Last Thursday, John McCain said repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is “obviously a transcendently important issue.” (The quote is at the 47 minute mark.)
What if it isn’t?
I don’t mean to say that equality isn’t important – even transcendently important. I obviously think it is.
But what if the goal of repeal, and maybe even the goal of equal rights in general, is to reduce the amount of time, effort and resources so many people believe we have to spend discriminating? What if our whole movement is ultimately about reassessing whether it’s not just fairer, but easier all around if Americans could view homosexuality as not such a big deal?
There is more than a little evidence in the Pentagon survey to suggest that we have hit and passed just that tipping point. The enormous percentages of troops who have actually served with someone they believe to be homosexual and don’t see what all the fuss is about attest to a truism that is nearly a cliché in movies: The ragtag bunch of misfits who bring their peeves and prejudices to their unit find that the only way to survive this man’s army is by working together. Unit cohesion isn’t a prerequisite to cooperation, it’s a result of it.
McCain and others seem irritated that only 28% of troops responded to the survey. They argue that 72% of troops believed the fix was in, and couldn’t bring themselves to provide their own answers.
That’s a bit of a stretch. Do they really believe there is so much cynicism among the young troops? Could it be that some of our elder statesmen are attributing their own world-weariness to a different generation? Given the potency of anti-gay sentiment among those who still harbor it, it seems unlikely that troops who had the opportunity to be counted on the earth-shattering question of vile tolerance would stand down.
As the report’s authors testified, a 28% response rate is more than statistically sound, fully consistent with prior military surveys, and is light years beyond the infinitesimal samples who are polled by very smart professionals in the political world on every subject under the sun, with degrees of accuracy that sometimes approach mysticism.
McCain cannot seem to accept that the world might have changed around him, and that the transcendent importance he attributes to sexual orientation isn’t so widely shared any more. And the context of the hearings couldn’t better illustrate the disproportion of the obsession with homosexuality. However important – or not – DADT is, is funding the nation’s entire military really the secondary consideration? Yes, attaching repeal to the funding bill was a political move — big surprise. But it’s political mostly in the sense that it illuminates the self-indulgence of politicians who are hellbent on catering to a dying prejudice.
To McCain, it is the status quo – the institutionalization of prejudice – that is transcendently important. He is defending DADT as if it were a principle, rather than a political compromise that no one liked in the first place, but everyone could agree on in order to extricate Bill Clinton from his failed political promise to gays. That promise proved to be premature for our politics, and the military has had to live with DADT’s bizarre strictures ever since as penance for Clinton’s sins.
The politics of 1993 have dissipated, and that’s helped a new generation see the eccentricities and outlandishness of this policy, whose sole premise is the virtue of lying. There is an enormous chasm between the people who can shake their heads at that absurd notion and the ones who embrace it, and feel pressed to defend it to the death.
There is good reason to believe the troops are ready to move past the Byzantine machinery of this particular prejudice, which their elders wasted so much time on. Even McCain has no substantive arguments left, and has to resort to creaky process complaints: We need more studies, we have to have be able to propose amendments, Harry Reid is so darn mean to us!
McCain may still be able to prevail on this unheroic course. Delay is the last refuge of a political scoundrel, and Washington is full of political scoundrels of both parties. But if McCain is able to eke out some sort of success on his self-imposed mission, it will not be a victory for anyone, himself included. The change he fears has already happened, and all that’s left is to remove a dead body from the statutes. It’s mostly gone from the troops, and from the culture. All that’s left is the complaints of the losers.