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Comedians, Satire and the Law: 2010 “Cultural First Responders” December 29, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Gay Marriage, Gays in the Military, Immigration, Law, Ethics & Society.
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The idea of our republic is that we elect representatives to effect change.  Seems lately that perhaps we are having greater success when our favorite comedians speak on our behalf   Satire has always played a role in addressing hypocrisy and highlighting the issues of the day. However,  Jon Stewart’s impact on the recent passage of the bill to provide 9/11 first responders with health care benefits transforms the role of the comedian from social commentator to catalyst for change.

There has been much written about Jon Stewart’s role in securing healthcare for 9/11 first responders. While he has declined to comment on the passage of the bill, those who were struggling against what began as overwhelming odds credit the Daily Show’s coverage for “shaming” Congress into action.

“…[S]ome of those who stand to benefit from the bill have no doubt about what — and who — turned the momentum around. “I don’t even know if there was a deal, to be honest with you, before his show,” said Kenny Specht, the founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, who was interviewed by Mr. Stewart on Dec. 16.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg added, “Success always has a thousand fathers,” …“But Jon shining such a big, bright spotlight on Washington’s potentially tragic failure to put aside differences and get this done for America was, without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement.”

While Jon Stewart often insists that his is just a comedy, fake news show, Jon Stewart and his colleague, Steven Colbert, of the Colbert Report, have taken on the cable news networks and highlighted many of the cultural/legal issues being debated in our country.  (In addition to their nightly pieces, this year brought us the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, and other dramatic examples, such as Steven Colbert’s show on which he spent the day along side migrant workers and his controversial trip to Capital Hill to testify about their working conditions.)

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are certainly not lone social commentators.  As the momentum builds to legalize gay marriage in view of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Jay Leno quips, “What does that say about us as a nation when we believe gay men can now handle armed combat, but aren’t yet ready for the fighting that happens in marriage?”

Whether  the comedic world will have a measurable impact on changing the law remains to be seen; however, clearly the comedians are voicing the views of a significant cross-section of the country regardless of the action or inaction of Congress. In fact, the flurry of Congressional activity in the waning days of the December session during which Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, The Dream Act failed to pass, and 9/11 first responders were provided with health care benefits evokes the following query.

Is the law a reflection of society’s current values or does the law serve to motivate behavioral change that eventually changes overall societal values?  Like many aspects of law and society, inevitably, the general answer is: it depends upon the circumstances and one’s perspective.

More specifically, it also appears to depend upon who is interested in calling attention to the various cultural issues and values at play. Perhaps instead of continued lobbying on Capital Hill, the students marching in support of the Dream Act should “elect” their local comedians in hopes of making the dream of an education become a reality.


Please Ask, Do Tell: The Senate And Gays in the Military September 23, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Gays in the Military, Immigration, Law, Ethics & Society, U.S. Constitution.
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Another case of democracy in action. (Or is that inaction?)  The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy of allowing gays in the military only if no one knows that they are gay has been the subject of controversy since it was instituted 17 years ago.  It is estimated that at least 65,000 “uncover” gay individuals continue to serve our country.  However, gay soldiers continue to be expelled from the military when their sexual preference is discovered at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to train their replacements.   In fact, it has been reported that approximately 1,000 individuals per year are dismissed from the military based upon homosexuality and at least 13,000 have been terminated from military service since the policy went into effect.

The resolution of this issue by a policy change which would allow gays to openly serve in the military is supported by President Obama who called for the change in his State of the Union address.  Mr. Gates, the Secretary of Defense, is supporting the repeal of the policy and  the House of Representatives passed an amendment in May which calls for the repeal of the policy.  On September 9th, a Federal Court in California deemed the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy to be unconstitutional.

Okay, so seems like we have all three branches of government in agreement…Well, not quite all three branches….The Congress is not united on the issue.  The House of Representatives passed an amendment, but the Senate has failed to do so.  Actually, the Senate failed to debate and pass the entire Pentagon bill for the first time in 48 years.   It seems that the problem was more of a political battle over what other amendments were going to be attached to the bill, just before the November elections, rather than  the actual issue of gays in the military.

In other words, the failure of the bill to pass seems to be largely a result of the legislative process. For example, The Dream Act, that would allow illegal immigrant children a pathway to citizenship, was going to be attached to the bill and therefore voting for the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy would also be a vote for The Dream Act. Different issue and perhaps one upon which some Senators did not want to cast a vote.   And apparently there were  proposed amendments that were going to be excluded from the bill to the discontent of some Senators.   Additionally, there was a provision providing for over 400 million dollars for construction of  an extra engine for an F-35 strike fighter.  That provision might have been passed by the Senate, but if it was included, President Obama was poised to veto bill as the White House believes that it is an unnecessary expenditure.

It gets even more complicated if you go through all the moving parts of this bill and analyze the various November election concerns, but the point is that the politics of the legislative process is what often stymies progress.  Consensus becomes difficult at best and impossible at times because of a process that bundles unrelated issues into one package.  So, for now, the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy has been stalled in the Senate along with the Dream Act to the frustration of the both the gay rights and immigration reform advocates.   Perhaps we should all “please ask and do tell” the Senate to reconsider its “packaging process” to more effectively play its  role in  resolving issues of concern to all of us–We the People–their constituents.

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