Token Dissonance

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


Right Quick: The Fallen Joe

As many readers may vaguely recall, MSNBC’s Morning Joe was not always a latte-drinking armchair crusader in chummily good standing with urban liberal punditry. Once upon a time, our reconstructed New Yorker was a duly elected Republican congressman from the Florida panhandle. Alongside Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, Scarborough partook in the 90s evolution of the then-Democratic South into a rising GOP stronghold in Congress. In those days, dear Joe was an embodiment of the famed “Contract with America” that unified conservative control in the Capitol for the first time in generations

As he has occasionally mentioned on his show, Morning Joe once opposed some of the gun control measures he now champions as “common sense” and “sensible.” Presumably, he understood easily researched truths including the practical absurdity of banning cosmetically menacing rifles and arbitrarily limiting magazines. In any case, he was quite the fan of the NRA and the constitutionally protected civil rights its millions of members defend (courtesy of The Daily Caller):

But that was back when he was Middle-American Joe, who was accountable to middle-American voters with middle-American views on civil rights, self-defense, and the proper role of law and government. Now that he wine and dines with liberal intelligentsia in Manhattan with a bank account filled by executives at MSNBC, Morning Joe Scarborough freely rambles on about the imminent “extinction” of the GOP over opposition to a gun control law that nobody believed would stop the next tragedy.

In the meantime, mainstream America has already moved on. Unfathomably to Morning Joe (although Middle-American Joe could have predicted it), many Americans are even relieved the whole mess is done. It is amazing how out of touch we get while chattering away inside our echo-chambered bubbles. But in any case, this walk down memory lane merely serves as the latest reminder of what has, in truth, long been evident. Joe Scarborough is no longer a mainstream Republican in any meaningful sense, and this fact should be obvious to everybody by now.

So as we look back on the glory days of pre-MSNBC Middle-American Joe and reflect on the philosophical atrophy of years passing, let us ask the nagging question that Morning Joe will never hear:

How art thou fallen from God’s Country, O Joe, wind of the morning?


Gunning for Senate Reform

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“I’ll tell you this—No eternal reward will forgive us now for wasting the dawn.” –Jim Morrison

There’s been a lot in the news this week about violence and the various ways Americans are trying to address its complex manifestations. On the gun violence front, the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday on seven different amendments to reform gun laws in an attempt to produce a bill that would advance beyond the filibuster. For the highlights:

Two amendments were offered and supported almost exclusively by subsets of the Democratic caucus (and Mark Kirk of Illinois). Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) proposed banning magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed banning a list of certain specially identified semiautomatic guns and accessories that comprise what she styles “assault weapons.”

Three amendments were offered by Republicans. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) aimed to add language that would require “judicial authority” to bar veterans and their families from bearing arms. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) intended to allow for a certain degree of reciprocity in concealed carry allowance. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) offered perhaps the most ambitious conservative measure. His proposal was designed to improve the availability of records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, address the intersection of mental health and crime, and criminalize straw purchases and gun trafficking.

Only two amendments failed completely. The Democratic bans—on so-called “assault weapons” and “high-capacity” magazines—were each opposed by an outright majority of Senators. Of all the votes, Feinstein’s gun ban fared the worst, garnering merely 40 votes in favor (39 Democrats plus Mark Kirk) to 60 votes opposed (44 Republicans and 16 Democrats).

The other five amendments—Democratic and Republican—each won between 52 and 58 votes. Nevertheless, all failed due to the filibuster threshold of 60 votes.

All of the Republican proposals received outright majority support but were ultimately blocked by Democratic filibusters. For a party with a 10-seat deficit in the upper chamber, that level of relatively bipartisan appeal is a noteworthy feat. The two primarily Democratic measures that attracted majority support were Sen. Patrick Leahy’s (I-Vt.) attempt to make gun trafficking a federal crime (which was backed by the N.R.A.), and the joint venture by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) to expand background checks.

