Aaron Belkin Transcript
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Kirk: And we’re back. It’s a new year. It’s a new podcast. It’s a new interview and it’s a new Mr. Brown that I’m seeing across the the interview process here.
Eric: Same old Mr. Brown character.
Kirk: How’s it going?
Eric: You know, the world is upside down, but we’re muddling through,
Kirk: Well, you mentioned this in the interview we’re about to hear which I’ll have you set up in a moment, but we do hearts go out to all the people being affected by what’s going on total chaos, total craziness, and God help us all as all I have to say, what do you think, Eric?
Eric: Yeah. Yeah. Well, no, I agree. Let’s hope that let’s hope for the best.
Kirk: So tell us what we’ve got here today, because this is once again another really good one.
Eric: Yeah. I really, really enjoyed this conversation. I spoke with Aaron Belkin, who is the founder of the Palm Center, which is a think tank that Aaron created to get the military to undo its “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy back in the in the eighties and actually in the early nineties.
And since then the Palm Center has continued on its really incredible work. And Aaron was one of the architects of this strategy to get the United States government to undo don’t ask, don’t tell and to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly and freely in the military. And Aaron is just the most, what’s the word?
Energetic, enthusiastic, intelligent strategist of communications, politics, and anything else you can think of that I’ve ever met. He’s amazing. He’s just amazing.
Kirk: And for anybody who takes for granted some of the rights work that’s been done back in the day, the notion of gays and lesbian serving in the military would have been viewed as what would you say, Eric?
Eric: I mean, well, okay. No, no, no. I take it back. They, they were serving in the military. They just were not allowed to do so openly. And if the military would use someone’s, someone’s homosexuality as an excuse to drum them out. And many, many thousands upon thousands of service people were, were drummed out of the military.
And obviously it had it had a terrible effect on the military as Aaron was able to prove, not the least of which was when there were the linguists who were Arabic speakers were kicked out of the military for being gay. And therefore there were untold messages that went on decoded in the advance of nine 11.
So really good example. And this was one of the many, many, many pieces of research that he, that he pursued in order to make the case. That this notion that gays and lesbians would affect unit cohesion was alive.
Kirk: Yeah, the word I was going to use was impossible because this would have been perceived as an impossible task when Aaron got started.
So Aaron Belkin is the director of the Palm center, which you can find firstname.lastname@example.org. Aaron has his own, his own email@example.com, where you can see his books, including how he won, which is the ebook you reference in the interview. We’re about to hear, and you can find Aaron on Twitter at Aaron Belkin.
Let’s listen, and then we’ll come back. Eric. Thank you for doing this. This is a great interview. This is Aaron Belkin on. Let’s hear it.
Eric: Welcome to let’s hear it. My guest today is Aaron Belkin. He is a scholar, an author and activist, and a dancer. And Aaron, Aaron was a key strategist in the successful effort to get the United States to appeal.
The don’t ask don’t tell policy in the United States military, he’s the founding director of the Palm center, which the advocate named as one of the most effective LGBTQ rights organizations in the nation. He’s a professor of political science at San Francisco state university, where he teaches a lecture course on delusion and paranoia in American politics.
And also I just found out the politics of Harry Potter really want to go to San Francisco state. And he’s also a truly amazing guy. One of the smartest communication strategists I’ve ever met. I mean that sincerely and, and actually, I should also note Aaron that we are having this conversation right now, as bombs are falling in, in the Ukraine.
The world is increasingly becoming a challenge. If it could get any more challenging, I just wanted to note that it’s a difficult day and a difficult week in a different. I dunno millennium, but thank you for joining us.
Aaron: It’s I agree that it’s a, it’s a terrible today’s been, you know, it’s been terrible for a long time I guess terrible in new ways today, but it’s a pleasure to be here.
Eric: I just wanted to start off with your, I mean, you were in the middle of the fight to appeal. Don’t ask, don’t tell, which was seemingly one of the most Sisyphean goals like to take on the U S military. Can you just help us understand how this came about? What, what was your thinking? How did this, and then we’ll get into the strategy as well, but why did you take on the U S military?
That seems like an interesting way to start.
Aaron: Well, when I was coming out of the closet in the early nineties, that is. President Clinton was trying to lift the militaries ban on gays, lesbians and bisexuals, and he failed to do that. But during the course of that fight opponents said terribly violence.
Disrespectful, painful things even, even on the floor of Congress. And so I was in grad school at the time. And so that was really at the forefront of my mind, I was also studying the military as part of my graduate program. So, so the question of military service by gays lesbians and bisexuals was, was really kind of at the intersection of my interests, but, but I’ll also say that I went to college when our university was led by a president named Howard Swearer who was very focused on the ways in which knowledge could be used, not just to talk to other scholars, but also to help inform public policy.
And so when I became a professor, I wanted to not just produce research for academic consumption, but to try to use research, to inform public policy. So it was really the combination of those things.
Eric: The military seems like. That’s a daunting place to start there. Might’ve been, you might’ve started on marriage equality in some states, for example, or if, if the idea was to help the world be a more hospitable place for gays, lesbians and trans transgender people, as, as you’ve also expanded that work.
W why the military, what was. W where did you, what, what do you think the stroke? What was the strategy there?
Aaron: I’ve always been interested in the military. When I was a kid I had like a model airplane museum in in, in our attic. And then I started studying in the military as an undergraduate and really never stopped.
And my, my doctoral dissertation was I mean the field was political science and international relations, but it effectively, it was military studies. And, and I guess just as a young adult, my kind of question that I was asking is why, why would anyone ever join an organization where they would have to potentially kill someone or expose themselves to the risk of, of death.
And that, that is a central question of military studies. But then later in life, I became a much more of an anti militarist, not so much anti-military in terms of concerns about the military as an organizational, though, there, there is that, but maybe even more importantly concerns about the militarization of American culture and the, the, the damage it does domestically and globally when citizens.
