12/21/2010 12:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Two Cheers for the Repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell"

Bravo to the Senate for joining the House in repealing "Don't Ask Don't Tell." It is a victory to relish, especially because the law epitomized the Clinton style of unabashed, two-faced opportunism and because John McCain and his gaggle of bigots lost. But two cheers only, not three.

The problem is not just that the administration and the Senate leadership took so long getting there or that the Commander-in-Chief didn't stop DADT implementation before Congress acted. No doubt, in this matter, as in so many others, Obama didn't want to antagonize the military brass, his nominal underlings. Still, Obama apologists are busy making the case that the administration did the best it could, and that this legislation is somehow on a par with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964. This from the same apologists who hailed Obama's health care (actually, insurance) reform as the most important piece of social legislation since Medicare - notwithstanding the fact that, for whatever good it does (or will eventually do), it does almost nothing to cut costs and absolutely nothing to undo the stranglehold the insurance industry, Big Pharma, and the for-profit health care industry have over our nation's physical and financial well-being. In fact, it enhances the profiteers' power and wealth.

In time, journalists and historians will deflate this latest batch of exaggerations. In the meanwhile, we can be thankful that institutional discrimination was defeated and that Obama did no gratuitous harm getting there. The contrast with the (failed) DREAM Act is striking. There, the administration's strategy was to increase repression, deportations especially, in the hope of winning "bipartisan" support. Predictably, they were wrong; devastatingly so for the victims of their efforts. Obama's pandering to nativists and racists was also politically stupid, as Latino voters, the most malignly neglected of all the core constituency groups Obama takes for granted, will surely make clear.

Part of the reason why even an administration that is incapable of bold leadership succeeded in shepherding DADT repeal through Congress is that public opinion, even in the military, was strongly in favor. One would not have thought it possible just a few decades ago, but Hispanics are evidently now more despised than homosexuals. Perhaps, in the long run, there is moral progress, but lately it looks like what progress there has been in the past two or three decades has only been redistributed, not advanced.

In any case, my reason for withholding a third cheer has nothing to do with the shortcomings of Obama or the Democratic leadership. It has to do with line taken by the repeal's supporters.

In taking aim at discrimination within the military, they said not a word against the military itself or the uses to which it is put. Instead, they implied support. To put the point only somewhat facetiously, equality works both ways. Instead of demanding that homosexuals be treated like heterosexuals, how salutary it would have been if someone had demanded that everybody not gay be treated as gays are, putting the military out of business. Needless to say, no one did.

Of course, we need a military; all countries do, for defense. But that's not remotely what our military is about. Its job is to make the world safe for American corporations by keeping the empire in line - sometimes, as with the wars now ongoing, to the point of putting the people of the United States at greater, not lesser, risk. Yet repeal supporters took the line that ending DADT would enhance, not impede, military efficacy; and they were so unambivalent in pressing this case that even Joe Lieberman could champion their cause.

The stance repeal advocates assumed is of a piece with the "support the troops" sloganeering that has increasingly deformed our political culture - making "wars of choice," as if we nowadays fight any other kind, ever easier to fall into. Support the troops, by all means; but not in the way those who use that awful slogan intend.

When Richard Nixon ended the draft, it was mainly to keep the country from falling apart and thereby to keep America's imperialist project on course. He knew what he was doing; if we still had a draft, Bush would have had a much harder time starting his endless wars, and he and Obama would have had a much harder time keeping them going. But those days are gone forever if only because the "Defense" Department understands, better than anybody, that no matter how great its need for cannon fodder, the last thing the military needs is conscripts.

Nixon's plan would not have worked for long if we still had early-70s levels of well-paying, union jobs. Who, after all, would 'volunteer' to kill or be killed, maim or be maimed if there was a reasonable alternative? Perhaps a few "patriots" in the thrall of the illusion that fighting imperialism's wars is good for their country (as distinct from the elites who run it); and no one else. But we all know what happened. Successive administrations, heeding the wishes of the corporate malefactors who rule in Washington, pursued policies encouraging deindustrialization and deunionization, giving rise to disabling levels of inequality and to the immiseration of many working-class and "minority" communities. Thus it became possible for the military to fill its personnel requirements through economic conscription alone. If only for allowing their conditions of life to deteriorate so palpably, we owe our economic conscripts a great deal - not for their "service" (through no fault of their own, they do their country a disservice) but for having put them, or allowed them to be put, in the position we did.

Once upon a time, there were Democrats, not many but some, who would have understood this. But that was before Democrats bought into the urban legend that returnees from Vietnam were routinely spat upon, and before the idea had taken hold that the party's success depends on putting that association to rest. In fact, it was the government which (metaphorically) spat on its troops and especially on its veterans - and the worst offenders of all were the chicken hawks of the Bush administration. But no matter, Democrats have joined the chorus. Whether out of genuine conviction or mere self-interest, they have become second to none in "supporting the troops" - or, in other (less Orwellian) words, for putting them in harm's way.

Was there an inkling of awareness of how debilitating this state of affairs is in the agitation to repeal DADT? If so, it was well concealed. So, yes, if someone must do the empire's dirty work, it is better that the institution missioned with that task not discriminate. But, to paraphrase Marx, Groucho not Karl, who wants to live in an institution! Especially that one.

In general, when Obama takes a step forward, he takes two steps back; the health care reform is an example. To its credit, the DADT repeal movement did the opposite. By ending discrimination in the military, it took two steps forward and, by lending yet more credence to that disabling "support the troops" trope, only one step back. This is why it warrants cheers, but not the full three.