Token Dissonance

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


A Song of Drones and Values

“You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” –Harvey Dent

When you play the game of drones, you win or you die. Or your president stabs you in the heart and twists. There is no middle ground.

Life and death can make for compelling deal breakers in politics. More often than not, we face this reality in the ongoing disputes over abortion law and single-issue voters. But there’s nothing quite like the games of war in a wearily introspective superpower afflicted by enduring frustration and quixotic performance art of leadership. Over the past decade, so many thousands of lives have been lost to terror and the fight against it. Even as the Iraq War has finally ended—for the United States, anyway—American-led campaigns across the Middle East continue the Sisyphean task of eradicating violent extremism.

Enter the drones. As though by miraculum ex machina, the U.S. can target and eliminate enemy combatants without deploying a single boot to a warzone of the whole. But as with all developments in war, there are costs. Some induce nightmares. For liberals who cannot reconcile the costs with the values, the totality of these issues constitutes a moral event horizon for Obama. Many of these disaffected are understandably wary of jumping on the Gary Johnson bandwagon. But I’ll go out on an olive branch and suggest a Romney presidency has more to offer the progressively malcontent than meets the gag reflex.

The persistent criticism about the current administration’s approach to war, which is only partly about drones, is that Obama is the same or worse than “the neo-conservative policy” of George W. Bush. It demands the question, if Obama is already so terrible—even while he promised to be otherwise—what exactly is so frightening about a potential Romney administration? Last I checked, it was Barack Obama who established a framework for killing American children without due process and formalized indefinite detention. And these new bureaucratic tools will be, in the words of the ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer, “available to every future president against every future enemy or purported enemy.”

Love or hate him, Mitt Romney is upfront about his foreign policy ideas and concerns, from confronting our enemies to defending human rights. At most, he will do what he says. Otherwise, he will pleasantly surprise you. Compare this to the promise of a big game to earn a premature Nobel Peace Prize. President Obama has reduced you, his liberal base, to enabling the legitimacy of policies you fought so hard to destroy, from waiving sanctions on countries that use child soldiers to waging another war abroad—ignoring congressional oversight for either—to codifying military commissions and extraordinary rendition to escalating warrantless surveillance of Americans. (For the record, even “prominent neoconservative” Charles Krauthammer is arguing for limits on drones and surveillance of Americans.)

We all know that war is neither painless nor clean, and collateral damage is as heartbreaking as it is inevitable. But which would you prefer, the rhetorical embrace of a friend who stabs you in the back—from the safety of a remote machine—as you shield his treachery from criticism, or the political opponent who, at the very least, will put his cards on the table and allow you the opportunity to defend your values, such as they are?

I don’t know about you, but I prefer my devils where I can see them. It makes for an easier kill peacekeeping.

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Right Quick: Sic Semper Tyrannis

Sometimes the working classes are besieged by an army of the ruthlessly dependent. As unmoved by decency as they are contemptuous of self-reliance, these mooching tyrants mercilessly invade the homes of the well-to-do. They raid the coffers of the successful for security against the threat of having to provide for their own welfare. And they are not satisfied with being a burden, living in splendor built on the hardened backs of those who pay their keep. No, having deemed themselves entitled to the treasures of others, these hordes of parasites tear asunder the communities of their benefactors, murdering the leaders and enslaving the population to a new generation of dependents.

In time, this new generation raised on handouts will organize to subjugate another once-independent colony and bend another set of hardworking backs to the government of the freeloader. And thus the cycle begins anew.

But every so often, those workers raise their dirtied, hardened backs to shrug against the yoke of their bondage. They may not drive out their slavers in a night—or a fortnight—but they can, perhaps, gain some bit of solace in undermining a murderous, foreign regime sustained by the fruit of their labor. They do this not for themselves—for there is hope, but not for them—but for their unconquered neighbors. They fight on because, one day, the parasitic menace might be defeated, and future generations might thrive in peace and independence. Freedom is not free. But there is vengeance.

