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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Gays in the Military: Social Reality vs. Conservative Blinders

Gays in the Military: Social Reality vs. Conservative Blinders
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

It's not likely that we'll hear a great deal about gays in the military during the coming election campaign. It's a matter of some substance and thus anathema to those unable to stand the rigors of serious thought; at the same time, though, it's not exactly a large and burning question for most people and thus a trifle to those few still capable of serious discussion about serious matters. Citizens were lucky, then, that the matter received any attention at all in the recent Republican debate — and lucky in more ways than one.

First, we were lucky to see how it helps reveal the real, substantial differences between liberals and conservatives in America. One might almost imagine that the entire question of gays in the military had been designed by liberals to help make conservatives look as bad as possible — at least if conservatives themselves weren't so willing to jump with both feet into the muck and slime that passes for their response to the issue.

Every Republican candidate is on record as supporting the current policy and not allowing gays to serve openly in the military; one suspects that they would oppose gays serving in the military at all if they could only think of how to get away with it. Every Democratic candidate is on record as supporting the elimination of this policy and opening the ranks to gays who are out of the closet. That there is absolutely no crossover or ambiguity is at least a little remarkable, especially since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is a policy originally created by a Democrat.

Many count Bill Clinton's compromise as a form of treason against gay rights and basic progressive values, and they are more than a little justified in this. At the same time, though, politics is a question of what's possible and getting things done — it's a process of compromise and slow progress, when progress can be had at all. Clinton's policy was probably the best deal that could be had at the time while waiting for the rest of the country to catch up socially.

The status of gays in the military also sharpens the conflict between reality and conservatives' wishful thinking: by allowing closeted gays to serve, conservatives are unable to argue that there is something intrinsically wrong with the presence of gays themselves. Only publicly gay people are a "problem," and somehow the revelation of one's sexual orientation — not their behavior, just their orientation — causes them to go from being a model of military discipline to troublemaker who has to be drummed out of the service. Only the desperately homophobic can accept this at face value.

Now that the rest of the country is moving forward socially, greater numbers of people see the problems in this policy and oppose it. No wonder conservatives hate Bill Clinton; it was they who made the Faustian bargain with him, not the other way around, and progressives who criticized the compromise may yet see reason to change their tune, at least a little. For now, though, we might take some pleasure at watching the cognitive dissonance as conservatives try to justify why the presence of gays is acceptable, but only so long as no one knows they are gay.

During the debate, candidates offered all sorts of excuses, none of which carry the least plausibility or can stand long against even moderate scrutiny. The most popular seems to be "morale" — they accuse the rest of the military of being too unprofessional to be able to do their job if they know there are any gays lurking about. That's a serious accusation against people in the military, a slur perhaps, but there is a little truth in it.

Not long ago many in the military were too unprofessional to be able to do their job if there were any blacks present, and they weren't too ashamed to make their lack of professionalism public in the most vicious ways. Not a few such unprofessional beasts lurk in the ranks yet today, but in the years since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was created their numbers have dwindled.

Perhaps that explains the viciousness of the reaction to the issue even being brought up. The question asked by Keith Kerr, a retired brigadier general and openly gay man, was good and fair; moreover it was phrased in a respectful and honest manner. Because the questioner supports a Democrat for president, though, conservatives see it as tainted — for them, it is marked by a stain that cannot be removed. Howling over the identity of the speaker is an obvious logical fallacy, of course, but more importantly, it is a well-tested diversionary tactic.

Not only are observers diverted from the poor answers given by Republican candidates, but also from the very question itself. Debate over a serious issue is replaced with a faux debate over whether a liberal should be permitted to ask Republicans any debate questions. CNN, of course, apologized for allowing any questions to be asked by anyone not given a thorough background check to ensure that they wouldn't disrupt the august proceedings with ideas that might cause trouble.

The League of Women Voters calls the current debates a "a fraud on the American voter...devoid of substance, spontaneity and honest answers to tough questions," and CNN is an active participant in that fraud. They present these media spectacles as "debates" when in reality, they are little more than scripted collections of sound bites — the relationship between real debates and these events is like the relationship between a real press conference and the fake conference created by FEMA not too long ago.

Society is moving forward on the question of gays in the military; more and more people know gays and discover that it's not such a big deal after all. Not so for the diehard adherents of modern American conservatism, though. Gays coming out of the closet and into the barracks is a graver danger to the republic than warrantless wiretapping, government-sanctioned torture, and being duped into war through lies. Better to live in chains than let queers out of the closet, that's the motto of the Republican Party — and perhaps more than a few religious extremists living in caves in the Middle East.

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