Andrew Belonsky

Dan Choi's Promise Ring and Humanist Activism

Filed By Andrew Belonsky | July 26, 2010 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Dan Choi, Harry Reid, Netroots Nation, News, politics

To say that Netroots Nation got emotional would be an understatement: I cannot count how many times I saw tears, screaming arguments and a few outbursts that looked more like a breakdown than progress.

firepeace.jpgThese fervent outbursts are understandable: fighting for truth and justice in an age of ongoing discrimination can be frustrating, and that's putting it lightly. But to allow one's self to be overcome with negativity doesn't always get the job done; there needs to be an emotional compromise.

As I process the experience, my mind keeps going back to the moment when Dan Choi gave Sen. Harry Reid his West Point ring. It was a moment of protest, yes, but one that wasn't filled with the anger we're accustomed to; it was a poignant moment that actually managed to moisten my typically dry eyes.

Fellow Bilerico contributor Jerame Davis described the jewelry to me as a "promise ring." It was a bit of a joke, yes, but as soon as he said it, we looked at one another, and something clicked in my head: this was a promise, and one that I hope isn't simply between these two men.

As the United States continues to devolve into opposing political camps, I think it's important that we all take a step back, breath and see these divides for what they are: people who feel threatened expressing their political resentments.

LGBT activists feel backed into a corner, while those on the right see their way of life, their "traditions," being eroded by democracy's inevitable progress, however slow it may be.

In that light, activism, a word so often accompanied by a right wing sneer, becomes a more humanistic action. We're humans looking for our promised land, so to speak, and Choi's action made it clear how powerful mutual respect can be in moving the movement forward.

I understand that Choi's "promise ring" won't likely force through DADT legislation. Even I'm not that delusional. I do believe, however, that Choi's action created some space of mutual respect and courtesy that could use more play in the "activist" world. Everyone expected Choi to do something incredibly dramatic, something that would make clear how upset we all are over the ever-lasting oppression we face. His flipped the script, though, and offered us a lesson: reverence can leave just as big of an impression as screams and placards.

Yes, we need anger, public outcry and enraged banners to make our point. But we also need to recognize that our opponents, particularly those who aren't as "friendly" as Reid, are humans, too, and aren't likely to change their minds if they feel threatened by the ever-angry "activist."

"I present this ring to you, symbolizing my promise as a fellow citizen: my service continues. I promise I will hold you accountable to your obligations to lead in the effort to end discrimination, both in the workplace and in the military," wrote Choi in his letter to Reid. He continued, "I commit to you my renewed pledge and continued service... I will serve as a reminder of the consequences we all pay when allegiance to political careers takes higher priority than allegiance to America's promise."

Choi's ring wasn't simply about Don't Ask, Don't Tell: it was his unspoken promise to approach "adversaries" with sincerity, respect and humanity, three sentiments that provide stable foundations for the at-times volatile emotions we can all feel.

If we allow ourselves to grow hysterical, however, we will get nothing done but perpetuate social divides. If we can come together with perceived enemies and find a common ground, however brief, we will remind one another that we're not just political positions; we're living, breathing people, and we have hearts.

Our hearts and those of our opponents may be broken or darkened by political realities, but they still beat to a universal drum, a drum I hope can bring us together, rather than tear us all apart.

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That was an interesting video, and it got publicity for this issue all around. Great move.

Senator Harry Reid already supports the repeal of DADT. He didn't make any promises, but he is a supporter.

Thankfully, Choi's planned protest became more of a symbolic moment which allowed Reid to confirm he's on our side. I see it as a positive moment for our community and for Choi.

A few days earlier GetEQUAL engaged in another childish stunt to "embarrass" Harry Reid by stopping traffic. Nobody noticed. It wasn't helpful.

I think Choi can redeem whatever is left of his reputation because of this event - IF he stays away from GetEQUAL.

GetEQUAL is hurting our Movement. Robin McGehee doesn't have a plan, or strategy or purpose. The Community is finally understanding that. Listen to her being interviewed by Derrick Washington:

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | July 26, 2010 9:52 PM

I don't know if i would say that GetEqual is hurting our movement. I totally believe that civil disobedience are important parts of enacting social progress, and I love to see "old protest tactics" integrated into the larger action. Note I said "integrated." A long term strategy of course is essential, and I do agree that GE lacks in that regard.

I appreciate your enthusiasm and commitment Andrew. I would like you to provide an example of "civil disobedience" being effective in the last 25 years, in America. Just give me one good example.

It's 2010 and the world has changed. It is easy to admire tactics of the past, it is effective to figure out what works - today.

It is time for us to be honest and objective about ALL tactics, methods and strategies. You know that and you have the ability to offer your perspective on our future. I hope you do.

Andrew Belonsky Andrew Belonsky | July 27, 2010 8:57 AM

I think a great, and timely, example of civil disobedience working over the past 25 years is the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which celebrated its 20th anniversary yesterday. Richard Pimentel and Art Honeyman were arrested for their peaceful actions, which led to the land mark legislation.

As for the LGBT future: there's no one path to inclusion. It will take all of our forces, even HRC and GetEqual, to make the changes our nation so desperately need. Of course that's a "soft" answer, but if I had a definitive pathway, we'd be there already.

It's up to all of us to use whichever tactics we are comfortable with and prove effective. Even if you don't agree with GE's ways and means, they do keep our frustration in the press, and that's important, too.

Andrew W also seems to forget the stuff that ACT-UP helped accomplish. He just believes that civil disobidence doesn't accomplish anything. On smaller scales civil disobedience has been used to change policies on university campuses. I know I was part of a group called Student Against Apartheid in the mid 1980's that was helpful in getting our university to divest from South Africa.

ActUp brought attention to something new - HIV and Aids. It was effective.

People know about our struggle.

I would agree that Richard and Art influenced the ADA. Richard has dedicated his life to advocating and educating on behalf of the disabled.

He brought attention to the issue with civil disobedience. That was in the 70s and early 80s - 25-30 years ago. Civil disobedience can create attention for an issue or cause. But, we don't need attention. 96% of the adult population in the US are very aware of our plight. It isn't a secret.

In that context, the majority of people see civil disobedience and protest as ineffective and a even a nuisance.

Really??? Because people know about our plight it means nothing. So the civil disobedience by Dr. King and others met nothing because people knew about their plight. Cmon that is a pretty weak argument that because people know about our plight it is somehow ineffective.

People know. Inconveniencing them or shouting discontent doesn't change any minds. It doesn't get people to join us.

Dr. King's civil disobedience worked because it had an inherent threat of violence. We don't have any threat and we haven't figured out how to get people to join us. Civil disobedience doesn't inspire people today. Education does.

Find examples of it's effectiveness in the last 25 years. The world has changed dramatically since the 1960s.

"As for the LGBT future: there's no one path to inclusion. It will take all of our forces, even HRC and GetEqual, to make the changes our nation so desperately need. Of course that's a "soft" answer, but if I had a definitive pathway, we'd be there already."

I think we need to determine how we spend our resources and also determine if tactics, methods and strategies are effective. GetEQUAL has no strategy and many of us believe they are hurting our movement while they squander $500,000 that could have been to good use. HRC wastes $50 million a year lobbying Congress and in 30 years they've never changed a single mind. That's been a waste of $500 million.

Maybe the place to start is defining "victory." Then, we can hold tactics accountable by determining if they actually contribute to that outcome.

What would you call victory or winning, Andrew?