For whatever reason, the vote on the Manchin-Toomey amendment is gaining the most attention among the same chattering classes that still haven’t figured out why semiautomatic weapons aren’t assault rifles. But President Obama’s indignation notwithstanding, the background check endeavor was not the only potential law foiled by minority intransigence.

Contrary to what you might hear from much of the media about gun reform and obstructionism, the Democratic Party is at least as much to blame for recent legislative failures as the GOP. Every one of the Republican proposals not only earned more than 50 votes but also presumably stood a decent chance at a fair hearing in the House of Representatives. By contrast, only half of the Democratic bills (if we count the “bipartisan” Manchin-Toomey bill among them) could be so regarded.

Thus, of the five bills that would have passed the Senate in lieu of the filibuster, three were killed by (mostly) Democrats and only two by (mostly) Republicans. Worst still, even The New York Times notes that more liberal Democrats blocked sensible GOP proposals essentially out of spite, despite previous exhortations not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good:

“Mr. Begich said the Senate could have united behind measures with broad support, like strengthening the existing background check system with more data about would-be gun buyers who have been deemed mentally ill, rather than expanding the checks to sales not now covered. Mr. Begich also cited bolstering school safety, criminalizing gun trafficking and improving mental health programs.

“That’s a lot,” he said. “Is it perfect? No. But it’s a lot.”

Those modest steps, however, were sacrificed because other Democrats did not want to see further-reaching provisions fail at the expense of a package that the gun rights lobby wanted, aides said.”

That this travesty of process is a resounding failure on all sides is a burden we all bear with appropriate shame. But the way forward is not through escalating antagonism—if further escalation is even possible at this point.

It is a truism that we will not all agree on the best way forward to address violent crime—or any other issue—in America. (We can’t even all agree that the world isn’t run by lizard people!) Yet at some point, we will need to sustain a certain level of good faith and mutual respect in order to accomplish some semblance of meaningful reform. Pretending that the other side has offered nothing—and I have yet to hear liberal pundits give fair accounting of the popular Republican amendments stymied by Democratic filibuster—simply because you disagree is neither productive nor fair. And it affords no moral righteousness that compels beyond the choir.

But after everything else, standing up in the Rose Garden or on your MSNBC soapbox and disparaging the personal integrity or humanity of the opponents whose earnest input your allies just rejected is, frankly, rude. There is plenty of disgust to go around, but now is the time to be constructive. There is much work yet to be done.

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Fear and Trembling and Bombs

Update: Versions of this post were adapted by The Daily Caller and The Huffington Post. You can find those respective articles here and here.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Psalm 23:4

Hours ago, explosions went off in Boston at the end of that city’s well-televised marathon. Legions of runners and spectators were flung into panic as emergency workers mobilized to secure people and information, and the media scrambled for angles to connect eyes around the world. The JFK Library was set on fire. (That incident was apparently not related to the bombing, but that detail is easy to miss.)

It has been over a decade since 9/11 burned away post-Cold War illusions of American impregnability. Arguably, most people had finally moved past the old iron grip of terror that reshaped the political universe. But nothing lasts forever.

America is in many ways a nation under siege. Nobody knows how many people enter the country illegally or who, exactly, they are. Nobody knows how much contraband is spirited past TSA by whom or to what ends. Nobody knows what calculating evil lurks in the shadows or, worse, in plain sight. Nobody knows what tools will next be used against which innocent victims. Nobody knows when the center will fold to the chaos scratching at the gates of this project called civil society. Nobody knows when and why the bells of our finale will toll.

One important thing to remember is not to panic. Medical staff and firemen will save lives, police and federal officials will conduct investigations, and ordinary people will hold their loved ones a little bit tighter for a while. At some point, lawmakers will be pushed to consider some kind of action, because there is the perennial expectation that something must be done after a tragedy. In fear and trembling, all manner of ideas may be put forward and all manner of associations will be floated to push action on other issues. But contrary to what might be said tomorrow—and what has been said in the aftermath of other tragedies—there should be no rush to action. Too many problems today were born of well-intentioned fixes dreamt up yesterday.

