What Cost Constitutionality?

THE Undergraduate Council's legitimacy was tested over the issue of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) at Harvard--and it appears that the council failed that the test. The council tried to exchange the integrity of its democratic process for "legitimacy" in the eyes of a vocal minority of its constituents and ended up with egg on its face.

As a council member, I attended last Sunday's meeting at which the council considered a resolution which declared unconstitutional its previous request to allow ROTC back on campus. Never mind that there are serious problems with a legislative body assessing the constitutionality of its own actions in retrospect. There are enough questions involved with the manner in which the council proceeded to declare the resolution unconstitutional.

Two strains of tenuous reasoning dominated the proceedings. First, council members appeared eager to relieve themselves of the guilt of calling for ROTC's return the week before. This guilt was heaped upon them by anti ROTC protesters who claimed that the council is constitutionally prohibited from endorsing ROTC because the military excludes gays.

Second, the council seemed disposed to debate the resolution on the basis of ROTC's merits--not strictly on the basis of constitutionality, as the chair specifically requested.

In the race for the 1988 Republican nomination, George Bush effectively eliminated Robert Dole from the race by using advertisements that accused Dole of flip-flopping on major issues. This criticism is equally applicable to the council. The council is guilty of political opportunism. Many council members claimed that they were not aware of the extent to which the military discriminated against homosexuals. Any witness to the debate surrounding the council's original call to reinstitute ROTC would be hard-pressed to find confirmation for such a claim.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could misinterpret the vocal opposition of gay-rights activists who specifically condemned the military's discriminatory policies during the original council debate. In fact, the issue of constitutionality was addressed at that same meeting.

BUT some council members apparently didn't get the message until after week's worth of front-page press and highly visible protests. During this storm of contention, no one noticed that the council's constitution also calls upon the body to fight against discrimination on the basis of economic disadvantage. There, in the very same sentence of the council charter, the rights of the gay community are upheld along with the rights of the economically disadvantaged. The council constitution provides no guide in this no-win situation. The only appeal is to debate on the merits of the issue, something that cannot be addressed by a resolution restricted to constitutionality. Viewed as a question of symbolism versus hard reality, I came down on the side of the disadvantaged.

Guilt over the ROTC issue cannot be absolved by hiding behind unfounded appeals to constitutionality. Nothing gets resolved that way. After the adoption of the resolution declaring 7S-28 unconstitutional, the anti-ROTC contingent got up and cheered as if they had won some moral victory. But it was a hollow victory indeed. ROTC was not defeated on the basis of its merits--as it should have been--but on the misapplied technicality of constitutionality.

Why does the military discriminate against gays? This question seems to have been taken for granted during the ROTC debate. The military forbids women from participating in combat and even in noncombat roles and rigidly segregates them from men, forbidding heterosexual relationships in the process. The military does everything to minimize horizontal ties which would dilute the vertical ones of the command hierarchy. Given the separation of women from men and the minimization of horizontal ties, which the vast majority of Americans accept, how does one propose to integrate gays into the armed forces without contradicting these goals? Never has this question been answered by the anti-ROTC contingent.

The amendment concerning the constitutionality of ROTC should have been defeated in order to allow an intelligent discussion of the military's policies. Despite the restriction on commentary not relevant to the issue of constitutionality, speakers at the last council meeting were allowed to spout off about the issue's merits. But the vote that followed pertained only to constitutionality. The two issues, merits and constitutionality, became confused. The losers were the democratic process and the legitimacy of the Undergraduate Council.

A vocal minority of anti-militarists used the constitutionality question to force the council's hand on the ROTC issue. But their opposition to ROTC is not restricted to discrimination, as shown by their near-riot after the debate was settled in their favor. Clearly, they agree with the democratic process only when it serves their purposes. The council was all too willing to accommodate their selective interests.