Sunday, December 19, 2010

DADT Repeal: A Victory Not for D.C.'s Beltway Culture, but for Ordinary Citizens

I'm going through the commentary this morning about the DADT repeal vote, and noting the extent to which commentators are willing to spin this victory as a victory for the very folks who have made the repeal process so tormented, so unnecessarily vacillating.  Congress and the president are receiving credit for having made a courageous decision that they should long since have made, while the real heroes who have made this possible are people like Lieut. Dan Choi, Fr. Geoff Farrow, and many others, who have been arrested protesting the policy in D.C.

The illusion of so many of those who comment on the political life of the U.S. is that the significant things that happen politically at the top of our culture happen due to the intelligence, initiative, and managerial ability of those at the top.  But that's hardly the case.  They happen because people with consciences and courage--"ordinary" citizens--push for them to happen, and refuse to accept the duplicitous side-stepping of political leaders.

Abolition happened, ultimately, because citizens like Thoreau were willing to withhold his taxes to protest slavery, and to go to jail as a result.  It happened because a minority of folks of conscience, who were treated by the social mainstream as malicious misfits and cranks, kept insisting that principle mattered in this debate--more than anything else.  More than pragmatism.  More than "seeing both sides."  More than "everybody has his views."  More than "who can tell anyone how to interpret the scriptures?"

Principle.  Principle that, in the case of recognizing the full humanity of any other human being, and granting any other human being the full range of human rights that applies to him or her, must never bend, even when one makes pragmatic compromises of one sort or another to apply that principle in the public realm, and to see it upheld by law and custom.  Principle that has to be brought front and center in cultural debates about cultural shifts that are all about core principles, before effective action can ever take place to serve principle.

It was not the beltway culture of D.C. that brought principle to the fore in the DADT debate.  It was ordinary citizens who did so, to the point that some 80% of our citizens had to stand in opposition to what the beltway culture of D.C. finally recognized was inevitable, when it at last--grudgingly, after unbelievable theater of the absurd--yielded to the conscience of the nation and decided to stop open discrimination in one of our major institutions.

I'm not ungrateful for what the political leaders of the country, particularly people of principle like Patrick Murphy--have done to make this possible.  But I cannot concur with those who permit these leaders, most of whom have done everything possible to defer and even impede this moment, to take credit for what happened yesterday in D.C.  To give most of those political leaders credit for the shift in conscience that made repeal of discrimination possible is to misunderstand how political change occurs in the U.S.  

It occurs not because the beltway culture employs conscience and urges conscience-based change as it analyzes the needs of the nation.  It occurs because citizens of conscience and courage are willing to stand against a consensus represented by the culture of the center itself, and are willing to push against that consensus even when--as with the DADT debate--the center keeps necessary social change at bay far longer than necessary, far longer than citizens at large 

To say that the way in which the DADT repeal process has been handled illustrates that our political process is functioning smoothly is absolutely wrongheaded.  While yesterday's outcome is praiseworthy, the way we've gotten to this point has been anything but admirable.  The culture of the White House and Congress remain broken, and the DADT process underscores how broken they are, not how well they work.

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