Bombings are a unique kind of terror. A gunman has to reveal himself and direct his weapons, allowing for a potential response. A recklessly driven automobile has limited options for surprise and can be blocked off and trapped. Hostile aircraft can be shot down or evaded. Ample protections are in place to keep most benign planes from crashing and most passenger ships from sinking. Muggings and robberies are generally not expected to result in death. But a bomb can wipe out 100,000 lives in the time it takes to turn a key, brandish a weapon, or pull a trigger. It can be almost anywhere and anything at nearly any time. And a bomb, unlike a car or a gun, can be made in a kitchen or bathroom.

In fall 2003, I was a 14-year-old freshman in an American high school in Europe. Not yet a year had gone by since our military parents and their fellow servicemembers had invaded Iraq. Already, the venture was controversial, especially in Europe, but controversies are a dime a dozen in politics. What I did not see coming was the summer of 2004. By then, I was 15 and a few months away from returning to America after three years living abroad. By then, I had begun to establish myself as an honor student with budding athletic potential. By then, I had completed a year of JROTC and discovered myself a decently able marksman. By  then, I was starting to think that growing up on Army bases in wartime might not be so injurious after all.

And by then, I had already endured more bomb threats than I have ever known in all the time I have spent on this Earth before and since that school year.

I am not really sure what happens to teenagers when communities are no longer assumed to be safe. When bus routes have to be changed because hostile agents have marked the stops and registered their threats. When bombs are rumored to appear on train tracks that run across the barbed wire fence behind the gym. When trained military dogs and uniformed men with fully automatic rifles are among the most familiar—and perhaps even comforting—fixtures of your universe. When the line between fortress and prison begins to slip and you no longer remember how you saw the world before that time.

On the one hand, I don’t remember being all that terrified in ninth grade, nor could I understand what all the fuss was about when, years later, my suburban Virginia high school had a solitary bomb scare. (It turned out to be a false alarm.) On the other hand, something about the televised projection of the explosions, dust, screams, and searing images from the Boston Marathon bombing left a grown man in Virginia shuddering in the panicked throes of a lachrymose breakdown.

Terror, born of the sentient abyss of panic, is both insidious and resilient. It has an odd way of luring you into the eye of a hurricane raging in patient silence. For however long it pleases, you may remain insouciant and comfortably unmolested by devils as real as they are unseen. But at any moment, a shift in the wind may reveal some inkling of the hellish precipice that lingers closer than you ever dared to imagine.

The veil of civil society has always been as thin as the drywall behind which we hide from the wild things in the dark. There were potential bombers, shooters, infanticidal maniacs, and murderers of all kinds walking among us yesterday, and they will still be smiling in our faces and bidding us faux salutations tomorrow. The thing to remember is to defeat the urge to panic.

Our forebears did not build civilization as an altar to the throne of terror.

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The convoluted politics of gun control

“Gun control has emerged as an unusually clarifying test case for how Congress really works.” –Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas

“Will I have to get a background check for skeet shooting?”

It was not all that long ago when many American cities and neighborhoods were cesspools of fear, drugs, and death. As the 20th Century waned in this period of societal entropy, people started to act. The federal government twice reformed gun laws—President Reagan effectively banned assault rifles; President Clinton later outlawed certain specified models of semi-automatic weapons and ammunition magazines. The D.C. basketball team evolved from Bullets to Wizards (the capital of the Free World doubling as Murder Capital, U.S.A. might have been a bit awkward). There was a bipartisan focus on being tough on crime, which produced everything from the war on drugs to mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.

The results of these policies have ranged from beneficial to symbolic to insidiously disastrous.

In 2013, one of the most disturbing communal ills being debated in the public sphere is the ongoing epidemic of gun violence. There are no easy answers, but a defining feature of this debate—like so many others—is the difficulty in producing consensus policy even where there is general agreement. Not only do Americans nigh unanimously favor universal background checks, but several conservative Republicans went on record with their support back in January. Nevertheless, the devil is always in the legislative details, and the newly emerging Manchin-Toomey proposal for reform faces hostility from left and right.

