Token Dissonance

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


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Reflections on a Tempest in Arlington

“A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest,
 as rivers of water in a dry place,
 as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. The eyes of those who see will not be dim, and the ears of those who hear will listen. Also the heart of the rash will understand knowledge… The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places,though hail comes down on the forest…” –Psalm 32: 2-4, 17-19

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.”

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.”

I remember, distantly, that time the Army picked my family up and moved us across the Atlantic to a land the natives still call, “Father.” The oceanic climate deep in the continent was much too cool for my liking, and the winter days far too short. The coldest nights were little eternities unto themselves, yielding all too often only to the gray coolness of monotone skies along the Neckar—skies that seemed forever pregnant, never delivering. Until they had slipped from my grasp, I hadn’t realized how much I missed the endlessly soothing cycles of thunderstorms and sunshine that marked summertime in the American Southeast. Whether among the forests of Virginia, the swamps of Georgia, or along the waters of Florida, I could sit in that solace for hours.

At another time, in another climate I hate, I heard a gentleman speak about Edmund Burke at the meeting of a debating society near the southern coast of New England. He rhapsodized about the beautiful and sublime, of flowers and storms, of men and God. I remembered then the days and nights of violent atmospheric chaos I loved so peacefully, like a lamb cuddling into the fur of a lion and feeling ineffably safe. I remember those forays, early and late, into the philosophies of transcendence and stewardship of tradition. It was a reminder that man is as much a tiller of the world as a ward of powers beyond reckoning.

It was like faith made incarnate. In the quiet of the conditioned air and with the thunder rolling outside, I could see somehow a living truth in the requiem of light and darkness at the core of the paradox by which I was soothed by the presence of nature’s destructive power. What is it to feel safe—comforted, even—by confrontation with something that you know could very well hurt you but will not?

As I sit, years later, in an eleventh-floor apartment across the river from the capital, the storm raging beyond my balcony ignores me. It quakes in a vicious symphony of light and awe and mist, and I think of that captivating thought I heard in a movie: “God is in the rain.”

I suppose God may be in all things, but if there were a particular meteorological phenomenon that touched on the awe we feel for the divine, it would be the storm. When it comes to the winds of summer: the lower the pressure, the closer to God. Somewhere at the nexus of fear, awe, and solace that comes at a window looking out into the fury of heaven is the love a child feels for his parents—and in time, perhaps, the world he inherits, with rights and duties tracing back to the Father. It is the love of that which could wring destruction but will not—the love that begets trust, and the trust that begets love—that foments a sense of place, however tempestuous, and purpose, however elusive.

It is the beginning of everything sublime in our judgment.

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The Joke of Central Virginia: What Eric Cantor could have learned from House of Cards

“So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.” – Beyoncé

The majority in Washington won't lead itself!

When was I supposed to think of you? This Washington majority won’t lead itself!

There is an episode in the first season of the American House of Cards (I will try to elide significant spoilers) where the show’s antihero, Democratic Congressman Frank Underwood of South Carolina, is burdened in the middle of crucial legislative negotiations—on an education bill that will boost his cache in the Democratic White House—with the oddest of interruptions.

A teenager in his district has died in a way that (notwithstanding her own irresponsibility—don’t text and drive, folks) implicates certain decisions made by the local leadership—and supported by Rep. Underwood. A certain ornery (and classless) perennial rival of Frank’s is gunning to use the incident to stir up the kind of grassroots passion that could accomplish the rare feat of unseating a member of the House Majority leadership.

When informed about the situation by his loyal aide, Doug Stamper, this key exchange occurs:

Frank: He’s after my seat again. Has he learned absolutely nothing?

Doug: It’s a full-on smear campaign, boss. He’s out to destroy you.

Frank: With this? It’s a peach, for Christ sake. Let him make a fool out of himself.

Doug: No, he will make a fool out of you. If he spins this right, gets national coverage–

Frank: National coverage? It’s a joke.

Doug: And you will be the butt of it. We can’t afford that right now, not when you’re in the spotlight with the education bill.

Frank: This thing has caused me so much damn trouble.

Doug: I know.

Frank: So who should I call: the parents?

Doug: Phone call’s not going to cut it. You need to go down there.

Frank: Can it wait until Monday?

Doug: We get on this thing right now, we can contain it. We wait until Monday, then there’s no way to know how much this is going to blow up on us.

