The Bell Curve: Fighting useless fronts of morality, legality

So the military brass has found a battle they think they can win back home. While they fight real wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have enlisted a corps of copy machines as their choice of weapons at home. There they have printed and are circulating 400,000 copies of a survey to current military service members allegedly designed to determine the potential effect of lifting the ban on homosexual men and women serving openly in our military. And critics are saying that recipients, who were neither hostile nor confused about the prospect of fighting alongside a gay comrade, may well likely be both now.

The director of the Palm Center research organization at UC Santa Barbara, Aaron Belkin, put the criticism succinctly when he said: "There are some things you don't poll the troops about."

The information gleaned from the survey, according to Pentagon PR, will be incorporated in a report due in December that will help the Pentagon take a position on lifting the ban and identify the changes that would be required if this action is ordered.

The Los Angeles Times got a copy of the survey and printed several of the questions in last Saturday's issue. Following is a typical example:

If "don't ask, don't tell" is repealed and you are assigned to share bathroom facilities with an open bay shower with someone you believe to be a gay or lesbian service member, which are you most likely to do?

Take no action; use the shower at a different time than the service member thought to be gay or lesbian; discuss how we expect each other to behave and conduct ourselves; talk to a chaplain, mentor or leader about how to handle the situation; talk to a leader to see if I had other options; something else; don't know.

About this and similar questions, Alexander Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former U.S. Army interrogator, told a Times reporter: "It is simply impossible to imagine a survey with such derogatory and insulting wording going out about any other minority group in the military."

Ten years earlier, in answer to a similar question, the late Army Air Forces Major General and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater wrote: "The conservative movement to which I subscribe has as one of its basic tenets the belief that government should stay out of people's private lives. Government governs best when it governs least — and stays out of the impossible task of legislating morality. But legislating someone's version of morality is exactly what we do by perpetuating discrimination against gays."

The Bell Curve has quoted Goldwater several times on this issue because of the clarity of his remarks and also because I happen to agree with him. How long, I wonder, will we be fighting this same fight on the two fronts of morality and legality? The first involves the efforts of fundamentalist religious groups to demonize homosexuals on the basis of a half-dozen passages in the Bible that could be interpreted several different ways, and the latter on the constitutional freedoms provided to all Americans. There is nothing in either position to justify discrimination against homosexuals — or any other law-abiding group. It's not hard to make a case that discrimination is the real sin here. Goldwater ended his answer a decade ago to homosexuals in the military this way:

"We have wasted enough precious time, money and talent trying to persecute and pretend. It's time to stop burying our heads in the sand and denying reality for the sake of politics. It's time to deal with this straight on and be done with it. It's time to get on with more important business."

It still is.

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While we're making cases, let's clarify another misunderstanding that has persisted as long as I've been a journalist and shows up periodically in critiques of what appears in this space. It came up again last week, prompted by a letter critical of a Jim Carnett column that ended — the letter, not the column — like this: "It is simply not the place of an ostensibly objective publication to proselytize to its readers. Let Carnett pray for Hitchens and other atheists' conversion on his own time, not in the pages of the Daily Pilot."

My interest here is not the content of the column but the rules that govern it. News and columns work under quite different sets of rules. While opinions of the writer are anathema in news stories, they are the stock in trade of the columnist. Personal attacks are verboten and the opinions must be anchored in accurate, supportable facts. But beyond these restrictions, a column is a miniature essay, opening with and then supporting an opinion of the writer. In this process, I will, indeed, try to win the reader over to my position. But principally the function of the columnist is to offer up a point of view into a mix of opinion so the reader can weigh differing arguments in arriving at his own conclusions. And also, in this process, to entertain the reader with evocative writing.

If this is proselytizing, I guess I'm guilty, too.

JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.

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