The Progressive Mask Comes Off

By Heather Wilhelm Published on May 1, 2015

Yesterday, on my way into Chipotle, I crossed paths with a guy wearing a bright pink t-shirt that screamed the following, in all caps: “I STAND ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY.” Unsurprisingly, he looked rather proud of himself. He also looked like he might punch you if you questioned his political beliefs, so I simply sighed and went on my merry way into Hillary Clinton’s Fake Favorite Restaurant.

But seriously: What did the guy want, a trophy? A shirt declaring you’re “on the right side of history,” regardless of the issue — in this case, it was gay marriage — might be the most self-centered, self-congratulatory garment in the entire world. The only competitor that comes to mind are those t-shirts with the arrows pointing to the wearer’s biceps that say “WELCOME TO THE GUN SHOW,” and those at least have the merit of being funny.

Much has been said about the absurdity of stating that a person or idea is “on the right side of history”— a belief that history is a linear, upward trajectory to an ever-improving society, punctured by occasional purifying conflicts. Looking back at the actual past, alas, tells a different story: History, if anything, seems cyclical, and it is alternately weird, crazy, confusing and cruel. Villains sometimes win. Dictators rise. People enslave other people. Wars erupt. There may be good and evil, and there may be ultimate cosmic justice at the hands of God, but human history has no “right” side for one reason: Bad things will inevitably happen again. (I, for one, have a close eye on Japanese robot “nursemaids” and the growing, lurking army of driverless cars.)

The overarching meaning of history is not a small topic, and it certainly makes for an interesting philosophical debate. But in the case of the smug pink t-shirt, ostensibly created to protect gay rights, the subtexts of history are a merely an irrelevant sideshow. In the end, there was only one important word on that guy’s t-shirt, and it wasn’t “history” or even “right.” It was “I.”

The shirt, in other words, served as a simple form of social positioning and signaling. It granted superiority, separating the wearer from erroneous thinkers and rubes. Together with a growing host of “correct” cultural signifiers and accessories, it also effectively reveals the growing tribalism — and authoritarianism — of the progressive left.

Sociologists and anthropologists bemoan the demonization of “the Other,” a process often attributed to imperialism, racism, sexism, or any instance where oppressive, powerful forces are bent on justifying the subjugation of certain groups. Lately, it seems that certain groups in America are mentally classifying a new, mysterious “Other” — and if you’re not a doctrinaire liberal with doctrinaire stances on certain social issues, you’re likely a part of it.

We’re now sadly familiar with the shunning that surrounds the issue of gay marriage: Just last week, a judge suggested a mind-boggling $135,000 fine for an Oregon family who refused to bake a cake for a lesbian wedding. But the net is cast far wider than that.

Last week, speaking at a Women in the World Summit in Manhattan, Hillary Clinton declared that “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” when it comes to issues like abortion. Really? That’s kind of a big deal, is it not? She sounds like she’s on the Totalitarian Side of History! One can practically see the cartoon caricatures of primitive, benighted Christians skulking around in Ms. Clinton’s mind, clinging to their religion and their silly respect for inconvenient human life: that pesky Other, always getting in the way of progress.

The “right side of history” crowd, it seems, views the future from a higher level than the rest of us — and their vantage point comes from the lofty driver’s seat of a giant, marauding, proverbial bulldozer. When you know what’s right for everyone else in the world, after all, opposition must be quickly and efficiently crushed. The best way to get away with this is to disguise totalitarianism as “freedom.”

Regardless of what you think about gay marriage — and I think the government should get out of the “marriage” business altogether, leave churches alone, and stick to civil unions for gay or straight couples — that’s exactly what’s happening today. In approximately one month, there is a good chance that a single Supreme Court justice, Anthony Kennedy, will essentially decide the meaning of marriage for everyone in a country that purports to be free. If gay marriage is declared a constitutional right, the repercussions for churches, religious schools and the freedom of religion in general might surprise even the most ardent t-shirt wearer.

This seems kind of strange, doesn’t it, not to mention capricious and tenuous? How did we get to this point? It certainly doesn’t sound like the Right Side of History. Don’t worry, though. In future iterations of this drama, we’ll be repeatedly assured that it is.



Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas.

This article originally appeared April 29, 2015 at Real Clear Politics, and is reprinted with their permission.

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