Token Dissonance

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


Leave a comment

Like Honey for Flies: A Lesson from Derek Black

“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal… When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” ―1 Corinthians 13: 1, 11-13

a-softer-world_hammerhead-733-rousseau

There was something intimately familiar to me in the story, as conveyed by reporter Eli Saslow in The Washington Post, of reconstructed white nationalist Derek Black. To start with the low-hanging fruit: we share a name, were both born in the same year to Southern parents, have familial ties to the same region of the same state, and we’ve both spent a significant chunk of our childhoods there. As luck would have it, I even briefly considered applying to the New College of Florida, and had I done so, I might have actually met him or his friends. We have also, though at very different times in our lives and for very different reasons, admired and opposed Barack Obama.

You might be wondering why I’m going through the exercise of comparing bits of my backstory to that of a young former star of white nationalism—the cancerous parasitism in the Republican polity that fed the rise of Donald Trump. Unsurprisingly, I can’t relate to the vicious racism of Black’s past and find the white nationalist community he renounced to be nigh unspeakably repugnant. But in that other Floridian expat’s story of redemption, I do find something that hits close to him—and it might well be the root of the answers to the late affliction that is this election cycle.

When the students of New College discovered Black’s identity as a David Duke acolyte, many understandably wanted nothing to do with him. But where others saw the toxic instantiation of a wicked concept to shun, some inspired souls saw an opportunity to win a convert from racism to reconciliation.

“Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything,” one student wrote.

“We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America. This is not an exaggeration. It would be a victory for civil rights.”

“Who’s clever enough to think of something we can do to change this guy’s mind?”[…]

Matthew Stevenson had started hosting weekly Shabbat dinners at his campus apartment shortly after enrolling in New College in 2010. He was the only Orthodox Jew at a school with little Jewish infrastructure, so he began cooking for a small group of students at his apartment each Friday night. Matthew always drank from a kiddush cup and said the traditional prayers, but most of his guests were Christian, atheist, black or Hispanic — anyone open-minded enough to listen to a few blessings in Hebrew. Now, in the fall of 2011, Matthew invited Derek to join them.[…]

Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him. “Maybe he’d never spent time with a Jewish person before,” Matthew remembered thinking.

Thus began an unlikely friendship between a young white nationalist and a young Orthodox Jew and his multi-ethnic, interfaith Gentile friends over a weekly Jewish dinner. In the course of ongoing conversations that spanned months of dinners, emails, and meetups at local bars, Black’s white nationalism gradually softened and then succumbed completely to the patience, empathy, and charity of this diverse set of friends. Less than two years after Stevenson launched his defeat-racism-over-Shabbat campaign, Black wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a group he once considered an “enemy,” to renounce and apologize for the entire worldview he was born and bred into and had championed publicly for half his life.

Score one for the angels.

As a black man (and black conservative), I’ve encountered my share of racists and racism. As a gay man (and gay conservative), my share of homophobia and anti-LGBT bigotry. As a middle-class kid in the Ivy League, my share of classism. As a Southerner in the Northeast, my share of toxic parochialism. Sometimes, I handled these situations rather poorly (as in the umpteenth time a white progressive resorted to violent hysterics over a substantive disagreement about racism), not that most would begrudge me that intemperance. Often, though, I try for something like the Matthew Stevenson approach.

One December, some years back, I was home from Yale for winter break and went to a backyard house party on a mild Virginia night. A good chunk of the crowd were rednecks or had a similar middle-American vibe, as was normal in my youth but had become remarkable, in an anthropological way, after years of Ivy League immersion. The handful of attendees who were friends from my high school knew (and didn’t care) that I was gay, but my code-switching “mannerisms” are such that for the majority of partygoers the thought that I was queerer than a $3 bill seemed never to occur to them.

As often happens (to me) in such situations, more than a few spoke easily and naturally to and around me in a way most probably would not in “mixed company.” In the beginning, this meant an endless flow of casual homophobia.

“They were hanging with some queer.”

“He drinks like a fag.”

“That’s so gay, nigga.”

“If some faggot were to touch me, I’d…”

It took me aback. Not because it was unfamiliar—I had grown up with such people and such language—but because I had somehow, without realizing, forgotten how pervasive this kind of thinking was and how much I must have once been naturally part of it.

As I don’t have the luxury of coming from a world where there’s much to be gained by overt indignation over bigotry, I rarely start direct confrontations over these incidents. Such an approach, in my experience, has the tendency to produce more heat than light, to the detriment of progress or a good time. And life is too short to be an empty, eristic symbol of perpetual grievance.

