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Flashpoint

November 30, 2013

FLASHPOINT: Getting right with history

I am ornery enough to never much worry about whether I am on the “right” side of history. An Indiana University historian, James H. Madison, on the other hand, writing in the Nov. 4 issue of the Indianapolis Business Journal, is worried that Hoosiers may fail to get right with history by incorporating into the Indiana Constitution a ban on same-sex marriage. It is not clear to me how he knows that embracing same-sex marriage is necessary to align our destiny with the forces of history, but he seems quite confident about what history demands on this subject.

Professor Madison has a purpose in recruiting history for this particular political battle, and it is not to better understand the past. It is to discredit the opposition to same-sex marriage. It is not enough to argue that defenders of traditional marriage are wrong as a matter of public policy. That argument begs discussion. No, it is necessary to claim that they are wrong by the objective, indisputable judgment of history rightly understood. This is, of course, a conclusion, not an argument, and it is intended to cut off discussion. Why, he implicitly asks, should anyone be taken seriously who elects to be on the wrong side of history?

I have tried to think of someone of note who staked out a stark position on a controversial social, political or religious issue and thought to himself, “What a joy it is to be on the wrong side of history.” I can’t come up with a single example. It is certainly true that there were men of note who, in retrospect, were terribly wrong on the most important issue of their time (John C. Calhoun comes to mind), but they did not will to be wrong. What for such men was a dimly perceived future is for the self-confident seer a cloudless past.  

Whittaker Chambers famously thought that in abandoning the Communist Party he was leaving the winning side for the losing side, but he didn’t believe that the winning side was the right side. For him, it was not merely reasonable but morally imperative to choose the losing side, at least insofar as his contemporaries were the judge of such things.

Justice Kennedy, in his opinion for the Court holding the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, claimed that the only purpose of the Act was “to demean” gays. That is a remarkable charge to make against the members of Congress who voted for it and the president (Bill Clinton) who signed it. It is, however, typical of the tenor of an argument that would have simply been inconceivable a mere generation ago.

Closing down debate is now standard operating procedure on the left. Once progressives decide that a “right” exists, the cloture motion is filed and the discussion is over. These strong-arm tactics are no big secret. We see them employed every day from protestors shouting down speakers whose opinions are unwelcome to a university president picking sides in a contentious and largely partisan constitutional dispute. The shame is that these tactics work because most people prefer to avoid nastiness and timidity is seen as a virtue on the right. A credentialed and respected historian plays fast and loose with the discipline of his profession because he figures he won’t be called on it, certainly not by his peers.

Whittaker Chambers saw it coming. In March of 1954, he inquired of a friend: “Why … has the Right scarcely a voice that speaks for it with authority or conviction — or without the curse of faint apology?”

That remains the question of the hour.

Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation living in Indianapolis, is retired from the private practice of law. He served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.

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