On The Wrong Side of History
Published on: July 27, 2011
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  • Brock

    “there is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by reasonable people on both sides of the ideological divide”

    No, there isn’t. Because accusing someone of being OTWSOH isn’t a rhetorical argument; it’s a beat-down. The purpose is to demoralize and shame, not to persuade. The only thing the OTWSOH accuser wants you to do is surrender.

  • WigWag

    “A utopian vision: The first lesbian President of the United States, hand in hand with her partner, is received in a private audience by the Pope (who, perhaps in the best tradition of the Borgia papacy, is himself bisexual).” (Peter Berger)

    If Andrew Sullivan and his blog, the Daily Dish, are to be believed, you don’t have to go back to the Borgia’s; Sullivan believes that the current Pope is gay.

    Here’s a quote from his post on the subject,

    “It seems pretty obvious to me – as it does to Angelo Quattrochi, whose book is reviewed by Toibin – that the current Pope is a gay man (just as it was blindingly clear that John Paul II was straight).”

    You can read Sullivan’s argument here and decide for yourself whether or not you find it convincing. By the way, don’t be confounded by the ironic title of the blog post.


    Professor Berger says,

    “But I think it is likely that the phrase “on the wrong side of history” comes more naturally to those on the left. Progressives, almost by definition, think that they know where history is going. After all, they are children of the Enlightenment and thus inheritors of the idea of progress. Marxists have been most cocksure about this.”

    I’m not sure that Professor Berger gets this quite right. It seems to me that Christian conservatives are also pretty cocksure about where history is going; after all, it’s all spelled out quite clearly in the Book of Revelations; the Rapture, the Tribulation, the Beast, the Lamb, the New Jerusalem and all that.

    It seems to me that if we compared the number of human beings throughout history have believed in Das Kapital with the number of people who have taken the Book of Revelations as the definitive word on where history is headed; the final book of the New Testament would win hands down.

    Don’t you think?

  • Professor Berger,

    A couple years ago I had a similar analysis that interpreted the “wrong side of history” argument for gay marriage through the lens of Granovetter AJS 1978.

  • Wigwag,

    I find it interesting that you find “the Rapture” to be “spelled out quite clearly in the Book of Revelations.” I would be grateful if you could elaborate on that particular claim. Or maybe you are just looking to bash a particular kind of evangelical Christian even though you aren’t all too familiar with the rationale behind such beliefs?

  • Tim

    More traditional conservatives, in the tradition of Burke or Kirk might are surely more humble about the direction of history. I find the current crop of “conservatives” to be as cocksure as any progressive. Many modern conservatives have picked up on the distressing arrogance and attraction to grand theories that used to characterize the Left. My observation is that the many failures of the Great Society and Clinton’s success signficantly humbled many on the Left, while at the same time, created the same, utopian, if more libertarian dreams, on the American Right.

  • charlie stephen

    The doctrine of progress was a bourgeois idea for centuries before the Left took it up. And as I’m certain Professor Berger is aware, the Christians knew which side of history was which; after all, it’s to Judeo-Christianity that we owe the whole concept of history, which interested the pagan world very little. Karl Lowith’s book is still worth reading — and by way, why does the Professor bend over backwards to deride the Left?

  • WigWag

    Professor Berger, I have re-read your post several times and the sentence that you wrote that kept jumping out at me was this one,

    “I think it is likely that the phrase “on the wrong side of history” comes more naturally to those on the left. Progressives, almost by definition, think that they know where history is going. After all, they are children of the Enlightenment and thus inheritors of the idea of progress.”

    Just as the phrase “on the wrong side of history” piqued your interest, the phrase “children of the Enlightenment” piqued mine, so I decided to apply the “Berger” test to those four words.

    I goggled “children of the Enlightenment” and in .54 seconds, I obtained “about” 1,920,000 possible hits.

    Here’s what I learned. I learned that many people consider Locke, Rousseau, Spinoza, Voltaire and Diderot to be “children of the Enlightenment” but this doesn’t seem quite right to me; aren’t they more like fathers of the Enlightenment than the Enlightenment’s children?

    I also learned Napoleon, Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine are considered “children of the Enlightenment” but then again, so is Robespierre.

    Critics of the Enlightenment, most of whom are not people you would consider to be “progressive” also have alot of opinions about who precisely the “children of the Enlightenment” are. Names that come up frequently from my goggle search included, Hitler, Stalin, Marx, Hegel and even Mao.

    Sigmund Freud is considered by several people to be an Enlightenment child as are Schiller, Mozart, Beethoven and Goya.

    Apparently, if the internet is to be believed, the Enlightenment is the source of much of the contemporary debate in the United States about abortion; after all, the right of women to autonomy over their own bodies which the left celebrates is one of the penumbras and emanations stemming from the Enlightenment. On the other side of the political divide, the fiercest abortion foes scowled that doctors who perform abortions are “children of the Enlightenment.”

    Naturally, all of this got me thinking about the Enlightenment itself; as I did so I harkened back to a post that you wrote several months ago about where the borders of the “West” were to be found. After all, the Enlightenment was a thoroughly western construction and it is in the west where Enlightenment values (whatever those are) are most highly appreciated.

