A Mixed Day for Basic Human Decency

By Sean Carroll | December 18, 2010 2:36 pm

Nothing focuses the mind of an elected representative like the prospect of their vacations being cut short, and Congress has been busy in the days leading up to the Christmas holiday. The big news today:

  • “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is being repealed. DADT was the ugly political compromise that allowed gay and lesbian soldiers to serve in the military, as long as they stayed in the closet. It was opposed by the military, most Americans, and even most members of Congress. Repeal was only difficult because of the bizarre filibuster rule that allows 40% of the U.S. Senate to gang together to block legislation they oppose on the basis of fundamental principles, such as the principle that homosexuals should be discriminated against. Oh, and the energetic opposition of Crazy John McCain, who was a longtime opponent of DADT until he decided it was politically expedient to switch sides. (“There will be high-fives all over the liberal bastions of America,” he said, taking the nonpartisan high road.) The legislative strategy for repeal is a hard-won victory for Obama, who could have overturned the policy by executive order, but argued that passing a law would yield a much more solid and lasting result.
  • The DREAM Act has failed. Again, not because it couldn’t get a majority, but because it couldn’t muster the votes to overcome a filibuster. (A handful of Democrats joined with the Republicans on this one.) In this case, the principled objection was to a bill that allowed non-citizens who were brought to this country illegally as children (when they were younger than 16) to attain citizenship if they graduated from high school and either completely two years of college or joined the military. Obviously we wouldn’t want people like that in our country.

Sorry to be snarky, truly. I much prefer having polite discussions about honest disagreements. But these aren’t examples of that; opposition to these measures arises from combinations of craven political posturing and straightforward bigotry. Nothing principled about it; just politicians preying on people’s fears. And I honestly believe that we have a more healthy political dialogue by admitting that outright, rather than pretending that opposition to bills like this is in any way honorable.

DADT repeal is a big deal. Congratulations to all the servicemen and -women who no longer have to live a lie (at least not because of official government policy; informal discrimination is harder to eradicate). High fives all over!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Politics
  • Z

    So gays can now openly serve in the military. Hooray, we’ve caught up to the ancient Greeks!

    Human decency supporters rejoice, for now our military stands as a shining beacon of promoting human decency and human rights. Wait, what?

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  • http://opines.mythusmage.org Alan Kellogg

    Here’s a funny thing; many homosexuals don’t act homosexual, but a number of straights do. So much for knowing them by how they act.

  • http://lusepuster.posterous.com Thoeger

    Yay. Now homosexuals can murder people in far off countries without having to lie about their sexuality. I know I should be glad. I just can’t.

  • Davis

    …Obama, who could have overturned the policy by executive order…

    This is incorrect. The restriction on gays serving in the military was enacted into law as 10 U.S.C. § 654. Clinton’s DADT executive order that has been in place since 1993 was simply an instruction to the military regarding how it should pursue enforcement of § 654.

    No president has the authority to overturn a statutory provision through executive order; the most Obama could have done himself would have been to issue a new executive order that would have made enforcement of § 654 more difficult. But there are clear rule of law and constitutional issues inherent in any executive order instructing a policy of nonenforcement of a valid law (even though it’s likely that no one would have standing to sue for enforcement).

  • spyder

    And FoxNews will spin the story in their usual ways. They didn’t like the study that came out of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, so the senior VP of the network attacked the university as a whole:

    Asked for comment on the study, Fox News seemingly dismissed the findings. In a statement, Michael Clemente, who is the senior vice president of news editorial for the network, said: “The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.” Mr. Clemente oversees every hour of objective news programming on Fox News, which is by far the nation’s most popular cable news channel.

    Thus, i am sure that while the rest of us breathe a sigh of temporary relief from too many years of DADT, the ignorantly informed FoxNews minions will be up in arms about some socialist, communist, fascist, conspiracy to destroy America. For the record, the University of Maryland is in the top ten of Northeastern Universities, as ranked by the Princeton Review. oops.

  • Engineer Dad

    A country’s quality of life varies directly with the contribution of its population.

    Economist Milton Friedman famously said, “You can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.” He was correct. You can’t flood our American cities with illegal marginal workers — and, for example, provide good health care for everyone.

