While I’m still enjoying the glow from the Senate’s vote repealing the much hated “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” federal law that banned queers from openly serving in the US military, I’d like to muse a bit as to what this could all mean for the empire (first part), and then the politics of US public schools (second part).
First, some assumptions need to be stated. I view the US as a military and corporate empire, first and foremost. The notion that our federal government is a “republican democracy” has always been a rather shaky concept since voters can’t directly elect the US President, and corporations have the same civil rights as human beings. In light of the recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. US Federal Election Commission, upholding corporate “speech rights” to influence federal elections, the US is moving increasingly towards a corporate oligarchy, where the needs of Goldman Sachs easily trump those of the millions of Americans who are unemployed.
Furthermore, I would strongly argue that since at least 1917, federal education policy and politics have increasingly been framed in terms of imperial expansion and/or maintenance. From the Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act of 1917 (we need voc ed to beat the Germans, who really did have a better system of vocational education at that time), to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (The Russians are coming!! The Russians are coming!!), to “Race to the Top” (The Chinese own us!!!, the Indians might own us, too!!!), national educational reform has typically been promoted in the name of “national defense” however it is defined at that time.
At this point in my scholarly career, I’m also pretty sure the feds aren’t too concerned about issues of social justice and democracy. Historically, the US federal government has only cared about social justice when and if the inequalities in US society (and public schooling) have been so great that they threatened the empire’s power and prestige abroad (see Brown v. Board decisions). As Mary L. Dudziak documents, in the Brown decisions and the on-going Cold War, the US Supreme Court was very concerned with America’s reputation abroad, as the defender of liberty and democracy, when this was so clearly not the case for African Americans. Consequently, one of the justifications to overturning the legally-sanctioned apartheid in the US South had to do with foreign policy–not domestic policy, per se.
There have been the occasional nods towards justice (IDEA, Title IX, etc.), but these are rather trivial when compared to NDEA, Smith-Hughes, and the like. So, to be utterly blunt, for the last 100 years federal education policy in the US, has been, to a large extent about meeting the needs of, by, and for the empire.
Yet today, one issue that the US isn’t really addressing is imperial over-reach. At present we’re involved in two hot wars (Iraq and Afghanistan–the latter where the USSR came to grief), and has “on-going military operations” in Pakistan and Yeman (see Global War on Terror), and Columbia (see Global War on Drugs). Most Americans don’t pay much attention to any of these, except for the US casualty figures. Additionally, because the US has at least 5 different wars on its hands, it has been increasingly forced to use mercenaries to maintain operations (see Blackwater, er…Xe). The financial costs are hideously expensive when using mercenaries, but at present, the political upheaval has been minimal, which would NOT be the case if the US had been forced to resort to a draft to supply the labor needed to maintain so many military operations.
These military operations also are taking place when the economy has had the greatest series of shocks since the Great Depression. War is an expensive business, in terms of financial and manpower resources. While the economy has helped to boost enlistment somewhat, it doesn’t begin to meet the labor needs. Furthermore, the debt load–thanks to increasing military expenditures coupled with endless tax cuts, particularly for well off Americans–insures there will be little resources left for growing domestic needs.
Enter DADT’s repeal: It will not make much of a dent in the military’s labor needs or our festering fiscal mess, but it is a nod towards these realities. Historically, queers have been tolerated in the military during times of great labor needs (World War II is the most famous example), with queers jettisoned as soon as hostilities ceased. With the Afghanistan War beginning to rival the longest war (Vietnam), Iraq still problematic, and at least 3 other mini-wars on a low boil, the US simply can not afford to throw voluntary labor away. To some extent, it’s also a nod toward our imperial allies, who have long ago dispensed with their own military queer bans and increasingly believe the US has simply lost its collective mind on queers.
Finally, DADT repeal slightly reshapes gender norms, particularly those involving masculinity. Male military personnel have been aggressively “butch,” at least since the late 1940s. I would expect this cultural norm to largely remain. But it’s going to be very interesting to have the broader cultural norms surrounding “fighting men” of the US military to include their male spouses–who may or may not be all that butch. The political fights surrounding DADT have been far more about masculinity than femininity and women’s roles within the military–regardless of one’s orientation.
If it is now legally permissible to be a queer soldier serving the US empire, another major imperial venue, the US public schools, will have to rethink their stances towards the queers who work and play within their walls. That is the fodder for my next essay.