I don’t do politics in this column.
For two good reasons: First, Lat asked me to write about life as an in-house lawyer or, at a minimum, an in-house lawyer’s perception of outside firms. If I wrote about politics, I’d be way off the mark. Second, I work at the world’s leading insurance broker for law firms. If I wrote about politics — no matter which side I took — I’d offend half my readers. Some of those offended readers would complain to their brokers, and I’d soon have a phalanx of brokers with pitchforks storming my office door.
But I’m throwing caution (and Lat’s instructions about topicality) to the wind today, and I’m posing a question that struck me recently: Set your mind back to 1983, the year in which I graduated from law school. Suppose, in 1983, someone posed this question to you:
Look into the future. When will each of these events occur? (1) We’ll elect an African-American President of the United States; (2) states will begin legalizing gay marriage; and (3) states will begin legalizing the use of marijuana. Which will occur first, second, and third, and in what years?
In 1983, my crystal ball would have been terribly cloudy.
I surely would have guessed that marijuana would be legalized in a relatively few years. After all, college students were smoking dope in large numbers by the late 1960s. By the late 1970s, studies showed that use of marijuana was ubiquitous; something like 90 percent of undergraduates said they had tried the drug at least once. By the 1980s, those young adults were coming into power; surely they’d use that influence to legalize something that they had tried themselves. (Think about it: In 1992, we elected a President who admitted that he had smoked pot, although he insisted that he hadn’t done it on American soil, or he hadn’t inhaled, or some such silly thing.)
Of my three events, which comes first? Here’s my prediction as of 1983: Marijuana will be legalized in many states no later than 1990.
Which comes next — African-American President or gay marriage?
As of 1983, both of those events are hardly visible in the far-distant future. (They would surely occur only long after man landed on Mars, which I might have slotted for the first decade of the 21st century. We had, after all, been to the moon a half dozen times between 1969 and 1972. How long could it be until we took the next “small step for [a] man,” for heaven’s sake?) I would have said there was only a slim chance that we’d elect a black President in my lifetime. Remember that African-Americans had just insisted on the right to sit at the front of the bus basically when I was in gestation, and Martin Luther King had had a dream when I was in first grade. In 1983, racial intolerance was still common in much of the country and hidden just beneath the surface elsewhere. Perhaps we would overcome that bigotry before my threescore years and ten had expired, but I wouldn’t have bet on it. I really didn’t think I’d see an African-American President in my lifetime.
Flash forward: In the year 2016, when Obama leaves office, we’ll have a whole generation of 11- and 12-year-olds who don’t remember a time when the President of the United States was not black.
(Frankly, if you’d asked me in 1983 which would come first — a black President or a female President — I would have gotten that one wrong, too. Compare the reactions to Jesse Jackson and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984: Jackson did surprisingly well in the primaries (coming in third behind Gary Hart and Walter Mondale), but Ferraro ended up on the ticket.)
African-American President? 2050, maybe.
Finally, gay marriage.
I swear that the answer in 1983 would have been “surely not in my lifetime, and probably not for centuries to come.” Unlike racial prejudice, which was at least kept beneath the surface in polite company in 1983, gay-bashing was, incredibly, still relatively accepted. (When some courageous classmates of mine hung a “GAP” — “Gay Alliance of Princeton” — banner from their window on campus in 1976, someone broke into their dorm room and ransacked the place. When another group of classmates chose to display a competing banner — “HUMP,” for “Heterosexual Undergraduate Males of Princeton” — many folks thought this was funny. The second banner surely was not widely condemned.)
And this was at Princeton, “situated and celebrated” in the liberal northeast. This wasn’t exactly a place renowned for intolerance. (Although, I confess, when the Students for a Democratic Society protested the Vietnam war on campus in the 1960s, they marched with a banner that read, “Even Princeton.”)
Gay marriage? As of 1983, I couldn’t have predicted the year when it would first be legalized. Heck, I’m not sure I could have predicted a century.
Shows what I know.
I wonder if my little thought-experiment — trying to set my mind back to 1983 — is somehow misleading or reveals some of my subconscious prejudices. Or perhaps I was (and remain) a product of my environment and was perceiving things in an unusually parochial way. But I’ll be interested to read in the comments (from readers old enough to set their mental clocks back to 1983) whether they think I have things all wrong.
Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com.