The vital core of Doug’s argument—to which Frank ultimately succumbs—is that no matter how grand and important the backroom machinations of Washington may seem to a given politician and his elite conspirators, the foundation of the games of Congress rests on winning elections. An elected official who wishes to say in office cannot hand-waive away the “small-ball” discontent of his “two-bit” constituents. He (or she) has to be present in real-time to keep them continuously convinced that he shares their values, cares for their needs, and represents their concerns. A politician who forgets this role in the intrigues of the high politics of the Capitol is a politician on track to early retirement.

All of which brings us to the curious case of Eric Cantor, who was presumed to be the next Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Whatever might be said of his values, leadership, policy positions, ability to play well with others, or influence-peddling affinity for money-laden New York, no report of the many I read about Cantor was quite so damning as this one from Sean Trende, one of Cantor’s erstwhile constituents:

“I have yet to read anything suggesting that Cantor had a good home style.  His staff is consistently described as aloof, and his constituent service is lacking. This is consistent with my experience. Anecdotes are not data, but after passage of the Affordable Care Act, I called his office with a question about what autism therapies for my son would now be covered (I lived in Cantor’s district for six years).  I never heard back.  This surprised me, as constituent questions rarely go unanswered. I never once saw Cantor, not at county fairs, not at school board meetings, and not in the parades that would sometimes march past our house (we lived on a major thoroughfare). This isn’t to say that Cantor never did these things, only that they weren’t frequent enough to register; he wasn’t the stereotypical Southern politician whose face showed up at every event.”

I have contacted Virginia Democrat Gerry Connolly, the congressman for my old high school, or his staff at different times for different reasons. I have received a prompt response every time. As a native of Florida, where I used to vote, I emailed Sen. Bill Nelson in the midst of the healthcare debate. (Full disclosure: in my college years, when I was liberal and silly, I was inclined to support the Democrats’ still-materializing healthcare reform effort. But unlike Mitt Romney, I have the decency to own up to the youthful mistake and sincerely apologize for it.) The population of Florida is more than 24 times larger than that of Cantor’s district, and Nelson was decidedly on the wrong side of a lot of voters on that issue—meaning his office was undoubtedly inundated by inquiries.  Nevertheless, I got my (somewhat less prompt) response from Nelson like I did from Connolly.

That Cantor’s office did not deign to respond to his constituent speaks volumes. Of course, a member will not cater their position on any issue to each constituent concern—nor should they be expected to—but the necessity of at least a polite, pro forma response is never so blisteringly oblivious as when erstwhile supporters begrudgingly conclude their own congressman does not regard them as worthy of even basic courtesy. That a Southern gentleman, of all congressmen, would be so rude is as inexcusable as it is terminally arrogant. (It’s also stupid, given that successful primary challenges are concentrated in the South.)

In looking at some other candidates who (often shockingly) lost winnable races, this theme of distance emerges. Republican Mike Castle barely competed in his Delaware primary, while Christine O’Donnell’s supporters played to win and did. Massachusetts Democrat Martha Coakley was uninterested in properly campaigning for the U.S. Senate; Republican Scott Brown asked a broad coalition for votes and got them. Former Sen. Dick Lugar famously did not even live in Indiana, and now he doesn’t represent Hoosier voters.

Likewise, failed presidential candidates, from Democrat Chris Dodd to Republican Michele Bachmann, have routinely fallen into expedited retirement after their constituents lost patience with the manifold downsides of their all-consuming national ambitions. In his aforementioned article in Real Clear Politics, Sean Trende notes that GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham cruised to re-nomination in deep-red South Carolina, despite the well-known hostility of the conservative base, with the help of exceptional constituent engagement.

But unlike Graham—and quite like the other electoral losers—Cantor was far too absorbed in the imagined heights of his ambition to realize that he was falling without style or a parachute.

Consider how much seething constituent anger must have slow-cooked under the aegis of Cantor’s blithe ignorance (or indifference). Consider the many reports of the outgoing Majority Leader’s disengagement from his district and increasing focus on the intrigues of the Acela Corridor’s insular game of thrones. Consider that his approval rating back home sat at just 43 percent among Republicans (within the margin of error from his 44.5 percent in the primary), disapproval of the GOP leadership was much higher, and two-thirds of all voters in the seventh district outright disapproved of the Majority Leader.

Reflect on how out of touch Cantor’s operation must have been to let his position deteriorate so far without even noticing it. Facing hardly any organized opposition, the House Majority Leader was heavily booed at his own rally when confronting a primary challenger of so little repute that even notoriously primary-challenging Tea Party organizations spent not a dime. The incumbent then went on to inspire an exceptionally large portion of his own constituents to nominate that underfunded, barely known challenger by a 10-point margin.

