February 03, 2010
Colin comes around . . . with a caveat
Posted by: Chris
Forgive me if I don't get too excited that Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs who pressured President Clinton into signing Don't Ask Don't Tell into law, has now come around on the issue. Don't get me wrong, it's always welcome when those who oppose our basic equality reverse their positions, regardless of how many earlier opportunities they squandered.
That's especially true in the case of Powell, who as the military's top uniformed officer acted in insubordinate fashion toward his new commander in chief back in 1993, calling Clinton out for acting to fulfill his public campaign promise to end the ban on gays in the military. Still immensely popular even among Republicans after a disastrous turn as secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush, Powell spoke out against DADT one day after his Joint Chiefs successor Adm. Mike Mullen and Sec Def Robert Gates backed Obama on repealing Powell's policy:
“In the almost 17 years since the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ legislation was passed, attitudes and circumstances have changed,” General Powell said in a statement issued by his office. He added: “I fully support the new approach presented to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week by Secretary of Defense Gates and Admiral Mullen.”
In his statement on Wednesday, General Powell said “the principal issue has always been the effectiveness of the Armed Forces and order and discipline in the ranks.”
Powell's backing will be enormously helpful politically for Obama, Mullen and Gates, who unlike Powell showed true leadership on the issue. For years, DADT defenders found cover in Powell's position, since the first-ever African American to serve as chairman of the Joint Chiefs seemed so unimpeachable on issues of equality and discrimination.
In fact, gays in the military represented a real blind spot for Powell, whose historic career will always be tainted by his unwillingness to stand up to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney on Iraq, and his unwillingness to stand up to bigots in the military on service by gay soldiers and sailors.
Even today, Powell's reversal came with a caveat. The only reason he favors repeal is that "attitudes and circumstances have changed," meaning that gays are far more accepted in U.S. society, especially among the young people who provide that elusive "unit cohesion" we hear so often about when this issue is debated.
That means Powell's position is actually unchanged: The government can and should discriminate when bigotry among the ranks may result in some disruption if a minority group is integrated into the armed forces.
It is a truly remarkable and hypocritical view from a man who benefited so obviously from the courageous willingness of President Harry Truman and the top military brass of his day who implemented the executive order integrating blacks into the U.S. military. According to Powell's logic, Truman and his generals recklessly risked unit cohesion and military readiness with their social experimentation.
Taken to its logical conclusion, Powell's caveat argues against all sorts of laws against discrimination in the public and private sector, since these laws are needed the very most when prejudice is most widespread, meaning disruption in the workplace by mandated equality will be most significant.
The Powell principle of nondiscrimination is that equality is an admirable goal that justifies government intervention only when society has progressed far enough that the bigots are already outnumbered and the new rules come at little cost in terms of inefficiencies and unrest. Until that happy day, it is not just acceptable but laudable for government to cater and even give legal effect to privately held bigotry.
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