“Show respect while she’s speaking”

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is an absurd, counter productive policy. At Pam’s House Blend, she’s got some fun video of Elaine Donnelly doing her whackadoodle best to argue in favor of the policy. Donnelly raises the “unit cohesion” argument again and again and Rep. Patrick Murphy smacks it down -asking in essence, “Are you saying American soldiers are less professional than their peers in 24 countries that allow openly gay and lesbian people to serve in the military?” Donnelly dodges and weaves to avoid it and starts talking about a woman allegedly assaulted by a group of lesbians and what should she do and she yammers something about “forced cohabitation.” Which of course, doesn’t address Murphy’s question.

Dana Milbank at the WaPo has a fun story Sorry We Asked, Sorry You Told describing the hearing and the responses to Donnelly’s testimony:

lawmakers invited a quartet of veterans to testify on the subject and also extended an invitation to Donnelly, who has been working for years to protect our fighting forces from the malign influence of women.

Donnelly treated the panel to an extraordinary exhibition of rage. She warned of “transgenders in the military.” She warned that lesbians would take pictures of people in the shower. She spoke ominously of gays spreading “HIV positivity” through the ranks.

“We’re talking about real consequences for real people,” Donnelly proclaimed. Her written statement added warnings about “inappropriate passive/aggressive actions common in the homosexual community,” the prospects of “forcible sodomy” and “exotic forms of sexual expression,” and the case of “a group of black lesbians who decided to gang-assault” a fellow soldier.

At the witness table with Donnelly, retired Navy Capt. Joan Darrah, a lesbian, rolled her eyes in disbelief. Retired Marine Staff Sgt. Eric Alva, a gay man who was wounded in Iraq, looked as if he would explode.

Inadvertently, Donnelly achieved the opposite of her intended effect. Though there’s no expectation that Congress will repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow gays to serve openly in the military, the display had the effect of increasing bipartisan sympathy for the cause.

Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) labeled her statement “just bonkers” and “dumb,” and he called her claims about an HIV menace “inappropriate.” Said Snyder: “By this analysis . . . we ought to recruit only lesbians for the military, because they have the lowest incidence of HIV in the country.”

Perhaps my favorite anecdote from the day, however, comes from the HRC’s liveblog of the event:

Vic Snyder calls Donnelly on her support of restrictions of female service indirectly by asking Jones to help him thwart those efforts.

Snyder scolds Donnelly for bringing up HIV. If that’s such a concern, why not recruit only lesbians? Uproarious laughter in the overflow room! Touche Vic Snyder.

2:35: CJ – Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness is speaking. There is an audible burst of laughter from the overflow room when Donnelly throws in a “San Francisco left” phrase just for dramatic effect. Another guffaw from the crowd when Donnelly expresses her concern over gay men sharing a “cramped submarine” with other soldiers.

OMG: There is an older lady in the room who just turned around to the room brimming with youngsters and yelled issued the warning, “Show respect while she speaks!” She looks right at me when she finishes. (…Was it the tie?) WELL OKAY!

The room keeps laughing at Donnelly’s outrageous statements. The older woman is obviously losing this fight. “They’re just disrespectful people!” she hisses.

“Equal opportunity is important, but the needs of our military must come first,” are Donnelly’s closing words. I guess the words from generals and veterans who have actually served in the military don’t mean anything to her, huh?

Donnelly is laughable. Her concerns are laughable. Donnelly is head of organization that has spent years fighting to keep gays out of the military; she’s not sure women should be allowed to serve either.

The conservative movement’s obsession with the military – especially religious conservatives – borders on the disturbing at times. Members are the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs report religious harrassment including coercive proselytizing – by conservative Christian classmates and chaplains. Accounts of conservative Christians creating a hostile environment for mainline, Jewish, Muslim and atheist classmates are becoming more common in the US military schools and the military itself (Ed Brayton has been tracking these stories as he finds them). I’ve long wondered about the connection between the conservative movement and the military; I don’t mean the literal connection, but the emotional, psychological connection. What is it about the military – an institution in which members largely surrender personal autonomy and freedom – that is so emotionally powerful for conservatives? Being in the military is an experience of indoctrination, structure, obedience respect and social isolation. Military life is divorced from civilian life, isolated on bases and ships and overseas. Even when military bases are in the midst of large cities, there is a separation between the military and residential community. In two years of living in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, home to Norfolk Naval base, it was rare to see members of the military. Life in the military is almost the polar opposite of life in American society.

So I think about the woman hissing “Show respect” and it occurs to me that the issue is respect for authority and the military represents the ultimate expression of authority. Authority in the military is extremely clearly defined, deliniated by rank, by age, by experience. Conservatives are, largely, deeply respectful of authority, especially authority they identify as valid. I remember reading articles lauding George W. Bush for his “respect for the Oval Office” because he would not take off his suit jacket while in it. Attacks on Barack Obama about a flag lapel pin are all about “respect” for the flag. Attempts to outlaw flag burning are all about a construct of “respect” for the flag that suggests that “disrespecting” the flag is the same as disrespecting what it stands for.

The woman hissing “show respect” was speaking a conservative truth that sees in the values of the military – structure, obedience, respect – an exemplar of the conservative view of a healthy society – one in which one knows the rules, follows them, and respects those who make the rules.

I think about my experiences over many years speaking with Utah State legislators and I realize how many times I’ve been told, in essence, “We’re the authority figures and we know what’s right for Utah.” It’s not intended in a malignant or negative way, but it is embedded in a worldview in which obedience to authority is a core value. If one works one’s way up in the system, by following the rules, by doing what is expected, one is rewarded by being granted greater authority. Knowing the rules is all about knowing where one fits in the system. The military, with its clearly defined rank and hierarchy and host of rules and regulations about conduct, represents the perfect system of authority.

It’s a minor incident but one that to my mind perfectly expresses ideas of authority. A few years ago, in my job, I had to locate a person who had authorized payments to the company because we had received checks for which we had no corresponding invoices or information. After a series of phone calls, I finally reached the person. Our conversation was short but simple. I said something like, “Could I speak to Sam Jones.” He replied, “This is he,” and I said, “Hi Sam this Glen from . . .” He interrupted me to say, “I’m Mr. Jones.” In his mind, by not calling him “Mister” I was failing to show him necessary respect. He was in a positio of authority and saw his title of “Mister” a sign of that authority. (FWIW, the rest of call was a comedy of errors as he was so flustered by me not calling him Mr. Jones and he couldn’t concentrate on the topic at hand.)

Such a worldview of course distrusts the messy and often noisy processes of participatory democracy. It’s not uncommon to hear expressed variations of the sentiment “I was voted into office, so the voters approve of what I’m doing. If they disapprove they can vote against me.” The idea, however, that a voter might both vote for you and not approve of everything you do does not enter into this worldview. Heck, I’ve voted for Jim Matheson and I don’t approve of almost anything he does; I find him a uniquely spineless politician. But he’s a damn sight better than the alternatives. Which is why, I write him letters and why I’ve met with him and why I went to his office in DC to talk about federal policy. Such actions smack of disrespecting his authority because I disagree with him. But they are the expression of a healthy democracy.

Because ultimately, democracy isn’t just about voting on election day. And it’s not about respecting our elders or granting automatic respect to those in positions of authority. I’ve read commentators who argue that democracy in Europe today is healthier than democracy in America. Certainly, the last 7 years have seen damage done to our democracy and our civil liberties; whatever the excuse for such actions, they have hurt us. It’s time to not show respect to those who do not deserve and to not confuse the symbols of American greatness with our actual greatness.

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