Token Dissonance

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


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Between Yale and Me

We’re only young and naive still
We require certain skills
The mood it changes like the wind
Hard to control when it begins –”Young Blood,” The Naked and Famous

“A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution. As the storyteller and the listener, we go through a story together.”
―Maxine Hong Kingston

BD Days

It all started with a book and FOOT.

Before incoming freshman move onto campus and get oriented during a week known as Camp Yale, many opt for one of Yale College’s multi-day preorientation programs. The offerings include living on a farm, hiking in the woods, a program for international students, and a “Cultural Connections” option that is more campus oriented. Given that I was a suburban kid of untapped country heritage, I opted for one of the six-day Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips (FOOT) to the Berkshires, located near the northern end of the Appalachian trail in the northwestern corner of Massachusetts.

It was great fun. We stowed away watches and phones, set up camp in the woods, hung our food to keep it from bears, climbed waterfalls by day, and lay beneath the stars at night. The group, my first social circle at Yale, was as effortlessly diverse as my group of friends in my majority-minority Virginia high school. One of the two upperclassman leaders was a black guy; the other a white girl. The freshmen included a Sikh, a Muslim, some Asians, Jews, Christians, and a broad range of colors. Our cultural differences were many and great, and it was fun to explore them. I learned the phrase “hella,” which I now use overmuch; about the awkward zoo (including old favorites: awkward turtle and inappropriate llama); and of the existence of curious shibboleths of American affluence like hummus, nutella, veganism, and Whole Foods.

It was only much later I learned that even this early, innocent decision of preorientation trips was fraught with demographic tension. You see, apparently, “students of color” go to Cultural Connections (which used to exclude white students) and affluent white kids do FOOT, so some contingent of people saw in the latter program’s existence another chapter in the endless book of segregation, privilege, and systemic racism in the whole ordeal. And, of course, I was on the wrong page.

I stumbled upon this delightful chapter sometime after a mandatory freshman orientation event in Woolsey Hall, where some 1,400 new Yalies were forced to endure the desultory ravings of the black president of Spelman College (my deepest condolences to those poor, unfortunate souls) who declared all white people racist by definition. Incoming freshmen had been required over the summer to read her book to this effect, and to this day, I distrust any assertion linked to the claim that Yale avoids talking about race. Subsequently, I had the eye-opening experience of explaining that black kids did not uniformly or even largely agree with or relate to that speaker’s opinion to a mostly white group of fellow freshmen and a senior or two who were employed by Yale College as freshman counselors (a position as vaguely and imperfectly analogous to an RA as a residential college is to a dormitory).

In so many instances of the “conversation about race” we always seem to need even as we keep having it, I noticed claims of debilitating systemic racism on campus often came back to “institutional” factors like the demographic split among preorientation programs, the purported cliquishness of FOOT leaders, supposed bigotry in fraternities, or the differing reactions (and range of offense) at that mandatory “white people are eo ipso racist” reading assignment and presentation. The familiar dynamics of recent campus discussions (especially if you swap out the reading assignment/presentation with the Halloween emails), suggests the divide in perspective on this issue yawns as widely as ever.

Which brings us to the controversial allegations against SAE.

Among the oddest and more taxing recurrences in racial discussions are the spectacles of ludicrously improbable tales that do not hold up under scrutiny. The latest such instance, the obstinately bizarre tale of a “white-girls only,” anti-gay party at SAE strikes a particularly personal chord. Relatively responsible media have reported on why the alleged incidents likely never happened. But for my part, it seems prudent to tell why the stories were never believable in the first place, except perhaps to those largely ignorant of Yale fraternities or who desired to thread an insidious mythology of oppression through the malleable fabric of wounded souls.

When I first came to Yale as a prefrosh (our term for prospective student) during Bulldog Days (our midweek welcome period for admitted students), I had never consumed an alcoholic drink, attended a fraternity party, or even stepped foot in New England. Fashioning myself a curious and bold adventurer, I wanted to kill all those birds with a single three-day trip. I do not recall where I got my first beer, but I do remember that I wound up at SAE that night feeling less bold and adventurous and more awkward and stomach-achey.

