DADT and the making of Stone Soup

The passage of the DADT compromise a week ago had a lot in common with the making of Stone Soup.

You remember Stone Soup. The delicious soup that can be made from a single simple stone and some hot water. (And it tastes even better if you can get some totally unnecessary villagers to throw in some of their own bouillon, meat, and veggies.) And voila! You have delicious stone soup.

The DADT compromised was finally passed in a similar manner. Now, the President did more than bring a stone. But the recent effort to ignore the contribution of the villagers – aka activists – really needs to be called out.

To wit: A recent blog post at Huffington Post by NY gay writer David Kaufman. Kaufman contacted me, and admitted up front that he doesn’t often agree with me on gay issues, but he wanted my perspective for his piece, so I said sure, let’s talk. As I feared, the piece is a bit stone-soupy. It’s overall theme seems to be: Blogs don’t matter, blogs must be destroyed! And of course, it’s written as a blog post, but never mind that for a moment. To give you a flavor of the piece, here’s a line from the fourth paragraph about me:

Over at progressive site AmericaBlog, writer John Aravosis does thank Obama at the end of a long screed, but only with a tepid, “And even the “President, who finally got into gear (albeit a tad late) and made the calls necessary to make this happen.”

Now read my “screed” that Kaufman is referring to:

Join us in thanking the troops, but really in thanking everyone who had a hand in this. Here a few who really led the way:

Everyone at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Servicemembers United. Especially their leaders, Aubrey Sarvis and Alex Nicholson, both proud vets. Then there are the vets. Leonard Matlovich, Perry Watkins, Tracy Thorne, Zoe Dunning, Justin Elzie, Michelle Beneke (and Dixon Osborn, who isn’t a vet, but set up SLDN 17 years ago with Michelle), Grethe Cammermeyer, Joe Steffan, Keith Meinhold, Eric Alva, Victor Fehrenbach, and Dan Choi… and so many more.

And let’s not forget the activists who weren’t willing to take no for an answer. Robin McGehee at GetEqual and the entire gay Netroots. Our friends in the White House who have been pushing this for two years, in the face of some serious internal challenges. Our friends on the Hill, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid – who both got this done. Senator Udall of Colorado. Senator Gillibrand. Senator Lieberman (yes, he actually busted his butt for us). Senators Snowe and Collins, and every other Republican and Democrat who finally came our way. And Congressman Patrick Murphy, who went the extra mile for us. And even the President, who finally got into gear (albeit a tad late) and made the calls necessary to make this happen.

It’s not terribly clear how those paragraphs are anything comparable to an angry rant (the usual meaning of “screed”). Nor is it clear how my praise of the President – considering how critical we’ve been on him since the election – is a negative. But not matter. Let’s move on to the rest of the piece. It’s gets even better, so to speak.

The entire piece, sadly, has a bit of an Obama-bot quality to it. It’s a lot of the tired old arguments used by the administration’s apologists to justify the President’s inaction, and slow-action, on our issues.

While a few individual writers hardly speak for the entire LGBT community, there’s little doubt that the president has been vilified by many gay-stream leaders since his election two years ago. Yet considering the president’s impressive record on LGBT issues — from enacting hate-crimes legislation to extending benefits to federal employees and ending the ban on HIV-positive visitors entering the United States — that anger seems confoundingly misdirected. After all, wasn’t it President Clinton who approved both DADT in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) three years later — two of the most regressive laws in the history of civil rights legislation. And weren’t LGBT rights further imperiled under George Bush — who infamously opposed extending hate-crimes legislation to protect LGBTs and promoted a constitutional amendment defining marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution?

We’ve been through this before, when the apologists have brought out this list repeatedly to explain how great the President has been in keeping his promises, but let’s go through it again since clearly the message hasn’t sunk in,

1. Hate Crimes. It already passed in a previous congress, so shouldn’t have been a heavy lift in this one. In fact, the President’s defenders can’t tell us one thing he did to get Hate Crimes passed, one bit of political capital he spent. Yes, he did sign the bill. But any Democratic president would have done so. Don’t get me, wrong, I’m glad the President signed the Hate Crimes bill. But please don’t point to it as the one of the biggest things he personally did for us when you can’t point out what he did at all. Not to mention, for many people, Hate Crimes is very 1998. Welcome, but not where they’re at right now – which is DADT, ENDA and marriage.

2. Extending benefits to federal employees. Nice try. As we proved on this blog, and we were subsequently mentioned by the NYT for what we found, the President announced “new” benefits that gay federal employees had for at least the previous 15 years. They weren’t new at all. (Interestingly, what Hillary did at State was new, but not what the President announced as “new.”) Again, we’re recycling old administration talking points that have already been debunked.

3. Ending the HIV ban. As I recall, it only happened after a lot of dawdling and a lot of criticism from many advocates, not the last of which was Andrew Sullivan. So let’s not pretend it was a sure thing.

Then we have the “wasn’t it President Clinton who approved both DADT in 1993 and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) three years later” argument. It’s not entirely clear what the point is. That Obama’s campaign promises on those issues don’t mater because Bill Clinton caused the problem in the first place? Nice deflection, but also supremely irrelevant.

Then there’s the old stand-by: invoking George Bush. Yes, President Obama is better than George Bush on gay rights. If that’s the definition of “fierce advocate,” being simply better than George Bush, then we truly have become a sad excuse for a civil rights community. Specific promises were made to our community, and we expect those promises to be kept, regardless of how much worse George Bush would have been. We didn’t vote for George Bush, we voted for Barack Obama. We expect Barack Obama to keep his promises made in exchange for our votes. Why is that such an unreasonable thing for some to comprehend?

