John McWhorter takes aim at something that has annoyed me as well, the fact that so many politicians who are changing their positions on whether gay couples should be allowed to get married have described themselves as “evolving” on the subject.
Our times can lend ordinary words new shadings. It used to be that one thought of a fossil embedded in rock, but especially since the Iraq War, embed calls most immediately to mind a reporter covering military activity. In the same way, evolution these days is no longer about Darwin and finch beaks. Rather, the public figure opting to espouse a previously controversial position now tells us that their views have “evolved.” It is, in truth, a weaselly business.
And a ubiquitous one. “The term ‘evolving view’ has been perhaps overused, but I think it is an appropriate term for me to use,” Senator Lisa Murkowski said Wednesday, stopping just shy of endorsing gay marriage. What tipped the new usage would seem to have been President Obama’s claim that his take on gay marriage was “evolving,” after which he finally came out in favor. Since then Hillary Clinton tells us her views on gay marriage have “evolved,” while Sean Hannity, not usually one for intellectual flexibility, has come out as having “evolved” on immigration.
But these evolutions seem always to be towards targets that will lend political advantage. Indeed, the word evolution is handy, in this new variation on its usage, in its connotation of progress, enlightenment. One once was lost but now one sees. One does not say, then, that one’s views have simply changed, which would leave one open to the “flip-flopper” charge that so hobbled John Kerry in his attempt to elucidate his position on the War in Iraq.
I found Obama’s “evolution” on this matter particularly irritating because it was so obviously calculated. Does anyone really believe that he did not think gay couples should be allowed to get married before he “evolved” on the matter? I can’t imagine why. It just wasn’t politically safe to do so and Obama is, first and foremost, a shrewd and careful politician. I guarantee you that his public announcement of having finally “evolved” only happened after many meetings with Axelrod and Plouffe and a good deal of polling data analysis to determine that it would not hurt his reelection bid and might well help it.
But in reality, this is actually a good thing for equality. Few politicians can ever be counted on to do the right thing just because it’s the right thing, especially when it hurts them politically. So the fact that it is now politically advantageous to be in favor of equality clears a major roadblock and paves the way for real progress. Politics almost always trumps principle, so having political leaders take such positions for political purposes is actually a great sign.