Several brothers and their friends came bearing copious bread (an excellent resource at parties) and effusive, welcoming conversation about their own experiences and how well I would fit at Yale. I had never felt more like a group of virtual strangers wanted me to belong among them. I attended many dozens of fraternity parties over four years, from massive, crowded ragers to summer rooftop gatherings with brass monkeys and cornhole. I had amazing and raucous times at Sigma Chi (my neighbor for a year), AEPi, Sigma Nu, Sig Ep, and elsewhere. But SAE was a perennial favorite, stemming from that first Bulldog Days encounter.

The Yale chapter of SAE had always been a diverse and friendly group for as along as I’d known of them, and it showed in every one of the innumerable gatherings I attended there. One of my first gay Yale hookups began with stolen kisses on their dance floor. A wonderful bond with an attractive Latino friend of a friend from Princeton blossomed over multiple summer nights in their backyard. I carried home a belligerently drunk friend, who is utterly delightful when sober, from their porch in the wee hours. I’ve conquered and been vanquished at beer pong in their basement in as many episodes as there are hidden gargoyles on a New Haven campus. A Vaseline wrestling party I helped organize as an elected class councilmember (long story) came to life in their living room. I took my own prefrosh to their Bulldog Days parties every year, because I knew I could trust the environment and its keepers without fail.

When a black SAE brother and fellow Southerner noted, after the infamous fiasco at the Oklahoma chapter, that he found such racism unimaginable at his home in the Yale chapter, my outsider experience corroborated the sentiment. I’ve told friends for years that were I to do Yale all over again, I would rush SAE. (I have a closer personal connection to the Virginia chapter of Phi Sigma Kappa, but their Yale chapter shuttered long ago.) That is as true now as it was back in 2009, when I realized, with familiar upperclassman horror, that I never got around to joining all the groups I liked.

The slander against SAE is certainly not the first time college kids have invented incidents of oppression to buttress peculiar narratives about institutions. The black student body president at Mizzou announced confirmed KKK sightings amid racial protests on campus, only to later admit his sources made it all up. There was the libelous Islamophobia hoax at a the George Washington University. Also the rush to declare leftover decorations a hate crime in Delaware. And the homophobic receipt hoax. And the fake racist vandalism at Claremont McKenna. And fake hate crime and sexual assault reports elsewhere. The list goes on. And on.

I would not necessarily compare the probable non-victims of SAE to the aforementioned bigotry hoaxes—maybe these were vaguely sincere, alcohol-fueled misunderstandings. But if, as racial protesters at Yale and elsewhere say, these claims supposedly contribute to a broader narrative of truth, why would their likely nonoccurrence not do the same? To say nothing of the incidents of racial harassment against nonwhite people who complicate the prevailing narratives (see: SAE brothers inveighed as race traitors, “social justice” protesters spitting on black kids, etc.). What is it about the mythology of systemic oppression that makes it so conducive to fabrication and slander?

I do not know the answer to that question, but such notions haunted me at Yale, where I would encounter frequent double standards and doublespeak about supposed microaggressions and vestiges of racism/sexism/bigotry. They taunted me when other aspects of my cultural heritage were publicly attacked, as in that memorable debate when a certain liberal leader of the Yale Political Union dismissed military officers as cowards and parasites. That this particular gentleman (ahem) obviously lacks the intestinal or moral fortitude to put on any uniform is par for the course. They chided me when (usually white) female students from the Northeast denounced as “sexist” and “chauvinistic” various behaviors I had learned were manners from the women (and men) of my family and community who would regard their omission as barbaric.

