How does that old song go? “Another year older and deeper in debt”? That could be our new national anthem, since it captures both our moral and fiscal deficits.
As I write this, Senate Republicans have refused to allow a vote on repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and prospects for bringing it back to the floor before the conclusion of the lame-duck session are iffy, at best. This intransigence has persisted despite the fact that the Secretary of Defense and most of the highest-ranking military officials have testified in favor of repeal, and despite the fact that polls show a sizeable majority of Americans in favor of allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly.
Before you shake your head about the persistence of homophobia, however, let me remind you that the gay community hasn’t been singled out. Senate Republicans have also refused, once again, to fund medical care for the brave men and women who were first responders on 9/11. I don’t use the word “hero” very often, but that’s what these firefighters, police officers and medics were. They braved the inferno that was the Twin Towers in order to rescue those inside, and they are now suffering from injuries and illnesses caused by that rescue operation.
The refusal to repeal DADT is excused by mumbling “unit cohesion.” The refusal to provide desperately-needed medical care to first responders has been justified by several Senators on the basis that the expense would add to the deficit. They have cited the same excuse for their refusal to extend unemployment benefits for the millions of Americans who still cannot find work.
The elephant in this room filled with elephants is tax breaks for American families earning over 250,000 a year. As Obama correctly noted in a press conference where he tried to explain his capitulation on the issue, the Senate GOP was holding these measures—and many others—hostage to their insistence that the richest 2% of Americans retain the favorable tax rates they received from George W. Bush.
It is true that helping first responders and unemployed people would cost money. But extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy will add billions more to the deficit than those measures would. Furthermore, unemployment benefits put dollars in the hands of people who immediately spend those dollars, and thus stimulate the economy. (People defend our historically low tax rates for the rich by claiming those dollars will be spent to create jobs; however, the evidence shows otherwise.)
So here we are, ending the first decade of the 21st century facing moral and fiscal bankruptcy.
Our government is broken; it now takes sixty votes to get any measure through the U.S. Senate, making a mockery of democracy and majority rule, and allowing a cohesive and determined minority to hold the nation hostage to the demands of the greedy and privileged. The income gap between rich and poor is wider than it has been since the gilded age, and the strain that gap places on our civic fabric is immense.
This is the environment within which we enter the New Year, and this is the environment within which gay citizens must work to achieve equal rights. It isn’t just DADT repeal—history has plenty of examples of what happens to minority groups during periods of national upheaval and fiscal distress. When times are tough, people look around for someone to blame. In Germany, before WWII, it was the Jews. In the U.S. today, it is gays and immigrants.
People have asked me, over the years, why I advocate for equal rights for gays and lesbians. My answer has always been the same: I’m selfish. I want equality for myself, and I understand that only in a country where everyone is equal can anyone be equal. But the flip side of that is equally true. Gays and lesbians cannot achieve equality in an unequal and inequitable system. We are all in this together.
Happy New Year. I guess.