photo: mplemmon via Flickr

At yesterday’s meeting with five progressive bloggers, Joe Sudbay at AmericaBlog asked a simple question that’s been waiting for a simple answer:

JOE: I was glad to hear that you and your staff appreciate constructive feedback.

THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that’s something we enjoy. (Laughter.)

JOE: We’ve been more than willing to offer that. We’ve certainly been more than willing to offer than from AMERICAblog, particularly on issues related to the LGBT community, which, you know, there is a certain amount of disillusionment and disappointment in our community right now.

And one of the things I’d like to ask you — and I think it’s a simple yes or no question too — is do you think that “don’t ask, don’t tell” is unconstitutional?

The answer he got was this:

It’s not a simple yes or no question, because I’m not sitting on the Supreme Court. And I’ve got to be careful, as President of the United States, to make sure that when I’m making pronouncements about laws that Congress passed I don’t do so just off the top of my head.

I think that — but here’s what I can say. I think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is wrong. I think it doesn’t serve our national security, which is why I want it overturned. I think that the best way to overturn it is for Congress to act. In theory, we should be able to get 60 votes out of the Senate. The House has already passed it. And I’ve gotten the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to say that they think this policy needs to be overturned — something that’s unprecedented.

And so my hope and expectation is, is that we get this law passed. It is not just harmful to the brave men and women who are serving, and in some cases have been discharged unjustly, but it doesn’t serve our interests — and I speak as Commander-in-Chief on that issue.

Let me go to the larger issue, though, Joe, about disillusionment and disappointment. I guess my attitude is that we have been as vocal, as supportive of the LGBT community as any President in history. I’ve appointed more openly gay people to more positions in this government than any President in history. We have moved forward on a whole range of issues that were directly under my control, including, for example, hospital visitation.

On “don’t ask, don’t tell,” I have been as systematic and methodical in trying to move that agenda forward as I could be given my legal constraints, given that Congress had explicitly passed a law designed to tie my hands on the issue.

And so, I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think that the disillusionment is justified.

Now, I say that as somebody who appreciates that the LGBT community very legitimately feels these issues in very personal terms. So it’s not my place to counsel patience. One of my favorite pieces of literature is “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and Dr. King had to battle people counseling patience and time. And he rightly said that time is neutral. And things don’t automatically get better unless people push to try to get things better.

So I don’t begrudge the LGBT community pushing, but the flip side of it is that this notion somehow that this administration has been a source of disappointment to the LGBT community, as opposed to a stalwart ally of the LGBT community, I think is wrong.

Obama’s answer reads like someone who’s read a set of talking points from King’s letter, not the letter itself. To refer to the letter in the context of an answer that at its core tells LGBTs they are wrong for pushing for action and to wait and be patient is stunning.

Let’s take a look at some of that letter (full letter in an annotated form here), written by King to a group of local clergy who were upset with him for pushing too hard, too fast, and in too public and direct a manner:

Then, last September, came the opportunity to talk with leaders of Birmingham’s economic community. In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants–for example, to remove the stores’ humiliating racial signs.On the basis of these promises, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise. A few signs, briefly removed, returned; the others remained.

As in so many past experiences, our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of deep disappointment settled upon us. We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and the national community.

Promises made and not kept?
Blasted hopes?
The dark shadow of deep disappointment?
The humiliating signs remained?

That sounds very, very familiar to the LGBT community. While the progressives in general were celebrating Obama’s victory in November 2008, LGBTs were mourning the passage of Proposition 8 that tried to reverse marriage equality in California. “Your kind need not apply” said Prop 8.

Two years has passed since then, and the Obama DOJ has consistently defended DOMA and DADT in court (sometimes with amazingly destructive language), the Obama political folks never pushed for EDNA, and now Obama think LGBTs should not view his administration as a source of disappointment?

That sounds very much like the local clergy to whom King was writing, not the person in the jail cell holding the pencil.

Here’s more from King’s jail cell:

You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.

The LGBT community gets this. They’ve gotten very good at it, too:

They continue to lead a drumbeat of criticism of the inaction of the WH on DOMA, DADT, and ENDA.

They provided immediate pushback against Valerie Jarrett for her unthinking use of the language of “lifestyle choice” to describe the gay teen who committed suicide.

Dan Choi presented his very body, chained to the WH fence, and later walking into a recruiter’s office to reenlist in the military.

Kerry Eleveld offers constant questioning of Robert Gibbs on LGBT issues in the WH press room.

Direct action, growing stronger and louder over two years. And wonder of wonders, a week before the midterm elections the WH invites a group of LGBT activists into the WH for a strategy session on DADT, followed by inviting a major LGBT blogger to be part of an intimate sit-down with the President the next day.

It sure looks like the LGBT community and its supporters have managed “so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”

Does Obama get that he’s on the wrong side of what King wrote about?


More from King’s letter, on the basic question that Joe asked:

How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? . . . Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. . . .

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

How can Obama praise these words and then immediately pivot to tell Joe Sudbay that the LGBT community is wrong in considering the Obama administration a disappointment when it comes to dealing with the segregation faced by LGBTs?

The phrase “shallow understanding” comes to mind.

One last piece from Brother Martin — the section that speaks of the neutrality of time mentioned specifically by Obama:

Such an attitude (about being in too great a hurry, because change is inevitable) stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely rational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

When is the time to do right? Now.

No excuses like “after health care is passed.”
No delays like “after the banking system is back on its feet.”
No holding off “until the midterms are over.”

This is the kind of ineffective use of time by people of good will to which King referred.

The time is always ripe to do right.

Obama may want to re-read one of his favorite pieces of literature, and then try again.

(photo h/t mattlemmon)