Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Reading

Ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Isn’t Enough — Joseph Rocha, a former Navy officer, recounts the torment he went through in the military for being gay without ever saying he was.

I was 18 years old when I landed in the kingdom of Bahrain, off the coast of Saudi Arabia, in the winter of 2005. It was the first time I’d ever left the continental United States. My joints ached after more than 24 hours of travel, but I knew that a new life of service and adventure awaited me on the other side of that aircraft door.

This was the day I had been dreaming about since I’d enlisted in the Navy a few months before, on my birthday. I loved my country, and I knew that I was ready to prove myself in action.

I also knew that I was gay.

However, I chose to put service above my personal life. My understanding of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was that if I kept quiet about my sexuality and didn’t break any rules, I would face no punishment. I was wrong.

Once I joined the Navy, I was tormented by my chief and fellow sailors, physically and emotionally, for being gay. The irony of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is that it protects bigots and punishes gays who comply. Now, after a Youth Radio investigation of the abuses I suffered, the chief of naval operations ordered a thorough study of how the Navy handled the situation and is currently reviewing the document. I’m hopeful that the case will be reopened and top leadership finally held accountable for the lives they have ruined.

Within days of arriving at my duty station in Bahrain, I decided that I wanted to earn a place among the elite handlers working with dogs trained to detect explosives. After passing exams and completing training, I went from serving among hundreds of military police to serving in a specialized unit of two dozen handlers and 32 dogs. I was responsible for training and working with two dogs throughout the region. Our goal was to keep explosives and insurgents out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

For 12 hours a day in 112-degree heat with 85 percent humidity, we searched vehicles for explosives and responded to any threats. I loved the job, but there wasn’t a day that went by when I wasn’t completely miserable.

Shop talk in the unit revolved around sex, either the prostitute-filled parties of days past or the escapades my comrades looked forward to. They interpreted my silence and total lack of interest as an admission of homosexuality. My higher-ups seemed to think that gave them the right to bind me to chairs, ridicule me, hose me down and lock me in a feces-filled dog kennel.

I can’t say for certain when the abuse started or when it stopped. Now, several years removed from those days in Bahrain, it blends together in my mind as a 28-month nightmare.

Mr. Rocha’s story is horrible not just for what happened to him and his friends who supported him, but because even if DADT is repealed, it will not end the culture of homophobia that runs in the military. No law can change that; just ask any African-American soldier if President Truman’s ending of segregation in the armed forces in 1948 put an end to racism in the ranks. And while I am encouraged — slightly — by President Obama’s repeated pledge to end the policy, even if he was able to end it tomorrow (he can’t; it requires Congressional approval), the only thing it will do is prevent official action against gay and lesbian soldiers. It won’t put an end to the hazing and the torment, usually at the hands of people who have their own issues in dealing with their own sexuality or are unnaturally obsessed with sex. (It’s ironic to note that the men who are most afraid of being hit on by a gay man are usually the most unattractive — physically or intellectually — people in the room. Don’t flatter yourself, stud.) That said, the sooner DADT is repealed the better; it will give us that much more time over the next few generations to begin to overcome the ingrained institutional patterns of fear and bigotry by the examples of the gay men and women who have chosen to serve.

President Obama’s speech to the HRC last night can be seen here.

Continued below the fold.

Cross Talk — Leonard Pitts, Jr., and the cross in the desert.

Christmas is probably unconstitutional.

I’m no lawyer, but the logic seems unassailable to me. Consider: Santa Claus aside, Christmas is an explicitly Christian holiday and the only holiday of any religion to be observed by the federal government. Which would seem to violate the First Amendment edict that Congress ”shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Yet to the best of my admittedly-limited knowledge, no one has ever sued Christmas before the Supreme Court.

Not that I’m trying to give any ideas. No, I’m only trying to tease out an opinion I can live with in a case the Court heard last week, about a cross in the Mojave Desert.

The original cross (it has been replaced a number of times over the years) was erected in 1934 as a tribute to the dead of World War I and sits in a remote corner of what is now the Mojave National Preserve. Its legal troubles began ten years ago with a former employee of the National Park Service who sued because he thought the cross an improper display on federal land in that it celebrated one faith over others.


