alive or that the “civility” argument will be used to temper criticism after their death, regardless of all the crimes against humanity they may have committed.

It is dangerous to perceive history as the ultimate equaliser not only because it is not but also because it dampens motivation to engage in real initiatives for change by giving an easy outlet to our feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

We must realise that to ensure the maintenance of accurate accounts of history, we have to rely on our greatest tool: organising and the lessons from those who organised before us.

In his pivotal book, A People’s History of the United States, historian Howard Zinn wrote: “The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface.”

Indeed, memory and revolt are closely intertwined. Those who know and are aware of their own history, also engage in actively making it; they do not remain passive onlookers. Holding the powerful to account is not a fool’s errand and organising is the way to do it.

Joe Biden, Benjamin Netanyahu, and all of those responsible for the ever-rising death toll in Palestine are relying on the uncomfortable fact that when it comes to killing done in service of American interest, many in the West have very short memories.

Expecting history to hold these individuals accountable for actions they committed in service of a system of oppression is useless. It may bring temporary relief of anxiety, but ultimately, it paralyses us at a time when urgent action is needed.

Injustice is not naturally remedied by history. It is challenged and fought by people who mobilise to dismantle systems of oppression.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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