Chris Matthews invited Lt. Dan Choi on Hardball last night to ask him to speculate on the unknowable motives of what drives politicians to oppose repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Results were fiery.
Warning: if displays of angry gays make you uncomfortable, this may not be the video or diary for you.
The responsibility for this segment going poorly is entirely a result of Chris Matthews' complete failure as a host. (Surprise!) He begins by framing the segment with two false premises, which are laughable, particularly in this context. He starts by saying "Politicians tend to try to be ahead of the curve."
I would say no. Politicians at their bravest tend to embrace positions no sooner than when public polling hits 51%. The system in general encourages followers not leaders.
Furthermore, Matthews displays a very fundamental misunderstanding of LGBT issues in politics to frame this particular segment in such way. It is the rare, rare politician that is ahead of the curve on gay issues. Very rare. Extremely rare. So double no. We have much, much empirical data that shows that politicians are consistently behind the curve on LGBT issues. For example, a sizable percentage of the country believes that LGBT Americans already enjoy the protection from discrimination in employment. And yet, Congress can't bring themselves pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
This is an especially ironically clueless premise from a man who condescendingly tells Choi later in the segment: "Let me tell you how the country works.." Yes, Chris, because you understand how the country works for gay people, I'm sure.
Anyway, another fundamental mistake that Chris Matthews makes stems completely from his own failings as a host to research and understand his guest. He seems to assume that Lt. Dan Choi is interested in playing armchair political strategist. If he wanted to play "Hey, let's handicap the Senate and speculate on their motives" games, he picked the wrong man, and given Dan's history, there's no reason to believe he should be such a person.
It's an easy mistake to make, it's a very popular game. People like to think of themselves as being the person who has the perfect talking point, or can point their finger at the heart of a problem and eradicate it with just the right strategy. I'm sure most of his invited guests engage with glee.
But that isn't what Choi is interested in. This isn't where Dan has been (he's been at war). It isn't what he's done. It isn't who Choi has ever presented himself to be, or what he aspires to be. He isn't a gay Rham Emmnanuel running around with a clipboard, making whip counts and distributing sticks and carrots as necessary to get to a magic number.
No. Choi is well aware while we waste time bickering about silly games politicians are playing with LGBT rights, our youth are killing themselves. He has his eyes on the much greater issue of how our homophobic society validates bullying and perpetuates gay youth homelessness. I have no doubt he would gladly engaged with great passion and eloquence on the topic of how "Don't ask, don't tell" validates societal attitudes that perpetuate these problems. But that doesn't interest Matthews.
Despite Matthews' repeated attempts to draw him into his segment agenda, Dan refuses to allow himself to be distracted into playing partisan games with the equal rights of Americans. He won't play the "GOP is bad, why aren't they as good as the Democrats, how can we make them do the right thing?" game Matthews wants to play.
Dan lays the injustice at feet of leadership as a whole. It is up to leadership to address these Constitutional violations. The Constitution recognizes no party system. The parties have always served as a way to simplify politics into a team sport. And engaging in team sports mentality has not helped gays moved forward since that strategy was firmly adopted in the late 1970s. And it certainly has not helped in the last two years.
Dan doesn't taken the bait, but Matthews doesn't take the cue, he circles back, determined to adhere to his segment agenda (2:35):
"You're going in your direction, go in my direction, why is it a problem getting it through the Congress?... Why can't the Congress go with the American people on this issue politically? What's holding them up? Why are no Republicans aboard this thing?"
This is when the fireworks really start.
"I don't need to understand why a particular politician votes a certain way, I just need to know that currently under the law, I'm not allowed to tell the truth and I'm not an equal citizen. I come back from war in Iraq and I'm treated as a second-class citizen. And people take polls about whether I am popular or not. And I think that's an insult, and that's what I'm focused on, that might not be your direction, but I think it's very clear."
But, still, Matthews won't let it go, he's determined to make Choi speculate on the unknowable motives of others:
"Why wouldn't a politician obey the will of the people, it would be in their self-interest to do it?"
Choi won't validate the framing that LGBT rights are subject to the whims of the will of the people:
"It doesn't matter what they say to me."
And he's right. Remember Rachel Maddow's brilliant "Let's order a pizza" skit where she demonstrated the folly of engaging in negotiations with someone who in obstinately not negotiating in good faith? The excuses are merely cover for their ultimate disagreement with the goal. But they can't say that aloud when the public disagrees with them on the goal. And, of course, there is no negotiating with bigotry.
Ironically, a man who actually DOES have DC lobbying experience and IS interested in whip-counting and political strategizing is present: Servicemembers United's Executive Director Alex Nicholson. Oddly, Matthews pays him meager attention directing most of his questions to Choi.
Nicholson does engage in such speculation, saying:
"I think we're really lost part of principle of civilian control of the military."
A good observation. Which has been true for decades. Now whether Congress and the President are going to choose this issue; these people, the gays, at this time; in two wars to finally draw a line in the sand with the Pentagon and the MIC.... well, what do you think?
Ironically, Matthews puts his finger on exactly the problem himself, "they wanted the report, now they want hearings, they're trying to run out the clock." Is he looking for Choi to agree with him? Is he looking for validation from Choi?
Choi is focused on action, not words, he says:
"It doesn't matter whether a mission is difficult, it doesn't matter whether it's considered difficult or hard, it's a matter of doing the right thing."
Matthews asks Choi what members of the Senate would say to him if he got them in a room? [It's ironic to note Matthews' voice inflection betrays his skepticism that Dan will ever be in a room with Senators. Has it finally dawned on him, Dan will never be in a room with Senators, precisely because he refuses to play partisan games our leaders are engaged in on LGBT rights?]:
"It's doesn't matter what they say to me."
Damn right. Their excuses don't matter when they defend and act to continue an inexcusable policy.
By the way, have you called a Senator today?