“Only 45 per cent of the parasite’s offspring survived to adulthood.” Not a one pays any taxes.

Thus are the lives of ants.

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A Storm of Polls

“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” –Robert Orben

Polls are just war by other means. Romney should probably avoid weddings until November.

Thanks to the media, we know that Mitt Romney has fallen on bad times. A tape of him purportedly disparaging half of America in private back in May came to light last week, his 2011 tax returns showed a doctored 14% effective rate (both of which are already fueling attack ads), and people are increasingly wondering whether he can pull this off. Against this backdrop I got an email about fresh Washington Post numbers showing Obama leading in the key swing states of Ohio and my native Florida. A recent poll in Virginia gave similarly good news to Democrats.

Yet perhaps the devil is in the numbers. In each of these new polls, Democratic and/or Independent voters were oversampled compared even to 2008, let alone 2004. In Ohio, Tyrian gem of the Midwest, 39% of 2008 voters were self-proclaimed Democrats, compared to 31% Republicans and 30% Independents. In 2004, the D-R-I split in Ohio was 35-40-25. Compare those numbers to this week’s poll split of 35-26-35. For whatever reason, the poll authors seem to expect an unusually low GOP turnout, despite sweeping Republican successes in 2010, coupled with an unusually high Independent showing and a more or less stable Democrat presence.

The differences between polls and history are even more striking with the Purple States in the South. In 2008, Virginia’s electoral votes went Democrat for the first time since Lyndon Johnson. By 2009, the Commonwealth had two Democratic U.S. senators, a majority-Democrat delegation in Congress and the state senate, and a sitting Democratic governor who would serve as Chairman of the Democratic Party. It is perhaps not a stretch to say this is as Democratic as Virginia has been in a generation or two.

Then three years of subsequent elections happened. In 2012, Virginia has a majority-Republican delegation to the U.S. House (including the House Majority Leader), prominent Republican officials in elected state office, a Republican-controlled General Assembly, and popular Republican governor who doubles as Chairman of the Republican Governor’s Association. In light of all this, you would be forgiven for wondering how a 39-33-27 D-R-I split in the 2008 election becomes a 32-24-35 split in a 2012 poll. Or how a 2008 breakdown of 37-34-29 in Florida has likewise “evolved” into 35-25-32 in this week’s polling.

Of course, there could be a good apology for this particular devil. Maybe Democrats and Independents are substantially more energized than Republicans in this cycle or in 2008. Maybe the wording of the questions in the polls skews actual beliefs. Maybe people are just bad at remembering their Party affiliations. Who knows? The presidential race will certainly be hard-fought and hard-won by whoever emerges victorious. But for now, if I were a Very Important Person in this year’s Republican campaigns, I wouldn’t buy the hype.

I’m excited for the debates.

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Freedom & Terror

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column with its epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no tablet to preserve it, except that of the heart. These take as your model…judging happiness to be the fruit of freedom, and freedom of valor…” –Thucydides

Maybe the Arab Fall will be warmer than we thought.

The Libyan revolt against the terrorists in their midst is a glorious tale of triumph and justice. There’s something about freedom and personal responsibility that inspire renewed conviction in the blood of Americana. We believe everybody should have the opportunity to govern their own destiny. Our natural resentment for those who prosper at the expense of good people pales only before our visceral disgust at those who squander the faith and hard-earned resources of their benefactors.

For this reason, we wonder whether our billions in aid to hostile powers might be better spent elsewhere. It’s not that we disdain foreign aid, charity, or those in need. To the contrary, Americans are among the most charitable people on Earth. Rather, we are outraged by the wanton irresponsibility that manifests in criminal incompetence, and we abhor the murderous ingratitude that ensures the wages of kindness in the Near East are death. Ambassador Stevens and his aides were brave servants and excellent diplomats. They did not deserve so early and violent a rendezvous with Azrael.

