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Civil Rights in the Age of Neoliberalism


The widespread celebration around the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) was certainly justified. The fundamental unfairness of a policy–at its core a free speech issue?that forced U.S. servicewomen and men to lie about an important part of their identity made DADT unsustainable. Generational change and common sense won repeal despite opposition from the most retrograde elements of the military hierarchy and their surrogates like John McCain.

Advocacy groups called the repeal of DADT a “civil rights” victory and the corporate media trumpeted it as one of several end-ofyear victories for the Democrats. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called the lame duck session the “most productive Congress since Lyndon Johnson maybe since the New Deal.”

One of the pieces of legislation that did not make it through this “productive Congress” was the DREAM Act, a bill that has languished in the Senate for almost a decade. Like DADT, the basic appeal of DREAM is difficult to resist?hard-working undocumented youth brought to the United States as children deserve a pathway to legalization. The vast majority of DREAMeligible youth have no direct experience of their family’s country of origin and many of them are high achievers with college and even graduate school degrees.

The subtext to DREAM is far less sentimental. As some Latino activists have pointed out, DREAM legislation from its earliest incarnation was the handiwork of the Department of Defense. The Pentagon understands that a large pool of eligible young people, many of them bilingual and well educated, would be a potential bonanza for recruiters. Given that the vast majority of undocumented working-class youth find it difficult to complete even two years of college, this particular path to legalization will lead them necessarily into an eight-year military enlistment contract in exchange for permanent residency.

What the movements to pass the DREAM Act and repeal DADT have in common is an uncanny admixture–the goal of regularizing the status of two admirable and aggrieved communities and their direct connection to the machinery of U.S. militarism. At a time when the United States is engaged in a number of hot wars and an unknown number of covert operations, this connection should concern everyone who otherwise supported the passage of DREAM and DADT.

Few of us would deny gay and lesbian people or qualified undocumented youth their right to serve in the military if they choose to do so. But what was difficult to watch was the parade of queer servicemen and women making the media rounds describing the U.S. military as the “greatest organization in the world.” Even more disturbing were public protests and hunger strikes where undocumented youth held “Let us serve” signs and proclaimed their eagerness to enlist and a willingness “to die for my country.”

The point is not to criticize immigrant youth who, desperate for legalized status, perceive military service as a way out of a life of constant fear of deportation. The real question is whether or not any of these young people understand the uses to which politicians have put the U.S. military over the last sixty years.

If in fact the activism around DREAM and DADT are civil rights movements, it seems clear that civil rights in 2010 is remarkably like civil rights circa 1940 when excluded groups, eager to win a modicum of inclusion, remained silent about the most destructive aspects of liberal capitalism. Were he to reappear today, Dr. King would be hard-pressed to recognize his own values in this contemporary civil rights agenda.

What is missing above all is King’s critique of U.S. militarism, his insistence that bloated Pentagon budgets make the social safety net impossible to sustain, and his stunning proclamation that his country was the greatest purveyor of violence in the world. All of these assertions are as true today as they were in 1967.

As we celebrate the repeal of DADT, let’s be realistic. Military culture will continue to be homophobic, sometimes violently so (the astonishingly high percentage of women in the military who report sexual harassment is a related facet of this culture). As we advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that will include legalization for deserving young people, let’s be pleased that hundreds of DREAM youth may attend college but lament the fact that thousands will be tracked into the armed forces.

Our gay, lesbian, and immigrant sisters and brothers are faced with a dilemma. Will their communities support a spirited debate about the advisability (morality) of military service in this most recent chapter of U.S. imperial adventurism? DREAM and DADT activists (and President Obama himself) would do well to revisit Dr. King’s “fierce urgency of now” text, especially the part where he warns: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

DADT had to be repealed; DREAM students deserve a path to legal status. But given its on-going imperial role, is the U.S. military a legitimate means for achieving the goals of civil rights at home and human rights abroad?

JORGE MARISCAL is the grandson of Mexican immigrants and was a conscripted pawn in the U.S. war in Southeast Asia. He currently teaches at the increasingly privatized University of California, San Diego. His website is



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