So instead of conveying offense at the partygoers’ offensiveness, I bracketed it and guided the conversations elsewhere. I got to know these ostensible bigots and let them get to know me. It is one of the great blessings of a military upbringing that one learns well how to make friends often and quickly. It wasn’t long before the fact of my sexuality meandered through these easygoing chats, but by then my new friends took it in stride. Most were surprised, some guys were curious, several girls were excited, but nobody was any longer hostile. What had been threateningly queer and ignominious had become thoroughly friendly and unremarkable.

I have lived through more of this genre of scenes than I could ever hope to recall. Some involved homophobia, others racism or parochialism. Some take weeks, if not years, to reach harvestable fruition. In the most uplifting of them, things even come full circle and some erstwhile purveyor of casual ugliness will call out a friend for the kind of misbehavior that would make somebody like me feel uncomfortable or even unsafe. Not every story has such a happy ending through all the pain, but a lot of them do, and the world is thus made a little better. And some of these people are still dear friends of mine.

I don’t think I’ve ever had substantive dealings with anybody quite as dramatically and publicly odious as Derek Black, but I would like to think that if I were friends with Matthew Stevenson in Sarasota between 2011 and 2013, I would have gone to those Shabbat dinners and contributed to the transformative power of empathy and charity. Whether a Christian, a Jew, or a secular humanist, this would seem a humanitarian duty to a brother in desperate need of healing. I’m glad Black was so helped, and I hope his friends were likewise ennobled by the painstaking project of redeeming him.

It’s something of a truism to say that much of bigotry is ignorance, but it tends to be true. The people backing anti-LGBT legislation, rambling about “white genocide,” fretting about black criminality, reading hatred into anything conservative, or trafficking in all manner of caricatures and stereotypes often would think differently, if only a little at first, if they had sufficient opportunity to do so. Many wouldn’t necessarily seek out such opportunities (or see the need to) but would—as my, Stevenson’s, and Black’s experiences show—be receptive to new ideas if they came with empathy and the charity it yields.

If we would want somebody to rescue us when we needed saving, it is a cruel hypocrisy to dismiss or condemn the curiosity and frustration of a lost soul who is willing to hear us out. This reality will apply even to Trump supporters, from the sociopolitical abyss of the white working class to the well-meaning despair of Republicans who yearned for better, when this election is over. If the American project is to survive this election, the antagonists of Clinton, Trump, and the protest-voters will have to find at least half the charity for their political opponents that Stevenson’s Shabbat group managed for an avowed white nationalist.

It all gets easier, of course, when we remember that the people around us, no matter how broken or misaligned, are still people we can recognize and relate to. I’ve written about my own sympathy for the rightly routed skeptics of LGBT equality, and, ironically, Derek Black’s early post-apostasy encounter with his father highlighted something that every LGBT person or straight ally ought to recognize on some visceral level:

Derek still had his dry sense of humor. He still made smart observations about politics and history. “Same old Derek,” Don concluded, after a few hours, and that fact surprised him. His grief had been so profound that he’d expected some physical manifestation of the loss. Instead, he found himself forgetting for several minutes at a time that Derek was now “living on the other side.”

The people we think we don’t understand—or couldn’t understand us—because of differences in sexuality, politics, race, class, heritage, “lifestyle choices,” or other distinctions, are almost always people we could know quite well if we remembered that we’ve known and loved them or people like them all along. That kind of authentic realization and sincere engagement with the humanity of difficult, troubled people is in many ways antithetical to the toxic cultural trends behind “safe spaces” or navel-gazing protests that trigger hostility and reinforce outrage rather than build foundations for constructive reckoning with the variety of flaws in how we all approach the world.

Matthew Stevenson showed his peers that Derek Black isn’t a strange, foreign animal; he’s the quiet kid in class, or the guy who smiles when you pass him in the hallway. He’s the boy next door, and just like our other neighbors, he can be influenced, for good and ill, by how people choose to engage or repel him. If the dutiful love of his friends can so thoroughly disabuse him of the foundational views he was reared to champion, imagine what all could be possible if more of us were willing to meet people where and as they are, as though we actually gave a damn.