And for this reason, we wince at statements by our leaders that appear, rightly or wrongly, to apologize for our values. There is certainly a need for better understanding between the West and the Arab world. But how is it that we lose cherished public servants to a mob they helped liberate and yet feel compelled to reaffirm what should be our obvious commitment to religious tolerance for everyone? How is it that, just a week ago, we were bracing for fresh rounds of anti-American animus across the Muslim world?

But in light of the storming of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade and other militia headquarters in Benghazi, the world appears to be changing. And it is a strange, new world indeed when a Muslim crowd in North Africa unilaterally deposes Islamist networks to avenge murdered Americans. But as we cautiously celebrate these exciting developments, the militias are predictably crying foul. What they will do next is unclear. Going forward, our foreign policy should encourage greater comity with the Arab street while pressuring new governments and would-be allies in Libya and elsewhere to defend the rights of their citizens and safeguard the security of their guests.

The tepid repudiation of violence by Egypt’s new president is a start. But our next president must make clear that how our “friends” define their “allies” will determine how we define ours. They are as perfectly free to ignore our concerns as they are to forego our support. At this critical juncture, our leaders must promote human rights as essential to both American interests and the vital project of democracy. Our focus should never shift from eliminating the obdurate evils of violence and repression that reek of innocent blood.

J. Christopher Stevens and his fellow diplomats died in the service of freedom. The Libyan people have moved to honor that legacy. But we all have battles to fight and promises to keep—and miles to go before we sleep.

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Remembrance: That Which Is Lost

“You shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day, nor of the pestilence that walks in darkness, nor of the destruction that lays waste at noonday. A thousand may fall at your side, and ten thousand at your right hand; but it shall not come near you. Only with your eyes shall you look, and see the reward of the wicked.” –Psalm 91:5-8

“May we resolve to be ever more humane in our fallible humanity.” –Michael Haycock

On this day, half my life ago, I walked home from my American middle school in Germany and found that the relative peace we seemed to have won was violently and enduringly sundered. Across the world, our home bases shut down. The gates went up, intending to repel enemies we could not see. Armed guards took to every entrance, machine guns in hand, in silent vigil for our constant protection. They would not stop the threats that would emerge over the years, but perhaps they stopped the bombings that endured in whispered fears. And over the next few months, all our parents prepared for war.

They were soldiers, after all, and sailors, Marines, and airmen. They were military spouses and DoD civilians who were entrusted with the home front and its legions of frightened, confused, and perpetually agitated children. Of those who eventually left, many would come back different somehow. There were injuries, physical and psychological, and the searing memories of sand, heat, and blood—and hatred, the scion of pain. There were homes strained, and some broken, by the weight of separations weaponized by the agony of war. And there were people who would not return but instead joined the thousands who perished in the fire and steel of terror.

September 11, 2001 was, in some grand sense, an initiation into a new century. It was the start of the new crucible of terrorism, recession, grievance, and insecurity. For eleven years now, we have wrestled the dark angel of that day in search of a new peace and the enduring operation of justice. But as Jacob left his family, for a time, to rise to his defining challenge, so have the fighting men and women of America—like my father and brother—left wives, husbands, children, and other loved ones behind to serve their country in conflict.

In reflecting on all that has been lost and bitterly gained since 2001, we remember the innocents who suffer, even to death, and are not heard. We remember the first responders, the emergency workers, and the people they leave behind. We remember the military families who live in sacrifice, that our grand opportunities may be taken for granted. We remember the precious legions that have paid for our freedoms with their deaths. For such is the cost and promise of life.

May we always be worthy of the service of the brave who defend the greatest hopes of our lives with the offering of their lives, in whatever form. And the Dream lives on.


Right Where We Belong

“We do believe you can use government in a good way. Government is the only thing we all belong to.” –Overheard at DNC 2012

What’s so bad about anarchy, again?