Warship military ideas on critically. And so that’s just been kind of a through line of my professional life. And and it’s, you know, you talked about marriage equality. I mean, the folks doing marriage equality work for more than three decades had a, had a really steep, steep climb the whole way. And so I, that, you know, that wouldn’t have been easy work, but, but it’s also not where, I mean, I didn’t really have any expertise or value that I could add.
There, whereas on, don’t ask, don’t tell I had some, you know, a little bit of experience and expertise and, and kind of context that, that helped me start that conversation.
Eric: So that being part of the military is one of these tenants of American democracy or American participation, and that people who were gay were team being told that they didn’t belong.
Can you talk a little more about that?
Aaron: Well, you know, if you look at kind of studies of citizenship going back a thousand years, the, the marker of first-class citizens is pretty much always whether someone can enter into contracts and whether they can serve in the military. And especially in a highly militarized society like our own when, when a group of people is banned from the military it’s all but impossible to lock in citizenship rights in other realms.
And so, so opponents of gays and lesbians in the military, I would argue didn’t really care about military readiness or the military. They wanted to ban gays and lesbian, and they were exactly right. They wanted to ban gays and lesbians and bisexuals from the military because they knew that if they got away with that, it would be a much easier to deprive gays, lesbians and bisexuals of rights, marriage equality, or the right to teach in schools or all kinds of rights.
And so you know, there are. Really really important questions about the wellbeing of service members, about the effectiveness of the military. But I agree with, with the anti anti-gay forces, that, that, that controlling military policy in a way that harms gays and lesbians does great damage. Outside of the military.
Eric: Now you wrote this really, really smart book. Taking apart, or kind of going into the strategy that, that you helped to employ in removing don’t ask, don’t tell. And it’s a book it’s, it’s an e-book is available on wherever you get your books for five bucks. Everyone has five bucks. You should get the book it’s called how we won.
And I want to just take, I want to have a conversation about. Basically the five strategies that you talk about in this book. And I really, really encourage anybody to read it because there’s, you can apply this to so many other things. Just the kind of sharpness of thinking is, is out of, out of control, the, your, your first tenant here was target the opposition’s lies.
And so we learned in communications kindergarten never to repeat the message of the opposition, even if you’re trying to debunk it. Do you agree?
Aaron: I think that’s bullshit. I think so there’s a Berkeley professor named George Lakoff. I think he’s still at Berkeley. I believe he did great damage to progressive politics.
About 15 years ago when he published a book urging, Progressive’s to focus more on framing. And there was an example of the Bush administration. Had proposed a bill to basically it was a giveaway to oil, gas, and coal industry, and they called it the clear skies initiative. And so Lakoff’s point was, was look, you know, as soon as the other side framed their bill, as the clear skies initiative they won.
And so progressives need to get slick about their framing and needs to be as slick as conservatives are about their framing. So we should never repeat negative messages, but also never use the other sides frame. And, and, and the problem with that is that, and I would argue that progressives have overlearned.
Counterproductive and dangerous waste have overlearned that message. And I’ll elaborate a little bit on that in a minute, but the problem with that is that yet Republicans and conservatives need to lie and slickly frame their policies because their policies are designed to injure people. Their policies, without exception, are designed to injure scapegoats and or to help plutocrats.
Which means injuring everyone. Who’s not a plutocrat. And so of course they have to lie about their policies and, and frame things in disingenuous ways. But the strength of progressive politics is that we want to help people. And that’s the truth of what we want to do. And you might say, oh, well, duh, that’s obvious.
No big deal, but it’s not obvious. And I would argue that progressives are afraid of the truth of our own policies. And let’s just take the, the, the, the simplest example taxes. What it means to be a progressive is to believe in big government and high taxes, but how many progressive groups have worked to give democratic politicians cover with the message that high taxes are a good thing?
You know, you might say high taxes are a good thing. No, no, that’s, that’s terrible. We could never frame things that way. Well, that’s right. We could never frame things that way, because we haven’t done the decades of public education work that needs to be done to educate the public. That government is good and that high taxes are good.
You got to say that you have to say high taxes are a good thing. You can’t frame your way out of that. With bullshit and so on, don’t ask, don’t tell yeah, we use the other sides frame. When I, when I came into the don’t ask don’t tell conversation the conversation was like this. Opponents of gays and lesbians in the military.
We’re saying that gays and lesbians hurt the military. And the most important thing is the lives of our service members. And so, yeah, it sucks to ban a people, a group of people from the military, but, you know, we can’t risk our service members’ lives and gays and lesbians, undermine readiness and unit cohesion.
And the response of, of my community was that’s unfair and anti-democratic and inconsistent with American values. And I thought that that framing was. W was not going to work because I could see that if any politician ever stepped forward to argue that don’t ask, don’t tell should be repealed. As long as generals and admirals with a straight face could say that gays and lesbians hurt the military.
Then we, no politician could ever prevail on. Don’t ask, don’t tell repeal. So, so there were a lot of things that needed to happen to get donuts. Don’t tell repeal across the line, including lobbying and litigation and grassroots advocacy. But, but my sense when I entered the conversation in, I guess, about late 1998, so five years after the policy had been put in place in about 12 years before it would be repealed was that we had to win.
The other side’s argument, so let’s use their frame. Okay. They want to talk about military readiness. Fine, but let’s use research to show that. So, so the other side was lying about military readiness and, you know, the research shows that inclusion actually helps the military. So let’s make that argument that, that based on research inclusion helps the military and it’s discrimination that hurts the military.
So we repeated the negative message. We use the other sides frame, but over time, we prevailed on our message and that opened up a space for litigators and lobbyists and grassroots activists to push the policy across.
Eric: And so you started the Palm center. I think at the time it was at UC Santa Barbara as a research center among other things, but a research center that gave you the opportunity to conduct the kind of research to put the lie to the fact that gays in the military affects unit cohesion among other things.
