Don't Ask Hillary About Gay Rights -- She Won't Tell

When the story about General Peter Pace ripping the "immorality" of homosexuals broke last week, I didn't even bother to read below the headlines at first. Another bigot with stars gets too near a microphone and shoves his foot in the mouth -- ho hum. Where's the news there? The army isn't exactly a breeding ground for progressive social engineers, nor should it be, probably. Would you be interested in Dennis Kucinich's reviews of military hardware? I'm taking my views on the M-224 Whiskey Pete phosphorus mortar directly to the American people! Absurd, right? Well, then, why listen to some iron-headed Pentagon pol on the subject of gender tolerance?

The only thing that was really interesting about the story, from where I sat, was the reaction to it. A wave of politicians on both sides of the aisle came out and stated the obvious -- look, this "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy is ridiculous, it doesn't make even the slightest bit of sense anymore, let's junk it. Former Wyoming Republican Senator Alan Simpson wrote a piece blasting the policy, and the Washington Post, which has a habit of tiptoeing up to the right point of view about a decade late on things like this, wrote a surprisingly fierce editorial in support of the rights of gays to serve. It was beginning to look like Pace's outburst might serve as one of those unifying cultural catalysts, a fuck-up egregious enough to rally the Washington mob into a reluctant consensus.

Then I saw Hillary Clinton's comments.

Hillary was talking to ABC's Jake Tapper about a wide range of issues, mostly about the firings of the Attorneys General, an issue that is somewhat difficult for her to jump on with both high heels because of her husband's mass firing of AGs in 1993. But toward the end of the interview she hit on the Pace story, and the first half of her comments seemed to fall under the category of standard-issue, "I'm for whatever everyone else is for" politico-blather.

"General Pace has clarified his remarks, but let's not lose sight of the fact that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' is not working," she said. "We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desperately need, like translation skills. And one can argue whether it was a good idea when it was first implemented, but we know have evidence as to the fact that we are in a time of war -- when we really need as many people as we can to recruit and retain in an all-volunteer army -- we are turning people away or discharging them not because of what they've done but because of who they are."

This whole line of thinking is vaguely annoying, of course -- the idea that suddenly "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is bad policy because we need everyone we can get to fight this asinine war we're fighting. We fucked up so badly, we should even take fags now! Still, within that comment Hillary managed to call gays and lesbians "patriotic," and she also seemed to come down quite unequivocally on the right side of the nature-nurture question about homosexuality, making sure to identify homosexuality as "who you are," not "who you choose to be." With that statement alone, she basically alienates every born-again Christian in the country. Which makes it all the stranger that, when Tapper asked her if homosexuality was "immoral," she answered as follows:

"Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude," she said. "I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want make sure they can."

Let me get this straight. Hillary Clinton wants the most powerful office in the world, but she can't make her own decision about the morality of homosexuality? She's got to "leave that to others?"

When I read this, I thought to myself: man, this woman has been living with Bill Clinton way too long. Fifteen years after the 1992 campaign, she's trying to smoke the gay pipe without inhaling. She's just said that homosexuality isn't a choice, that it's something "you are" at birth. If that's what she believes, how could she possibly believe homosexuality is immoral? And if that is what she believes, how could she possibly not answer that question forthrightly? How could she duck Tapper's question there?

There are times, of course, when a politician may be excused for not answering a sticky political question. As the flap over Barack Obama's views about Palestine proved this week, people are not always rational and/or forgiving in the face of political candor. If an Obama can't make a simple declarative factual statement about the suffering of the Palestinian people without being gored on the AIPAC trident and whaled on in a host of heated talk-show segments, it's hard to blame some politicians for keeping their mouths shut when politically controversial topics arise.

But this question, the homosexuality question, this is different. We all know that we live in an era where politicians navigate whole careers in a sort of moral fog, with their eyes closed, using polls as instruments. We know that in most cases, when a politicians expresses an opinion on a controversial topic, he's most likely parroting our own views back to us, views that he discerned using paid cultural snoops like Zogby. Thus ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a politician's words are indistinguishable, from a marketing standpoint, from candy-bar wrappers. They test colors and fonts with focus groups, pick the one that gets the best numbers, and put it out there to see if it can beat Snickers.

We know that's the deal. But that crap doesn't fly with this gay-rights issue. In this case there is no future performance in office one is safeguarding with a careful, poll-tested answer. In this case the very act of answering the question is policy. When you're trying to combat bigotry and ignorance, you need to demonstrate actual human leadership, not computerized hedging. By punting the issue of the morality of homosexuality, Hillary dignifies the question. And let's all be clear about what's going on here. It was the word "morality" that had Hillary spooked. If you read the Democratic Leadership Council's press releases (and Hillary is the horse they're backing most forcefully in this race -- Hill's face is on the banner of their site), you know that they understand "moral values" to be the field of Marathon upon which the 2008 electoral battle will be won or lost. The DLC hacks speak in code in this area, but you can catch their meaning easily enough. Here's a review in Blueprint (the DLC’s magazine) by Jason Newman of a book about "family values":

This is not to say that Democrats can ignore such issues as abortion or gay marriage, topics that reasonable people of all faiths disagree on. There is common ground that can be found, as Miller notes, such as on the need to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
But Miller argues that Democrats must understand that America is one of the most religious countries in the world and confront those issues head on -- by showing respect and understanding for those who disagree on the hot-button social issues ...
In the DLC mindset, "confronting" issues head on basically means surrendering. When they say that we need to "understand" that America is a very religious country and "show respect" for people who disagree, what they really mean is we need to waffle as much as is humanly possible in the hopes that the Okies won't guess what we really believe. In Hillary's case, that means trying to reassure gays in one sentence by telling them that homosexuality is "who you are," and stroking swing-vote Christians in the next by saying that you’ll "leave it to others" to conclude the issue of the morality of homosexuality.

That's called seeing the fork in the road and taking it, folks, and on other issues it wouldn't be such a bad thing. But in this case it's an outrageously cynical failure of leadership. She’d have done better keeping her mouth shut and just issuing the following press release:
"On the issue of gays in the military, Senator Clinton is sincere in her belief that voters on both sides of the matter are fucking morons and will vote for her no matter what she says ..."
Because that's basically what she did, in a nutshell. Hillary thinks we're all stupid and that if we're robo-stroked often enough by her poll-generated paeans, we’ll pull the lever for her. Amazingly enough, in modern American politics, that's how you win on the "morality" issue.

The Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy was always a crock of shit, and I personally believe that it set back gay rights in this country decades. The military, after all, is the best vehicle America has for combating stereotypes. You can say all you want about the Iraq war and about the militarization of our society, but soldiers in combat -- at least what I saw -- are almost totally indifferent to race, class, even to gender now. Sure, there are cliques, but I never once heard a male soldier in Iraq bitching about having to serve in a shooting war with a woman, or with a black or an Asian or a Latino. All that shit about "we're all green" in the army, that's not a myth. If you put a million poor and middle-class kids from the red states in military service with openly gay men and women, prejudice against homosexuality in middle America would be completely dead in about ten years.

But that's not where we are, thanks to Bill Clinton. In retrospect, Don't Ask, Don't Tell was an astonishing act of political cowardice. Telling gay men and women that they had to hide who they were in order to earn the privilege of getting shot at for our idiot military adventures was almost worse than open bigotry.

It essentially institutionalized the Closet. And while everyone knows that policy's time is up, it may still linger unpleasantly for quite some time if the wrong people step into the White House after Bush. And if Hillary's latest gem is any indication, she's not one to put hopes on. The last person you’d expect to end a policy called Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a politician who makes a living not answering questions.

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