Token Dissonance

Black & gay, young & conservative. A Southern gentleman writes about life and politics after Yale


The Marriage Parties

Two rings to bind the Culture Wars

In breaking news that should surprise no one, the Democratic Party has expressed its intention to support gay marriage in its Party Platform. For several years now, prominent Democrats have been calling for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (now accomplished), the passage of the Respect for Marriage Act, and the enactment of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But the final pieces had fallen into place once Vice President Biden and finally President Obama went on the record supporting gay marriage.

Internecine Democrat struggles and short-term political calculations aside, the conservative movement has neither a moral nor political future in a blanket objection to gay marriage. Gay people have already been living together in committed relationships, raising kids, and participating in their communities for years. They are not going to abandon their families, go back into the closet, and consign their lives en masse to loneliness or celibacy.

In this vein, many conservatives are already coming around to support gay marriage. Many who oppose it are at least calling for some other legal recognition, as President Bush did back in 2004. Some leaders, like Chris Christie, support strong civil unions. Others, like Governor Romney, favor something more limited. But in all cases these conservatives are in line with data showing most Americans favor some legal recognition of gay unions. After all, no family is helped when another struggles needlessly.

Some conservatives have written off gays as just another special-interest barnacle on a bloated Democrat agenda. But many gay Americans voted more Republican in 2010 than in previous years, and while gays may be a minority, the people who know and support them are not. This trend of more conservative gay votes can continue, if conservatives go for those votes.

If Mitt Romney wants to play the long game for every vote possible, he needs to stop talking up constitutional amendments that won’t help anyone’s marriage and start advocating for proposals to support American families—gay and straight. I don’t expect him to embrace full-on gay marriage before this election, but he needs to present a vision for why all families and communities will thrive best under Republican leadership.

When Americans—gay and straight—no longer have to worry about politicians opposing or undermining the integrity of their families, many will naturally appreciate what conservative governance has to offer. Gay couples, no longer fighting for recognition, will want their taxes low and spent wisely. Gay parents, freed from endless worrying over bullying, will advocate for better schools and accountable teachers. A gay entrepreneur or worker will demand policies that promote strong businesses—with or without unions—when he no longer has to worry about being fired for having a picture of his family on his desk.

American families and the communities they live in will be naturally stronger, more committed, and more conservative when the law and order of their country support them. There will always be folks on the Left who see their opponents on these issues as bigots, and they will say so loudly. But the barb only stings while the GOP lacks an answer that resonates.

Gay marriage is only a “distraction,” if we make it one.

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The Banality of Good

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Forty years ago, eleven members of the Israeli Olympic delegation were abducted and murdered, along with a West German police officer, by lawless thugs trying to make a political point. By now, it’s a familiar story—vainglorious vigilantes imposing their demands for a new world order with no regard for the rights, security, or well-being of anybody else. Terrorists—from Munich in 1972 to New York and Washington in 2001 to London in 2005—always claim their actions are political. They have political demands, grievances, supporters, and sympathizers, like any political actors. But whatever the merits of their purported causes, their victims were innocent people, and the murders are still tragedies that we should remember.

So let me say this clearly: murder is criminal and evil. If it is ever meant to be political, this point is only an ancillary consideration perhaps necessary for establishing premeditation in a court of law. Peace is not always pleasant. Our appreciation of the task of maintaining it ought to be as solemn as we are resolute. That International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge has some grasp of this is clear:

“I couldn’t speak here in front of the athletes and the national Olympic committees about peace and sport and about the Olympic Truce without remembering or reminding the people what happened 40 years ago and the disaster that also started in the Olympic Village in Munich, so it was fitting that I would say what I feel about that.”

What is not clear is why he expects anyone to believe “the opening ceremony is an atmosphere that is not fit to remember such a tragic incident.”

Perhaps my American values are clouding my grasp of international rules, but I have paused for many a moment of silence at a sporting event. Just last year, we had such a solemn moment before the BCS National Championship game in Arizona, played between Auburn and Oregon. That Gabrielle Giffords and her supporters were Democrats elicited no protest from Republicans, nor would such a thing be imaginable in the civilized world.

