The Tyranny Blog

Gay Marriage & The “Right Side of History”

Rich has a very good column on Obama’s “sudden” change of mind on the issue. He writes:

The president’s willingness finally to say what he believes increased the sense among gay-marriage supporters that final victory is inevitable. History with a capital “H” is on their side. The 21st century itself is practically synonymous with gay marriage. Although this smug confidence will envelop President Obama as he campaigns in such lucrative precincts as George Clooney’s living room, it badly overstates gay marriage’s prospects.

History is littered with the wreckage of causes pronounced inevitable by all right-thinking people. The failed Equal Rights Amendment looked inevitable when it passed Congress in 1972 and immediately 30 states ratified it. Opposition to abortion that was supposed to inevitably wither away is as robust as ever. The forces favoring gun control seemed unstoppably on the march when Congress passed the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban in the 1990s, but there are more protections for gun rights now than two decades ago.

It just so happens that “the right side of history” is one of the topics I discuss early in the book. My chief problem with the “right side of history” argument is that it is used an appeal to the authority of an imagined future that hasn’t even happened yet. It is a way of saying to your opponents: you should give up not because your arguments are wrong but because you will eventually lose anyway. It is an attempt to demoralize your opponents not engage them. Some excerpts:

How often do we hear people say we must “get on the right side of his- tory,” as if they know their own history? “When they say it, what do people mean?” asks my National Review colleague, Jay Nordlinger.

They may mean “my side,” or “the good side,” or “the side that posterity will smile on.” People may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. Or they may be alluding to the ultimate triumph of socialism, or a stricter form of collectivism. For generations, the Left has assumed that history marches with them: Get out of the way, or be crushed.

The phrase has what British historian Robert Conquest calls a “Marxist twang.” The Marxists believed that history was predictable and unidirectional, so of course there must be a right side and a wrong side to it. The candle makers were on the wrong side, the lightbulb makers the right side. But history doesn’t work like that. There were times when it was obvious that technology aided tyrants and there have been times— much like our own—when it seemed equally obvious that technology must liberate the individual. The truth is, it must do neither. As Richard Pipes tells Nordlinger, “The whole notion is nonsensical.” To which Nordlinger adds, “History does not have sides, although historians do.”

Marxism surely contributed to the idea that there’s a right side to history, but the chief culprit is the arrogance of the present (Marxism, one could say, is a subspecies of this arrogance). We look back on the past and see it as prologue to our moment in time. History becomes a movie for which we know the ending and we think the characters of yesteryear are fools for not seeing it, too. Like the idiot teenager who declares, “I’ll search the attic” in a horror movie, we marvel at the stupidity of earlier generations.


I pick up the conversation later in the chapter on the “slippery slope.”

The problem with the slippery slope cliché is not that it doesn’t describe a real problem; it’s that it describes a real problem poorly. Of course precedents matter. But slippery slope metaphors can be pernicious because they discount, even remove, the dynamism of human agency…..

Then after a dissection of the boiling frog and domino theory metaphors that often dominate slipper-slope arguments, I write:

…. When a domino hits another domino, there’s no chance that there will be a domino backlash where the dominoes band together to fight back against the trend of domino toppling. Yes, the falling of the first domino increases the odds that the next one will fall, just as legal- izing gay marriage does make legalizing polygamy more likely. But the similarity ends there, not least because humans aren’t dominos, and we cannot compute the probabilities of human actions nearly as easily. If the government funds Catholic schools, then opponents of funding of religious schools will say it’s a slippery slope, and we’ll have to fund all religious schools, including jihadist madrasas and Satanic academies. But that’s not true. Rather, if we give money to Catholic schools then some people will say we have to give money to jihadists and Satanists, because fairness and consistency requires that we do so. These people will fall into four general groups: jihadists, Satanists, lawyers, and idiots. And it is the duty of all good men to marshal the energy and will to tell jihadists, Satanists, lawyers, and idiots: “No.”

Consider civil liberties, the breeding ground of slippery slope argu- ments. There have been countless moments in American history when civil libertarians, on both the right and the left, have insisted that we must not do something to avoid careening down the slippery slope. Now if the slippery slope were the phenomenon they claim, America today should be a police state. But it hasn’t worked out that way.

With the arguable exception of the Civil War (and, of course, the institution of slavery), the lowest point in American civil liberties wasn’t during the Bush years, or the Nixon years. It was during the administra- tion of Woodrow Wilson—who oversaw the censoring of scores of pub- lications, the incarceration of political prisoners, the imposition of loyalty oaths, dissemination of sweeping propaganda, and the wholesale and of- ten bloody intimidation of dissenters. At any time during this period one could have raised the specter of the slippery slope—and many decent people did. But guess what happened next? The country swung back to normal. The American people threw out the progressive Democrats responsible for the bedlam and voted in Republicans who ran on the plat- form of a “return to normalcy.” It fell to the Republican president Warren Harding to show clemency to the political prisoners held by the Wil- son administration.

This raises one of the most underappreciated dynamics of the Amer- ican political system, and of democracy generally. Regular elections are circuit breakers. They stop—or at least can stop—the acceleration of slippery slope impulses. A change in party power often—though perhaps not often enough—halts the transmission of error. Totalitarian systems have no such circuit breakers—no checks and balances—and, hence, good intentions more easily snowball into evil results.

It is those areas of American life most immunized from democracy and partisanship that are most susceptible to slippery slope problems precisely because they are not democratically accountable. Bureaucracy is a superconductor of bad ideas. No democratic or market-based system would ever shut down lemonade stands; the circuit breaker would kick in long before the cops made some six-year-old girl cry.

It is when the circuit breakers are turned off or bypassed—for instance, during a war—that slippery slope problems flourish.

Anyway, we may yet come to a point where gay marriage is an unremarkable institution in everyday life in the United States, but if we do it won’t be because it will be inevitable. Very little in the affairs of men is inevitable.


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