In the end, of course, it is difficult to isolate why exactly a given incumbent loses this or that race, especially when primary losses are so rare. Most theories are probably wrong or incomplete, but if there is a single bipartisan lesson that emerges from Leader Cantor’s catastrophic fall, it is to remember, as Frank Underwood does, the “small-ball crap” of the supposedly little people in your own backyard. After all, chances are that those “little people” will remember and someday act on that John Ruskin quote my Dad loved to invoke in my youth:

“He who can take no interest in what is small will take false interest in what is great.”


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The Prisoner of War Games

“And when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.”  –Somebody in the Media

"And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down." –Nathan Bradley Bethea

“And that the truth is: Bergdahl was a deserter, and soldiers from his own unit died trying to track him down.” –Nathan Bradley Bethea

As I’ve noted before, I periodically watch MSNBC to keep up with the rote dissembling of our friends across the political aisle. Although I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the predictably biased inanity of cable news (by no means limited to the “Lean Forward” crowd), it still astounds me to be wandering in an alternate universe, where grounded perspective—let alone a reasonably honest presentation of the facts—is more like a demon to be exorcised than a standard to be pursued.

So it was in last night’s performances of Rachel Maddow and Ari Melber (filling in for Lawrence O’Donnell) on the supposed right-wing partisanship surrounding the criticism of Bowe Bergdahl.

Maddow kicked off, in her usual smugly protracted historicism, with a surreal attempt to compare Bergdahl to, of all people, Iraq War veteran (and former POW) Jessica Lynch. She concluded with the not-really-subtle suggestion that critics of Bergdahl had so poisoned the well that the military might be incapable of giving him a fair trial—a claim that Democratic Rep. Patrick Murphy, an Iraq War veteran, seemed compelled to awkwardly rebuff. Not an hour later, Melber doubled down on the notion that Republicans were seeking any means they could find to attack President Obama and politicize what should be a noble and celebrated occasion—the return of an American POW.

Contrary to this chicanery, one might expect most reasonable people to see an obvious difference between the capture of a dutiful soldier whose convoy was ambushed after a few wrong turns (Lynch) and the apprehension of a negligent soldier who, by the Army’s own reckoning, voluntarily and deliberately abandoned his post in the dead of night (Bergdahl). Did I mention that the Pentagon did not even classify Bergdahl as a POW for the bulk of his captivity?

Reasonable people might also distinguish easily between Lynch admirably correcting the media-fabricated account of her Rambo-style heroics and Bergdahl contributing to the deaths of at least half a dozen Americans in the vain attempt to retrieve him from a fate he indisputably brought upon himself. But Rachel Maddow and Ari Melber are evidently not aiming to engage with or fairly convey the motives of reasonable people.

There is no halfway decent argument that Jessica Lynch did not deserve to be honorably discharged after her service in Iraq. Thus her service was noted, even if it turned out not to be as flashy and Hollywood-ready as the media (against her will) had led us to believe. By contrast, the notion that Bergdahl should be so honored offends a great many of the warriors who wear the uniform and keep their sacred oaths to our country. Suffering does not confer righteousness, any more than falling victim to one’s own iniquity makes one a hero—especially when it gets heroes killed.

In truth, and this bears repeating, the loudly disgruntled voices criticizing the alleged deserter are not right-wing hacks but the very soldiers who served alongside Bergdahl and risked their lives searching for him in a place where older maps would warn, “Here be dragons.” The original critics are the soldiers who watched their brothers-in-arms die preventable deaths in ambushes made possible by the adjustments required to search for a man who voluntarily abandoned his post, his country, and the lives of his unit.

In fact, the notion that Bergdahl might be some sort of “Manchurian Candidate” if he ever returned home was raised in the furthest of the far Left Think Progress back before liberals predictably closed ranks, once again, around something associated with Obama:

“I’m also curious about how audiences will respond to a Manchurian Candidate-style story about a prisoner in our current wars… I’d be curious to see what the reception would be for Bowe Bergdahl, who has been a Taliban prisoner of war since 2009, if he ever makes it home.

[…]

Would the high regard in which the country holds the military mean that we aren’t willing to consider the possibility of a brainwashed prisoner of war? Or would our security concerns make us more likely to consider it?”

All that said, it is certainly reasonable to note and defend the unyielding American dedication to returning all those who wear the uniform to American soil. There were and are people on the Right—and in the military—who (understandably) questioned the discernment of releasing almost as many dangerous terrorists as were killed looking for the potentially treacherous Bergdahl in the first place. It is worthwhile to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to dutifully returning all soldiers home, as General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointedly did on his Facebook account. But that is not what the chattering armchair patriots of MSNBC were doing last night.