The longstanding vision of the Olympics as beyond politics is noble and laudable, in theory. But in practice, our silence speaks at least as loudly as our actions. The political decision that the commemoration of an Olympic tragedy is somehow unfit for an Olympic ceremony is a declaration of independence from peace and the difficult work of maintaining it. It is not remedied by perfunctory appearances at tiny gatherings largely beyond the public eye, or vague moments of remembrance “for all people in all countries.”

Sometimes, the world is cruel, terrible things happen to good people, and national leaders opt for political expedience over anything resembling ethics or humanity. But if we are unable or unwilling to look evil in the eye, even from forty years later, what value will our speeches “about peace and sport and about the Olympic Truce” have to a world devoid of moral integrity?

So do tell us, Mr. Rogge, what are we fit to remember at the Olympics?

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Dispatches from Dixie: Education in Virginia

When I was a teenager, I wanted to attain some practical knowledge in addition to all the history, chemistry, and other fascinating topics I would never use in life. My high school in Northern Virginia happened to offer classes in computer science and business, and I happened to want more (read: any) understanding of business and computers. It was like an educational match made in heaven.

I never took any of those classes.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has one of the most celebrated public school systems in the country, ranking fourth overall and sixth in math and science among the 50 states and D.C.  More so than most of the country, Virginia tends to get a good return on its investment in education. But the problems in the Commonwealth are as insightful as the successes.

I’ll certainly never forget that “advanced” history teacher who was glaringly ignorant of basic constitutional facts or the existence of the Holy Roman Empire. (She claimed, in one of our many arguments over elementary details, that her expertise was in American history. How that was supposed to excuse her saliently false statements about the U.S. Constitution remains beyond me.) But the beast that stung most invidiously was the whole matter of standardized tests, which are at the core of federal mandates in No Child Left Behind and Virginia’s internal assessments—the Standards of Learning (SOLs).

When I moved to Fairfax County from a U.S. Army base in Germany, I was starting tenth grade. The only major change I anticipated was the switch from the Advanced Placement track to classes geared towards the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Instead, I found Virginia standards gloriously rigid, and I had to jump through more complex—and less useful—hurdles than my peers to get even the Advanced Diploma, let alone earn IB honors.

In particular, I had to take classes that were blatantly beneath my skill level simply to meet some state requirement. One year, I was literally taking two versions of the same history class—one for the IB Diploma, the other for an unavoidable and exclusive SOL requirement. Shockingly, I learned practically nothing in one of those classes; I’ll let you guess which. And all of this was after my guidance counselor (who was a truly wonderful light in a bureaucratic nightmare) fudged as many rules as she could.

Lest you think Virginia standards are more reasonable than they are, I offered to test out of my remaining SOLs—and no one doubted I could pass easily. Apparently, that was not allowed. I had to sit through redundant classes and waste time that could have been spent learning computer science, business, or psychology—or taking even more challenging IB Math. And by senior year, I still needed to sit an extra period after school to get my diploma.

You would think a state with one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the country—complete with the largest naval base in the history of civilization—would be more accommodating of the dependent children seeking quality education within its borders. You would think a place with a bipartisan commitment to academic excellence would be more flexible to all kinds of student needs. But sadly, stories like mine were commonplace among my military friends who were whisked to Virginia from overseas.

In shocking news to no one, most military people live in the South or West.

And again, I got off easy. My friends who started in later grades or had less heroic counselors were often forced out of an advanced diploma track because of requirements designed to promote mediocrity in the name of “excellence”.

In the end, I got my IB Diploma and went off to Yale. And all it cost me was the opportunity to take a challenging set of supplementary classes offering skills I did not possess. I’m no expert on education, but I suspect something is seriously wrong when a reasonably able student must choose between an advanced diploma—which many top colleges look at in their decision processes—and useful electives that could actually deliver marketable knowledge.

