Opinion and Forefront

MADISON: Getting on the right side of history

November 2, 2013

James H. MadisonWe sometimes hear the advice to “get on the right side of history.”

It’s good advice, but what does it mean?

Historians have examples.

That small minority of Hoosiers who thought slavery was evil and needed to be eradicated immediately were on the right side of history.

In Wayne County, Catherine and Levi Coffin broke the law to help runaway slaves. They earned a place on the right side of history.

Indiana Sen. Jesse Bright continued to own slaves (in Kentucky). Bright earned his place on the wrong side of history.

There are lots of other examples.

Those uppity Victorian women who asserted a right to vote were on the right side.

So were those Progressive-era reformers who pushed through pure food and drug laws.

The founders of Social Security and Medicare were on the right side of history; critics who cried socialism and communism were on the wrong side.

Indianapolis hotels that denied a room to an African-American guest were on the wrong side.

Businesses that opened management positions to women were on the right side.

The problem with getting on the right side of history is that it can take a long backward analysis to know which side was which.

Historians have an advantage denied policymakers struggling with today’s issues.

But a sense of history can open a dialogue between past, present and future.

And attention to that dialogue can widen and deepen our perspectives and move us closer to seeing the right side.

Long-term thinking would surely serve us better than emotional, superficial and knee-jerk reactions to the swirl of events around us.

Some on the wrong side of history rely on traditional wisdom; my parents always taught me to think this way, they say.

Some focus on the “optics.” Will it look good?

Some attach to a single authority for guidance, whether its tarot cards, Ayn Rand or the Farmer’s Almanac.

It’s hard. Times change and the right side is always moving.

Often, there are more than two sides and lots of fog and ambiguity.

Still, thinking about our place in history can offer a glimpse of a North Star pointing toward the right side.

It’s a good bet that on the right side of history today, for example, are those who focus on kids and support good health care and pre-K education even if their parents are ne’er–do–wells.

On the right side are those who see the necessity of impartial, rationally drawn voting districts to replace our wickedly gerrymandered boundaries.

Those opposed to single-sex marriages are on the wrong side of history—and not just because opinion polls are moving against them.

Proponents of health care and education for kids, gay marriage and democratically drawn voting districts are on the right side of history because they stand for freedom and justice for all.

Sooner or later, our American ideals sort out right and wrong, even if the process is slow and contentious.

As our General Assembly gears up for a new session, we can hope that members will take the long view and move toward the right side of history.

Some may need to vote against their own personal views, against their own pocketbooks, against the wisdom of their parents to get on the right side of history.

We have to hope that, in the end, America’s ideals will keep us, as Lincoln said, “the last best hope of earth.”

It’s those ideals that guide us to the right side of history.•

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Madison, an Indiana University historian, is author of the forthcoming book “Hoosiers: A History of Indiana.” Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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