Instead, the talking heads impugned the motives of those with the gall to give voice to indignant troops and dissimulated even on the blatantly false notion that nobody had questioned the wisdom of exchanging high-level Taliban for Bergdahl or the policy of expending resources to chase deserters—which supposed hypocrisy and political opportunism was particularly hyped by Melber and the similarly tendentious Think Progress—the liberals get it wrong. The New York Times noted that the idea of a prisoner swap drew bipartisan criticism back in 2012:

“Until now, the administration has said publicly only that the negotiations included talks about releasing the five prisoners from Guantánamo to the custody of the government in Qatar — which some Democrats and Republicans in Congress have opposed — and not that the five might be exchanged for Sergeant Bergdahl.”

The Republican officials, like John McCain, that Melber and Think Progress (along with Media Matters) specifically single out never questioned the principle of retrieving a captured U.S. solider, they merely continued this years-old bipartisan skepticism of trading high-level Taliban prisoners to achieve that goal. McCain, for example, made clear back in February—in that very Anderson Cooper interview the hacks find inexplicably damning—that the details of any potential prisoner exchange would be critical to determining his support (my emphasis):

“COOPER: Would you oppose the idea of some form of negotiations or prisoner exchange? I know back in 2012 you called the idea of even negotiating with the Taliban bizarre, highly questionable.

MCCAIN: Well, at that time the proposal was that they would release — Taliban, some of them really hard-core, particularly five really hard-core Taliban leaders, as a confidence- building measure. Now this idea is for an exchange of prisoners for our American fighting man. I would be inclined to support such a thing depending on a lot of the details.”

Note the Senator’s (and former POW) consistent opposition to the release of five “hardest of the hardcore” high-level Taliban leaders. It takes a certain kind of meretricious reasoning to twist a position so straightforward, whether one agrees with it or not, into something else entirely—all for political gain. But on the subject of inconsistency on this prisoner swap, it is curious that these righteous liberals neglected to mention the sudden backpedaling of support from Senate Democrats like Claire McCaskill. Even progressive stalwarts like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Chris Coons refused to call the swap a good deal. Not that the pundits of the Left feel you need to know such things.

Of course, the duplicity did not stop there; Melber’s segment further included The Atlantic’s Washington editor Steve Clemons making the priceless claim that Congress was adequately consulted on the prisoner swaps before they occurred. Those of us in the real world know that such consultation—or even a polite briefing—never happened. This fact is verified by such arch-conservative knaves as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Diane Feinstein, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and former Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller. Instead, when the matter was discussed between lawmakers and the administration years ago, Politico notes that “Republicans objected to any such deal for Bergdahl, fearing it could lead to more kidnappings of U.S. soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan.”

But what of all that? There are Republicans to bash! (For an idea of what a profoundly less warped telling of the Bergdahl saga might look like, the U.K.’s Telegraph offers a helpful example.)

I will not sink to the level of these Acela pundits by impugning the motives or wondering aloud about the aggressive ideological agenda of Maddow, Melber, or likeminded hacks. But I will note that they do their countrymen and the military they claim to honor a disservice by the deranged partisanship with which they contrive to weave a tale of malice and slander with the threads of legitimate objections.

To the extent that there are liberals (and some conservatives) behaving so deplorably, we should be thankful, perhaps, that not so many Americans trust the media all that much anyway.


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Our Neighbors’ Keepers

“We look at clouds. We dream of machines.” –Kevin Williamson

xkcd honest_1146

“How about we go back to that ‘madder than hell‘ line? That work?”

Back in college, I used to spend a few evenings a week with a set of philosophically or politically inclined peers in the constituent parties of the Yale Political Union. With wooden gavels, pedantic snark, and occasionally insightful wit, we would debate questions big and small about the nature of rights, duties, citizenship, morality, education, faith, reason, and an innumerable host of ideas about the world, its foundations, and our place in it all. While those bright college nights are long behind me, I had the recent pleasure of attending a facsimile of the old debates, when a number of my friends in the D.C. area opted to borrow from that format to explore our ongoing disagreements out in the “real world” for the edification of all involved.

The debate topic, “Every dollar spent on dog food is taken directly from the mouths of the poor,” allowed for vigorous dispute and concurrence on, among other things, the nature of ethics, duty, charity, and love, wherein even those on the same “side” of the resolution found many thoughtful occasions for profound disagreement on underlying principles. By the end, we even had some attendees rethinking their outlook on life and resources, as one should expect from a good conversation.