And one of the, again, we learn in communications kindergarten, that facts don’t really matter. We have to tell stories, we have to appeal to emotions, but you spent a lot of time doing research and putting out facts. Why did facts matter? Well,
Aaron: Facts mattered because we needed to suck the oxygen out of the Pentagon’s lie that gays and lesbians hurt the military.
And in order to suck the oxygen out of that argument, we had to show through research that the argument was wrong, but you know, the research already showed that and I want to step back. We pump center is, you know, we’re still up and running. We’re were a think tank. We are think tank. We were think tank for as long as we run, we will remain a think tank.
And we, you know, we publish our research and state-of-the-art peer review journals. So, so that’s not nothing, but that really wasn’t the only point of doing the research. The point of doing the research was to design media campaigns around each study. We didn’t just want a study asking, have gays and lesbians undermined to the British military, which allowed gays and lesbians to serve many years before we did.
We wanted to do that study, but then have the New York times report on that study on the front page. And so the real, the real value added was not really doing the research, but doing the research and then getting media coverage of the research. And so, so the reason facts mattered is because. We thought that over time we would be able to persuade generals and admirals and thought-leaders and journalists and, and, and in turn the public at large, not by avoiding stories.
We, you know, we still, you know, featured stories of, you know, when we released our study of the British military, we also gave the journalists a gay submariner. Who’d been kicked out of the Royal Navy for being gay and then let back in when the ban was lifted. So we, we, we emphasize the story, but, but a story about a gay submariner, let me say it, the.
You know, we want our studies and our talking points to be used as aggressively as possible in Washington. Like what’s more credible, a New York times story about a gay submariner in the British military who was doing a good job or a story about a gay submariner in the British military. Who’s doing a good job and a study by the university of California that has interviewed every expert in the world on the topic and shows that gays and lesbians have helped the British military.
So if you want someone in Congress to be able to use that article, the article and the research has to be paired like that in the minds of a member of. The study doesn’t exist until it gets media coverage, but the journalist is more likely to cover the story. If there’s a research component and new data, it doesn’t mean the new study will always get research.
And it actually, it’s quite hard to get media coverage of research. So we had to get clever about that over time. But, but the point is that we had to just drill the research into the public conversation again and again, and again.
Eric: And it’s one of my chief challenges with researchers are often you will ask them, what are the implications of your research?
And they’ll say not my problem, tenure, that’s my problem. And, and being able to take that research and marry it to communications efforts and campaigns feels like a no brainer. And a lot of folks don’t seem to have brands. And you did. So you did this like three times a year for 10 years, the Energizer bunny of research and communications.
Aaron:Yeah. W so we released three or four studies a year for 10 years and did really aggressive media campaigns around each one. And pretty much worked every time. So we had about 35 different times. We, we made national news at the level of like AP or net work news or New York times or Washington post with the message that, you know, new research.
Gays and lesbians in the military success discrimination hurts the military. And so, and, and you, you wanted to talk about the tactics and the book. I think the second tactic was iteration or repetition. Yeah. So from a, from a scholar’s point of view, that was a very, very boring strategy because we were asking the same research question in every single study and scholars don’t like to.
Ask the same research question, every single study. It’s not interesting. Now we asked the question in a different empirical context. So that was interesting. But from a theoretical sense, we weren’t, we weren’t investigating anything new and we, we knew what the answer is. To the research was likely to be not because we cooked the books.
And in fact, when we would discover evidence that was, that showed that gays and lesbians and bisexuals hurt the military, we would be very loud and do press releases about that. But the preponderance of evidence showed that we were right. And so doing research about that evidence would pretty much always turn up the same answer.
But the reason that we had to iterate, which is something that scholars just hate doing, and even think tanks that are not. In the universities, but it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s hard to attract funding. I’m just doing the same thing again and again. So, so, so I don’t think people who don’t use the strategy are stupid.
I think there are good reasons for not using the strategy, but, but the importance of iteration, it’s it kind of it’s, it’s, it’s almost like an advertising strategy. The scholars already knew that gays and lesbians don’t hurt the military, but, but we had to prevail in the court of public opinion. If you, if you saw one Honda motors commercial in your life, then when.
We’d go to buy a car. You’d, you’d never even think of Honda, but if you see Honda motors, car commercials, again and again, your whole life, then there’s a chance you’ll buy a Honda. And it was the same with us. You know, if you do one great study and get media coverage on it, that’s not going to inform public policy or the public conversation or move polls.
You have to find a way to get journalists to cover your message based on research again and again and again and again and again, and again, steady drip over time. That’s what we found, moved public opinion and moved grass top and elites you know, thought leader opinion as well as, and generals and admirals
Eric: Ehe energy with which you attackedthat strategy, I think is really amazing. We’re going to be right back with Aaron Belkin right after this break. And we’ll continue talking about, about his work.
You’re listening to let’s hear it. The podcast about foundation, a nonprofit communications hosted by Kirk brown and Eric Brown. What’s your is sponsored by the communications network, which connects, gathers and informs the field of leaders working in communications for good, because foundations and nonprofits that communicate well are stronger, smarter, and vastly, more effective.
You can find let’s hear it online at let’s firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at let’s hear a cast. Thanks for listening. And now back to the show. Welcome back to let’s hear it. I’m sitting here with Aaron Belkin, the founding director of the Palm center, and one of the key strategists in the successful effort to get the U S to repeal the don’t ask don’t tell policy.
Eric: So the next, the next part of your strategy was to recruit validators. Now that one that makes sense to almost everybody that the right messenger is sometimes even more important, but at least as important as the right message, it seems to me that a high watermark or an important turning point was when a former head of the joint chiefs of staff, John Shalikashvili wrote an op-ed calling for the appeal of don’t ask.
Don’t tell, can you talk a little bit about that?
Aaron: Yeah, there was, there was nothing more important than finding validators for our our message. You know, it’s kind of the difference between nutrition scholar releases, new study that shows. You know, over consumption of sugar causes diabetes versus, you know, former CEO of a sugar company co-signs or releases a statement or a study showing that you know, over consumption of sugar or, or, you know, former CEO of Coca-Cola or something like that, or McDonald’s sugar causes diabetes.
