Something we hear a lot of today is the challenge to be on the right side of history. Depending on what you expect that side to be, you are either encouraged or horrified to consider what that challenge means.
For me, the most powerful moment in Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret” (done to perfection in the film version, I think) is in the beer garden scene. An apple-cheeked young tenor is shown in close-up as he begins to sing an engaging song of optimism, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” which gradually engages the patrons, who rise to sing with him.
As the camera pulls back, we discover the singer is a member of Hitler Youth, complete with khaki uniform and swastika armband. And in the crowd, only a grizzled old man remains seated and dismayed.
I shake each time I see that scene, and I can feel my body tense as it approaches, whether on screen or on stage. No doubt, the desire of the characters in that vignette is to be on the right side of history.
Clarence Darrow was the attorney for the defense of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two college students who had committed a murder just to get away with the perfect crime. Near the end of his very long (like 3-day) summation he argued at length against the death penalty for this crime, insisting that capital punishment would eventually be outlawed entirely.
In a particularly impassioned moment (it is clear even just reading it), he insists, “I know the future is on my side.” Multiple times, he referenced the trends in the law and public opinion, asserting the inevitability of the abolition of legal execution.
He was right for a while. Then he was wrong. I think it is slightly dangerous to find wisdom in Darrow’s words.
I am struck by the deluge of reactionary legislation in statehouses all over the country. So much of it has to do with gender and sexual identity.
I am genuinely mystified at the hysteria in some quarters over love, libraries, and lavatories, all of which are drawing more regulation than pollution and food safety these days (which, face it, are more likely to threaten heterosexual lawmakers than gender-neutral bathroom stalls). The scramble to erect blockades to the honest public expression of an honest internal landscape says more about the insecurity of the proponents of these barbed-wire barriers than anything else.
They are fighting a losing battle and, as such, are on the wrong side of history. You may hear that as a moral judgment, but it is not. It is a practical one.
Everyone knows and loves someone who is gender non-conforming, just like everyone knows someone who has a same sex orientation, just like everyone knows someone with Type B Positive blood. Being unaware leaves that detail where it ought to be: the private business of the individual person. And as the transformative campaign for marriage equality showed, that personal connection is the most effective tool in overcoming bias.
Unlike the past, however, the future is not irreversible. Darrow did not live to see the death penalty essentially outlawed by the Supreme Court, but it was. He also did not live to see that decision effectively nullified.
There is no limitation to the havoc that can be caused by unshakeable opinions and unlimited resources. It helps if you have a catchy song and a sweet-faced child to sing it, but even that isn’t necessary.
Mostly, you need fear. If more people were afraid of being executed than being the victim of a capital crime, Darrow would be right again.
The aspiration Darrow expresses in this piece of wisdom reflects a confidence in the moral arc of the universe (as he perceived its curvature). It is tinged with outrage and arrogance, which is not unusual for a defense attorney’s summation. Because I agree with him in this circumstance, I include it as a bit of wisdom, worth inspiring every righteous cause.
But lots of people want the future to be like the past in any one or another of its many iterations. They want to set a particular moment in concrete and put a boot on the wheels of progress. The past or its resultant present is on their side, and they want the future to be also.
So before taking too much inspiration from Darrow, it is worth asking yourself whether the right side of history on which you wish to be is one of progress or retreat. I know which side I hope I am on.