All these years later, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if these kinds of decisions—whether a student can test out of a “necessary” class or which outsides credits should count toward graduation—could be made closer to home, where they would be more responsive to different situations. I do notice that the federal government continues to aggressively mandate education standards from on high, and people continue to live different lives in different situations.

Perhaps one day we’ll start putting major decisions back in the hands of the communities affected by them and give families more options for success, instead of merely passing. Maybe then, regrettable stories like mine will become less common.


Free Speech Appreciation Day

“I disagree with your opinion, but…”

I appreciate my political fights with fresh chicken sandwiches.

In case you missed the tagline, I’m openly gay. In case you didn’t, you probably expected my support of the Mayor of Boston and the government of Chicago in their stated desires to ban Chick-fil-A. Dan Cathy does enthusiastically oppose gay marriage, after all. In fact, I do agree wholeheartedly with the officials’ sentiments—we should not encourage or tolerate discrimination against our fellow Americans. Indeed, many conservatives have opposed discrimination from the days of classical liberalism to the Civil Rights Era—not always well, of course, but the history is there. Regardless of your political persuasion, we should be able to agree that undue discrimination is un-American and should be stomped out wherever found.

Which brings us to Chick-fil-A: what evidence suggests that the franchise discriminates against gay people? Neither the Mayor of Boston nor the officials in Chicago have cited any cases. They have not even suggested that they know of any, anecdotally or otherwise. These publically proposed bans are entirely ideological—that is, the president of a private company that provides private services has expressed an unpopular (in Chicago and Boston) political view. This is no better than if a town in the Bible Belt—where opposition to gay marriage remains high—had decided to ban Target or Bank of America for their support of gay rights. Both actions would blatantly contravene the spirit of our free-speech protections, even if the bans were somehow effected legally.

It is one thing to place special restrictions—e.g. banning political activity—on companies that receive government funds or tax exemptions. It is quite another to intrude into the private affairs of private entities in private practice. If Boston or Chicago are concerned about discrimination, they need only enforce the existing anti-discrimination laws in Massachusetts and Illinois, with which Chick-fil-A already must comply. If they want to promote a moral opposition to Dan Cathy’s politics, then they should employ that age-old weapon of American activism—the boycott. I’m told this tactic has worked wonders in the past.

Like the people who make statements by buying organic or local products, supporters of gay unions are free to avoid Chick-fil-A and encourage their friends and family to do the same. If the franchise is unable to prosper, it will pull out on its own. Thus, the activists will have their victory—which will be that much more powerful in its evident grounding in communal support—and nobody’s free speech or other rights will be violated.

The opponents of gay marriage already get this. This is why they’re talking more about a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day than about lawsuits. I disagree with their stance, but I wholeheartedly support the tactics.

All this principled standing is making me hungry.

We aspire to be a nation ruled by laws, not by men. Our elected officials should trust that the residents of their communities are capable of deciding what matters to them regarding food, politics, religion, or any other private matters.

Update: Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans has a brilliantly thoughtful piece for anyone invested in this issue. A little civility and mutual understanding can go a long way.


Tragedy and Conscience

You might think a tragedy, like the unconscionable horror that just happened in Colorado, would be an occasion for people to come together. You would probably expect commiseration, reflection, and grieving. And yes, you would demand serious and thoughtful conversations about how we might prevent further horrors and failures in our current system. Some enlightened minds at The New Yorker, however, would never waste a good tragedy on silly things like respect or decency. I’ll spare you the need to read the whole thing:

The truth is made worse by the reality that no one—really no one—anywhere on the political spectrum has the courage to speak out about the madness of unleashed guns and what they do to American life. That includes the President, whose consoling message managed to avoid the issue of why these killings take place. Of course, we don’t know, and perhaps never will, what exactly “made him” do what he did; but we know how he did it. Those who fight for the right of every madman and every criminal to have as many people-killing weapons as they want share moral responsibility for what happened last night—as they will when it happens again. And it will happen againOnly in America.

