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Being on the “Right Side of History”

President Obama once told us that same-sex marriage is “on the right side of history.”

How did he know this?  How does anybody know what is, and what’s not, on the right side of history?  Or how does anybody know what’s on the wrong side of history?

Besides, what does it even mean to say that something is on the right side or the wrong side of history?

I suppose it means that a certain idea or value (same-sex marriage, for instance) will eventually be universally accepted; and that its universal acceptance will be conclusive evidence that it is right.  I think that’s what Obama was getting at – that same-sex marriage will eventually be accepted by the entire human race, and therefore same-sex marriage is right and those who disapprove of same-sex marriage (faithful Catholics, for instance) are wrong.

This is a funny way of deciding what’s right and what’s wrong.  I mean, when will this eventual universal acceptance of same-sex marriage take place?  In 2100 AD?  Or 3000 CE?  (By the year 3000, mankind – being thoroughly progressive – will have done away with that awfully old-fashioned Anno Domini stuff.)  Or 10,000 CE?  Will we have to wait till then to find out that same-sex marriage is right?

In the year 10,000 CE, will the Secretary-General of the United Nations – or perhaps it will be the President of Planet Earth – announce: “On Thursday of last week the last person to disapprove of same-sex marriage, a Canadian First Nations person, changed his mind; and therefore same-sex marriage is right, and therefore it has always been right – all the way back to the time of Barack Obama”?

This notion, President Obama’s notion that you can tell what it right by discovering what moral beliefs will prevail in the long run, is a tad inconvenient for most of us.  President Obama, in some people’s estimation no doubt, has a remarkable talent for seeing the future.  But most of us don’t.  Me, for instance.  Apart from the sun rising and setting, and water continuing to be wet, I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, let alone the next 8000 years from tomorrow.

Let’s suppose that you ask me today: “Would it be right or wrong for me to cheat on my income taxes?”

ME: “I’ll get back to you in 8,000 years.  The answer, I expect, will be clear by then.”

YOU: “I need to know by April 15, 2020.”

ME: “Sorry, you’ll have to give me more time.”

The idea that history tells us what’s right and what’s wrong is an idea that comes from the great (or at least the awfully influential) German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).  He held that human history is a progressive thing, tending over thousands of years towards the full actualization of God (the Absolute).  (Hegel had rather a pantheistic idea of God.)  Whatever contributes to this actualization/progress is morally right.  And thus it was right for Alexander to invade Asia, and for Caesar to overthrow the Roman Republic, and for Martin Luther to kick the pope out of Northern Europe.

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Karl Marx was a (kind of, i.e. Left) Hegelian; but he stood Hegel on his head.  Instead of human history moving relentlessly on to the actualization of the Absolute, history was moving relentlessly on towards a society that will be both classless and communistic, the coming of which will allow all humans to become what nature intended us to be, happy and good and immensely talented.  Our peaceful and prosperous planet will abound in individuals who are the equal of Shakespeare and Mozart and Isaac Newton.

From a Marxian point of view, everything is right and good that contributes to the coming of this classless society.  And thus the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was right and good, and so were its mass murders; for these, though cruel, made indispensable contributions to the eventual happiness of the entire human race.  Millions suffered today so that trillions and quadrillions could be happy tomorrow.  At least so it seemed to certain wise men (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and company) who had the God-like gift of seeing the remote future.

President Obama too had that God-like gift, and that’s why he could tell us that all of mankind will eventually applaud same-sex marriage.

Hitler and his fellow Nazis also had that God-like gift.  They could see that the Nazi Revolution in Germany was “on the right side of history.”  And if you lived in Germany in the 1930s, you’d have had a hard time disagreeing with this, so overwhelming was the endorsement given to the Nazi Revolution by Germany’s great progressive propaganda machine (GPPM) – that is to say, Germany’s press, universities, and entertainment industry.

Likewise, America’s current GPPM has given its overwhelming endorsement to same-sex marriage, not to mention its overwhelming endorsement of abortion and, more recently, transgenderism.  Could it be this GPPM endorsement, and not either Hegel or Marx, that convinced Obama that he has the gift of seeing the remote future?

In fact, of course, nobody can see the remote future (not even, I suspect, those many people who are telling us exactly what will happen 100 years from now due to climate change).  If our American cultural elites were not currently passing through an era (temporary I hope) of cultural madness, they would realize that talk about being “on the right side of history” is nonsense, and they would hoot Obama or anybody else who said such things off the stage.

If we want to know the difference between right and wrong, I humbly suggest that we use two old-fashioned, non-Hegelian and non-Marxian ways of doing so.  We might listen (a) to the voice of Divine Revelation or (b) to the voice of the moral law within us (often called the natural law).  If we listen hard we will hear both of them telling us (pacePresident Obama and the American Left) that same-sex marriage among many other things is not only wrong, but preposterously wrong.

 

*Image: The Allegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, 1138-39 [Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy]. This is one panel of three from The Allegory of Good and Bad Government painted by Lorenzetti between February 1338 and May 1339.

David Carlin

David Carlin is a professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.