Such questions percolated amid instances of the insidious classism, ironic parochialism, and smug tribalism that permeate jokes about the kind of people who shop at Walmart (read:my people) or feel comfortable around guns (also my people) or tell racist jokes as a way to mock racism (my people, again) or join the military or believe race-based affirmative action is deleterious to nonwhite people or talk seriously about virtue instead of rote “solidarity” signaling, no matter how absurd (still my people). These questions arise whenever people, especially administrators, talk of “cultural appropriation” as though reasonable people can actually be expected to agree that such a concept is coherent, has any merit, or is undeserving of contempt. Or when Yale assumed all minority students needed “ethnic counselors” and to be added to email lists to get “ethnic” campus updates because we are apparently that different from other “ethnic” people or whites, who evidently could not be “ethnic.”

Since it need be said, and said again, demographic groups are not monoliths, not at Yale or anywhere. I had—and may still have, if my Yale-enhanced upward mobility hasn’t yet compromised my roots—more in common with peers from middle- and working-class families in the South and Midwest, whatever their color, than with affluent black activists whose obtuse Sith mind tricks around their staggering privilege inspire revulsion or frustration rather than solidarity. I learned in grade school that Puerto Rican food isn’t spicy, many American Latinos don’t speak Spanish, many Amerindians don’t care about the Redskins (or are fans), black African immigrants (who are disproportionately well-educated) are often more culturally like Europeans than black Americans, homemade Korean barbecue and Ethiopian food are much better than commercial variants, and countless other nuggets of my multicultural background that many Yalies from much more segregated upbringings might have found useful in thinking about diversity, culture, and campus.

As such, I shared many bonding moments with white, black, and Latino Yalies about such things as our common Southern childhood anthem, “Go out back and pick a switch” (for the record, I abhor corporal punishment); or getting checked for ticks at dusk after playing in the woods, while our parents chatted over lemonade or iced tea on the porch; or the cake bizarrely masquerading as cornbread in the dining hall; or how to wash and iron clothes. (Believe it or not, there are a disturbingly large number of Yalies who cannot do their own laundry.) And I recall with particular fondness a senior-year Thanksgiving day in Virginia when some black family friends from Arkansas shared a dinner joke at the expense of a black family in New Jersey about the inadequacies of Northeastern cooking.

I’m also reminded of a conversation I had with a white Mississippi belle of the Yale Political Union’s Tory Party—and later with the racially diverse members of Yale’s Southern Society—about how curious it was that Yale Dining served fried chicken and definitely-not-your-mama’s collard greens on the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. More saliently, I remember the time I helped a white, middle-class farm boy prefrosh from Wisconsin navigate the insidious intricacies of financial aid policy at elite schools, which allowed him to secure a better aid package from Yale and convince his parents that their remaining contribution was a worthwhile investment. That particular conversation, and the consequent friendship, was only possible in the first place (he was the prefrosh of a friend who introduced him to me) because of how profoundly we shared the disorienting experience of being middle-American pioneers on alien terrain.

One could suppose I was the most out of sync with the zeitgeist of Yale when I was the most insistent that we not define ourselves or make assumptions about others based on race. But I do not believe this is true. The late unpleasantness, notwithstanding, I have always believed—and still do—that the spirit of Yale, if there is such a thing, is committed to free inquiry, the battle of ideas, and honest engagement with different perspectives and ideas, whatever the background of people who hold them. When I think of the crippling failures of Yale, I think foremost of mental health, not systemic bigotry, and I hope with eyes wide open that the University improves mightily on that front. But I cannot do justice to the conversation that topic well deserves in a paragraph, though I would recommend you read this article.

In the end, I choose to believe that, at its core, Yale remains the beacon of the search for truth pulsating through the inspiring visions of Master Christakis, in his thoughtful homage to the principle of charity, and the defenders of the Woodward Report, which holds sacred the academic principles of free speech and vigorous debate. I do not recognize the oppressive, racist, paranoid Yale the protesters represent and describe with eloquently aggrieved incoherence against refreshingly thoughtful critics like Conor Friedersdorf. And I take comfort in my conversations with countless Yalies who believe, as I do, that it does not exist.

