Token Dissonance

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


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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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Right Quick: John Kerry’s America

This has been a rough couple of weeks for some of us. Whatever your opinion of the election results—and there was some good among the general disappointment—our government is increasingly farcical, the SEC might be too strong for another BCS Championship, and Disney may ruin what remains of the Star Wars legacy. While we’re at it, the election has evoked multiple reasons for everyone to calm down and retire some stale tropes. And to top it all off, the world is scheduled to end next month. Talk about hell in handbasket.

But the real intrigue comes in the expected chatter about cabinet shifts for the president’s second term. For whatever reason, the administration purportedly wants Susan “spontaneous protests” Rice to take the helm of State while John “ashamed of and hated for what we were called on to do” Kerry assumes the mantle of Defense. Some Republicans may understandably hope a Kerry appointment will open a path for Scott Brown Goes to Washington, redux. Others continue to regard the senior Senator from Massachusetts with a lingering disdain for troubles past.

What’s a proper military salute among defense-cutting friends?

These occasions to muse over such matters as Sen. Kerry’s fitness for office, liberal reactions to the military, and the sword of sequestration looming over the Pentagon reminds me of the West Point commencement address William F. Buckley, Jr. gave, long before I was born, on the value of America:

Most specifically he singled out for criticism a sentence uttered by Mr. Agnew here at West Point a year ago: “Some glamorize the criminal misfits of society while our best men die in Asian rice paddies to preserve the freedom which most of those misfits abuse.” Mr. Kerry insists that the so-called misfits are the true heroes, inasmuch as it was they who “were standing up for us in a way that nobody else in this country dared to.” As for the men in Vietnam, he added, “we cannot consider ourselves America’s ‘best men’ when we are ashamed of and hated for what we were called on to do in Southeast Asia.”

Given all the talk of drones, civil liberties, and accusations of government-sanctioned murder, I wonder what John Kerry and his fellow travelers think of America and her “best men” now.


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The Pride of Yale

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

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

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

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

How was this possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Identify the Vote

“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” ―Oscar Wilde

I got my first card from the U.S. Department of Defense in 1999. I was far too young for whiskey or cigars, but it came in handy for occasional trips to the Commissary, the Post Exchange, my school, or even to get home. In 2001, the Department of State issued me a passport ahead of my family’s relocation to Germany. I used it to cross the English Channel and for a few international flights. By the time I got to Yale, which gave me yet another ID card, I had a driver’s license from the State of Florida (since traded for one from Virginia). Four IDs, one man. Guess I was popular with the bureaucrats.

In more than 30 states, new voting laws are stirring partisan rancor. Current and proposed requirements range from none—including some vetoed (e.g. N.C. & Minn.) or ruled unconstitutional (Wisc.)—to photo-optional to particularly strict photo standards in five states. The GOP claims to be preventing fraud it can hardly find; Democrats argue 750,000 voters will be unable to vote in Pennsylvania alone. Throughout the South—where Texas, Mississippi, Florida, and South Carolina are courting federal preclearance (as is New Hampshire)—the laws are being compared to Jim Crow, as many critics see a concerted effort to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. Nevertheless, most people favor voter ID laws. What ought a reasonable person to make of all this?

While I was growing up in the Army, the cards were free and ubiquitous, and they did what they were supposed to do. I doubt it’s feasible to standardize voting laws across the states, but two lessons from the military community seem broadly applicable:

1) It is reasonable to require reliable identification to access restricted activity.

1a) Voting is (supposed to be) a restricted activity and a fundamental right.

2) Reliable identification ought to be provided to anyone entitled access to some restricted activity.

Put simply, we should require IDs at the polls, and state governments should make sure all registered voters can attain IDs with reasonable ease or avoid the requirement. As it happens, many states, including Georgia and Virginia (both already precleared), already do this. I suppose some on the Left will nonetheless maintain that these laws persecute the poor and the brown among us. But while some concerns are reasonable and noted, the audacious claim that these common-sense checks are everywhere malignant strains credulity even more than Hank Johnson’s continued presence in Congress.