I can think of few things more mature and enlightened than accusing responsible American gun-owners of a vast conspiracy to perpetuate mass murder. Well done, sir.

But seriously, let’s pretend that article was in perfectly good taste, and Mr. Gopnik is as thoughtful as he is reasonable and articulate. His argument boils down to the familiar diatribe against the Second Amendment: get rid of guns, and we’ll all be safer.

This may sound nice (to some people) in theory, but in reality, it’s more akin to throwing water on a gas fire. We cannot eliminate the illegal gun market. Insofar as it exists, criminals will always have guns. For some reason, many of the same people who would contest the previous sentences would wax didactic—without irony—about the invidious failure of the war on drugs. Most would remind us about how criminality results directly from this neo-Prohibition. Yet as surely as there will always be a market for drugs—legal and not—there will always be people who want guns. And they will get them.

So let’s be blunt: these tragedies tend to occur in places where guns are either not allowed or not expected—think every school shooting, from Columbine to Virginia Tech, and the Ft. Hood tragedy. (Private firearms are not allowed on U.S. military bases.) Likewise, crime at the University of Colorado—which resisted the state’s concealed-carry law—has risen 35% since 2004. At the same time, Colorado State University—which complied with the law—experienced  a 60% drop in crime. In Kennesaw, Georgia, where private gun-ownership has been mandatory for three decades, the crime rate has remained disproportionately low.

We don’t know how things might have gone differently if other people had been armed during these nightmares. But we do know that guns aren’t going anywhere, and we need to stop blaming our societal problems—which are many and growing—on guns or any other convenient targets. Instead, we should have serious discussions about serious issues and respect the integrity of reasonable people to be able to defend themselves and their families responsibly.

But in case it isn’t clear: our constitutional rights are not open for debate.

Update: This thoughtful article from the other side makes a great point that is often overlooked in politics: sometimes you know a position is right but expect and demand that your candidate(s) not advocate it because they would needlessly lose elections. Whether you like it or not, the gun control debate is pretty much dead in America.


Dispatches from Dixie: La Vota Diversa

On the eve of the Olympics and conventions there is rampant speculation about the tight-lipped Republican veepstakes. Like most people outside the Romney High Command, I haven’t the foggiest. But there’s one point I must stress to the Marco Rubio camp: he won’t win over the Latino vote.

What do you mean I can’t speak for all Hispanic voters in America?

First, many people happily vote across ethnic lines. Michael Steele lost the black vote in his Senate race in Maryland, as Alan Keyes did before him. In Tennessee, Rep. Steve Cohen—white and Jewish—easily overcame well-financed and well-connected black, Christian opponents three times to date in a Democratic district that is overwhelmingly black and Christian. Moreover, Gene Green (white), Maxine Waters (black), and Jody Chu (Asian) are immensely successful in predominantly Hispanic districts.

In 2008, I opposed then-Sen. Obama precisely because I thought him an inferior candidate. (And he has done a remarkable job governing down to my expectations.) While a lot of folks (mostly Democrats) were openly baffled by this, I knew many black people who felt the same and campaigned accordingly. Indeed, Obama was losing black voters to Hillary Clinton until he started getting national traction after his Iowa victory.

Put simply, most voters care about much more than race or ethnicity.

Secondly, Hispanics are not monolithic. Distinct from the Southwest, many Florida Latinos are Cuban (like Rubio) or Puerto Rican, and both groups are, by definition, in the U.S. legally. Not coincidentally, only in Florida—where political concerns branch far beyond immigration—do Hispanics tend to vote Republican.

If Mitt Romney wants to win over Hispanic voters nationally, he needs more than a young, charismatic freshman Senator on the ticket. (The electorate is probably leery enough of those by now.) Without pandering—nobody likes condescension—he must persuade Hispanic businessmen, teachers, blue-collar workers, professionals, and young people that his governing agenda will work for them. This will be difficult to do without addressing the issue in which many Hispanics—even in Florida—are disproportionately invested: immigration reform.

