Rationally Speaking

A monthly e-column by Massimo Pigliucci
Department of Botany, University of Tennessee

N. 33, February 2003

Gays, in the military and outside of it

I never understood what the “gay problem” is all about. As far as I am concerned, the moral aspect is simple: as long as the people involved are consenting adults, what they do in their bedrooms is only and exclusively their own business, end of story. Alas, plenty of people who are otherwise adamantly against any interference of the government in the private life of its citizens (e.g., when it comes to business practice or gun control), cry out loud for a government-imposed “morality” that extends from the treatment of gays to that of abortion practices and school prayer.

It was therefore no surprise that last November the US Army dismissed nine of its linguists—all experts in crucial languages for the “war” against terrorism, such as Arabic, Korean and Mandarin Chinese—invoking that most unfortunate Clinton doctrine, the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that has regulated dismissal of gays from the military over the past few years.

As readers may remember, President Clinton started out his first term with a couple of bold moves, one of which was an executive order that would have made it as normal for gays as it is (now) for blacks to be in the army (the other bold move was the call for a universal health care system, which ended in total catastrophe despite Democratic control of both the House and Senate, but that’s another story). Soon came immediate criticism from the far right, coupled with the obvious fact that the gay community can’t muster more than a limited number of votes which usually go to the Democrats anyway (ah, the beauty of a two-party system with essentially no choices!). The predictable result was that Clinton “moderated” his stance and ended up proposing his infamous “don’t ask don’t tell” compromise.

From a moral perspective, the new policy makes no sense: one either thinks that a gay lifestyle is incompatible with the “values” of the military, in which case allowing gays to stay just because they don’t declare themselves is simple opportunism; or one thinks that the sexual habits of one’s soldiers matter not to the functionality of one’s army, in which case the policy is an example of moral cowardice. Either way, Clinton, gays, and rationality lose, while bigotry scores points.

From a practical viewpoint, furthermore, not only is there absolutely no evidence that the presence of gays in the military has any negative effect on troops morale (remember, the same was said of blacks and women, before those issues were settled), but we have at least one glaring example—the Netherlands—of an army which openly embraces gay culture and doesn’t seem to be any worse for it.

But the more interesting point one can take from this and similar discussions (e.g., those about abortion and school prayers) is that the standard distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives” in terms of being respectively in favor and against a large role of government in our lives just doesn’t cut it. In reality, we need to consider at least two major axes along which political positions and public opinions can be distinguished: on the one hand, there is the “economic” axis, on the other hand, the “social” axis.

One can call for little governmental interference in economic matters while at the same time cry out for a large role of big brother in people’s bedrooms and public schools. Such a person would be a religious conservative. But it is also possible to be a libertarian and favor little or no government influence in any sphere of life (except perhaps national defense). A third position is occupied by people who would want a large role of government in the control of the economy (to balance the natural tendency of big business to act amorally and with reckless disregard for the public good), but little in the sphere of personal life. That would be a progressive liberal, such as myself. Then there is the strawman “pink” liberal that most people in America seem to love to hate, the guy who wishes for governmental control of everything, communist-style. Needless to say, this fourth corner of our logical space of political positions is essentially empty in this country (though certainly not throughout the world).

Reality, of course, is more complicated than this simple classification may hint at, but thinking along the two axes of economy and social issues at least brings us beyond the simplistic dichotomy of “liberal vs. conservative.” It also strongly suggests that we should have at least three, and possibly four, parties to represent the four corners sketched above. Instead, we are forced to choose between two alternatives that don’t quite fit what a growing number of Americans actually think. I therefore propose to split the Republican party into one of economic conservatives but social moderates, and one of economic and social conservatives (the latter mostly populated by the Christian right). Democrats could split into social and economic liberals on one hand, and social liberals but economic conservatives on the other. But who is going to force such healthy multiplication of political choices: the people, or the government?

Next month: America, Europe, and the rest of the world

© by Massimo Pigliucci, 2003