Estrangement in a Two-Way Street

Obviously, a lot of people in the United States don’t care about gay rights or are actively hostile to it. There’s also a lot of knee-jerk militarism in the United States. For years now, though, a tiny group of people almost all of whom are associated with The New Republic have tried to mount the argument that even though they care a lot about gay rights, that it’s wrong for universities to want the military to adhere to basic non-discrimination norms. So, for example, here’s Peter Beinart asking why Elana Kagan hates America:

“I abhor the military’s discriminatory recruitment policy,” wrote Kagan in 2003. It is “a profound wrong — a moral injustice of the first order.” So far, so good. Not allowing openly gay and lesbian Americans into the military is a grave moral injustice and it is a disgrace that so many Republicans defend the policy to this day. But the response that Kagan favored banning military recruiters from campus — was stupid and counterproductive. I think it showed bad judgment.

The United States military is not Procter and Gamble. It is not just another employer. It is the institution whose members risk their lives to protect the country. You can disagree with the policies of the American military; you can even hate them, but you can’t alienate yourself from the institution without in a certain sense alienating yourself from the country. Barring the military from campus is a bit like barring the president or even the flag. It’s more than a statement of criticism; it’s a statement of national estrangement.

Beinart mounts what appear to me to be two totally distinct arguments here. In the first graf, Harvard’s policy on military recruiters is counterproductive. I think you can imagine a decent argument to that effect. The way it would go is that preventing military recruiters from doing on-campus visits to Harvard Law School hardly cripples the military-industrial complex and forces the Pentagon to give in to liberal non-discrimination norms. What it does do, however, is increase military elites’ feelings of paranoia and loathing with regard to civilian liberals. This, arguably, makes it harder to persuade officers to accept the evidence that allowing gay and lesbian soldiers to serve openly will have no noteworthy negative impact on military performance.


The other argument, however, is that somehow if you ask all employers who want to recruit on campus to meet certain standards and the military chooses not to meet those standards, that you’ve therefore chosen to alienate yourself from your country. But why? Because the military is really important? Well if it’s important, then it’s important for it to adhere to reasonable standards of fairness in terms of who it employs. Obviously if the military chooses to establish the rule that gays and lesbians can’t join, there’s going to be estrangement between the military and believers in gay and lesbian equality, but you really have to ask what direction that’s running in. And I think it’s pretty clear that for the past 20 years it’s the professional military that’s chosen to estrange itself from an American society that features openly gay people in all walks of life. The gays in the military controversy is sometimes analogized to the desegregation of the military controversy in the 1950s, but in this respect it’s rather different. The military was segregated at a time when America as a whole was largely segregated along racial lines. In the 2010 version of the United States even without an Employment Non-Discrimination Act we don’t have any other major employers with a “no gays need apply” policy and it would be considered a shocking scandal if it turned out that some major firm was willy-nilly firing gay employees. The estrangement that results is regrettable, but it’s honest to god not something Elena Kagan caused — it’s been caused by a military establishment that’s refused to change along with the values of the country it’s supposed to serve.