So, so for us, I mean, you know, I was at the time a university of California scholar, our, our recent, we were publishing our research in military journals, but, but the folks who oppose gays and lesbians and bisexuals in the military, even before the POM center did anything. I mean, literally it just, we, we just kind of planted our flag in the ground and said, we’re open for business.
Started referring to us as homosexual activists and San Francisco homosexual activists. So, so when they went to Congress to lie about the evidence and say that gays and lesbians hurt the military, they were scholars in forming public policy with evidence. And when. Just put a shingle out. We were homosexual activists from San Francisco.
And so, you know, we, we did lots of things to inoculate ourselves from that you know, that back and forth, but having, you know, distinguished scholars do our studies and publish in the best journals, but that game was always going to continue. And so, so, so the most important thing, or one of the most important parts of our tactics, tactics and strategy was to find generals and admirals who would carry our message for us.
And, and we spent a lot of money and a lot of times, years and years looking for validators and it was hard because, you know, at the beginning of donuts, don’t tell there was a survey that showed something like 97% of generals and admirals supported. Don’t ask, don’t tell. And so that changed when our partner organization, service members, legal defense network they found six or seven retired generals here and there to speak out from time to time.
And then, and then three. Retired generals came out of the closet in the New York times and came out of the closet as, as gay men. And and, and, and then one of those retired general and flag officers knew general Shalikashvili his neighbor general Shalikashvili was the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.
And, and, and the neighbor was in PFLAG because they were a Marine Corps Colonel and they had a kid who was gay or lesbian, I can’t remember, or by anyways, so over the course of so, and we got an introduction to general Shalikashvili and we held four meetings with general Shalikashvili. We flew gay service members to talk to them.
We told them about the research. He met with some advocates and so after a year yeah, then, then we helped him publish a New York times. Op-ed saying that he had been wrong about gays and lesbians, that, that it’s actually discrimination that hurts the military, not gays and lesbians, that inclusion helps the military.
And then that op-ed became. I would say pretty much the most important document in the, in the repeal conversation. We followed that up by spending about two years of staff time and a hundred thousand dollars getting 104 other generals and admirals to sign a statement calling for the end of don’t ask don’t tell.
And that also got national news. And so we worked closely with military professors former service members, current service members in some cases. So yeah, finding validators was was a critical part of what we were doing.
Eric: And you had mentioned in your book that when you got the 104 generals, that there was a kind of a response to it by the, by the far right.
That you felt. Questioning out out loud, whether this was a tactic that backfired on you. Can you just chat about that.
Aaron: sure. I mean, yeah, we, I, you know, we spent two years, a hundred thousand dollars, you know, getting a 104 generals and w we didn’t pay the generals and admirals, it’s just in stuffed time at cost cost, a lot of money to reach out, to get 104 generals that retired generals and admirals to, to say that, you know, discrimination was hurting the military.
And the other side just snapped its fingers. And I’m sure had access to email lists of retired general and flag officers through the, probably the retired officers association of America or something like that is, is my guest. And immediately got a thousand former generals and admirals to sign a statement, say that case, saying that gays and lesbians hurt the military.
But even though they had 10 times more validators than we did their statement, didn’t really have much of an impact because. Those validators, weren’t surprising for the message they were carrying. Now I would argue if, if, if the other side had been able to get 10 gay lesbian activists to say that don’t ask, don’t tell should not be repealed or the, or the don’t ask don’t tell was helping the military.
That would be more persuasive than a thousand generals and admirals carrying that message because the, the point is that the validator has to be carrying an unexpected message.
Eric: Your next strategy was to build from within essentially get inside the. Sides fortress, if you will, if you want to torture the metaphor, but you became guest professor and you lectured inside a number of military colleges and things like that.
What was that like? How did you pull that off and what was the effect?
Aaron: Yeah, there was, it was hard to get in at first. And I really wanted to get in because. The service academies are so important within military culture for thought leadership and, and just kind of networks of, of, of influencers. But you can’t just kind of walk in the door.
And when we wrote to the heads of many, many military universities asking for invitations, and I think we got one response that just said no, military universities often send their faculty to, to civilian conferences. And so I, I made friends with a west point professor at at an academic conference and I waited six months.
And then I was like, Hey, you know, could I just pay my own way to New York? And kind of coming up to west point, you could give me a tour. And he said, of course, and then I think it was six months later, I emailed and I was like, Hey, you know, You think next year I could come at the pump centers expense, you know, you won’t have to pay anything and just maybe, you know, talk to a few cadets or faculty members and yes, of course.
And then over the years the lectures got bigger and bigger until at one point I was lecturing something like 500 cadets at, at west point. And, and over the years I used to have an exact counselor. I can’t remember the exact number, but I gave something like 30, I don’t know, 30, 40 lectures at West Point and Annapolis, The Air Force Academy, the war colleges, would go back year after year. And that was important for a few reasons. One of which is that I built up a list of about a hundred current and former military faculty members who. Agreed with the research and, and, and, you know, the presentations is, especially in the military settings, we’re never advocacy presentations.
They’re always, all right, let’s talk about military readiness. You care about military readiness. Let’s look at what the research says is discrimination helping or hurting military readiness. So, so, so the folks who invited me weren’t doing advocacy, they just wanted to make sure that their internal conversations were based on evidence.
So those allies that I, that I met and cultivated, they could take the research and take the presentations and have quiet conversations behind closed doors in places I could never get to. And over time that really helped. And it helped so much that when the Pentagon finally did decide with Congress to repeal, don’t ask, don’t tell they flew.
One of the people I had worked most closely. From the air force academy to Washington and had that person temporarily assigned to the Pentagon for a year to write the don’t ask don’t tell repeal plan. And and so, yeah, I mean, there’s, there’s literature on, you know, even what it takes to move policy in the church.
