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Thursday, December 15, 2005
The Wisdom of Solomon

The New Republic (registration required) had a very interesting piece about the liberal case for the Solomon Amendment.

The amendment itself is apparently named after a late congressman named Gerald Solomon.
For most of us, the late Gerald Solomon, a 20-year member of Congress, failed to leave a deep impression. A Google search on the man suggests a figure of modest historical impact, yielding articles such as "SOLOMON, ARDENT CONSERVATIVE, DIES." But dig a little deeper and other achievements emerge. The congressman regularly took up the fight against flag burning, once accusing an opponent on the issue, House Speaker Tom Foley, of "kowtowing" to the Communist Youth Brigade. He often expressed interest in the United Nations, opining that Kofi Annan "ought to be horsewhipped." And, when it came to bearing arms, Solomon's enthusiasm was unequivocal. "My wife lives alone five days a week in a rural area in upstate New York," he lectured fellow Representative Patrick Kennedy during a debate. "She has a right to defend herself when I'm not there, son. And don't you ever forget it."

Now Solomon is posthumously back in the news--and not as a standard bearer for the traditional family lifestyle in which the husband goes out to work while the wife stays home and shoots. Instead, his name is attached to a piece of legislation he backed in 1995, the Solomon Amendment, which allows the government to withhold financial assistance from any university that bars the military from recruiting on campus. A coalition of law schools has challenged the rule on First Amendment grounds, and, last week, the Supreme Court heard their case.

Some of the most elite law schools--the University of Chicago thankfully not included--have decided that the law abridges their freedom of speech, namely their opposition to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." I obviously think don't ask, don't tell is a pile of horse pluckey equivalent to the ban the military once had against blacks and whites serving together. Nothing but empirical evidence--that's troops actually perform worse when they have a member whose gay in their squad--will convince me otherwise.

The dispute at the heart of the lawsuit began in the 1990s, when the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) voted to include sexual orientation as a category meriting protection against discrimination. Employers who wished to recruit from law schools were obliged to comply with the same standard. Because the military has a near-ban on gays and lesbians, numerous schools chose to bar the Pentagon from recruiting on campus. In response, Congress, led by Solomon, voted to deprive schools of federal funding if they didn't allow military recruiters equal access. Things went back and forth for a while, but the eventual result was legislation allowing the government to withhold money from a university even if just one of its schools--a law school, say--restricts the access of military recruiters.

However, the law schools are just being dumb. (Really, we expect better.) Their opposition stems from the fact that they want federal money and want to maintain their opposition to the anti-gay policies of the military by banning recruiters. Just give up the money and you can ban recruiters all you want. Morals can be costly.
It's a strangely irksome little case, really--one of those disputes that take on a clumsy symbolism and touch unpleasantly on a variety of nerves, like a dentist's drill carelessly exploring a tooth. On one side you have an unfriendly law pushed by an old-fashioned jackass, God rest his soul, and on the other you have a group of educators marinating in self-righteousness. It's hardly an ideal set of heroes.

Also, while the dispute is widely viewed through the prism of gay rights, this is a bit of a misunderstanding--as least as far as the legal case goes. A concern for equal rights is what prompted the fight, but the legal question concerns free speech. As a constitutional matter, the argument would be the same even if a different principle were at stake. The AALS could just as well have demanded that all prospective employers wear green elf shoes. At issue would be the question of whether schools that banned non-elf-shoe-wearing recruiters were practicing a form of speech that was being unduly restricted by the government.

However, the The New Republic makes a convincing case that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is doomed due to cultural pressure alone.
Moreover, at the rate society is changing, the case may well be an anachronism within a matter of years. In the decade or so that the fight between Congress and the universities has been going on, there's been a dramatic cultural shift regarding gay rights. Let's remember: In 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres revealed herself as a lesbian on her sitcom, it was international news. Today, we have "Queer Eye" and "Six Feet Under," and no one blinks. A decade ago, not a state in the country offered same-sex civil unions; today, Vermont does, and Massachusetts has legalized same-sex marriage. More states look set to follow. TNR's Andrew Sullivan, in an article called "The End of Gay Culture," recently pointed out that 21 Fortune 500 companies offered benefits to same-sex couples in 1995; ten years later, more than 200 hundred do. And, while Red State America started from farther behind, it's rapidly progressing. Even Senator Rick Santorum, red as they come, has an openly gay director of communications. As Sullivan writes, "The speed of the change is still shocking."

However, there's more at stake here than gay rights and equal recognition. (I apologize to those activists who assume that their rights are perhaps the most pressing issue.) This is about military recruiting at the best institutions. Even though the military is a backwards institution culturally, our national defense forces deserve a chance to convince the best American minds to join their team. I don't believe for a minute that educated, cultured people will torture less or be in any way more sympathetic (if anything, their ability to self-justify is greater). I do believe, however, the structure of opportunity disincentivizes military service for the cultural and intellectual elite, disproportinately shifting the burden to the lower classes. If anything, the lower classes have less, not more, reasons to fight for the American government (especially one headed by Bush).
Far less heartening, by contrast, are the trends in military recruitment at top schools. No one among the classmates I knew in college would have been willing to take a few years to serve in the military while their friends were launching their lives and careers. This isn't simply selfishness; the entire structure of society discourages it. Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who specializes in military issues, likes to point out that, in his Princeton class of 1956, over 400 students of about 750 served in the military. By 2004, that number was down to 8 students out of about 1,100. These numbers are for undergraduates, of course, not law school students. But the fact is that the entire culture of elite education--undergraduate, graduate, and professional--has grown hostile towards the idea of military service over the past 50 years. Permitting the Pentagon to puncture the self-imposed bubble of privileged schools is essential to changing this mindset.

The Solomon Amendment controversy, in sum, awakens two competing liberal imperatives: promoting equality for gays and lesbians; and encouraging all members of society--and not just a segregated warrior class--to sacrifice for our national security. One of these efforts is going quite well; the other is going quite poorly. This suggests that liberals who passionately support the universities in the lawsuit have the wrong fight on their minds. Military culture with respect to gays and lesbians is not going to change in response to a boycott by a few schools. (If anything, such a boycott would only make military culture more insular and therefore less tolerant.) And "don't ask, don't tell" is likely to disappear on its own. On the other hand, while most Americans have grown more tolerant of gay rights in recent decades, elites have become increasingly unwilling to serve in the military. The real shame at the heart of the Solomon Amendment scuffle, then, isn't the possibility of students being confronted by representatives from an organization that discriminates against gays and lesbians. It's the possibility of elites becoming even more isolated from the armed services that keep all of us safe.

No doubt, most of the law school deans and gay rights activists who support the ban on military recruiters consider themselves to be enlightened and progressive. But sometimes being progressive involves emerging from righteous isolation and deigning to mingle with an imperfect world. In this case, the true mantle of liberalism has been upheld not by progressive law school deans but by a man who probably would have recommended launching a commando raid against them. One speaks, of course, of Gerry Solomon. Maybe he was more liberal than he realized.

Supporting the Solomon Amendment means supporting the notion that our military should be representative of our society. The elites are more likely to go into policy making positions that will involve choices about using America's armed forces. Since most of them will not have studied security, hoping that some of them may have served might be the next best thing.