    Studies have shown lower class US citizens receive more from government than they contribute, so why enlarge the U.S. lower class? In our free-market system, it is the large, literate and productive American middle and upper classes who contribute more than they receive. And it is their productivity that raises the living standards of our lower class. The vast majority of illegals compete directly with our most vulnerable white, Hispanic, and African American citizens, suppressing their wages and increasing their hardship.

    Different ethnicities have, on average, vastly different innate mental abilities.

    Can your snarky attitude be dispelled by cold facts?

    A Comparison of U.S. Caucasian and Hispanic NAEP Scores

    Caucasian NAEP 8th Grade Science Percentage Scores
    Below Basic | Basic | Proficient | Advanced
    28 | 35 | 34 | 4

    Scores: 28% Below Basic, 35% Basic, 34% Proficient and 4% Advanced.

    Hispanic NAEP 8th Grade Science Percentage Scores
    Below Basic | Basic | Proficient | Advanced
    67 | 24 | 9 | < 1

    Scores: 67% Below Basic, 24% Basic, 9% Proficient and < 1% Advanced

    The facts for United States NAEP Report for Science:

    The Program in International Student Achievement (PISA) reading and mathematics test scores for Mexicans taught reading and mathematics in Spanish are just as bad, if not worse, than those who have fled to the U.S. PISA officials estimate over 50% of Mexican 15-year old youth today are functionally illiterate and thus unable to compete in Mexico's economy.


  • Physicalist

    *High five*

  • JTHunter

    RE “DADT”: Now the GI’s won’t be able to trust the blood supply on the battlefield as they won’t know if they might get infected with HIV.
    Smart move.

    RE “Dream Act”: Granted, the youngsters who were brought here ILLEGALLY when under age aren’t culpable for this crime, but their parents are and should be treated accordingly.
    Otherwise, what are we teaching our children but that it is acceptable to break the law as somebody will change the rules later for them.
    Is that what we WANT to teach our children?
    I hope not!

  • Sporx Foonly

    I think you’re framing the issue in a bit of a biased way. It’s quite possible to agree with a proposed measure in principle, while still having serious doubts about the implementation of the principle. For instance, the PATRIOT act sounded great on the surface. Who doesn’t want to be a patriot? Protecting people from terrorists, that’s a great thing, right? 😛
    I have my own misgivings that I sincerely doubt are due to bigotry. For example, the DADT repeal – I’m extremely pro-gay rights, and I’m adamantly in favor of fully legalized same-sex marriage (no “civil union” compromises, I want the whole shebang). I support an organization that counsels at-risk GBLT youth. However, I’m not convinced that we’re ready for a repeal of DADT. For one thing, we’ve seen the problems that some women have had in the military with sexist abuse, intimidation, coercion from superiors, etc, and we haven’t even fully dealt with that yet. I have a suspicion that many gay and lesbian servicemembers will continue to “not tell,” regardless of this new law.
    And there are also living spaces to think about. Obviously, men and women in the military have separate showers and barracks, but I would think that gblt/straight servicemembers would be uncomfortable sharing the same facilities for the same reason that men and women would. Would we need separate facilities for GBLT people? And would such facilities constitute segregation/discrimination?
    Perhaps I’m overstating these problems, and there’s really nothing to worry about. If so, great. I guess we’ll see fairly soon.

    As for the Dream Act, I don’t know much about it, but the fact is that any sweeping immigration bill can have unintended consequences. To assume that anyone who has misgivings is a bigot, especially over a potentially costly bill in this fiscal climate, is going a bit too far, IMHO.

  • Joseph G

    Odd, my comments aren’t showing up.

    Edit: NOW it works. Dubya Tee Eff?

  • bittergradstudent


    the way that the military implemented DADT was in direct contradiction to how they said that they would implement it when it was discussed back in the ’90s. In particular, they promised that they would not investigate anyone’s homosexuality for purposes of discharging them under DADT, which turned out to be an overt lie. An executive order could certainly prevent that behaviour, which would have prevented a large percentage of DADT discharges.

  • mumbogumbo

    @JTHunter RE:DADT
    WTF? Sure, heterosexual soldiers are never HIV positive and can’t spread the virus even if they are, right? *rolls eyes*

    Anyway, kudos USofA for joining the militaries of the rest of the developed world in the 21st century.