About a decade or so ago, when I was a junior in high school, my IB English teacher assigned the class the English translation of Mexican writer Laura Esquivel’s novel, Like Water for Chococlate. That magical realist tale of star-crossed lovers and tragic misunderstandings held a few gems, among them a metaphor the protagonist heard from her grandmother:

“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us, but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle would be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. That fire, in short, is its food. If one doesn’t find out in time what will set off these explosions, the box of matches dampens, and not a single match will ever be lighted.”

There are, perhaps, amazing truths we could get others to see—or clarifying enlightenment we could learn from those around us—if we believed, in some genuine sense, that we are our brothers’ keepers, and our neighbors are more like us—and more valuable to us—than we sometimes care to admit.

 

Advertisements


4 Comments

Rage Against the Correctness

“You can’t get anyone to agree with you if they don’t even listen to you first.” –Sally Kohn

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

If progressives want to burn bridges, who am I to judge?

In the aftermath of the battle royale of articles, tweets, blog posts, and other responses to Jonathan Chait’s infamous (and more than a little hypocritical) rally against the sinistral arts of political correctness, I considered adding my own vernacular garrisons to the fray. However, a friend went ahead and offered a guest post employing most of the essential points I would have marshalled and spared me some trouble. But in maneuvering through the battlefield of what has largely been internecine wrangling on the Left, it may be worthwhile to offer some comment as one disadvantaged by the intersectionality, as progressives might say, of several measures of privilege.

There is the curious phenomenon of encountering white (usually heterosexual and often male) liberals from affluent backgrounds and elite educations who are all too willing to lecture me on the profundities of the multimodal oppression that black, gay, and working-class Americans face in this country. I will spare you, my audience, a Terri Lynn Land moment and just note that this recurring phenomenon tended to derail my attempts at having reasonable conversations with some people about how the Ferguson riots attacked black lives far more than the violence and vandalism “disrupted” any “paradigms” or “systems” of oppression. (Curiously enough, most of the black people in my social orbit somehow intuited this reality.)

To be sure, one does not need to be a member of a given underprivileged class to offer pragmatic insights into pertinent social issues. Indeed, non-members of minority-x might occasionally, possibly, maybe offer more insightful—dare I say, better—solutions than some (though certainly not all) members of minority-x in some circumstances, because societal groups and situations, liberal caricatures aside, are not monoliths. As such, though I have many disagreements with the first half or so of J. Bryan Lowder’s progressive attempt at an evenhanded critique of Chait, his broader analysis rang true on the following point:

“The problem with identity politics—in this particular manifestation, anyway—is that it assumes that just because a person claims a certain identity label, that person is necessarily empowered to be judge and jury on all issues pertaining to that category. The truth is, identity grants experience (and experience should be valued to a point); but it does not automatically grant wisdom, critical distance, or indeed, unassailable righteousness. To forget this is to turn individual people who possess a range of intelligences, backgrounds, self-interests, and flaws into two-dimensional avatars for the condition of humanity in which they happen to share. And, by corollary, to assert that it is impossible on some fundamental level for those who don’t share that condition to ever relate or speak to that person as merely another human being with ideas and opinions.

That logic is real, it is ridiculous, and it is truly tiresome. It deserves all the criticism it gets.”

But there is something insidiously unhinged about the self-aggrandizing fury in which many expressly “outraged” voices of “social justice” seem (perhaps ironically, if not surprisingly) more eager to comminate skepticism of progressively dystopian worldviews rather than seriously engage a broader range of perspectives and concerns (e.g. that #blacklivesmatter should extend to the black livelihoods immolated in the riots). In short, as even many progressives have noted, there seems to be a driving force underlying the worst abuses of P.C. culture that seeks to antagonize, conquer, and eradicate what are viewed as insufficiently progressive “problematic” strains of thought, by whatever means necessary and possible, casualties be damned.

To put it more bluntly, there’s a whiff of vengeance and exploitative power-dynamics about the whole exercise that approximates a mockery of the fight against ubiquitous hatred, fear, and power-inequality that avatars of social justice purport to represent. In this regard, Michael Brendan Doughtery seems to have grasped a key reality (his emphasis):

“Political correctness conflates normal slights, sincere disagreements, thoughtless cracks, and the verbal miscues of the uninitiated with actual oppression. In extremely crude terms, political correctness engenders (or really, embodies) extreme sensitivity to status. The victims of historic oppression were accorded a low status by their oppressors. Imposing a low status on a group is a way of granting yourself permission to abuse its members. And so some of the normal rough and tumble of human interaction can be mistaken (or willfully misconstrued) as an attempt to replicate the very hierarchies that cause oppression and genocide. A real ‘P.C.’ blowup leaves one person crying and feeling misunderstood and ‘othered,’ while it leaves another person feeling both defensive and offended that the crying person appears to be trivializing real oppression.

