Monday, December 27, 2010

The Repeal of DADT

"Don't Ask Don't Tell" has finally been repealed. It is time now to look back on the hypocrisy of those who maintained a "separate but equal" philosophy regarding gays and lesbians serving in the military.

Remember the "unit cohesion" argument? That was a popular and prevailing argument in the 1990s. It appears ridiculous to most people today, but it is worth reminding ourselves that we have had our fair share of ridiculous convictions in our past. Consider "separate but equal," the jurisprudential doctrine that upheld Jim Crow laws in the South for over half a century. There is actually a common thread linking "separate but equal" of the 1890s with the "unit cohesion” argument of the 1990s. Those arguing for racial segregation a century ago believed that people of different races should not interact with each other, and the nation's highest court codified this belief. Writing for the majority, Justice Henry Billings Brown argued that Louisiana's Separate Car Act (which provided for separate railway carriages for the "white" and "colored" races) was intended to preserve “public peace and good order” and was therefore a “reasonable” exercise of the legislature’s police power.

The argument in the 1890s was that the races should be kept in separate facilities to preserve "good order." That's not too different from the argument of the 1990s that homosexuals who are out of the closet should not serve in the military so that "unit cohesion" is preserved. In both cases, a specter of chaos and disaster was invoked to justify inequality. In both cases, what fueled this fear wasn't just ignorance and fear of the unknown, but obstinate ignorance - ignorance so virulent and shameless that its army was able to codify irrationality into public law.

It would be remiss, then, to not point out the hypocrisy of those who defended "Don't Ask Don't Tell" based on the "unit cohesion" argument. It would appear the only people whose morale were affected by the repeal of DADT are people who just aren't comfortable being around gays and lesbians. This is a classic example of psychological transference. The unit cohesion argument is too often, a smokescreen for unreflective bigotry, as if a concern for military readiness was really what was at stake in the debate. The fact is that gay men and women have served in the military since the revolutionary war without incident, and openly serving gay men and women have served in militaries around the world, also without incident.

If someone feels that they cannot serve their country well because they are serving alongside somebody with whom they cannot "socially cohere," this person should just get over it. It's called an education. Too often in our history, even though the problem does not reside in disaffected members of the in-group, members of the out-group are the ones who have found themselves legally marginalized. Consider the callousness with which the Supreme Court opined in 1896, "If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them upon the same plane." In effect, the racist majority in the Court had decided that if there was an "inferior" race, it wasn't the fault of the "superior" race that the world is just as it is. Just like that, racial segregation was deemed constitutional and morally legitimate.

The history of "Separate but Equal" and "Don't Ask Don't Tell" teaches us that when we fail to ask, or to interrogate the spuriousness of reasons offered in defense of irrational public policies, then irrationality prevails and it can continue to do so for decades. When we ask, we invite fellow citizens to consider their unspoken premises and their unreflective fears. That has always been how America, a country born during the Enlightenment, managed to emerge from our dark ages.

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