And it’s Mary Katzenstein wrote a book called insider outsider partnerships or whatever, but the point being that there, there are things outsiders can do that insiders cancer. There are things insiders can do that outsiders can’t. And so you want to try to like work together if.
Eric: And your fifth strategy was to expose hypocrisy, which just sounds like lots of fun.
Do you have any favorite stories about how, when you exposed the hypocrisy that you really felt that you had, you know, made some advances?
Aaron: Oh I could tell you a failed story. I wrote, I like this one, but in the, so we won on our arguments, you know, you just couldn’t with a straight face, make the case that gays and lesbians hurt the military, especially after the Arabic linguists story that we broke that, you know, cable.
For nine 11 had sat on translated because we didn’t have enough Arabic linguists, but they were firing Arabic linguists for being gay like that. That was the day when we broke that story when the military lost to the public forever. So, so we won on our arguments, but that didn’t mean the policy was going to be repealed, but fast forward to 2010 and Barack Obama and members of Congress were trying to repeal the policy, which ultimately succeeded.
But during Senate testimony, there was a retired three or four star general from the Marine Corps testified in front of the Senate armed services committee that the Srebrenica massacre had happened because Dutch peacekeepers included gays and lesbians that if you can’t connect the dots there, which is pretty weird dot connecting, but what he meant, what he meant was gays and lesbians undermine the military.
The Dutch peacekeepers were the military unit assigned to protect civilians, turbinates. The Dutch military allows gays and lesbians. Those gays and lesbians undermine you and cohesion. Therefore, the worst massacre since world war two, up to the time happened because of gays and lesbians in the military.
So you can’t lift the American gay ban cause we’d have the same problem. And, and Senator Levin the former chairman of Senator armed services, he used to wear his glasses down by his nose and he put them even lower and like looked over his glasses. He’s like, do you want to rephrase that? And the General’s like, no, he’s like, you’re sure about that.
And the general stuck by his guns. And so I just thought it would, I mean, and you know, the Dutch ministry of defense, and I think even the Dutch prime minister immediately put out statements that said that, you know, this guy was fucking nuts and like, what the hell was, I mean, cause you know, that’s not a good look it’s first of all, a fucking lie.
And it’s also like not a good look for the touch military, you know, that that senior American military personnel are making that claim. But I, I thought it was. Really, I mean, you know, it’s a very tragic and somber moment because the shepherding semester was, was a human disaster. And, but this was so ridiculous.
I thought it would be great if if survivors, groups would put out statements saying that that the general was, was, was office rocker. And I tried to get them to do that and they, they wouldn’t do it. So that was a failed effort to elevate hypocrisy, but it was fun to try.
Eric: Yeah. And the most tortured syllogism I think I’ve ever heard now.
Okay. So you, you, when the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell, then you went on a campaign to to address the problem of trans people being. Being kicked out of the military or not being able to get medical treatment and other things. But so you went, you went from the easy thing to the harder, the impossible thing to the even more impossible thing.
And you managed to pull that one off in three years. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Aaron: I thought that one would take 15 years and it ended up taking three, although then Donald Trump came in and reinstated the transgender ban and now Biden has reinstated inclusive policy. And I’m sure future Republican presidents will try to reinstate the transgender ban and they will lie about the evidence to do so.
Just like Trump lied. Yeah, that the structure of that conversation was, was analogous to the dentist. Don’t tell conversation because. Defenders of discrimination were lying about the evidence and saying it was a different lie. So with gays lesbians and bisexuals, it was GLB troops under my unit unit cohesion.
And with trans troops, the lie was that trans trips are not medically ready to serve. And the military couldn’t possibly provide healthcare for trans troops and that’s just complete bullshit. And so we used the research to generate media headlines, to show that the military was not telling the truth and that opened up a space for repeal.
It just happened a lot quicker. Yeah. Don’t ask, don’t tell repeal gave us some, some tailwinds as well as a policy that I did not work on, but the, the repeal of the combat exclusion rule that, that banned women from combat positions was also repealed during the trans military campaign. And that was important because.
It meant that anyone in any gender could do any job. And, and, and if that hadn’t been the case, then there would have been all kinds of opposition arguments to repealing the trans ban that, oh, you have a Trent, you have a man serving in the army, you know, in the Rangers special forces. And you find out that she’s actually a trans woman.
So what’s, what are we going to do about her job once she transitions? But that, you know, all of those are our arguments were off the table. Once the combat exclusion rule was lifted. So anyways, the strategy works. The politics of trans rights nationally were changing. And we had, we had some momentum from don’t ask, don’t tell repeal.
But the, the ultimate outcome of the conversation is yet to be determined just because the Republicans clearly want to roll that back, like they already did.
Eric: Okay. So now you got the trans situation sorted out, at least for the moment, at least under presidential decree, but, and now you’re working on expanding the Supreme court because you just don’t like sleeping, I think because you just have too much energy.
Can you talk a little bit about your work now, too? So to take back the court, I think is.
Aaron: Yeah. So I just got scared when Mitch McConnell stole the Supreme court because the Supreme court has been sabotaging democracy for a generation in order to help the Republican party win elections to put it simply.
I mean, that’s why they, the Supreme court dismantled the voting rights act. That’s why the Supreme court dismantled campaign finance limitations. That’s why the Supreme court has blessed. Hyper-partisan gerrymandering it’s, it’s all, you know, I don’t think there’s a smoky back room where John Roberts and Mitch McConnell sit down together to coordinate things, but, but th th they’re all acting in tandem on behalf of plutocrats to hurt everyday Americans.
And when the court was stolen that to my mind put us in a situation that was unique in American history. Where three things came together simultaneously in a way that it not having happened before we had doses of all three things, but not simultaneously, at least in my knowledge of American history, which is, first of all, you had a stolen court.