I submit that this is a battle poorly chosen. Yes, the argument arguably has legal merit but you have to ask yourself: What’s the point? Is someone really injured by a cross in the desert? Or is this not about validating principle at all costs — even public peace and common sense?

Indeed, by the same reasoning, one might sue cities that allow crosses to be planted at roadsides where traffic fatalities have occurred. Except that if it comforts some grieving family and your only ”injury” is to glimpse it while driving by at 65 mph, why would you bother?

Principle absent human compassion is just intellectual masturbation.

So forgive me if I am unimpressed by the argument that a cross in the middle of nowhere is unconstitutional. Understand: I think the argument may well be correct.

But that’s not the same as being right.

Frank Rich — Why are we following John McCain’s advice on dealing with Afghanistan?

Two years after 9/11 he was claiming that we could “in the long term” somehow “muddle through” in Afghanistan. (He now has the chutzpah to accuse President Obama of wanting to “muddle through” there.) Even after the insurgency accelerated in Afghanistan in 2005, McCain was still bragging about the “remarkable success” of that prematurely abandoned war. In 2007, some 15 months after the Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf signed a phony “truce” ceding territory on the Afghanistan border to terrorists, McCain gave Musharraf a thumb’s up. As a presidential candidate in the summer of 2008, McCain cared so little about Afghanistan it didn’t even merit a mention among the national security planks on his campaign Web site.

He takes no responsibility for any of this. Asked by Katie Couric last week about our failures in Afghanistan, McCain spoke as if he were an innocent bystander: “I think the reason why we didn’t do a better job on Afghanistan is our attention — either rightly or wrongly — was on Iraq.” As Tonto says to the Lone Ranger, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

Along with his tribunes in Congress and the punditocracy, Wrong-Way McCain still presumes to give America its marching orders. With his Senate brethren in the Three Amigos, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham, he took to The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page to assert that “we have no choice” but to go all-in on Afghanistan — rightly or wrongly, presumably — just as we had in Iraq. Why? “The U.S. walked away from Afghanistan once before, following the Soviet collapse,” they wrote. “The result was 9/11. We must not make that mistake again.”

This shameless argument assumes — perhaps correctly — that no one in this country remembers anything. So let me provide a reminder: We already did make that mistake again when we walked away from Afghanistan to invade Iraq in 2003 — and we did so at the Three Amigos’ urging. Then, too, they promoted their strategy as a way of preventing another 9/11 — even though no one culpable for 9/11 was in Iraq. Now we’re being asked to pay for their mistake by squandering stretched American resources in yet another country where Al Qaeda has largely vanished.

Bringing back “Birdie” — A bit of theatre history on the “lucky fluke” that was Bye Bye Birdie before it returns to Broadway this week after almost fifty years.

Robert Longbottom, the director of the revival — which also stars Bill Irwin, whom he calls the show’s “secret weapon,” as Mr. MacAfee — said: “I think the score of ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ is greatly underappreciated, with a lot of terrific songs. It’s a classic American musical. I’ve never understood, for example, why ‘Baby, Talk to Me’ didn’t become a Frank Sinatra standard.”

Even so, he added, he hesitated when asked to bring back “Birdie” and insisted on workshopping it first. “I wanted to see what it felt like to reinvent all those iconic roles,” he said. “Could you make them seem fresh? And as a director-choreographer, the first thing I wanted to know was, does it still make me want to dance.”

On the other hand, he went on, he resisted the notion of tweaking or modernizing the show. “I didn’t think it wise to deconstruct ‘Bye Bye Birdie,’ whatever deconstructing it might mean. So many people know it and have even been in it themselves. It’s an old-fashioned show, and you can’t reset it in the future.” He added that he was tired of productions that commented cynically on Presley and the ’60s. “That’s just calcified,” he said, suggesting that the musical has parallels to our own era — to Ryan Seacrest and “American Idol,” for example — that audiences can figure out on their own.

Doonesbury — Phoning it in (again).