Then the favorite old canard of Obamabots gets wheeled out. You’re upset at Obama because you’re a racist. Were we racists when we supported Obama over Hillary in the primary? Is Pam Spaulding racist against black people? Kaufman mentions Spaulding and Obama and race, but doesn’t bother pointing out that Pam herself is black. Kaufman does, however, point out that I’m white. I guess my race was a more convenient truth than Pam’s when attempting to play the race card.

Now what got Kaufman so upset about race and Obama is that some people expect members of minorities that face discrimination to be more sensitive to the plight of prejudice. If you’ve suffered discrimination, the argument goes, you should be more aware of, more attuned to, the discrimination suffered by others, and act accordingly. The argument isn’t racist, any more than Supreme Court Justice (and then nominee) Sotomayor was “racist” for her “wise Latina” comment, which basically suggested the s
ame thing – that her life experience gave her unique insight, and she would act accordingly as a Supreme Court justice. Such insight is expected, especially of a Democrat who claims to be a fierce advocate of civil rights.

Kaufman suggests that such a notion holds African-Americans to a higher stand than their white counterparts. That’s because he fails to understand the different between higher expectations and higher standards. No one holds President Obama to a different standard than we would a white Democrat, or a white president more generally. Had Hillary defended DOMA and DADT in court, invoked incest and pedophilia to defend anti-gay laws, and dawdled on DADT, ENDA and DOMA for the longest time (not to mention a lot more), you’d better believe she’d have been just as criticized as Barack Obama. It’s absurd to suggest that she’d get a free pass for being white. I do, however, think that there’s something particularly sad when a member of a minority falls short on civil rights. Whether that minority member is Clarence Thomas, Michael Savage, or a far-right gay Republican – their ignorance and bigotry holds a particular sting, is particularly surprising and disappointing, because of who they are.

Of course, the irony here is that it was Kaufman himself who insisted on talking about race during our interview. I never brought the topic up even once, because I don’t think it’s relevant to the issue of Obama’s strategy on repealing DADT. Kaufman, however, was insistent that Obama’s critics were obsessed with the President’s race, and that his race was a key factor in why they were attacking him. I told Kaufman I didn’t think that was correct at all. Funny that fact never made it into the story – though Kaufman did manage to mention that I’m white. Now who’s obsessed with race?

What I told Kaufman, which didn’t make it into the story, was why I think President Obama largely got lucky with his strategy on DADT. He was lucky that the Pentagon study went our way. Lucky that the GOP filibustered the omnibus spending bill, forcing Harry Reid to take it off the floor and giving us time (we didn’t previously have) to give DADT one last shot. Lucky the Republicans didn’t demand even one single chance at offering an amendment on the DADT bill, which would have probably doomed the legislation because of the arcane procedural dance Senator Reid was doing to pull the bill up at all. Lucky we didn’t lose the Senate as well in the November elections, which would have scared Democrats into submission on every single issue, including DADT. The President was lucky that waiting until just a few weeks ago, to finally start making phone calls to Senators to lobby for DADT repeal, didn’t doom our chances at getting the bill passed. To suggest that the passage of the DADT legislation is prima facie evidence of the brilliance of the President’s strategy is the very definition of “stone soup.” It’s possible, just possible, that we won because the Netroots forced the President to get personally involved in an issue the President himself admitted isn’t seen as “good politics” by some of his advisers.

Perhaps my favorite part of Kaufman’s screed against the gay Netroots was the following line:

Perhaps, most telling of all, bloggers like Aravosis and Spaulding have virtually no impact on mainstream LGBT politics or thinking.

Yes. That’s why Kaufman is devoting an entire piece at the Huffington Post to bloggers like Aravosis and Spaulding – because we don’t matter. But putting that contradiction aside, Pam and Joe and I, and more generally the gay Netroots, supposedly have no impact on mainstream LGBT politics or thinking? Really? I seem to recall that Joe and I broke the story of the Obama administration’s infamous DOMA brief, the one that invoked incest and pedophilia. Kaufman would have you believe that that story had no impact on gay politics or gay thinking. Um, ok. (Of course, Kaufman doesn’t mention that those “new” benefits the President announced last year were intended to help quell the uproar created by our DOMA brief scoop – yeah, no impact). It wasn’t the first time, nor was it the last, that the gay Netroots created national news. We tend to do it a lot. And that news filters down to the gay body politic, and straight, alike.

Finally, if we’re so unimportant on the issue of LGBT politics, then why does Kaufman himself say that he thinks the President reads our LGBT politics blogs?

Despite the disconnect, one person who certainly is reading Aravosis, Spaulding and Towle is Obama himself. He invited them to the White House for the DADT-repeal signing, along with activists such as former Lt. Dan Choi and GetEQUAL’s Robin McGehee.

Are you really having no impact on LGBT politics when the President of the United States reads your writings on LGBT politics? It was the President who asked our own Joe Sudbay to the White House to be the first journalist writing for a gay publication to interview him as President. Why did President Obama do that if Joe Sudbay was so unimportant? And why did he invite Pam Spaulding and other Netroots critics to the bill signing for DADT if Pam and others had no impact on the DADT repeal effort (which is, the last time I checked, LGBT politics)? Clearly she did have an impact, and that’s why she was there.

I don’t want this post to be about tooting our own horn, as our accomplishments and track record on gay rights advocacy speak for themselves, but people like Kaufman need to decide which line of attack they’re going to use to discredit the President’s critics. Either we matter or we don’t. And if we don’t, then why spend nearly 1,200 words proving your point?

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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