Second of all, you had a court that was proactively sabotaging democracy, you know, blocking black people from the polls. And then third of all, you had a court that was clearly unwilling to let future presidents and congresses deal with planetary emergencies like climate climate catastrophe. And there was an obvious solution.
This was 2018. So Trump was still president, but there was an obvious solution, which is that if the Democrats were to come back into power they could expand the Supreme court. And there was. Counter-arguments to that. But when you look at the counter-arguments for five seconds, they, they, they fall apart.
Like they don’t make any sense. They, they, they, they, they look at on paper, but they, they don’t withstand scrutiny. But the problem was that the idea of court expansion had been taboo for 81 years since 1937, because there was a conventional wisdom that Roosevelt had failed to expand the Supreme court.
That’s not the way we and other historians read the history. I mean, president, we believe that the preponderance of evidence shows that president Roosevelt’s effort to expand the Supreme court, frightened the court into upholding new deal legislation, which is why we still have the social security act.
So we don’t see that as a failure at all. We had to find a way to kind of get this idea to not be taboo so that, so that Democrats could threaten to expand the Supreme court and ultimately an ax court expansion. So I’m really proud fast forward, three years to today. So at the time when the project launched, we had zero members of Congress in favor of the idea and zero organizations.
Today, we have 51 members of Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Tina Smith and Senator ed Markey supporting court expansion bills in Congress. And we have 103 organizations, including very powerful organizations like FCIU calling for expansion. And every time the court does something terrible momentum grows.
And, and that, that dynamic is now in place to continue into the future. So yeah, that’s that’s, that’s what take back the court does,
Eric: When, will we be expanding the court to 13 seats?
Aaron: I think that when historic, if you know, civilization still exists and there are historians in the future I think they will look back at this era.
And I think the key question is it’s not really just court expansion, but it’s will Republicans drive democracy into a ditch before Democrats unrigging the system. So, so, you know, Democrats need to get rid of the filibuster pass, very aggressive democracy legislation that would ban voter suppression and gerrymandering and dark money and grant statehood to DC and Puerto Rico and other things like that and expand the court to protect that legislation because if they pass the legislation, but don’t expand the court, the court will kill the legislation.
So, so the question is like, well, the Democrats restore democracy, or will the Republicans permanently kill it? I would say the Republicans, if I had to bet, I would say the Republicans will kill democracy and we will end up with an authoritarian system, but I hope I’m wrong and I’m doing what I can to.
Mick, you know, prevent that from happening.
Eric: Well, you are the most optimistic pessimist I’ve ever met. And, and really I think a teacher to me, I’ve been following your work and learning from you for, for many, many years. I hope that we’ve introduced you to some smart people out there who will continue to learn from you and to, and to build on what you’ve created.
Aaron Belkin. It’s such a pleasure and an honor to have this conversation with you. Thank you so very much.
Aaron: My pleasure really appreciate it
Kirk: And we’re back. So once again, I can’t help, but say that these interviews just make me think I’ve wasted my life. These are people of real consequence could have 10 real things.
You know what. You wasted your life until next to Erin? What do you have to show for it? Nothing. Nothing,
Kirk: So I want to jump to the end of the story for a second, because I feel like Aaron has once again, decided to do the impossible and let’s go through the book and the five strategies and, and don’t ask, don’t tell because that’s really just such exciting and important work to hear about, but now Aaron jumps to let’s take back the Supreme court.
Eric: That’s right. Yes. Yeah, no, he, well, his argument, I think is a really interesting one, which was when the Supreme court, when they, when they determined that there would be nine justices in the Supreme court, because there were nine circuits in the courts, and now there are 13 circuits. And so why not have 13 justices?
It’s not as though it’s not in the constitution. This is something that is changeable. So.
Kirk: Well in and you start feeling the presence of the kind of strategy Aaron works with, because I feel like I know more about the Supreme court as a result of all of this work, to re jigger it than I’ve ever. I’d never thought about it before.
Right. And so all of a sudden, just in your, in your daily life, you’re starting to get bit by bit piece by piece, the building blocks of this awareness of like, oh, why is it this way? Oh, what are the impacts of this? Oh, how does the court actually serve the few versus the many? And, and just so again, I mean another impossible task, but this step-by-step bit by bit process that Aaron is describing, it just feels so right.
You know, it just feels like this is what the work has to look like, but jump me then back to don’t ask don’t tell. And again, I always like to ask you from the context of somebody who sat in these seats within major foundations, I can only imagine the challenge Aaron would have had going out to find resources to take on maybe one of the most impossible tasks ever, which is, you know, let’s, let’s start addressing rights and equity issues just squarely in the context of the military.
I mean, how would, how would you, how would you imagine how difficult that was for Aaron to do that work?
Eric: There were a few funders who were funding things around marriage equality and undoing. Don’t ask, don’t tell there were a few, there weren’t many. And, and the few that did it were, were resolute and incredibly patient and understood that these things take time.
And I think for any funder out there who is working on an issue that matters, you have to understand that in many instances, these things take time. Also that change is not linear. It’s not like we’re going to get a little better this year and a little better the year after that. And a little better the year after that, in many instances, you’re flat lining for a long period of time.
And then some brief window opens and you go diving through it and you can achieve great things. And as Aaron said that he didn’t think that he was going to be able to secure trans rights for, for people serving in the military for. Decades and it happened in three years. So some of these things happen as a, as a result of, of just kind of the political planets align and, and you have to be ready.
And so that’s, again, one of these real, real arguments for patients as a funder to make sure that you have people with resources who have, are ready to go, are ready to respond. And I would say even at least as importantly, ready to defend your wins because a lot of folks say, okay, well, they, when they re they were all up shop and they go away and I’ll tell you what Aaron is still out there banging away, ensuring that these rights stay one.
And as, as you already saw the Trump administration under the trans the, the reversal of the trans ban and then the Biden administration would be like, you know, so these things are never fully one, and you have to be there ready for when that day happens, that somebody attempts to undermine your victories, just looking at.