  • Charles Schmidt

    I have no problem with your thinking that DADT repeal is good or even that you may think that the Dream Act would be good, even though I disagree with you. However you thinking that disagreeing with them by those elected is because of as you stated, “opposition to these measures arises from combinations of craven political posturing and straightforward bigotry.”, is saying that having an ideas or beliefs different from yours must be wrong, how egocentric you sound. I spent many years in the military and I could care less about any ones sex life in the service or out and do not care to hear about it, nor do I believe in rewarding illegal behavior but it sounds like you are in favor of both and that is your right just as I and others have ours. But you seem to need to name call to make yourself look or sound good, well it did not work for you.

  • psmith

    Good news in one quarter but I would gently disagree with you Sean, when you call DADT ‘an ugly political compromise’. I would rather call it a clever interim step that allowed American society time to make some difficult adjustments in attitudes and values. And, given the outcome, it has worked.

    @14, the behaviour of many opponents of gay rights certainly seem to pass the test for bigotry so I am with Sean on that one. As for his remark ‘craven political posturing’, that seems to describe a great number of politicians on many issues. Perhaps ‘craven political posturing’ is the politician’s adaptive response to a bigoted constituency?

  • http://www.shaky.com Timon of Athens

    “Sorry to be snarky, truly.”


  • coolstar

    @5 Davis You are exactly right about DADT. It’s amazing how many otherwise well informed people like Sean are completely wrong on the simple facts of this.
    I agree with psmith that DADT was actually a spectacular success that led directly to the result that Sean so applauds. For at least the last decade, the great majority (80% or more) of dismissals from military service under DADT have been “voluntary’ with people outing themselves to get OUT, almost always within the first 5 months of service. These are all honorable discharges also. The number of people actually brought to courtsmartial for being gay in the services under DADT can be counted without removing your shoes. Yes, it’s better to be rid of DADT, but it served its purpose and was, pretty obviously, the best that americans were able to get until now.

  • goldy

    It’s time to attack Sean from the other side. First, if you are “sorry to be snarky”, the time to make amends is before you hit ‘publish’. Apologies are for after you make a mistake, not for a mistake you are about to make on purpose. There is nothing principled or useful about impugning the motives of those with whom you disagree.
    I say this as someone who agrees with both the repeal of DADT and the DREAM act.
    @Engineer Dad: So you have some facts. Great. Unfortunately, they don’t prove anything. I spent years teaching in public schools and while that system is broken, turning high school graduates into criminals due to no action on their part is making this country neither healthier nor safer. They are here, have no where else to go and most of them know no other country. The choice is allowing them to become productive citizens once they prove themselves (college or military service) or turning them all into criminals. Are you saying you are in favor of more criminals? Do you know any of these kids? I do and many of them would make great, productive citizens instead of being forced to hide in the shadows of society.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I wouldn’t even dignify DADT with the term “compromise”. Clinton the triangulator made a big deal out of his progressive bona fides as a candidate, and tossed those ideals like a hot brick when they became inconvenient. DADT amounted to little more than a legal formalization of the extant military social contract, in which bigotry was countered with subterfuge as a matter of course. Perhaps the only good it did was make the fact that gays had been in the military the whole time more obvious to those too stupid to have figured it out already.

  • Escuerd

    “Perhaps I’m overstating these problems and there’s really nothing to worry about. If so, great. I guess we’ll see fairly soon.”

    Yeah, you’re overstating them. Unless you think that there’s some reason that the U.S.’s military will have special problems not encountered by the British Armed Forces, much of Europe, the Israeli Defense Force, the Australian Defence Force, etc.

    Now, it’s always possible that the U.S. will prove to be fundamentally different, but why are people acting like we’re going into this with no data and like we’ll have to wait and “see fairly soon” as if we didn’t already have a pretty good idea what to expect?

  • Ray

    It’s a bad day for the survivors of 9/11, too. The politicians are obviously beyond shame.

  • Sporx Foonly

    @JTHunter RE: DADT:
    Oh my god, you’re right! Everyone knows that gay is just another word for “HIV positive”! And of course, the military’s medical services are famously primitive and careless – they don’t have a carefully regulated blood supply, or anything. No, they just suck blood out of whoever happens to be nearby if they need it!

