Media: Lady Gaga Didn’t End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, We Did
Submission by David Meir Grossman, TNG contributor. Grossman writes under his full name so you don’t get confused with the actually famous David Grossman. He worked as an organizer on several political campaigns until he decided he didn’t really want to do that anymore. He currently writes for Lapham’s Quarterly, and has written for io9 and Thought Catalog. He lives in Brooklyn.
So, basically what happened here is a Gawker blog got called out by its readership for a headline that was essentially a lie. “How Lady Gaga Ended Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is very nice, simple declaration, and luckily Iris Carmon’s readers are smarter then she gives them credit for and have pushed back in the comments, quite thoroughly and aggressively. This isn’t the first time Gawker has done this. Why does one of the premier outposts of feminism on the internet want to shortchange the work of actual activists?
To understand that, we have to understand what Carmon gets right and wrong in her article. On the right side of the ledger, Carmon interviews and gives credit to the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a grassroots organization founded in 1993, the same year as the DADT ban was instituted. That’s good! However, her description of one of the biggest civil rights fights in last the last thirty years is amazingly short-sighted:
Nevertheless, Gaga’s star power was at the ready, and that’s how she wound up going to Maine instead, home of two moderate Republican Senators, and holding a much-publicized rally. She also repeatedly tweeted the number of the Senate switchboard, which briefly had to shut down because of overload. People actually made constituent visits. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was urgently in the news. Eventually, the Senate passed repeal.
It’s that easy! Just send Gaga up, maybe do an acoustic “Bad Romance” or whatever, get people making phone calls and suddenly, it’s over! If only Eugene McCarthy had had access to a meat dress during the 60′s, Vietnam would have been over before it started!
When the Senate voted for repeal, Andrew Sullivan had a far more sober description of the fight:
It’s been more than three decades since Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time magazine. It’s been more than two decades since this struggle began to reach the realm of political possibility. From the painful non-compromise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, through the big increase in discharges under president Clinton, via the wars and civil marriage breakthroughs of the first decade of the 21st Century to the calm and reasoned Pentagon report of December 2010, the path has been uneven. We need to remember this. We need to remember constantly that any civil rights movement will be beset with reversals, with dark periods, with moments when the intensity of the despair breaks the hardiest of souls.
It’s fair to assume, though, that Carmon knows all this. A very smart reporter and blogger, she has covered issues of gender for years, and almost certainly knows about the long history of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (even the comic books!) So the question is, why does her piece willfully ignore Patrick Murphy (full disclosure: I worked for Murphy’s reelection campaign), the Log Cabin Republicans, Lt. Dan Choi, Witt v. Department of the Air Force, Margarethe Cammermeyer, and countless other activists (including celebrities!), all of whom were instrumental in bringing us to December 22, 2010, when President Obama signed the damn thing into an orderly repeal.
In the comments of her post, Carmon defends the title by saying it is “clearly hyperbole” and points to the fact “[t]he first DADT-related vote in that Democratic-led congress failed.” Fair enough, although she fails to note that Lady Gaga attempted to play a role in that vote as well, tweeting at “her nearly 7 million followers asking them to contact Reid and demand the repeal of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Two months later, in December, the same vote came up and the repeal went through. Was Gaga’s live appearance the difference maker?
Simply put, no. What Carmon’s “case study” fails to recognize is that when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid attempted to get DADT passed the first time, he attempted to pass it within a defense spending bill. Reid then allowed other Democrats to add further amendments to the bill, including the immigration reform-minded DREAM Act and a repeal of a ban on abortions in military hospitals. Both good things, yes, but also dealbreakers to the Republicans who would have otherwise broken the filibuster for the spending bill. Reid knew this, and did it so Republican senators like Susan Collins of moderate Maine would be caught between a rock and a hard place, risking alienating their already-weak Republican base or on-the-fence moderates. When the DADT repeal came up again in December, it was presented to a lame-duck Senate first as part of another defense bill where it failed, and then finally as standalone bill, where it passed. Politics! It does not always fit into simple narratives!
Of course, Washington does not exist inside a bubble. The only reason Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was in the conversation at all was because of a long-standing awareness effort by activists of every stripe- its repeal had become not just the rallying cry of Good Liberals Everywhere, but broke into mainstream conversation- nearly eighty percent of Americans supported its repeal in the months leading up to it. How did Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell become so unpopular? The answer probably lies in the fact that it is a moronic policy, and that the more people became aware of its existence the less sense it made. So, yes- Gaga’s two speeches helped the repeal of DADT, to an extent.
But to deem Gaga’s participation in this fight worthy of a case study demeans actual activism. Because, at the end of the day, actual activism is rarely fun or exciting. It’s about interrupting people at dinner time to get them to sign petitions or take literature, standing on street corners attempting to get the emails of people walking by in the hopes that one out of a hundred will follow up with you, blogging, raising money for the right candidates (here is a good starting point), and a hundred other things that are not as fun or exciting as giving two speeches. It’s not about becoming vocal a month before a big vote, it’s about the years beforehand, proving how what you are talking about will actually help people. By choosing to focus on Gaga’s participation as opposed to the rest the fight, Carmon misses the biggest story of the demise of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell- that millions of Americans figured out that second-class citizenship is wrong, spoke their minds, and after a series of broken promises and complex games, Congress didn’t just do something, it did the right thing. That once in a great while, The System can be overturned. Even though it helps pageviews, focusing on a single celebrity instead of that long, painful fight doesn’t help anyone
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