Likely or could possibly happen with Roe vs. Wade. So patience is, is, is the watch word here?
Kirk: Well, and the instinct, the strategic sensibility, because, you know, you applied, Aaron is one of the best and greatest communication strategists that you’ve ever met. And that comes out from the very first words of this interview when he starts talking about why the military, you know, because again, the notion of you know, LGBTQ plus rights within the context of the military, just, you know, 20 years ago, 30 years ago, it just would have been not unheard of like, you would never even want to introduce that conversation in that setting and errands done the work to say, and this is the systems thinking part of it, right.
He’s saying, you know, actually. If you want to talk about citizenship and rights, you talk about contracts and you talk about military service. And so let’s go there. Let’s, let’s have that conversation first. And then we’ll actually build an umbrella of rights around the rest of these considerations. And I think that these, these, you know, campaigns, cause there’s a, there’s a parallel campaign on the marriage equality side.
Right. You know, we’re talking about, Hey, if we’re going to have rights, let’s actually treat people like people who have rights in all these settings, right. Go to the most important settings. I just think that’s genius. But I also think that work is so hard to advocate for before it’s been shown that it can work, right?
Like, like I, again, I can’t imagine walking into a room when this is not, when this is first being hatched and saying you are actually going to work in the military setting first. Here’s why I just think that’s, I think that insight is just so profound. It’s amazing.
Eric: Also takes on some of the sacred cows of left-leaning political.
Communication strategy like George Lakoff and framing. He, he just goes right at lake Hoff and I mean, he makes a really great point of the other side is lying. You have to call out the lies. You can’t just pretend those lies didn’t happen and come up with your own new way of framing an issue. You just have to call.
The lie, the lie. And oh, by the way Aaron, I w Aaron has been the saltiest of, of interviewees on let’s hear it,
you know, Hey, look, after 30 seconds of Ted lasso, you’ve heard more F-bombs and then Aaron dropped in the hall episodes. I think we’re probably okay. You know, same thing with research, we we’ve been told that research doesn’t matter, that facts don’t matter. And what he did was he used research as an opportunity to advance a media narrative.
I, these two things went hand in hand and he also had folks that he understood that he wasn’t always the messenger that he got the generals out there and the former chair of the joint chiefs. So these things are, he really understands how you build a, how you build a movement, how you make a case and how.
How you win. And like I said, I said it when I was talking to him, get the book, it’s an e-book, it’s five bucks. It’s called how we one you can get on Amazon. And it is, I mean, it’s worth its weight in gold.
Kirk: So five strategies mapped out in how we won for why this campaign around dynastic don’t tell a successful.
And you know, when you guys are talking, I was thinking about these words. We described some times when we do communications work, we talk about goals and then you talk about strategy and then you talk about tactics, but it also felt like there was a fourth dimension that was kind of the piece that Aaron kept on going back to, which was just the absolute day in, day out, persistence and resilience required to make that work go.
And I thought that that framing conversation and target the opposition’s lies was so interesting. And I, and I will say, right. That’s, that’s very unusual to hear somebody say, George cough did a lot of damage to the progressive community. Right. And, and, but, but then I think that there’s a, there’s a thread in there which is like, let’s learn the right lesson when we’re having these conversations.
Right. Let’s not, let’s not take away. The wrong lesson in, in, in the wrong lesson is Eric is talking about our, as Aaron is talking about it is let’s say. Be afraid to tell the truth of the policies that we’re supporting. And I have to say it’s like a lightning bolt of just clarity from the heavens, because it’s true.
It’s like, let’s just say what’s true. Let’s try that. What do you think about that? I mean, it’s just, I love it.
Eric: Totally agree. And I, it doesn’t take much of a leap to understand how you would adapt much of. Aaron’s strategies have been to any host of other issues, whether it’s climate, whether it’s a women’s reproductive health and rights race, all these things.
So these are, these are really important lessons. And I also think that one of the assets. That Aaron really brings is just indefatigability. This guy does not rest. And that’s really important at OU and he doesn’t get bored with his own message, which is one of the, I think Cardinal sins of, of communications is that we say something a few times and then we get bored.
It’s like, Ooh, everybody knows that let’s just move on and come up with some new way to talk about the thing that we’re saying. And he never, never wavered from his core message, which is that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly and proudly in the military that they, in that discrimination harms the military.
It harms our democracy. It harms our, our, our military readiness, all of those things and that, and he just never stopped on that. And other folks they’ll, they’ll try and find new novel ways of saying their thing. And, and what they ended up doing is undercutting their own. But because people forget what it was that they were saying in the first place you did, you knew exactly what Aaron was working on.
You knew why he thought it mattered. He and he took every single possible opportunity to say the same thing. Often using different kinds of. But it was, it was all me making the same point. That’s such a powerful lesson and it’s something that we really, really, really need to listen to. No, it’s so difficult.
Kirk: And there’s so many reasons why it’s so hard to stick there and funder fatigue being one of them. Right. You know, because cause cause very few funders will say, I’ll look just copy and paste last year’s proposal. As long as you have evidence of success, let’s keep at it. Right. We’re going to, we’re going to ups, we’re going to update it.
We’re going to do it differently. Today’s context. But the underlying work is going to be, we’re just going to keep hitting on this again and again. And it actually makes me wonder, what do you call that? Like, is that, is that persistence? Is that like, Hey, well here’s the playbook and we’re going to keep rolling it out and keep working it and working it.
What is that? Is that a goal? Is that a strategy or a tactic or is it, or is it something else, you know, or is it the bow that wraps it all around? Because I feel like sometimes when we have these conversations about different tactical interventions, different strategic frameworks, Hey, what, where, how are our goals shifting?
Sometimes the piece we’re missing is that, that, that message discipline, that repetition of approach, that that’s actually the hard earned work of actually securing change. And it’s almost like it’s like so necessary, but since it’s kind of the oxygen in the room, we kind of miss it a little bit. Cause it’s invisible.