    I think that you were speaking imperfectly when you called “progressives” children of the Enlightenment. The word “progressive” is rather imprecise; more than anything else, progressivism is about politics but not necessarily about leftist politics. After all, the current political party in power in Canada is the farthest right of Canada’s mainstream political parties and for decades it was called the “Progressive-Conservative” Party. Nor do I think its right to connect progressivism with the Enlightenment. After all, while the Reformation was a restorationist movement, it had progressive ends; it took place several hundred years before the Enlightenment.

    I think you would have been more correct to associate the Enlightenment with liberalism; but liberalism can’t be pigeon-holed as being either left or right either. It seems to me that social liberalism has a leftist tint while economic liberalism has a rightist tint.

    I think that most people who talk about the Enlightenment, including me, are frequently too careless in giving the Enlightenment too much credit as the progenitor of Western ideas. Liberalism may have finally been born during the Enlightenment but it had been gestating for centuries.

    I think that it’s during this centuries long gestation period that the West and the Confucian world and later the Islamic world parted ways.

    Think about Helen as an example; she chose to abandon Menelaus and take off with Paris. She was the cause of one of the most profoundly important wars in literature and when the Trojans were defeated, she returned to the Royal Court having taught her neglectful and chastened husband a lesson. Can you imagine a Confucian or Islamic version of Helen? I can’t. How many thousands of years before the Enlightenment did the Trojan War take place?

    Another ancient example can be found in Penelope. Think about her guile and strength in holding off the “suitors” as she waited for the return of Odysseus. Could she be anything else than a Western figure?

    Perhaps the best example is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath; was there ever a better Enlightenment hero than the Wife of Bath? I don’t think so but of course, Chaucer invented her at least 250 years before the Enlightenment began.

    My point is that the Enlightenment is not about “right” or “left” nor is it entitled to as much credit as it gets in defining the ideology that prevails in the Western world today.

    We are not “children of the Enlightenment.” We are children of the West.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Here’s a cognitive dissonance buster for you: last month France’s lower house of parliament rejected legislation that would have permitted gays to be legally married. Tradition, not OTWSH, prevailed. As one French lawmaker who sounds a lot like Emile Durkheim put it:

    “We are against homophobia but we do not want to alter the image and function of marriage in the collective subconscious.”

    Prof. Berger writes: “there is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by reasonable people on both sides of the ideological divide”

    It seems that even “enlightened” France has found a middle ground on marriage and gay marriage. More here: http://weekendlibertarian.blogspot.com/2011/07/shhh-france-defends-traditional.html

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    For those interested, Sam Schulman has made a progressive case against gay marriage from an anthropological perspective in order to protect the rights and freedoms of women.

    Schulman contends that legalized gay marriage will result in a return to concubinage for women.

    Thus, it might be contended that gay marriage is on the right side of history for gays, but not for women.

    Read here: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/SchulmanGayMarriage.php

  • Dean M.

    Jeffrey Satinover’s Homosexuality & The Politics of Truth takes the air out of the OTWSH balloon on this issue.

    As for being OTWSH, this notion presumes a form of historicism. There are different kinds of historicism, philosophical, anthropological, religious eschatological, etc.

    I like Karl Popper’s books on the subject, The Poverty of Historicism, and The Open Society & Its Enemies.

  • Kris

    “the insight that ‘the old aunts were right after all'”

    See also The Gods of the Copybook Headings.

    “It seems to me, though, that there is a fundamental recognition that can be shared by reasonable people on both sides of the ideological divide”

    Reasonableness is on the wrong side of history. 🙂

  • Beth

    Gay pope, straight pope… all that matters is a chaste pope.

  • Andrew

    Beth, I think the Irish, who are at present rather upset about hierarchy’s ongoing cover-up of priestly pedophilia, might disagree.

  • Jim.

    Berger’s utopia includes the Borgias in positions of authority? What kind of deeply sick man is this Berger character?

    The fact that he knows that that sort of corruption went on in previous centuries, and has been cleaned up (on and off) since then, clearly demonstrates that the entire teleological construct of “historicity” is absurd.

    The basic facts of human reproductive biology will provide a restoring force that takes us from the extreme and factually untenable position we have in some quarters nowadays (that homosexual pairings are not qualitatively different than heterosexual pairings) to the position that the vast majority of humanity has had for the vast majority of history.

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  • Hex

    The wrong side of history tends to be the one that’s opposed to a position that promotes equality, fosters empathy and understanding, and all around improves the quality of life for all by dissolving unnecessary divides.
    Religion is often OTWSOH. Barring some infrequent exceptions, by and large they’ve been pro-slavery, against interracial marriage, against gay marriage…etc.

    History has shown that the ‘zeitgeist’ moves, in general, towards more understanding and equality towards those deemed ‘different’ for reasons that turn out to be insignificant, or no reason at all that would warrant the wanton discrimination and hatred directed towards them.

    Simple enough? No need to write a long-ass essay trying to sound like a philosopher.

  • Foo Bar

    In the case of marriage equality, the OTWSOH argument is absolutely correct. Whether it happens in 2012, 2022, or later, it will happen.

    Young people OVERWHELMINGLY support marriage equality. They will enact it once enough of the old people either change their minds, or just die off.

    50 years from now, everyone will look back and wonder why people like you worked so hard to hold other people down.

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