    @#20 Escuerd: Excellent points. I do think that acceptance of gays in the military by other servicemembers could conceivably vary widely depending on the national/local culture. Of course the patriot in me is optimistic that our guys are at least as openminded/mature as folks in other countries 😉 So yeah, hopefully you’re right.

  • http://tinyurl.com/26hlfse Neil Bee

    I think the cause of gays serving in the military is moving through these stages:
    1. Don’t ask, go to h***
    2. Don’t ask, don’t tell
    3. Don’t ask, all is well.

  • Sporx Foonly

    @#21 Ray: Very true, sadly. Though one thing I’m seeing get lost in the noise and blaming is the question of why this is an issue NOW. What the hell was Congress doing for the last 8 years!? We’ve had both Republican and Democrat majorities in that time period, so either side dumping the blame on the other party won’t fly. What the fark took them so long to get to this point?

    @23 Neil:

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    Fable time!

    Eighteen years ago, little high school space nerd was figuring out how to be an astronaut. Option A: join the military. Option B: become a civilian scientist.

    Little space nerd was in heavy denial about her crush on little poet girl. Little space nerd had no idea that the brand-new “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was aimed squarely at her. Little space girl could have chosen A, and signed up for two decades of fear.

    But little space nerd also thought the Hubble Deep Field was pretty. So she didn’t join ROTC, and she never flew a plane. But she didn’t have to spend two decades lying, either.

  • Brian

    I hate whining about the filibuster. Ours is a two party system. If we had three or more parties, even a simple majority would require a coalition. The filibuster is a minority party’s last opportunity to block abuses by an easily achieved simple majority vote. And it exhausts large amounts of political capital to obstruct business in the Senate. If the people didn’t like it, Republicans wouldn’t have GAINED seats this cycle.

    Rather than sniping at Republicans for filibustering. Ask yourself why a party with 59 votes has such a hard time breaking a filibuster?

  • bittergradstudent


    the public doesn’t care one way or another about a filibuster. Polling bears this out. And yes, the Democrats have no party disicipline, and the Republicans have a ton of party disicpline. There is no Democratic equivalent to the Club For Growth, and groups like EMILY’s list and NARAL will just endorse all incumbents, even some Republicans.

    So yes, right-wing Republicans dominate the Republican party, while very, very moderate Democrats hold all the leadership positions in the Democratic party (could you even imagine a pro-choice Republican heading the Republican Senate coalition? Harry Reid is pro-life).

    And as an aside, yes, it is shocking that not one Republican was willing to vote on the nationalization of the policy that was the centerpiece of Mitt Romney’s run for the Republican Nomination. Kinda strange, really.

  • RA

    The US has been the technological, scientific, economic and military preeminent nation of the past 100 years due to its ability to absorb wave after wave of immigrants (each of the waves started as ‘illegal’ in one way or another). People that come to the U. S. from abroad tend to be the hardest working and the most entrepenurial of their original countries–it takes a lot for someone to leave their families and cultures for a more secure economic condition. After a couple of generations, these immigrants integrate fully and contribute to society significantly. The U. S. rejects the DREAM ACT at their peril.

    Think about the following: what is the percentage of graduate students in the top universities who are American citizens? I am a faculty at one of them and we find it increasingly difficult to attract American students who are as qualified as our international applicants.

    The beneficiaries of the DREAM ACT are essentially high achievers (not only of Hispanic origin) that will enlarge the potential pool of recruits into our engineering and science programs.

    To Engineering Dad:

    ‘1. Hispanic’ is not an ethnic group (go and see people from Latin America and you will see all kinds of ethnicities represented within the ‘Hispanic’ population)

    2. Differences between ehtnic groups have to be controlled for socioeconomic background. Population geneticists have already discarded ethnic background as the DOMINANT factor for academic performance or intelligence metric (look at the continuous upward trend in average I. Q. over the years).

    3. There is no such thing as a pure ethnic group.

    4. About PISA scores:

    It turns out that the U. S. (whites, blacks, hispanics included) scores rather badly (bottom half, third and fifth in reading, math and science) when compared to other oecd countries. Are American whites intrinsically (i. e. genetically) inferior to Fins or Koreans?