President Kennedy once challeneged us to reconsider our relationship with America: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It was an inspiring inaugural call to patriotism, duty, and common purpose. I imagine the Democratic Convention aimed to channel some of that former transcendence to make up for what they lost over the last four years. But instead they only succeeded, once again, in leaving us to wonder whether the Party of F.D.R. has finally derailed.

In context—always the first sleight of damage control—the narrator of that DNC video talks about our many different “churches” and “clubs” and how the government, from the local to the federal, unites us into a people. In other words, we presumably have a government of, by, and for communal unity. In this vision, the state is the embodiment of the general will, a la Rousseau, and the government is the expression of communal desires. And to this, we all purportedly belong.

It is a grand idea, save for everything wrong with it.

Since it apparently must be said, the arms of Washington are much too far away to grasp my neighborhood. And I would rather they not come any closer, thank you very much. I don’t even know the names of my local officials, let alone their political affiliations. But I’d bet $10,000—plus Stephanie Cutter’s audacity—that they don’t know most of my neighbors from Adam. Whatever the service of our elected servants, we do not vote on their bills, and they do not sit at our tables. Government is not community. It is a complex machine designed for certain limited ends, and like any machine, government has the potential to be disastrous if handled poorly.

That liberals seem incapable of understanding this reality underlies their obstinate expansion of the state into everything from dictating our beverage containers to micromanaging the terms of our healthcare policies, complete with ever growing debt to finance all this. By contrast, the “churches” and “clubs” so idly dismissed as divisive are full of people who actually know us well enough to touch our lives effectively. It is from such personal, spiritual bonds that we develop purpose and identity. Through our fidelity to our communities, we all belong to the American ideals of freedom, opportunity, and honor.

The president is not our friend and our officials are not our brothers. They are employees each elected or appointed to do a job. If any of them is unable or unwilling to meet our expectations, then our duty is to fire that one and hire another. As much as that callous, impersonal approach is abhorrent to the idea of family, government will never be a community to which anyone can properly belong.

The state can neither save nor love us. But it can get out of the way of our prosperity.


The Pride of Yale

“When I see people in uniform, I think of fascism.” –Yale student, circa 2009

“War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight…is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.” -John Stuart Mill

The Men of Yale who, true to her traditions, pledge their lives that freedom might not perish from the earth.

I loved my time at Yale. The brilliant people, abundant resources, and multifarious opportunities to learn about the world and my place in it were unlike anything I had ever known. Everybody seemed so worldly and studied. Sure, I had lived in Germany for three years, but these people could read dead languages, quote Shakespeare or Churchill at length, and wax poetic about the elegant truths of higher-order mathematics. I could hardly imagine anything I might understand better than most of them. And then, during a pleasant exchange, an avowedly thoughtful, intimidatingly mature, and all-around wonderful friend of mine compared the prospect of ROTC cadets on campus to fascism.

How was this possible?

Between 1969 and 1970, a period of profound social upheaval, a handful of elite schools moved to appease rabid hostility to the military Vietnam War by expelling ROTC from campus. Decades later, somebody decided the continued exclusion was about opposition to the ban on gay Americans serving openly. When I matriculated at Yale in 2007, the vast majority of my peers were functionally oblivious to the military—notwithstanding the occasional relative who fought in WWII and general indignation over the Iraq War. Among friends more given to pacifism, my military ID might as well have been Confederate currency: perhaps imagined to exist in a faraway place but never expected to be encountered in real life. (Incidentally, before Yale, this was my impression of vegetarians.)

By contrast, I was a natural-born Army brat and erstwhile JROTC cadet officer who had always expected to go to college in the South, where the military is right between God and football. Moreover, I was a distinguished student from a Naval Honor High School who had seriously considered Annapolis before the Ivy League came calling. (And many old friends are now serving.) Freshman year at Yale was nothing short of a culture shock. I was no more ready for a world impossibly ignorant—and proudly so— of the military than for classmates unfamiliar with minorities. (Army communities, unlike Ivy League schools, are among the most diverse and integrated places in the country, but I digress.)

