A Culture of Confession

ELLEN GOODMAN

November 09, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--It is morning when people begin to line up at the daily tell-all talk shows. At 11 a.m. cheating fiances are on Sally Jessy Raphael. Ostracized pregnant teens are on Montel Williams. Self-described male-chauvinist sons are on Ricki Lake.

A bit later, a mother, her teen-aged son and the girlfriend he admittedly abused all air their wounds to Maury Povich. Single mothers who can't get dates appear with Jane Whitney.

By afternoon, a woman is telling Phil Donahue that she falsely accused her mother of sexual abuse. Parties in a custody dispute are pleading their case in Oprah Winfrey's court of public opinion.

The spirit of boundless openness, irrepressible self-expression, and gawd-help-us sharing pervades the entire land. We air our linen, dirty and otherwise, on the airwaves. We live in a cultural climate of true confession.

Yet this is the very culture in which the Clinton administration is now scrambling to defend a compromise policy on gays in the military, a policy that wears the motto: Don't Ask. Don't Tell. Don't Pursue.

Don't Make Me Laugh.

Such a policy may work in England where people wear discretion on their lapels as a national insignia. But in America we are more likely to wear our hearts on our sleeves. We do ask and increasingly we do tell.

Indeed, what brought us to this new chapter on Gays in the Military was the revelation by Petty Officer Keith Meinhold that he was homosexual. He told -- on television of course -- and the Navy pursued. It discharged Meinhold, who went to court for reinstatement.

A California judge then ruled that the secretary of defense couldn't discharge or deny enlistment to any person based on sexual orientation. Months later, the same judge extended the ruling to protect all military personnel. His response to ''don't ask, don't tell'' was don't implement.

But the Clinton administration asked for and won ''emergency relief'' from the Supreme Court. On October 29, the court lifted the part of the order that went beyond Petty Officer Meinhold's case to encompass the entire military. The future of ''don't ask, don't tell'' will be murky until the Ninth Circuit Court rules on the appeal it will hear next month.

So the Clinton Justice Department is now arguing ferociously for a stand the president was forced to accept. If this were a talk show Mr. Clinton would appear as what? Men Who Compromise Too Much?

Last January, the new president promised to lift the ban on gays in the military and all hell broke loose in the Pentagon and the Congress. Back then, Mr. Clinton said, and apparently believed, that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly wouldn't harm the military. Now, his solicitor general is assigned to argue that it could cause ''irreparable harm.''

I understand the need for compromise, for politics is the art of the possible. This is a president who has also appointed openly homosexual people to high-ranking jobs. But this is just the sort of double-take that makes people wonder whether President Clinton has more political skills than principles. Like many a good lawyer, he has the unsettling habit of moving step by logical step until he is arguing against his own original beliefs.

More to the point, this is a president who understands the culture of confession. As a candidate, this baby boomer was routinely compared -- favorably -- to talk-show host and guest.

He first came into our living rooms talking about his marriage on ''60 Minutes.'' Having passed that openness test, he told us his feelings: about his stepfather's alcoholism, the abuse of his mother, and his half-brother's drug problems. He barely flinched when another half-brother popped up from the distant past. Like it or not, the tenor of times is openness and he sings like a tenor.

This same president cannot possibly believe that a policy upholding the closet is going to work. Under the new rules, gays can serve as long as they can pass. In this nice, neat, theoretical world no one will ask a soldier about sexual orientation, nor will any soldier ever utter a forbidden word.

But silence is not golden in the 1990s. Silence is considered a taboo to be broken. This is not the Age of Innocence when discretion is everything and repression is valued. It's the age of Phil, Oprah, Sally, Maury.

Don't ask, don't tell will never survive. But thank you, anyway, as they say, for sharing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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