One particularly resounding strain of thought dealt with how profoundly difficult it is to sincerely help people. Many who fall upon hardship have not fully grasped how they stumbled into their peculiar circumstances, nor are they always aware how to identify or resolve the weight of their own affliction. Indeed, the best means to support those in need—whether the economically destitute or damaged souls in the bodies of the well-to-do—are often realized through an ongoing engagement built on persistent humility through trial and error.

Providing the love or innovation that rebuilds broken lives is, in short, an intensely personal and organic engagement, rather than a bureaucratic and mechanical one.

The value of such constructive familiarity is the ability to deliberately understand and influence the individuals and communities affected by your actions and be deliberately understood and influenced in turn. It is this dynamic rapport that allows for, as my friend (and debate attendee) Leah Libresco puts it, neighbors (in the metaphorical sense) who understand what to offer each other beyond whatever initial attempts at charity may awe or falter. Likewise, it is the inevitable lack of such rapport that consigns distant, centralized administration to its trademark unresponsiveness—i.e., the inability to adequately identify, learn from, and remedy mistakes before they become disastrous.

We can see the gangrenous limbs of this truth rotting throughout the impermeable labyrinth of ambitious public policy. The old liberal conception of the welfare state, a degraded simulacrum of communal investment in the most vulnerable of us, ravages communities unabated and still facilitates entrenched social dysfunction. The ongoing scandal with the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that, despite the best laid schemes of donkeys and elephants, the federal government of the United States cannot even, as Kevin Williamson notes in National Review, “ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees.” This dark realization about the VA’s grotesque inadequacy is all the more unsettling against the backdrop of state governments’ inability to manage even the presumably simpler task of operating Obamacare’s online exchanges.

And lest we forget, liberals once held up the VA as an exemplar of “actually socialized medicine” to be instructive for Obamacare In the words of Vox founder and progressive “wunderkind” Ezra Klein:

“If you crudely ordered America’s different health-care systems from least government control to most, it would look something like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration (Medicare is single-payer, but VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors).

If you ordered America’s different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.

That symmetry should get more attention in the health-care discussion than it does.”

Given the kinship of government control between “the healthcare discussion” that produced Obamacare and the “socialized medicine” of the VA, we should certainly have that discussion Klein wants. To start, let’s glance at the federal-run healthcare exchanges in my native Florida, where Obamacare-compliant plans are facing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services for discriminating against customers with HIV. In Klein’s triumphant ranking of “America’s different health systems [from] worst-functioning to best,” where do these results fall?

Not that along ago, the critics of Obamacare pithily expressed their Big-Government skepticism by asking, “Do you want to put the folks who run the DMV in charge of your health care?” Now, in Florida and elsewhere, the more sobering realization is that the folks at the DMV may be among the best of a system that, at its worst-functioning, enables fecklessly homicidal bureaucracy in a Cabinet-level department.

(Sadly and predictably enough, the homicidal healthcare bureaucracies of “actually socialized medicine” are not unique to the United States).

Whatever your opinion of President Obama—and it is hardly a secret that I’m not a fan—the problems plaguing the VA are less about his failings (which are legion) than the flaws inherent to so vast and impersonal a would-be “neighbor” as the federal government. It is inestimably difficult to help people, especially in ways that will meaningfully better the trajectory of their lives and ennoble the good neighbors in their interdependent networks. While the recent failings of government “beneficence” naturally call to mind one of President Reagan’s more famous lines, I will instead note another insightful observation from the aforementioned (and –quoted) Kevin Williamson (emphasis his):

“It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?

[…]

Not every regulation or government program is doomed to fail. But we might consider the slightly terrifying possibility that when government does get something right, it does so by accident, temporarily, and for reasons that it cannot understand or replicate. This may be why the sheer volume of law and regulation has been climbing so rapidly: Intuiting its own inefficacy, Washington is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks… We’d be far better off paying veterans’ medical bills out of the Treasury than trying to operate a network of hospitals and clinics. And no matter what Washington promises to do to solve this problem, it is a good bet that the policy enacted will not produce the result intended. Reform is a random walk.”

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the government cannot and will not respond to us as one with a stake in our well-being. Whatever the dreams and competence of its necessarily ephemeral leaders, the Leviathan is simply too distant, labyrinthine, and self-involved to evolve with the self-interested rapidity of a private business, or the soulful agape of a longsuffering neighbor.

Thus is the eternal life of government programs.