Aside from the NRA and Michael Bloomberg, the problem with reforming gun policy comes down, in part, to deep-seated, ongoing distrust between opposing camps. Hardcore proponents of the Second Amendment suspect a long-term push against their civil rights—including gun confiscation by expansive government—and are unwilling to yield an inch to that agenda. Meanwhile, influential gun control enthusiasts chalk up the popularity of certain “military-style” semi-automatic weapons and “high-capacity” magazines to evidence of their opponents’ hysterical paranoia.

Overall, the political rhetoric of the loudest and most agitated proliferate at the notable expense of the arguably more sensible concerns of the disengaged and uninterested majority. For these and other reasons, public opinion and the bully pulpit have long ago lost the power to compel Congress. But in considering the now reliable disconnect between what is popular—with the public or the elite—and what proves politically feasible, it may also be worth acknowledging the gap between what is popular and what is effective.

Support for specific gun control proposals varies widely, with most being at least somewhat popular. Yet the estimation of how effective the enacted measures would be diverges profoundly from what could be described as elite consensus on best practice.

Proponents of banning certain semi-automatic firearms and magazines argue that if the Newtown shooter had been required to reload more than six times in five minutes, more children might have survived his 154-bullet rampage. The truth of this claim is impossible to know, but “rapid-fire” ability is not new. In 1862—nearly a century before the first AR-15—someone could fire 120 bullets from a lever-action repeating rifle (a design much less efficient than modern semi-automatic weapons) after reloading at least 13 times in under six minutes.

In 2013, gun owners—who are more familiar with common weapons—mostly oppose assault weapon bans. Curiously enough, younger Americans are less supportive of bans on weapons and magazines than older people. In any event, there are several hundred million semi-automatic weapons in the U.S., and any of them may be used for good or ill—the deadliest school shooting in American history was perpetrated with handguns and standard 10- and 15-round magazines.

While outright opposition to universal background checks may occupy the polling fringe, a majority of Americans do not believe such protections will be an effective deterrent to violent crime. Likewise, a plurality of those charged with enforcing our laws agree that even universal mental health checks would not help reduce—let alone stop—mass shootings.

According to a comprehensive study of officials around the country, more than 80 percent reported that proposed gun control measures would not improve officer safety. More than 90 percent believed banning certain semi-automatic firearms, or “assault weapons,” would have either a negative effect or none at all on reducing violent crime. By contrast, most officers indicated the best crime deterrents are stiffer punishments, concealed carry laws, and a better armed citizenry. These findings might shed some light on the ongoing resistance from law enforcement to aggressive gun control.

But whatever the efficacy of background checks (when enforced) or bans in substantially reducing violent crime—which overwhelmingly involves neither any kind of rifle nor 10-bullet attacks—it will be worthwhile to better understand how criminals procure their weapons. Whether or not current proposals to address straw purchasing and gun trafficking will be effective remains to be seen.

The battle against violence and other ills in America is ongoing and fraught with difficulty, confusion, frustration, and, perhaps, occasional glimmers of progress. Whatever policy emerges—or not—from Washington this time around, the fight will continue.

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The Future of Old Institutions

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people, and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help, by our own efforts, those who are unfortunate.” –Margaret Thatcher

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…” – Semisonic on my graduating to Yale from this dear high school.

It is a fascinating experience to play the unfamiliar role of “student ambassador” to twelfth-graders in one’s former high school. Although some of those students were considering the Ivy League, none had heard of how its “need-based” financial aid policy might offer middle-class kids a better value than a state school. In fact, most were broadly unaware of basic differences between the institutions they sought to attend. It was the oddest thing, returning to a perspective where even the brightest were simultaneously unaware of the range of opportunities before them and largely oblivious to that unawareness.

