Gays in the military: Much ado from talk-show airheads

Jon Margolis

February 05, 1993|By Jon Margolis

FROM small matters large truths may emerge, not least from examining why the small matters seem large.

Last week, as corporations announced tens of thousands of layoffs, as the Balkans bled, America's political leaders and its professional chatterers were obsessed with whether homosexuals who don't lie about their proclivity should be allowed to enter the armed forces.

So overwhelming was the obsession that hardly anyone noticed that the subject was vital neither to President Clinton nor to the gay political leaders.

Most of all, the obsession has nothing to do with people's day-to-day lives. OK, the issue is more important than "Murphy Brown" or where Chelsea Clinton goes to school. Still, there are only 1.8 million people in the armed services, and the number is falling. Even including every serviceperson's immediate family adds up to some 4 percent of the adult population.

There's nothing new about the chatterers' getting into a tizzy about unimportant matters -- just think of Murphy Brown, Chelsea's school and Dan Quayle's potatoe -- and Mr. Clinton bears a good share of the responsibility for all the tumult that bedevils him.

Nor is there anything new about the cowardice of congressmen, who can be counted on to cave in to any barrage of telephone calls, no matter how organized, no matter how un-representative. Wow! There were 400,000 calls to Capitol Hill one day. Calm down, folks. There are 250 million people in the country.

But there is something else at work here. The ancient inclination of the news business to overreact to whatever just happened has been exacerbated by the latest technology. With 24-hour television news, so many events that used to await the evening news -- press conferences, official announcements and angry statements -- are beamed live across the land.

And then so are the reactions to all of this, the angrier the better, by opposing politicians and by analysts. Political punditry, once confined to Sunday morning, is now heard daily, perhaps hourly. And everyone seems to be an expert on everything.

Add to this the instant polls, which are almost guaranteed to mislead. Now add talk radio, often the angry uninformed talking to a shameless airhead (which is the host and which the caller is interchangeable). Then add to that the shameful fact that the established news media have decided to take talk radio seriously, forgetting that not 10 percent of the people listen regularly and only a fraction of them call in.

The upshot is that too much appears to be too urgent. If the matter under discussion is also simple, juicy and likely to make trouble for whoever is in power, all the better. Maybe it would be a good idea for everyone to shut up for a day or two.

The latest polls do show that a small plurality of the people prefer keeping the ban against homosexual soldiers. But considering that just a few weeks ago a majority felt otherwise, it is reasonable to conclude that public opinion is ephemeral, and that what people really care about is that the country's defense remains strong and effective.

That's not a small matter, and who would argue with the Joint Chiefs that Mr. Clinton's proposal would mess up the military?

Well, common sense would. There might be a very strong argument for keeping gays out of the service if they were kept out of the service. They aren't.

This is no recent phenomenon. I used to wonder about the very soft-spoken, scholarly guy in the next bunk during advanced infantry training. We might both have been more comfortable had he been allowed to be forthright. That was 30 years ago.

Furthermore, other countries that do not ask enlistees their sexual orientation have very capable fighting forces. No one lately has accused the French Foreign Legion, which fought ably in the gulf war, of being unmanly.

The Joint Chiefs are complaining so fiercely because of another old truth: The people in charge never like change, and always predict that it will lead to ruin.

Remember how manufacturing executives carried on when the environmental laws were proposed? Many claimed the new regulations would put them out of business. You'll observe that they're still in business. But leaders do not like change forced on them, especially when it means altering long-held attitudes.

Which brings up another new truth, or at least one rarely noted -- the emergence in American public life of the wimpy he-man.

There may be some merit to the case of the Pentagon brass and their supporters, but there is none at all to their demeanor. They ++ whined. Ohhh, dear! they said, this change will entail so many problems.

t will. But so does the status quo, which has included spending tens of millions of dollars a year ferreting out homosexuals, in a process that outrageously violates the rights and the privacy of soldiers gay and straight.

Besides, strong people ought to welcome change and challenge. Fear of trying something new is hardly a virile trait. The "can-do" spirit of which the American armed services are so proud has been rendered in this case strangely inoperative. Intrepid in the face of enemy fire, the brass cowers at the prospect of an administrative order.

It's difficult to find the word which precisely describes this attitude. Well, not difficult, actually, it's just that the word is no longer acceptable. In this (excessively?) enlightened age, it simply will not do to describe anyone as effeminate, even if the people so described think of themselves as the tough guys.

Jon Margolis is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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