“There are means that cannot be excused. And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don’t want just any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive.”
Over at The Kitchen Table blog, the always thoughtful Melissa Harris-Lacewell of Princeton University lays out a foundation for why “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is well overdue to end. While I agree with her in opening principle, several of her points were troubling to me and prompted me to return to a conversation where I tried to dissuade and argue that with our hard work militarism can be altered from being synonymous with masculinity in our culture to allow that which is seen as masculine to be uncaged from abuses of power. I feel similiar nuances here and hope I am understanding her correctly.
Dr. Harris-Lacewell begins that second-class citizenship in any way is antithetical to the institutions we exist inside of in American democratic leadership. Cheers to that. But then she continues:
“Military service is at the heart of citizenship.
The implied social contract that binds a nation to her people is most fully realized in two primary acts: tax paying and military service. Those who labor and pay a portion of their income to the government have a particularly strong claim on government services and recognition. Those who willingly risk their lives to protect the borders and the ideals of their country also have a thick claim on citizenship.
This is why the armed forces have historically been the terrain on which marginal groups have sought full inclusion into the American project.”
Okay, granted previously this process (given there was not much choice otherwise) was what I would call one step in a process of assimilation for formerly enslaved men to gain a patriot’s identity. But must citizenship be defined that way? Yes, in that context the terms of that implied contract mean one theoretically has more access to government support and resources. But inherently, in a soul way, this also implies that without capital or militant trajectory without cents you are expendable and have no ties to your community. Maybe I’m going a little far with that but from what I’ve read of Dr. Harris Lacewell I think she would agree that no one deserves to feel and be treated that way and that is why we all do our work as activists and educators.
I want to be clear here that I am in no way dismissing the lives of those who choose to be in military service as individuals, though I would greatly disagree and question militarism as a primary force in our culture. Thus I must greatly reject the idea that military service is the core of citizenship. I would agree that service to ones country, community and families and greater world creates a hard won fabric of generations to feel a sense of belonging and worth in their home land. Is that not why we have the Peace Corp, Teach for America, Public Achievement? I have never felt that I would feel more like a citizen by proving I would die for it. I don’t think either would prove my commitment to my country and deepen my feelings about my citizenship.
While those institutions are not barring anyone from serving like the military I have to question why we would want to integrate into a broken system because when the new rules apply one would suddenly be accepted. Can we redefine the strings of citizenship and say it is not dependent upon an institutions out-dated beliefs?
As a gay person person of color who could be treated as less than, I must wonder why I hear again to choose between taking a part of ourselves away to balance an equation or dehumanize another to protect the country to prove I am and in fact included simply because that is how it has always been done and what ancestors past have done.
Why is it not the system that would decide my worth as a consumer, my willingness to dominate and overpower other countries in unjust global conflicts or lack of access to heterosexual privilege as unfit that we would request to change? Because under the current terms, it could be said I don’t align with true citizenship and I don’t buy it. A homeless mother wouldn’t be included in those two primary examples. I realize that Dr. Harris-Lacewell was in no way defending that history but to affirm it troubled me when making it logical in the context of DADT.
As Desmond Tutu often says, we are born into belonging. Here I am getting ever more comfortable in my young skin as the years roll on. We get to change the rules. We get to start again. Dissolve DADT is one thing but putting down my own roots and words is another. Maybe as a marginalized person I don’t want the doors to be opened to me. Maybe I want the walls to fall, decenter the traditions and rebuild with the whole great web of community in all our differences. I don’t just mean the military of course but who is included in citizenry. I think it’s givers, creators, servers of justice. Yes, it can be taxpayers and soldiers but the important point I’m making is that our humanity and rights are not qualified by what we offer this country with our body and pockets but rather our dedication in heart and mind to educate our communities and love our families.
I would ask Dr. Harris-Lacewell and you dear readers what you think? We see how it’s been played but how would you redefine citizenship? Can we change the game?
(I also feel it’s important to say that while I am at another institution, I look up to Dr. Harris-Lacewell’s public work and writings quite a bit so this was an oddly awkward and hard post to write. I hope she understands. 🙂 )