Month: December 2015

Obama and What Is Wrong with the Right Side of History


A recent article in The Atlantic has taken issue with President Obama’s use of the phrase, “the right side of history.”

One Thing after Another is intrigued by this issue not so much because it indicates something about President Obama’s thinking (although that is interesting) but because, as the article indicates, such expressions form part of a widespread misunderstanding in America about what history is and how it works.

As the article explains, the idea that history has a “right” and a “wrong” side is not new. President Clinton also spoke about the “right” and “wrong” side of history, while President Reagan, in so many words, seemed to subscribe to a very similar idea. Such thinking depends on the belief that history has a trajectory that will land humanity in some given—and usually desirable—spot. For instance, Martin Luther King claimed “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” King apparently borrowed this phrase from Theodore Parker, the famous Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist (while Obama apparently borrowed similar phrasing from King). The sense that history was headed along a particular, predestined path was not unique to Americans. The article refers to Leon Trotsky’s famous condemnation of the Mensheviks who walked out of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets in 1917: “Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of history!” Trotsky’s sense that his opponents belonged to the “wrong” side of history was inherited from Marx who also believed that socio-economic forces would push the world toward proletarian revolution; all who opposed this course of events were destined to fail. Marx, in turn, owed his view of history specifically to Hegel and a general sense among Enlightenment thinkers that sustained moral and material progress was possible.

As the article correctly points out, the problem with arguing that there is such a thing as the “right” or “wrong” side of history is that “it imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist. Worse, it assumes that progress is unidirectional.” History, however, “is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course.” Since the Enlightenment, which first promoted the idea that people could shape their world for the better in a sustained and rational manner, hopes for an uninterrupted improvement of the human condition have been repeatedly shattered. For example, World War I crushed the Victorian belief that some kind of moral progress must inevitably match the relentless technological advances of the 19th century. The even greater horrors of World War II ought to have put this kind of optimism to rest, but they have not. The frequency, prevalence, and deadliness of war have declined worldwide since 1945. And the proportion of the world’s population living in poverty has also fallen since then. But there is no reason that these crude measures of progress must continue to improve or that the long train of events ought to place us in a particular, desirable position.

One Thing after Another also believes that references to the course of history are the product of sloppy thinking. After all, it would be difficult to blame Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, and Trotsky every time an American claims that so-and-so (whether it be Tom Brady, Ronald Reagan, or Lady Gaga) “changed the course of history”—because most Americans have never read Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, and Trotsky. Instead One Thing after Another remembers George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language” in which he surmised that the “abuse of language” was both a cause and an effect. The English language, he argued, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” So what is the foolishness and where is the slovenliness in claiming that there is a course to history and that x person changed it? Aside from the difficulty of attributing a course to history (to which we have already adverted), there is a conflation here of history and the past. When people refer to the “course of history,” what they really mean is the current of events which is something altogether different from history. Events are what actually happened in the past while history is the representation of those events by historians who rely on documentary evidence to construct that representation. To “change the course of history” is tantamount to changing the representation of the past, not the course of the past itself. And while any number of individuals may alter what appears to be the train of events, the only people who can change the “course of history” are historians because they are the ones who make history.

All in all, then, carelessly referring to the “course of history” reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what history is and why it is valuable. Ironically enough, for all of our vaunted progress, the ancients appeared to have a firmer grasp of how to understand the past. During classical antiquity, the peoples of the Middle East (along with the Greeks) did not “look to the future” as we do. Instead, the metaphor they commonly used—and it was a powerful one—consisted of facing the past and walking backward into the future. From this perspective, only the past, not the future, was knowable. Among the Greeks who produced the first historians in the Western tradition (One Thing after Another thinks of Thucydides and Xenophon here), history served to cultivate a judgment that could help navigate the treacherous present—not justify an inevitable future.

Sunken Treasure and Historians

Sinking of San Jose

Once again, a shipwreck is making the news. The Spanish treasure galleon the San José was recently found off the coast of Columbia. Early reports indicate that over a billion dollars worth of bullion may be lying on the ocean floor. In all the hoopla over the discovery, to the dismay of many scholars, the story of the San José itself and what the ship’s remains might tell us about the past have become a side note.

The San José was one of many treasure ships that traversed the Atlantic, bringing silver and gold back to Spain from its Latin American colonies. In 1706, the San José set sail for America as the flagship of the treasure fleet. The fleet’s task was to convey long overdue remittances safely back to Spain. King Philip V of Spain was particularly eager to get his hands on this money to finance his efforts in the War of Spanish Succession. His opponents were just as eager to capture the treasure fleet and use the money for their own ends.  The stakes were high when the San José began its return voyage in 1708.

Spanish naval officers knew that English ships patrolling Caribbean waters hoped to intercept the fleet. After much deliberation, the commander of the treasure fleet decided that the fleet needed to commence its return voyage. The first leg of that voyage was from Portobelo (Panama) to Cartagena (Columbia). As the treasure fleet neared the entrance to Cartagena’s harbor, it was intercepted by an English squadron. Battle ensued on June 8, 1708.  Commodore Charles Wager’s HMS Expedition exchanged fire with the San José for several hours. Then, at about 7:30 p.m., the San José blew up and sank. Testimony of English sailors suggests one or more guns on the San José misfired, causing the explosion. Nearly 600 sailors died on board, and nearly 10 million pesos went down with the ship.

This engagement is well documented, because both Spain and Britain carried out extensive inquests into the sinking of the San José. Surviving Spanish officers used the inquest to blame the dead commander for his ill-fated decision to set sail from Portobelo and the ultimate loss of the San José, while British officers pointed fingers at one another for their failure to capture the treasure fleet.

To date these eighteenth-century inquests have been the main source for historians, such as Carla Rahn Phillips, to reconstruct the history of the San José. The discovery of the galleon itself will provide scholars with new details on the San José, its sinking, and maritime culture.

However, what new scientific/historical knowledge will be gleaned from the wreck will largely be determined by the disposal of the artifacts – will they go to a museum or the marketplace?

The outcome is still uncertain. With multiple competing claims to the wreck—private treasure hunters, the Columbian government, and the Spanish government—drawn out legal battles are likely to ensue over splitting the take.  Consequently, the San José will likely remain front-page news for some time. It will not be the only shipwreck in the news either.  Stories of shipwrecks and sunken treasure grip popular imagination and are good press (e.g., Captain Kidd’s Adventure Galley or a Spanish treasure ship off the Florida coast). With each new discovery, though, debate ensues about the proper disposal of the artifacts, the proper compensation for the finders, and the indemnification of the rightful owners.

In light of the historical importance of the San José and other shipwrecks, historians should weigh in on these debates. We have an interest in preserving and protecting “the human history that lies underwater.” These discoveries are a place where historical scholarship has a proven value beyond the classroom: treasure hunters regularly consult historical monographs and even undertake archival research themselves to determine where to dive. Without the painstaking work of historians, the treasure hunters’ task would be even more difficult than it already is. Thus, if there was ever a case for historians to leave their Ivy Towers and enter the public square, this is surely one.

The input of historians will probably make little difference to courts of law weighing the competing claims, but in the public square we might rally more people to support the historical preservation of the San José and other wrecks.  The more artifacts that find their way into museums or are preserved in situ, the better the historical record will be.