    Yes, Mexico places last in all of the rankings but Mexico has suffered from significant social inequalities for most of its history (I am originally from Mexico). In Mexico, asking a child to do well in school when he/she is only thinking on whether he/she will eat that day is a bit unrealistic. Now, we have only to blame ourselves as a country for our failure to improve our condition but our ethnicity does not have anything to do with our problems. Afterall, we are perhaps the most ethnically-mixed country in Latin America.

  • spyder

    Ask yourself why a party with 59 votes has such a hard time breaking a filibuster?

    snarky response: It could be because it only takes one Kyl, Corker, DeMint, Cornyn, etc. to hold up all legislation, and the supermajority rule is not a filibuster (technically and practically). But that wasn’t your point, was it?

  • Joseph G

    @ 25 The AstroDyke: Cool story! :)
    But I’m not clear on the moral. Does that mean that DADT is good? Or that you’re glad you didn’t have to deal with it?

    Edit: Just to clarify, I’m not being sarcastic. I’m glad you’re happy with the path you took.
    On the intertubes, sometimes we tend to assume sarcasm. And I’m certainly guilty of authoring multi-paragraph sarcastic screeds myself.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Representative democracy is based on the principle that, for things which must be decided, the majority decides, exceptions being for stuff like changing the constitution when a 2/3 majority or whatever might be required. But the filibuster rule allows the opposition to up the required majority to 60% on any issue. This, together with the two-party system, puts the US way behind most non-dictatorial countries. Ask a typical citizen on the street in the States, though, and he’ll say that no country in the world is more democratic than the good old U S of A.

    This is really as clear-cut as, say, homeopathy being bogus. It would be nice to have the sceptical community in the States be a bit more forthcoming regarding basic political shortcomings (not the issues themselves). It’s not just a “matter of opinion”, just like it’s not a matter of opinion whether homeopathy works or GRT is correct. After all, what point is there in convincing the majority when this majority can’t even pass a law?

  • Engineer Dad

    @28 RA said, “After a couple of generations, these immigrants integrate fully and contribute to society significantly.”

    But you should have added, “… with the glaring exception of Mexican Americans.”

    Telles and Ortiz, two Mexican American UCLA sociologists have performed an impressive multi-generational study of Mexican-American assimilation.

    They write:
    “Despite sixty years of political and legal battles to improve the education of Mexican Americans, they continue to have the lowest average education levels and the highest high school dropout rates among major ethnic and racial groups in the United States. …

    Telles and Ortiz statistical models show that the low education levels of Mexican Americans have impeded most other types of assimilation, thus reinforcing a range of ethnic boundaries between them and white Americans.”

    Telles and Ortiz report, the third and fourth generations of Mexican Americans do not continue to close the gap relative to non-Hispanic whites: “In education, which best determines life chances in the United States, assimilation is interrupted by the second generation and stagnates thereafter.”

  • Dave

    It is awfully convenient to be able to label anyone who disagrees with you a bigot.

    THE FACTS ( which I had previously thought scientists relied upon ) are poor enforcement and even prosecution of local enforcement of immigration laws. The federal government is not trying to find a solution to the problems that illegal immigration is causing, they are seeking to benefit from those problems.

    To call people looking for substance in their solutions bigot is the highest form intellectual slight of mind and political masturbation. Your ‘side’ is lucky the press are nothing but willing voyeurs for this type of spectacle. But in case you haven’t noticed, as Carl Sagan once said: ” The old appeals to racial sexual religious chauvinism and to rabid nationalist fervor are beginning not to work.”

  • ANON

    I for one thank Sean for calling a bigot a bigot.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    Repeal is a big deal. And today it’s official. Obama and the Democratic Congress, for all their faults, deserve the gratitude of the Progressive base for it. Well done.

  • carlsag

    Bradley Manning in soul destroying remand will be so glad to hear this. Does it still stand to reason that homosexuals are weak and untrustworthy ? or could he possibly have thought that it was wrong – wrong wrong – to conduct warfare in a cruel and debasing way.

  • Gary

    Sean: “Sorry to be snarky, truly. I much prefer having polite discussions about honest disagreements…”


    You don’t afford the same “polite” considerations to non-liberals, Independents, conservatives, or Republicans.

    ’34. Anon’ doesn’t know a bigot even with a mirror.

    Funny how that works.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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