The Right Side of History

Joh Fredersen threw a glance at the clock. But the hands of the giantess stood at an impossible time. – Thea von Harbou, Metropolis

During an earthquake, the ground sometimes moves like a wave. People who see this sometimes freeze up or collapse, because it violates everything they take for granted about the physical universe.

I think of that image––the earth undulating underfoot––when I think of the phrase “right side of history.” Until this Tuesday, the phrase “right side of history” evoked an image of a rising tide of progress. Things were going to get better and better, i.e. more and more inclusive, tolerant and enlightened, barring a few minor hiccups along the way. Entrenched hatreds, isms and phobias were on their way out––it was a matter of “waiting for people to die” so the brave new world could begin.

If progressives and progressive beliefs are on the “right side of history,” then there is no need to even understand non-progressive or anti-progressive viewpoints. The one true faith is ascendant, as certain as the sunrise.

The collapse of this certainty must have contributed to the extreme emotional lability that followed Trump’s victory. Trump couldn’t win because he was a racist demagogue, and racist demagoguery belongs firmly in the past. And yet he did win, violating a deeply-held belief about the world. The enemy triumphed, not in one skirmish, but in a major battle. The belief that the war was already won evaporated, leaving doubt and pain.

It’s not even a matter of “waiting for people to die” anymore––Trump won white millennials by five points, after all––and Trump’s better-than-expected performance with women and minorities left many people reeling. The narrative collapsed. The bigots won. The right side of history rolled over. Now what?

“Now we fight,” says the progressive left. Enter guides to contacting your representatives, volunteering, protesting, getting ready for the 2018 midterm elections, et cetera. But one can’t miss the despair undergirding this new frenetic activity. Republicans now dominate the executive and legislative branches of government, and are expected to dominate the judicial branch (Supreme Court) by the end of next year. More state governors are Republicans than not. At present it doesn’t seem like progressive anger is canalized effectively (“back to cheerful and seething and not getting a whole lot of shit done”), and many people are still too emotional over the results to do much.

The reactions to Trump’s victory have been incredible, literally––peruse this thread for some amazing examples of election-related grief. Many people have reacted to his victory as if they’ve survived a traumatic event, as if a close family member died. Some examples:

I’m giving serious thought to leaving teaching because I can’t figure out how to have no hope and still teach without it being a betrayal of my students. I had faith in humanity,mi [sic] had hope things would turn out right, I was even the person trying to calm down others who were starting to panic, telling them it would all be okay…

I was wrong. I was so wrong about America that I doubt my ability to be right. I feel as if, to paraphrase Sherlock, the very heart of me has been burned out, and it’s just empty and pain inside. I’m not drinking, because alcohol and depression aren’t a good mix. – Ghidorah

 

I woke up this morning hoping that last night was all just a nightmare. Loading up news sites and seeing what happened… someone else said it on the blue; the last time I felt that way was on 9/11. The shock, the disbelief that this was happening in front of me, wandering around in a daze all day. I don’t know what to do. – indubitable

 

My beard was saturated with blood, and my shirt was soaked all the way around the collar. I spat out dark blood, feeling around my mouth until I found where I’d bitten a gash into my tongue in my sleep out of tension, then washed myself up, balled up the t-shirt in a sink full of cold water to soak out the blood, and immediately retreated to the comfy chair in my living room…

I felt angry, and scared, with my heart pounding in my chest and in my ears, almost loud enough to drown out the music I picked out specifically because it always brings me home…and it was not bringing me home. – sonascope

 

I have to believe it isn’t literally the end of the world, or I can’t pull myself out of bed, and I have a three-week-old child, so I have to get out of bed. But honestly, I feel like I’m pulling that belief entirely out of thin air and delusion for the sake of the baby. – Rush-That-Speaks

Let’s say Ted Cruz won the Presidency. Would his electoral victory provoke a similar level of despair? I don’t think so. Cruz is a paint-by-numbers conservative, easy to understand and outflank. A Cruz victory would be upsetting, but not shattering.

Trump, on the other hand, is uniquely impervious to public shaming, and seems to remain popular despite (or because of) his rejection of mainstream (let alone progressive) political norms. He advocates positions that no “decent” person would advocate––and yet he won.

Whither decency, if the most powerful man on earth rejects the ideas and values that progressives hold dear? And if there is no “right side of history,” just “history,” then how will the (largely irreligious and low-tfr) progressives keep faith that their worldview will survive?

Although I’m not exactly sure why so many people believe that progressive ideas will be on the right side of history. Almost everyone I know personally who says “right side of history” is childless. If they do have children, they have two at the most. Which isn’t to say that the Amish, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, or Laestadians have an enormous influence on the culture…but how can you be on the right side of history when your fertility rate starts with a decimal point?

I’ll be interested to see how this drama unfolds in the upcoming weeks. I suspect that there will be two distinct movements on the far left: one that calls for empathy and understanding of Trump voters, and another that rejects this in favor of confronting and aggressively out-grouping them.

Donald Trump photograph by Gage Skidmore, CC-BY-SA 2.0.

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Malaprops

I have no high horse to mount when I criticize other people’s grammar. There is no grammatical sin I have not committed, usually in the middle of a cover letter or some other important document. So this isn’t an indictment. “I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact,” as Orwell might have said.

As part of my research into the recent past, I’ve visited a lot of old archived webpages. Believe it or not, people’s spelling and grammar was better back then than it is now. People writing on the internet, anyway. It wasn’t perfect, but it’s noticeably better on average.

In 2016, I see a lot of malaprops (or malapropisms), even in news articles on mainstream websites. It’s become especially noticeable to me in the last year or so. Here are some examples off the top of my head:

  • Writing “of” instead of “have,” e.g. “I would of called him, but I forgot.” This is exceedingly common now.
  • Lots of malaprops involving figures of speech, e.g. “Sharpest knife in the draw” (drawer).
  • Three-or-more-syllable words with similar meanings getting confused, e.g. “accessive” for “excessive.”

I’m sure you can find a page from 2003 that has one or more of these malaprops on it––but they are much more common today, even on mainstream news and commentary websites.

What’s going on here? Am I imagining this trend? Has anyone done a high-level analysis of grammar on the internet and how it changes over time? I’d appreciate any linguist who could give me insight into what’s happening (or not happening) in this case.

Photo by Tony Webster, CC-BY-2.0.