On the right side of history

I love seeing The Screwtape Letters cited in a political argument.  Such a wonderful, charming book.  I’d forgotten Screwtape (Lewis) specifically addressed the “right side of history” argument.

First, though, and related, Ramesh Ponnuru in George Will, the Redskins, and the New Intolerance.  I’m no Redskins fan (Steeler Nation here) but don’t like bullying, especially the government-assisted kind.  Be a fan, or not; spend your money there, or not.  Do we really need government “help” in this department or is it more likely to make it worse?  Nothing better they could be working on?

What these disputes demand is discretion and judgment, because social tolerance is a valuable disposition rather than a principle. The people trying to silence Will and the others don’t have enough of that disposition. The problem isn’t that they’re engaging in censorship and that censorship is always wrong; it’s that they’re being unreasonable.

Closely allied to the virtue of tolerance is that of charity… we should summon charity by asking ourselves whether the view expressed, however much we disagree with it, is a sign of a vicious character. That’s a standard that shifts with circumstances. The hypothetical executive in 2012 who favors racial segregation fails that test, but a Southern CEO in 1956 would not necessarily have. That point seems relevant to the Eich affair: Even if you think that our society should one day regard the old view of marriage the way it now regards Jim Crow, today it doesn’t. You should live and let live while working, as you have been doing successfully, to change people’s views. That’s how the civil-rights movement achieved its victories — through persuasion and persistence, not by demanding that its opponents be silenced…

Ideally, charity would be reciprocated. Giving gratuitous offense is uncharitable. … If we want to avoid becoming a culture of endless grievance-taking and witch-hunting, we must also show some judgment about which provocations are necessary ones.

Here’s William Voegeli in The Redskins and their Offense:

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis identified the central contradiction of invoking tomorrow’s standards to settle today’s controversies. Screwtape, an upper-management devil sending advisory memoranda to an apprentice, counsels:

[God] wants men, so far as I can see, to ask very simple questions; is it righteous? is it prudent? is it possible? Now if we can keep men asking, “Is it in accordance with the general movement of our time? Is it progressive or reactionary? Is it the way that History is going?” they will neglect the relevant questions. And the questions they do ask are, of course, unanswerable; for they do not know the future, and what the future will be depends very largely on just those choices which they now invoke the future to help them to make.

As journalist Michael Brendan Dougherty recently contended, “the most bullying argument in politics” is to denounce people with whom you disagree for being on the wrong side of history.If your cause is just and good, argue that it is just and good, not just inevitable.”

It’s particularly insufferable that American liberals, otherwise boastful about their membership in the “reality-based community,” are so facile about resorting to metaphysical mumbo-jumbo when appointing themselves oracles of the Zeitgeist. Upon inspection, “X is on the right side of history” turns out to be a lazy, hectoring way to declare, “X is a good idea,” by those evading any responsibility to prove it so. Similarly, many brandish another well-worn rhetorical club, as when a sportswriter charges that current Redskins owner Dan Snyder refuses to rename his team because he just doesn’t “get it.” That huffy formulation conveniently blames someone else’s refusal to see things your way on his cognitive or moral deficiencies, rather than on your forensic ones.

Things do change, of course. history, society,…life are all dynamic, not static. The quotidian work of politics, in particular, is more concerned with accommodating and channeling the transient than with realizing eternal Platonic forms. “A majority,” Abraham Lincoln said in his First Inaugural, “held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.”

Notwithstanding the opinion polls showing a large majority untroubled by “Washington Redskins,” there clearly has been a deliberate change away from cartoonish, disrespectful references to Indians by sports teams…

It’s an unwarranted leap, however, from these developments to the judgment by Marc Tracy, a New Republic writer, that polls showing only a small portion of the population shares his outrage at “Washington Redskins” are irrelevant. He claims it doesn’t matter how few people oppose the name because it is “objectively offensive,” a judgment not obviously true or even coherent, since taking offense would seem to be highly subjective. The suspicion that Tracy thinks it sufficient to demand that sensibilities like his should prevail because that’s what he really, really wants is supported by his catalog of other athletic teams with Indian names or logos he finds objectionable…

Being on the right side of history is about timing—but not just about timing. There’s more to it, that is, than getting where the crowd is headed a little before the crowd arrives, the key to making money in equities or real estate. The right side, for progressives, is the side they deem right, not just the thing that happens next. The causes that deserve to win are destined to prevail because, as Martin Luther King said in 1965, the “arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

That famous declaration, like others made in sermons, neither lends itself to nor profits from scrutiny. For one thing, it’s unfalsifiable—an assertion that something will eventually come to pass can always be defended on the grounds that it hasn’t come true yet. For another, what justice means and requires is the subject of an old, profound debate, not a standard that settles political problems the way the definition of an isosceles triangle settles geometry problems…

Modern tolerance does not aspire to the reciprocity classical tolerance sought, under which the spirit of live-and-let-live was to operate in all directions with equal force, rather than just for the benefit of some and to the detriment of others. Nonetheless, it might acquire a measure of self-restraint by incorporating the notion that making the right side of history the ultimate arbiter of all disputes argues for judging those on the wrong side less rather than more severely. The incumbent and preceding Democratic presidents are fond of quoting Judge Learned Hand’s maxim that the spirit of liberty is not too sure it is right. Many of their admirers pervert that rule’s meaning, however, by using it to condemn opinions they oppose rather than to examine and moderate the ones they hold. To scorn everyone else’s self-righteousness is the worst kind of self-righteousness

Americans would enhance domestic tranquility by giving offense—but also by taking it—less readily. Those having, or claiming to have, porcelain egos may secure political victories by wielding the power to shame and silence, but do not deserve respect. As the whole world becomes a china shop, the only way to avoid being a bull, or a bully, is to stand perfectly still, endlessly…

The politics of liberty, however, still offers a basis on which to defend pluralism and classical tolerance. If there’s a lot Americans can’t agree on, in other words, they need to get better at agreeing to disagree by refocusing on the rules of the game instead of the spirit in which it’s played. This gets politics back to upholding people’s rights, and out of the business of sparing their feelings. Thus, by virtue of having purchased Washington’s NFL franchise, Dan Snyder can call the team whatever he likes, calibrating as he sees fit the best response to the minority of American Indians offended by “Redskins” and the offsetting benefits of retaining an 80-year-old name. For all of the editorializing, then, it isn’t really a political question. The same can be said for Elane Photography’s decision not to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, or the Hobby Lobby’s resistance to Affordable Care Act rules mandating employee health care benefits that include abortifacients.

“Some people are in the business of being offended,” writes Thomas Sowell, “just as Campbell is in the business of making soup.” But as Sowell, an economist, advises, enterprises flourish when they are profitable, and grievance manufacturing is a growth industry because its practitioners “can get political or financial mileage out of being offended.” A diverse society cannot make tolerance work unless the government is vigilant about protecting our rights instead of our self-esteem. That retrenchment would help put America’s grievance-industrial complex out of business.

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One Response to On the right side of history

  1. Paul Marks says:

    Yes “being on the right side of history” Progressivism (whether in its Hegelian or Marxist forms) is vile. Stage theories of history, historical laws, the whole thing….. it is false.

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