In what can only be described as a failed gotcha moment, an anti-vaxxer recently emailed me a diatribe that contained the following challenge: “Name one time that the people forcing compliance on others were on the right side of history.”
It took approximately 1.9 seconds for me to think, “Brown v. Board of Education,” but I didn’t bother to email him my answer because I don’t engage with trolls.
In any case, the anti-vaxxer’s sad attempt to stump me did have an unintended effect. It got me thinking about the reverse scenario: “Name one time that White conservatives fighting social progress were on the right side of history.”
Perhaps I’m biased, but I can’t think of a single issue over the last hundred years or so when rich White men maintaining the status quo turned out to be the good guys. Think of women’s suffrage, civil rights, the Vietnam War, interracial marriage, immigration reform, and on and on.
Would anyone make a movie about the labor movement where the heroes are the businessmen who sent in thugs to bust open the heads of striking workers? And other than a few right-wing lunatics, does anybody think McCarthyism was a shining moment in our nation’s history? Even on symbolic measures, such as making Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, the conservative point of view has not aged particularly well. None of this has stopped right-wingers from proclaiming their own glory.
We’ve heard that a conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop.
First off, that is an odd thing to be proud of. It’s like wanting praise because you shouted at the weather.
More important, has that tactic ever worked? I mean, have conservatives ever stopped history? Yes, they’ve delayed the inevitable, and continue to do so to the present day. But never have they actually halted a social movement or reversed the gains that progressives have made. Why do they want credit for attempting something so futile? Why are they thrilled to cause harm, and then blasé about their apology when history inevitably shows that they were wrong?
Now, conservatives will tell you that their job, in addition to tossing money at rich people, is to make sure that society doesn’t change too quickly. In their view, radical developments can twist our culture into knots and leave Americans shell-shocked.
But that provokes a whole new set of rhetorical questions.
When has social progress ever been too fast? For example, were Black people not ready to have voting rights in 1930, so it’s a good thing we pushed it to the late 1960s? Was America well-served by having gay marriage prohibited until 2010, because two women getting married a decade earlier might have had the disastrous consequence of making them happy?
To be fair, it is virtually impossible for a political philosophy to have survived decades and be wrong about everything. So I’m sure there are examples of conservatives reigning in the worst impulses of liberals. But I just can’t identify them.
That may be because our government is so center-right that even moderately progressive ideas with popular support face incredible pushback. The “excesses” of progressives are imaginary when basic liberal ideas never get going.
Keep in mind that even before Trump became the ghastly symbol of right-wing bigotry, the Republican Party had an impressive history of engaging in horrific behavior, brushing aside its vile deeds, plowing forward into the next monstrosity, and repeating the same process over and over again.
Perhaps because they have gotten away with appalling behavior for so long, Republicans have now gone full-throttle authoritarian, embracing a slow-motion coup and urging their supporters to boast openly about instigating a civil war.
At some point, even mainstream media outlets will stop presenting the laughable “both sides” argument. They will have to admit that people who want to overthrow the government and install a bigoted theocracy are not serious individuals with a legitimate point of view. By that point, however, we may be into the ninth year of the second Trump administration, with oligarchy firmly entrenched and democracy written off as some ludicrous failed experiment.
But to get back to my anti-vaxxer friend, he might like to know that many commentors believe there is no right or wrong side of history. According to one theory, there is just the ceaseless flow of time and the adjustment of social standards. This viewpoint is either comforting or depressing, depending on whether you want to be vindicated or have something to hide.
One thing we can say about the future, however, is that decades from now, we will see conservatives rhapsodizing about the good old days—that would be today, bizarre as it seems—and insisting that they have been correct all along.
And they will absolutely believe it.
Featured image by Open Grid Scheduler/CC0 1.0