Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Aaron Belkin and the Palm Center: "How We Won": Kindle Book traces the history of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and its ultimate repeal

Suthor: Aaron Belkin


Title: "How We Won: Progressive Lessons from the Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’"

Publication: Kindle, from The Huffington Post Media Group, ASIN: B0005NDLMVK, 108 pages, ten chapters


I was able to find this book only on Kindle; no hardcopy seems available.  I don’t know whether it would work on the Barnes and Noble Nook device.  So I finally bought a Kindle, which up to now I had not needed.  I find it a little distracting that the Kindle needs its own wireless access; why not just download everything on the laptop and migrate using the USB port?  Amazon lists the book as 108 pages, but they seem to be two columns per page;  one page on the Kindle is really one column only, so the real length was 216.

The book is timely, as on Sept. 20, 2012, ‘we’ will mark the first anniversary of the full repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

Dr. Belkin is a professor of political science at San Francisco State University, and previous was an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara and previously, the City University of New York.

In the 1990s, Belkin headed the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military (CSSM),  which became the Palm Center a years ago, always hosted at the Santa Barbara campus (link). 

In February 2002, shortly after my own “forced retirement” from my final “legacy employer”, I  met Dr. Belkin at his office during a trip to California.  I had sent him my own “Do Ask Do Tell: a Gay Conservative Lashes Back” book, and in his office, effectively the CSSM office at the time, he housed a large physical library of books on matters pertaining to the military gay ban and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy.

Dr. Belkin did tell me how difficult it was to get major media outlets to take the DADT issue seriously, now that it was overwhelmed by the more obvious issues associated with 9/11.  I do remember my conversation with him.

Let me say at the outset, I am impressed with the amount of historical detail – of  the military ban since 1993 -- in this relatively short work.  It is a good complement to Randy Shilts’s “Conduct Unbecoming” which stops in 1993.  (But it needs to be available in print.) . It’s important to note here that Palm Center has helped published two other books in the interim: one is Dr. Belkin’s own "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell: Debating the Gay Ban in the Military" (2003, Lynne Rienner), and Nathaniel Frank, “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America” (2009, St. Martins), reviewed on this blog March 11, 2009).

Of course, Belkin’s position will be that his own effort (and that of people he hired and contacted) was crucial to the repeal.  The book suggests that it would be very difficult for a future hostile (GOP?) president and Congress to undo the repeal and reimplement the military ban (maybe the “Old Ban” of 1981 with “asking”).  However, in recent press stories, Dr. Belkin has indeed expressed this concern (see my GLBT issues blog, Sept. 9, 2012.

Belkin starts his book by laying out what he sees as the right arguments to attack. While progressive activists concern themselves with fairness and equality, the productive argument is to show that the practice of banning gays does not contribute to military effectiveness; it may be counterproductive or even dangerous.  Abstract ideas about morality are not the issue.

Belkin does, however, quickly get on to the most conspicuous early arguments made back in 1993, that allowing gays to serve (at least “open” gays) violated “privacy” in the barracks where a degree of forced “homosocial” intimacy must occur.  Over time, this argument has gotten overlaid with a more nebulous notion of “unit cohesion”, as was explained in the 2011 HBO Film “The Strange History of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’”, movies blog, Oct. 13, 2011). Belkin sees this argument as morphing into a more generalized moral disapproval of homosexuality (or of homosexuals as people).  Indeed, as he points to writings by Elaine Donnelly  (of the “Center for Military Readiness”) which “warn” that acceptance of gays in the US military would tend to promote of homosexuality in civilian society at large.  (Belkin mentions Republican Senator Alan Simpson as once saying that gays [relative to procreation] weren't part of the "human family" but then changing his attitude and agreeing that the ban should be lifted.) That corresponds to my own theory (as in my own 1997 book) that the military, because it has had the ability to conscript men in the past (as with me, during the Vietnam era) has a lot of influence on the moral culture of a society as whole, particularly in nebulous ideas about duty and obligation (outside of normal parameters of choice and personal responsibility) and how these ideas about social (familial, tribal, communal, religious) cohesion (as an expansion of “unit cohesion”) affect those individuals who grow up being “different”.

