Friday, December 03, 2010

Staring History Down

Regarding continued GOP intransigence over the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, Matt Yglesias asks:
I really wonder what’s happening, subjectively, inside the heads of people who oppose repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Do any of them think they’re on the right side of history here? That people are going to look back from 2040 and say “if only we’d listened to John McCain thirty years ago?”

I've often wondered the same thought myself. I can't imagine that any but the most deluded souls are unaware where this debate is heading, or how it will be evaluated 30 years hence. The opponents of DADT repeal have to be aware that they will be considered villains by history.

In a sense, that makes it a little admirable (odd as that is to say). There is something to be said for looking history in the eye and standing on principle, knowing full well you are forever committing your name to disgrace. For the people whose opposition to gay equality is genuine and heartfelt, there is something rather amazing at their willingness to take on such a role. I disagree with such people stridently, and will do my utmost to ensure that they are inscribed as villains sooner rather than later, but such deep commitment is a rare thing.

Of course, that only applies to those whose opposition stems from heartfelt commitment. For those who act this way for the sake of short-term political expediency -- or worse, pettiness and spite -- it's just sad.


N. Friedman said...

I do not know what side of any debate history is on but, whatever history may bring, I would prefer eliminating DADT.

Matt said...

I think I kind of hate "the right side of history" arguments. Doesn't that assume a shared faith that things are getting better and that the changes seen are signs of things getting better? Seems kind of circular.

PG said...

I assume "right side of history" is just that "this will be the ultimate outcome." Abortion prohibitionists may well be arguing the "right side of history," inasmuch as technology theoretically could advance to the point that viability begins at conception (e.g. we have artificial wombs as in Brave New World), so that no embryo/fetus ever has to die for a woman to avoid being pregnant with it; it can just complete development in the tech bubble, so all women who want to end a pregnancy are required to get a C-section and have the fetus removed.

Admittedly, it's easier to see how one's opponents could end up being on the right side of history due to technological change than to envision that society will believe something more fundamentally opposed to your own beliefs (e.g. the abortion prohibitionists win because we go all Handmaid's Tale, under which homosexuals are screwed too).

Matthew said...

@David: I think the same way, and the best I can come up with is that whatever portion of the population genuinely sees repealing DADT as a moral threat is entirely encompassed within a much larger segment that sees gay bishops and married gay couples and gay sex in high school sex ed classes as a moral threat. They're probably aware that making people beg, literally, for the right to go onto the battlefield and risk their lives, which is something many people would prefer never to ever do, moves the goal considerably far back when it comes to things that are unequivocally beneficial to gay people and less obviously a service to society. That's all I got though.

@Matt: Did you qualify your statement enough? I think you kind of did."The right side of history" argument, as I see it and use it, references a specific and, admittedly, partially mythical construction of American history in which our institutions become progressively more inclusive and demand sharper and more strenuous justifications for discrimination. People who satisfy themselves with pre-packaged talking points in favor of discrimination will come to look quite stupid when their intransigence runs out of fashion.

@PG: I am embarrassed at how long the Handmaid's Tale has sat unread on my bookshelf. Winter break reading list starts there!

PG said...


It's well worth reading as a major liberal feminist text, even if the premise of a coalition between radical feminists and radical social conservatives feels a bit outdated.

N. Friedman said...


You write: 'I assume "right side of history" is just that "this will be the ultimate outcome.'

I think you will find that the origin of the phrase comes from the Hegelians, who thought that they knew where history was headed. ("The History of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of Freedom; a progress whose development according to the necessity of its nature, it is our business to investigate" and "world history is thus the unfolding of Spirit in time, as nature is the unfolding of the Idea in space.")

Marx, who was in his way a follower of Hegel as well, thought he knew which way history was going. I think, however, for those who actually look at facts, the biggest fact in our time is the remarkable re-birth of religion as a force, both Christianity and Islam, throughout the world (with conversions to those two religions occurring at a pace with little historical precedent), making it exceeding unlikely that, in the big picture, the forces which favor rights for homosexuals will win out as a pre-ordained historical inevitability. In fact, it will be an effort in standing aftward against current world trends, making it imperative that those, like me, who favor rights for homosexuals act prudently.