The Most Radical Social Experiment in Modern History


Formulating a list of nominees is an interesting exercise. And it makes one thing clear: same sex marriage is nowhere near the top.

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Writing in National Review in the hyperbolic language that social conservatives in the gay marriage debate so often adopt, Dennis Prager declares that "nothing as radical as redefining marriage to include members of the same sex has ever been publicly supported by a president of the United States," and goes on to claim that it is "the most radical social experiment in modern history." It isn't uncommon to hear this sort of claim from gay marriage opponents, so it's worth taking on.

Same sex marriage would permit gays to participate in an existing institution that encourages those who enter it to practice sexual fidelity, give emotional support, and provide financial stability. What social experiments in American history were more radical? I got to wondering. Here's what I came up with (assisted by my Twitter followers) :

1) The American founding, which began with the revolutionary overthrow of an existing regime and ended with the implementation of an untried form of government.

2) Plantation slavery as practiced in the American South, an arrangement different even than other forms of slavery, and one that involved the forced separation of African American family units. 

3) The near extermination of Native American civilization.

4) A civic rather than ethnic conception of citizenship coupled with massive waves of immigration.

5) Pioneering culture and its institutionalization in The Homestead Act.

6) The shift from an agricultural to an industrialized nation, with accompanying urbanization and the eventual introduction of innovations like the assembly line and legal collective bargaining. 

7) The Great Migration.

8) Eugenics and forced sterilization programs.

9) Women's suffrage.

10) Prohibition. 

11) The GI Bill.

12) The abolition of slavery - and many decades later, the Civil Rights Movement, including widespread acceptance of interracial marriage and the rise of colorblindness as the American ideal.

13) Women entering the workforce in large numbers during peacetime and the gradual rise of their economic and social equality.

14) The spread of railroad, automobile and air travel.

15) Legalized abortion.

16) The birth control pill.

17) No fault divorce.

18) The all volunteer army.

19) In vitro fertilization.

20) Television as a form of entertainment that accounts for four to five hours of the average adult's waking time. 

21) The rise of the Internet.

I've mostly focused on radical experiments that had a tremendous impact on American life, but there were, of course, even more radical experiments that had their advocates but never took hold, from the various utopian communities that have operated here to fringe religious groups to Communists and anarchists. And there are any number of things left out and substitutions that might be made.

Still, the list above is perfectly suited for setting up this question: Could you tell us, Dennis Prager, how many of those 21 items you regard as less radical social experiments than gay marriage?

As I see it, all of them are easily more radical. At the very least, the statement that prompted this whole exercise -- the notion that same sex marriage is "the most radical social experiment in modern history" -- seems obviously wrong, and gay marriage opponents should stop exaggerating.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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