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Right History

Illustration by Pat Bagley on Cagle Cartoons.

Moral Snobbery, Snarky Comments, and Mockery Rarely Win Converts

We often hear criticism of oppressive political and religious leaders phrased as, “They’re on the wrong side of history.” It’s comforting to know that we’re right and they’re wrong.

But it’s also true that "History is written by the victors."

When I researched the Upstairs Lounge fire in the late 1980s, I was struck by many inconsistencies. Several articles mentioned “burglar bars” on the windows, but a dozen people escaped through those windows. A coroner’s report listed one victim as white when he was a moderately dark-skinned black man. Survivors I spoke with told me other conflicting details.

Ultimately, I had to make sense of the material and construct what seemed to me the most likely version of “reality.”

So the question we need to ask about our current political instability is, “Who is going to win the battle between right-wing authoritarianism and human rights?” The fact that we want the answer to be “human rights” doesn’t mean it will be.

We’re more aware than most that human rights have lost that battle repeatedly throughout history. In the U.S., we’ve oppressed the indigenous peoples who were here before us, we’ve oppressed Africans brought over as slaves as well as their descendants. We forced workers into unsafe conditions. We created a Chinese Exclusion Act, interned Americans of Japanese descent. We put LGBTQ folks in prison, denied them housing and jobs.

We must work smarter to ensure that history books in years to come prove that racial, social, and economic justice are the right choice.

Even now, we’re increasing the size of our homeless population every day.

We have more incarcerated citizens per capita than any other nation on the planet.

We’re the only industrialized nation in the world without universal healthcare.

The list of oppressive policies past and present could go on and on.

If we’ve made some degree of progress over the centuries, that’s still no assurance “human rights” will be the ultimate winner in this contest.

On the local level, political operatives driven by power, ideology, or greed are again making it harder for people to vote. A media system creating an alternate reality has already “written” a history that never existed and is predicting a future that will erase what little fact-based narratives still survive.

Recently, a friend in Canada expressed dismay after hearing a news report of the political conditions in the U.S. Despite being relatively aware of the situation, he hadn’t realized things were so bad. He asked if the report was exaggerated.

“Did you wake up this morning wondering if your government was going to be overthrown by a coup before the end of the day?” I asked. “We did.”

I was once partnered with a man suffering from full-blown AIDS. Every day when I left the apartment, I wondered if he’d still be alive when I returned home that evening.

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That’s worry on an individual level. Today, I wonder if insurrectionists will storm City Hall or the state legislature or the U.S. Capitol. I wonder if white supremacists embedded in local police departments or the military will begin massive sweeps with no warning.

don’t worry about a million men in Confederate uniforms forming a battle line. I worry about bombings and mass shootings. I worry that enough formerly rational people will truly believe I’m an alien lizard who eats babies, that they’ll show up at my home and murder me or my loved ones.

The fact that I support voting rights, LGBTQ equality, universal healthcare, tuition-free college and vocational training, immediate action on the climate crisis, plus a dozen other sound and humane policies doesn’t mean I think those who feel the same will be the ones writing the history books.

Already, textbook content for primary and secondary education is heavily influenced by inaccurate right-wing narratives. What happens when the extreme right gains even more control?

When we say, “History is written by the victors,” that’s not figurative. It’s literal.

Those of us on the left are faced with two huge obstacles: so much of the current narrative is controlled either by extremist right-wing or corporate "centrist" interests that the truth becomes difficult to find.

If workers feel that blacks or immigrants or white people are the problem, they’ll fight each other for scraps rather than understand that capitalism is the source of most of our economic and ideological oppression.

Many white people fear they’re being replaced and will be oppressed as a result because they’ve never seen a system where the majority doesn’t oppress minorities. We must present a believable case that things can be otherwise.

Those of us on the left face yet another problem—weariness. Folks on the far right are often driven by a religious zeal. We’re fighting for the good of humanity (and of the planet) while they’re fighting for their very souls.

For them, that’s not figurative. Many feel their eternal salvation is on the line, so they will “endure to the end” no matter what it costs them personally.

That’s an internal fire few on the left can match. Yet it’s felt by vast multitudes on their side.

So who’s on the right side of history?

We talk a lot about “people power,” and it’s encouraging to see the rise in worker strikes and other promising developments in the labor movement, but we need to do a much better job at showing those who consistently vote against their own best interests—mostly because they feel we’ll suffer even more—that there is a way we can all move forward together.

Telling them they’re stupid and racist isn’t going to cut it.

Johnny Townsend

Moral snobbery, snarky comments, and mockery rarely win converts. Unless we want an actual civil war, we’d better find a more constructive way to deal with the reality that millions of people on the right want us dead.

We may not need to work harder, but we must definitely work smarter to ensure that history books in the coming years prove that racial, social, and economic justice are indeed the right choice.

Johnny Townsend