Political correctness looks like grasping aspirational privilege. Related to the above. The right not to be offended, or the ability to punish those who offend your finely tuned sensibilities, is a form of privilege. Without having conducted a detailed sociological study, my anecdotal impression is that ‘politically correct’ styles of engagement are most popular among a class of people that is in a similar position to the old petite bourgeoisie:college students and strivers whose primary class consciousness is not their relative privilege over, say, Appalachian whites or people in the developing world, but their lack of power and status compared with the haute bourgeoisie, which is composed of everyone from crass GOP-affiliated lax-bros that want to go into finance to the polished and tamed ‘liberal’ graduates of Sidwell to the real inheritors of privilege like the Bush twins.”

It is a straightforward exercise in experience, empathy, or simple imagination to concede that an amorphous morass of systematic biases and (dis)advantages have accrued over time into what has come to be known as “privilege.” It likewise follows that the parameters of this privilege shift across various ethnic, cultural, geographical, socioeconomic, and other lines that impact different people in unimaginably complex ways. It is from this very complexity—and our avowedly universal belief in the value and dignity of individuals as such—that we ought to understand and accept that different experiences afford a broad array of perspectives that might not have occurred to us but perhaps should have. Some of these perspectives are more worthy of engaging than others, but where folks are wrong, it is generally worth considering that errors come from ignorance or misunderstandings than from malice. This is what is generally meant by the principle of charity, as my guest author noted.

A key ideological problem with the radical leftists whom Chait criticizes, some of Chait’s critics in turn, and even Chait himself is precisely this lack of charity—either in argument or in “live and let live” activism. You do not shout down or vituperatively impugn people whose views, motives, or reasoning skills you fundamentally respect. But once political opponents, or even skeptics, are deemed evil and perpetrators or abettors of evil—be it racism, sexism, classism, or whatever other forms of conscientious bigotry or stupidity are often ascribed to conservatives or the insufficiently progressive—then the desperate, venomous tactics of total-war activism become as natural and justifiable as the merciless socioeconomic quarantine we righteously impose on the most blatant antagonists of societal pluralism, from David Duke to Donald Sterling. Except, of course, people like Duke and Sterling are not remotely the norm.

In other words, the very folks who would have you believe that all their political or social theory critics—let alone actual opponents—are agents of animus, intolerance, and self-serving power dynamics (whether by pushing grannies off cliffs or promoting Taliban-style theocracy) are probably the same folks you should most suspect are projecting their own ignoble biases or motivations for their own agendas. Be wary of the activists and writers who demand that you heed their perspectives but have no use for anybody else’s. That is not to say that outrage is never good, reasonable, or worthwhile. Rather, those who demonstrate a sustained incapacity to refine rage at an ever expanding pandemonium of ills into a productive, conciliatory force that compels skeptics into constructive understanding instead of defensive recoil, are probably not going to be winning many wars you want to be part of.

Years ago, I wrote on the need to commit to the long-suffering project of tolerating those whose views we find abhorrent on even the most pressing issues of life and politics. In a similar vein, my friend Leah Libresco, a liberal Catholic blogger at Equally Yoked and The American Conservative, criticized the firing of Brendan Eich as a entropic salvo in a disturbingly segregationist trend of totalizing ideological warfare that threatens to transmogrify every aspect of our lives. That we are both openly LGBT people defending compassion for and patience with gay rights opponents whose views we would never want to see prevail is perhaps why those articles resonated across social and political divisions. The vast majority of Americans want to hear from and engage with those who manage not to believe the worst of them. The project of empathizing with sociopolitical detractors can at times leave even the best of us ineffably verklempt (to employ one of my boyfriend’s favorite words). Yet those situations in which empathy is the most elusive are precisely the ones in which it is most essential for all involved.

No, it should not fall on those afflicted by societal injustice to suffer the grating learning curves of those more privileged. Yes, engaging people where they are, defending the same colloquial liberties and philosophical charity for them that we would want for ourselves, and figuring out how to get them where we want them to be is the very mettle of social progress.

All that said, if you’ve read this post and happen to be an incorrigible progressive Democrat, feel free to ignore everything I’ve written here. Winning hearts and minds is probably racist anyway.