You know what I mean?
Eric: Well, what it is is a pre-condition for success. Yeah. That you have to be willing. To be there for the longterm have to be patient. The other thing is, and I think, you know, you say you have to, you have to, to show, continued success. That’s actually, that’s not always possible. What you have to do is have a firm conviction that you’re right.
And be willing to stay at it for a long time because you’re right. And because, but because the thing that you need to do has to happen and that’s, that’s what happens. And it, you know, you, you may find that you made tactical errors along the way, but that your basic premise is correct. And that you’re a way to get to that, to that end state can happen.
And, you know, we, we have no guarantees in any of this stuff that, that we’re going to win. You have to believe that you’re right. And you have to be willing to hang in there for a really long time.
Kirk: Well, and I loved it and it will get we’ll move off this. But in that discussion, you had that brief exchange about why aren’t progressive, just saying high taxes are good thing.
You know, let’s do it. Let’s do a decade of public education work to firmly cement that idea. And I think it’s that it’s that combo package then times that we miss, you know, that, that surprising message that feels counterintuitive and scary. You don’t just throw that once out, like a little asteroid burning out in the atmosphere once you actually work at the stuff time, day after day, year after year.
And that’s what really creates the change. But you know, the last thing, and I know we’re almost at time, but you know, he talks about facts matter. You guys had a really interesting conversation about that, how they leveraged, you know, this, this research agenda and push that out in talked about validators and the power of, of, you know, the generals and the folks that they found to validate this perspective and, and that a hundred of the validators carrying a suspected message was more powerful than a thousand validators.
Eric: Right? Yeah. I mean, the way I think about this is that if a thousand dogs bark. Who cares if 104 dogs fly? That’s interesting. That’s
Kirk: right. No, that’s great. You know, that he talks about exposing hypocrisy, but the last thing I want to talk about the notion of building from within, and, you know, again, Erin going to military colleges and being a professor, not as an activist, but just saying these are the facts.
Here’s the data. Again, that instinct in that willingness to say, you know, I’m just going to carry this message wherever it belongs at great personal risk, always most likely, but the bravery and the courage that goes along with that, plus this, the clarity of thought that that’s a step I’m going to take, you know, it’s just, it sounds so simple build from within, but when you really look at what that looks like, there’s real courage at work here, you know, just say, Hey, I’m going to actually stand up and carry this message.
Eric: you know, the interesting thing about the military is it is, is that it is a very it is a regimented institution and, and it, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that somebody who is advocating to undo, don’t ask, don’t tell, would be invited to speak in front of a military college. It’s actually not impossible.
It would be harder to talk about climate change inside the Hudson Institute, perhaps. Sure. But I, I think that the, the general premise is correct, which is you go anywhere. And everywhere to share your message with anyone who will listen. And even if those people are not going to agree with you, or if they’re going to, you know, you, you’re not going to persuade them.
You need to get out there and keep making that, making these arguments. And right now, of course, a lot of folks are like, I don’t talk to the other side, hell of them. You know, they’re crazy. And, and on the one hand emotionally, that feels very satisfying, but it may well be that you end up making arguments that people are persuaded by or are softened to, or you build relationships on things, maybe thin layers of common ground that you can find.
I’m not, I’m still not giving up on the fact that you can. We w we can find some areas of, of common interest and take advantage of that. And there are a lot of folks I will never agree with on, on some very fundamental things, but I can probably find something to agree on an end, to be able to get into those places and have those conversations and try your best to build those relationships feels like, like it’s worth it, that, that at the very least you have to explore it because in the end we’re just fighting these kind of it’s like trench warfare and we’re, we’re winning five yards and digging into trench and then losing it back again.
And no one’s really making any.,
Kirk: Yeah well, I, you know, you didn’t talk about it explicitly, but it seems like what’s implied in what Aaron was working on with. Don’t ask, don’t tell was success, like ensuring that our military is successful and can accomplish its mission using the best and the brightest and the most capable people possible.
So why are we not allowing the best and the brightest, the most capable to participate because of these other distinctions and that conversation around readiness and success, you know, that people from across the board who have that consideration in the military might find common ground there, right?
Yeah. You just have to be convinced that.
Eric: Right. And when he made the argument about the linguists who are, who were fired, and then we had nine 11, it was an extremely powerful argument. And he pretty much said like that was, we basically. With that one. That was what it took because that, that trumped everything that, that trying to protect the United States against terrorism is, is more important than keeping gays and lesbians out of the military.
Kirk: Aaron Belkin director of the Palm center on his own website with his, all of his email@example.com and on Twitter at Aaron Belkin. Aaron. Wow. Thank you, Eric. Wow.
Eric: That was really fun. Like I said, I just admire Aaron so much. He’s such a generous guy. He’s really smart. He’s someone we all can learn from
Kirk: that was Aaron Belkin and let’s hear it.
We’ll see you next time. Okay. Everybody, that’s it for this episode, please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we shouldn’t have in the show. And that definitely includes yourself and we’d like to
Eric: thanks to Jon Beltrano, our enthusiastic production assistant
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer, our theme music,
Eric: our sponsors, the communications network, and the Lumina foundation.
Kirk: please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast. Today’s students tomorrow’s talent, and you can find firstname.lastname@example.org,
Eric: we certainly thank today’s guest. And of course,
Kirk: all of you and most important. Thank you, Mr. Brown,
Eric: Mr. Brown,
Kirk: till next time.
The episode ends with an outtake. Kirk can’t stop laughing and Eric is pretending to be frustrated.
Eric: Ready when you are
Kirk: (to himself, giggling) You’re so frustrated, you’re so prepared. Its like “I’m working with an amateur.
Eric: I can’t work like this
Kirk: You’re like, “I can’t believe how far I’ve fallen. I was on broadcast television.
Eric: That’s right.
Kirk: “I was on a network with a dork in my dining room who can’t stop laughing. Okay, here we go…Okay…
Music and show ends