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Guest Post: In Defense of Tone Policing

The following is guest post from a friend who has opted to remain anonymous for professional reasons. If you’re interested in adding your own voice and perspective to Token Dissonance, get in touch with my by email, and we can chat.

“Even rich, privileged people need and can learn good manners.” –Noddy

By Billy Goat
People who who are wrong about things matter, too, I guess.

People who who are wrong about things matter, too, I guess.

Left-wing twitter has been in a tizzy recently after New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait published this piece, in which he contemplated the possibility that political correctness was doing real harm to liberalism. It was not the best writing I’ve seen on the subject, and I don’t think it’s a must-read; conservatives have been saying things like it for years. But it made a stir because Chait is a widely read liberal writer. Predictably, people like Vox’s Amanda Taub disagreed strongly. People like Gawker’s Alex Pareene disagreed much less politely.
If anything, the less polite critics probably proved Chait’s point. But a better-written critique of political correctness on the Left came a few days later, from Fredrik DeBoer, a left-wing blogger who is genuinely concerned that his movement drives too many people away. Two paragraphs stood out to me.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.

I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war. Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people. I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him. I saw that. Myself.

DeBoer concludes:

I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.

What this reminds me of is that ridiculous trope from old-time movie where the everyman protagonist is at an absurdly fancy dinner, and he doesn’t know which of the seven forks to use from the comically-wide place setting. That trope is silly, yes, but it tells us something about the exclusivity of cultures that have too many arbitrary-but-ironclad rules. In the cloistered communities of Wesleyan and Sarah Lawrence and Haverford and other $50,000-a-year private colleges, one of those cultures has been created. It is a a class marker. A patois, a special language that only people of their cultural milieu can speak. It’s no coincidence that DeBoer’s examples above are obviously not from upper-class backgrounds. They don’t speak the language.
Here’s the thing: I do speak that language. Fluently, even. Not because I think it’s an important priority generally, but just because I went to Yale and I pick up the stuff I hear around me. I’m even fond of some aspects of that language. At times, it’s a code of manners that promotes courtesy and empathy for certain kinds of people—like black Americans, or transgender individuals—who are frequently starved for empathy and courtesy. I’m a conservative; I love manners. But the radical left has made the code of etiquette so complex and so exclusive that one needs to take a critical theory course just to understand it. And the left reacts with vituperation towards anyone—no matter how well-meaning—who transgresses that code.
There’s an old story (almost certainly apocryphal) about Queen Victoria. She was hosting a colonial dignitary in London for one of the fancy dinners I described above. The dignitary had never seen a finger bowl before, and instead of washing his hands with it, he drank the contents of the bowl. Most of of the dinner attendees were aghast at the awkwardness of the situation. The Queen simply lifted her own bowl, and also drank its contents.
Yes, there are plenty of race and class undertones to this story to interest the Left, but that’s not what it’s about. It isn’t about how cisgendered white women should react to persons of color. This is a story about manners. And yes, manners are important. But in a proper, well-adjusted understanding of empathy and courtesy, we react kindly to honest, well-meaning transgressions of manners. DeBoer’s point is that the Left does not react that way – and that it should. It often lacks the principle of charity even among people who should be allies.
DeBoer is concerned by “the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving” because he wants “a left that can win.” To be honest, I don’t really want that, but I see where he’s coming from. But I think he fails to make an additional, broader appeal: friendliness and forgiveness aren’t tools to get what we want. They are what we want. Holding to the principle of charity isn’t a means to an end. It is an end in itself. Charity is literally a virtue. Now go read some Aquinas, and stop being mean to each other.

About the author:

By day, I’m a spokesperson for fiscal conservatism. Some issues I don’t cover in my writing; they’re not part of my job description. But I do spend a lot of time reading, and sometimes I feel compelled to comment on things outside of my area of professional work. This is one of those things.


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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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Free Speech Appreciation Day

“I disagree with your opinion, but…”

I appreciate my political fights with fresh chicken sandwiches.

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

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

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

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

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

All this principled standing is making me hungry.

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

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