Is history on our side?

We all believe that we are on the “right side of history,” but as historian Priya Satia reminds us today at Time, we “shouldn’t rely on that assumption.” Here is a taste of her piece:

But the idea that history will judge can be used rhetorically by any side in a contest. Who doesn’t think they’re on the right side of history? This summer, in pushing back against Trump Administration policies, China’s president Xi Jinping assured business executives that his government was “on the correct side of history.” And indeed, Trump’s supporters too anticipate history’s condemnation of those who oppose him.

By deferring moral judgment to the future, this view of history as a source of future judgment enables people to act in a manner that they know to be morally dubious according to their present judgment. Many an avowedly great man has claimed, like Napoleon, that historic destiny put him beyond the ordinary moral world. The strongmen of our time are cut from precisely this cloth.

Indeed, the idea of history’s judgment first emerged to guide the “great”—an idea iconically captured in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrait of the heroic George Washington admonishing the aspiring great man Alexander Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” Enlightenment philosophers of that era believed that God did not actively intervene in human affairs, but that history nevertheless unfolds according to His Providence. Even seemingly evil events thus conduced toward ultimately benevolent ends. The great must further its fulfillment by studying earlier great lives, thereby also becoming conscious of history’s prospective judgment of their own lives.

When Obama invokes the “arc of history,” he is invoking this providential conception of history. It is his shorthand for the quote associated with Martin Luther King Jr. that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” which King adapted from the sermon of a mid-19th century abolitionist minister. King recognized the inspirational force of such future-oriented belief: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope,” he told us.

Read the entire piece here.