Years before Congress brought DADT repeal up for a vote, the debate over whether to return ROTC to campus waged hotly at Yale and Columbia. As surprised nobody back home, I argued the need for more exceptional talent in the officer ranks, more understanding between the political and military elite, and the simple civic virtues of duty and patriotism. But above all, as a gay man, I had no patience for the yuppie exploitation of my political struggles to conveniently mask the anti-military bigotry of the day. DADT was a law from the civilian world that came 23 years—more than most of us had been alive at that time—after the purge of ROTC from the Ivory Tower. Politicians passed it, and politicians would have to fix it.

But what these debates laid bare was how much places like Yale and Columbia need the presence of the military. Apart from otherwise thoughtful people extrapolating totalitarianism from the patriotism of their peers, there was the public debate in which the student leader of a prominent liberal organization denigrated military officers as cowardly leeches on society. He was met with ovation from the left. That this particular gentleman—I was raised to be polite—could not imagine a war he or most of his friends would fight in perhaps goes without saying.

He was followed by students who declared that servicemembers are not heroes but dregs of society that had been exploited for their stupidity, poverty, and hopelessness. Others blamed the intrinsic evils of military culture—and the governing barbarians who enable it—for everything from My Lai to Abu Ghraib. For these safely distant gentry liberals, the military is an object of pity and contempt from which the world—and servicemembers—must be saved. Such were the asinine costumes of reason ad nauseam that I suffered for years.

I remember all too well the many stilted conversations, littered with mawkishly tendentious musings and didactic misconceptions, in which leftists expressed “enlightened” outrage at the very idea of the military. I also remember the people who obstinately held ROTC an affront to the integrity of the academy.  (Fortunately, the discipline I learned from my military parents empowered me to oppose my peers nonviolently, for a time, before abandoning them to their iniquity.) But of course, we were still to believe the opposition to ROTC on campus was just about DADT rather than a perverse failing of the culture of the Ivory Tower.

After the repeal, Connecticut’s only Navy ROTC program and a new Air Force ROTC unit finally began operating in New Haven. The official photos of the new NROTC midshipmen have reverberated around the world, broadcasting the pride of Yale—a place where the service of alumni fallen in the Great War is honored in the immortality of marble. But while much of the commentary has been positive, there have been those—including the aforementioned sometime liberal leader and the other one in every six students opposing ROTC regardless of DADT—who assure us that the U.S. military is still “despicable” and that the image of cadet uniforms in the rotunda still “freaks them out.”

The impregnability of such inanity is the real threat to the academy and the world it purports to serve. How on earth can we expect the “best and the brightest” to govern well while defiantly ignorant of and obdurately hostile to the Armed Forces? How fully could they consider our national interests while lacking even the obvious understanding that the enlisted and their officers never decide to start or end war, regardless of what they might think of such belligerence. What sort of world could endure governance by “leaders” who think soldiers analogous to demons and pacifism viable?

These people who oppose the very idea of the military are a remnant of the chaotic narcissism that saw a generation vomit out the dignity of its own defenders. They are a contemptibly spineless lot, afflicted with a nefarious defeatism, which would delight in entrusting the protection of the earth to crackpot organizations, two-bit dictators, and the French. Their beliefs and values—such as they are—are a cancer once thought to be in remission, that would compromise our entire body politic, if ever left to fester. And these are many of the people who want to “change” America by running her institutions.

While growing up on Army bases, I learned that freedom is a foundation built upon a shifting precipice. It must be ever maintained against the winds of the day. If the pacifists, isolationists, and other enemies of the military—and thus of freedom—ever get their way, the winds will keep howling. But there will be no brave hearts left to hold the fort. Nor will there be peace for the living.