Later, while wandering the distantly familiar halls, I happened across a fellow ex-cadet from our school’s popular JROTC program. Immaculately poised in his Marine Corps dress blues, Alex sat across from the cafeteria at a table decorated with promotional material. We had a good laugh for old times’ sake. He asked me about the liberals in New England, and I asked him about the Corps and his wife Amanda, who had succeeded me years ago as the notoriously ruthless executive officer of our former battalion. The soft drawl in his voice beckoned a reflexive smile, as did his unaffected style of common-sense, “real world” politics. It all reminded me how far I was from the privileged, insular urbanity of Yale.

It is incredible how things change in four years.

The dynamics Claire Vaye Watkins, now an assistant professor at Bucknell, describes in her poor, rural Nevada high school have several points in common with my majority-minority alma mater in suburban Virginia. In particular, the cozy symbiosis between M.V.H.S. and the military had no parallels among private, elite universities. Local servicemembers—like my parents—sent their children to the school; JROTC facilitated easy access to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and warm relationships with recruiters and military alumni. Unsurprisingly, many old classmates are in the military, where many have been married parents since before they could legally drink. (Before you gasp, my yuppie friends, this is normal where I grew up.)

Of course, myriad former classmates did go off to college. My old friends from U.S. Army bases in Germany preferred schools in whatever states they happened to graduate or somewhere they had ties. In Virginia, top-achievers went to the University of Virginia. Other promising students opted for other in-state schools, including Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, and Virginia Commonwealth. A handful departed for service academies. When it occurred to me to ask after their choices, most shrugged away the inquiry; they chased after their best interests within the realm of familiar networks.

Perhaps I am supposed to say, as Watkins suggests, that my community would be better served by more Ivy Plus attention. That may be true, and those elite institutions could certainly benefit from the infusion of more conservative, middle-class perspectives. Yet my friends seem generally to be doing well for themselves, which is more than I can say for me. So instead, I will make two observations about how the world may change—in the universities and in politics.

First: when the Supreme Court rules on marriage, it may also find race-based affirmative action unconstitutional. If so, there will be a panoply of didactic musings about post-racial mythology, insidious social trappings, blinding privilege, Asians, and so on. As a practical matter, institutions will face two options: (1) abandon diversity or (2) be more innovative in fostering it. Assuming most opt for the latter, they will have to get more creative in non-racial outreach to the underprivileged—as in, accounting for financial assets and concentrated poverty, rather than relying on income. But to get the applicants in the first place, elite universities will have to cultivate roots in places where for years the military and local schools have reaped uncontested from an enduring communal presence.

Second: Republicans for too long have been to poorer, browner, and younger Americans as Ivy League schools have been to middle-class public schools like mine: out of sight, out of mind. My being the third student in five years to matriculate from M.V.H.S. to New Haven was not enough to sustain a substantive connection between my alma maters. For that, Yale—or Harvard or MIT—would need to aggressively maintain relationships with faculty, two-way channels with administrators and parents, and a network of joint alumni who would shape the realm of possibilities for those who walk after them.

In the absence of anything resembling even an attempt at real connection with “Democratic” demographics, the GOP resembles little more than a distant collection of prejudices, most of them negative. Noises about broader inclusion are a fine start, but the game is a long one. Republicans will find limited returns in sudden “outreach” to minority neighborhoods a couple months before tough elections. A long-term investment in conversations with churches, college campuses, charitable organizations, and underprivileged career-seekers will bring conservatives into discussions where they were once despised or irrelevant. Never again should a sitting Republican congressman need to refer his unemployed kin to a functional subgroup of the Democratic caucus.

Resetting the conversation surrounding history, politics, and biases will not happen in a cycle. In the short-term, Republicans can expect rabid resistance from the Left against any attempts to expand the coalition of the Right. But poor, blue-collar, multicultural, and middle-class Americans are an abundant resource throughout this country. Any institutions that are to pass the test of time—politically, academically, or otherwise—are obliged to mine and develop that talent.