Belkin, for example, points out that the whole “stop-loss” policy, practically a backdoor draft (and the “Individual Ready Reserve” clause signed at enlistment)  might have been unnecessary during the “second Iraq War” (and post 9/11 war in Afghanistan) had all the gay discharges not occurred.  He also discusses the security threat in the loss of linguists, which could have been a contributing factor in failing to stop 9/11 (although Jesse Ventura has other ideas on this matter!)  I reviewed Paramount’s film “Stop-Loss” on my movies blog March 29, 2008.

A major part of Belkin’s narrative concerns the effort of his group to get articles written in major media sources by major columnists and also by others with obvious expertise and stakes, like retired military.  He says this was difficult, and he provides interesting observations on how the Associated Press, in particular, works.  (I’ve covered AP issues on my main blog in conjunction with copyright controversies on the Internet.)  He had to “watch his step”, since more military officers seemed to favor the ban at first, although gradually changed their views.  After Barack Obama became president in 2009, Belkin got into disagreements with SLDN (Servicemembers Legal Defense Network) over whether there was the political will in Congress to support direct repeal.  Belkin supported a plan that Obama issue an Executive Order to stop enforcement.  Even the White House expressed misgivings about the legal or constitutional logic of Belkin’s suggestion.  Belkin also disagreed with Log Cabin Republicans over the wisdom of litigation, but in the end, LCR turned out to be right, as the lower court’s decision effectively nullifying the law put pressure on Congress to agree to a staged repeal.

The later part of 2010 saw initial disappointment with the likelihood of repeal., until activists (with the help of Senator Joe Lieberman, whose view on lifting the ban had become much more supportive over the recent years since 9/11 and the linguists’ fiasco) came up with the idea of a stand-alone repeal bill, during the lame duck session in December.

I personally attended the mid-day rally at the Capitol side (near Union Station) on December 10, about when the bill was introduced.  As I got off the Metro to go, right to the rally event, I got a call from a caregiver at home (in suburb an Arlington VA) that my own mother had suddenly gotten much worse and would not survive more than a few hours.  I stayed for the rally (hearing Michele Benecke, who had headed up SLDN, speaking almost immediately), and after I got home Hospice was taking her to the Hospice facility for her final four days.  She lived  just long enough for a lifelong project of mine to come to fruition., and then, at age 97, let go.

We all know of what would follow, the surveys and the “certification process” that would finally end in formal repeal September 20.  And, I have to admit, I am concerned about what could happen if social conservatism takes control of the White House and Congress, and then blames or scapegoats the nation’s economic ills on the visibility and personal values of those who are different.

There’s another interesting embedded story in the book about the late Northwestern University sociology professor Charles Moskos, who had, along with Sam Nunn, raised the “privacy” issue in the barracks back in 1993.  He says that, during most of his activity in the past decade, Moskos cast doubt on repeal.  Yet, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. Moskos argued for restoration of the military draft (to include women), as had some others, such as Sen. Levin of Michigan.  I got into an email conversation with Moskos then (I was living in Minneapolis at the time), who wrote to me “Gays should get behind conscription.  Then the ban would be lifted.”

In fact, SLDN told me, sometime later, by email, that it was looking into the ramifications of the possible restoration of the military draft.  As I noted above, it has always seemed to me that a combination of conscription and a ban together provides an excuse for making gays second-class citizens in civilian life (and for denying security clearances), which was the world in which I had grown up.  But, of course, when we had a draft, the military was actually more concerned that people would use it to get out of military service, and it tended to look the other way during the Vietnam era on concerns over gay soldiers.  (The Navy even at first tried to resist discharging Keith Meinhold when he outed himself, but did so under political and public pressure.)

Moskos had, in fact, at one time paid attention to the issue of gay students in college dorms, and argued that they should be segregated.  It was roommate issues that catalyzed my own expulsion from William and Mary in 1961.

Belkin also notes the Veterans Administration made a goof in 1996 by calling homosexuality a mental illness in trying to deny some veterans benefits.

I found this debate (85 minutes) from early 2012 of a debate between Aaron Belkin and Elaine Donnelly on DADT at Maxwell Air Force Base on YouTube.

I haven’t watched it yet – time considerations.  Note that the debate takes place in Alabama.