Rep. David Rivera, another Florida Republican, was well aware of this reality when he proposed his conservative alternative to the Dream Act ahead of Rubio’s version. Previously, George W. Bush likewise made resolving immigration issues central to his Hispanic outreach. Governor Bush won 40% of Hispanic voters in Texas in 1998; President Bush won a comparable proportion across America in 2004.

For now, President Obama has a staggering lead among Hispanics and a popular new immigration policy to boot. But the race is still the Republicans’ to lose. It’ll be up to Governor Romney to change the narrative.

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Let’s talk about welfare

“We the People of the United States, in Order to… promote the general Welfare…”

You may have heard (or not, depending on your recent news sources) that the Obama administration quietly rescinded the core provision of the Clinton-era welfare reform law—the requirement to work. Chances are you have neither the time nor the patience to actually parse the conveniently obfuscating legalese of the Department of Health and Human Services directive that spells out the changes. Better yet, like most Americans, you probably don’t spend much of your time thinking about the minutiae of welfare policy. I certainly don’t. And until recently, we didn’t have to.

But now President Obama and Secretary Sebelius are reconstructing the days when anything from getting massages to attending Weight Watchers or bed rest qualified as “work” to “earn” a welfare check. The work requirement written in the law was specifically intended to prevent such dodges—along with all sorts of feel-good “educational” programs—from counting as work. Because, you know, they’re not. And we, the American people, will suffer whatever legally questionable innovations the administration makes to a reform that brought millions out of poverty in our lifetimes.

Welfare, at its core, is a moral issue. If poverty is a cancer at the heart of society, then welfare is akin to chemotherapy—painful, debilitating, and distasteful but sometimes necessary. And like chemotherapy, you must employ welfare carefully and methodically, with ample checks and restrictions, followed up by meticulous assessment of its effectiveness and holistic cost-benefit analysis. Otherwise, unrestricted welfare is as disastrous a threat to society as liberal baths of radiation would be for even the healthiest body. Thus we, the American people, stand to pay for irresponsible but well-intentioned social programs with profound social costs—crime, decadence, dependency, stagnation—in addition to the dollar amount on the price tag.

The point of welfare reform—the product of intense negotiation and compromise between the reelection-seeking Clinton administration and the new Republican Congress—was to provide an avenue for the neediest among us to become productive members of society. The work requirement—and its sincere enforcement—is more than some artificially austere limitation; it is predicated on the conviction that every American should contribute to society to the best of their ability, and it is designed to make this conviction a reality. If the government rewards bed rest, we’ll get more of it; if it rewards hard work, we’ll get more of that. As Governor Romney notes, if we attack success, we’ll see less of it.

That welfare ought to be self-undermining is more than a clever aphorism; it is the entire ontological point of the program. We are failing our neighbors, our children, and ourselves if we cannot help the poorest among us become able to provide for themselves. A society is morally bankrupt, not to mention economically unsustainable, when the average citizen can no longer be expected to work for his keep, provide for his family, and serve his community. The entitled children it raises today will become its tepid and facile leaders tomorrow. And the rest, they say, is Rome (or Greece—funny how history repeats itself).

Thus we arrive at crux of the issue: this administration’s policies will expand and maintain a class of people indentured to the government as serfs in the fiefdom of the Democratic Party.

It probably goes without saying that a disproportionate number of people so trapped will be black and Hispanic. Obama has not provided a functioning economy, as he promised, so he is committed to doing the next best thing: buying the allegiance of the poor at the “minor” cost of their economic productivity, independence, and basic dignity. That pre-reform welfare was an unmitigated horror upon families in poverty—black, white, Latino, etc.—seems not to have modified Obama’s views. Big Government knows best, after all.

But even if, as the White House claims, the 83% of Americans who support the work requirement are being hypocrites, you would be forgiven for not trusting this administration’s motives, timing, or the soundness of its legal theory. But I guess that’s the cool thing about being president: you can interpret laws however you like to get whatever you want, the American people be damned.

How’s that for Hope and Change?