The expectation that registered voters acquire proper identification is no more cumbersome than requiring that they leave their houses in order to vote. If the response is that certain demographics will not read their mail or otherwise notice new laws—and thus be disproportionately harmed—then I wonder how we expect these people to know where to vote, let alone for what. After all, voting locations change and redistricting happens. Are we actually to believe a sizeable portion of the electorate is impervious to information? If so, to what end are we to move heaven and earth—and their unidentified souls—to drag such ignorance to the polls? And how are we to do so?

Then again, I don’t know anybody—young, old, black, white, poor, brown, or other—who completely lacks identification. I’m just a middle-class guy from the suburbs. What do I know?


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Dispatches from Dixie: Education in Virginia

When I was a teenager, I wanted to attain some practical knowledge in addition to all the history, chemistry, and other fascinating topics I would never use in life. My high school in Northern Virginia happened to offer classes in computer science and business, and I happened to want more (read: any) understanding of business and computers. It was like an educational match made in heaven.

I never took any of those classes.

The Commonwealth of Virginia has one of the most celebrated public school systems in the country, ranking fourth overall and sixth in math and science among the 50 states and D.C.  More so than most of the country, Virginia tends to get a good return on its investment in education. But the problems in the Commonwealth are as insightful as the successes.

I’ll certainly never forget that “advanced” history teacher who was glaringly ignorant of basic constitutional facts or the existence of the Holy Roman Empire. (She claimed, in one of our many arguments over elementary details, that her expertise was in American history. How that was supposed to excuse her saliently false statements about the U.S. Constitution remains beyond me.) But the beast that stung most invidiously was the whole matter of standardized tests, which are at the core of federal mandates in No Child Left Behind and Virginia’s internal assessments—the Standards of Learning (SOLs).

When I moved to Fairfax County from a U.S. Army base in Germany, I was starting tenth grade. The only major change I anticipated was the switch from the Advanced Placement track to classes geared towards the International Baccalaureate Diploma. Instead, I found Virginia standards gloriously rigid, and I had to jump through more complex—and less useful—hurdles than my peers to get even the Advanced Diploma, let alone earn IB honors.

In particular, I had to take classes that were blatantly beneath my skill level simply to meet some state requirement. One year, I was literally taking two versions of the same history class—one for the IB Diploma, the other for an unavoidable and exclusive SOL requirement. Shockingly, I learned practically nothing in one of those classes; I’ll let you guess which. And all of this was after my guidance counselor (who was a truly wonderful light in a bureaucratic nightmare) fudged as many rules as she could.

Lest you think Virginia standards are more reasonable than they are, I offered to test out of my remaining SOLs—and no one doubted I could pass easily. Apparently, that was not allowed. I had to sit through redundant classes and waste time that could have been spent learning computer science, business, or psychology—or taking even more challenging IB Math. And by senior year, I still needed to sit an extra period after school to get my diploma.

You would think a state with one of the highest concentrations of military personnel in the country—complete with the largest naval base in the history of civilization—would be more accommodating of the dependent children seeking quality education within its borders. You would think a place with a bipartisan commitment to academic excellence would be more flexible to all kinds of student needs. But sadly, stories like mine were commonplace among my military friends who were whisked to Virginia from overseas.

In shocking news to no one, most military people live in the South or West.

And again, I got off easy. My friends who started in later grades or had less heroic counselors were often forced out of an advanced diploma track because of requirements designed to promote mediocrity in the name of “excellence”.

In the end, I got my IB Diploma and went off to Yale. And all it cost me was the opportunity to take a challenging set of supplementary classes offering skills I did not possess. I’m no expert on education, but I suspect something is seriously wrong when a reasonably able student must choose between an advanced diploma—which many top colleges look at in their decision processes—and useful electives that could actually deliver marketable knowledge.

All these years later, I can’t help but wonder how different things might have been if these kinds of decisions—whether a student can test out of a “necessary” class or which outsides credits should count toward graduation—could be made closer to home, where they would be more responsive to different situations. I do notice that the federal government continues to aggressively mandate education standards from on high, and people continue to live different lives in different situations.

Perhaps one day we’ll start putting major decisions back in the hands of the communities affected by them and give families more options for success, instead of merely passing. Maybe then, regrettable stories like mine will become less common.