Token Dissonance

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

"Necessary" evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.

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Ezra Klein and The Ones Who Stay in Omelas

“They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.” –Ursula K. Le Guin

"Necessary" evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.

“Necessary” evils never looked more necessary than when they never hurt me.

Zero-tolerance policies in schools have a funny way of producing the kind of terrible results that are difficult to imagine any reasonable person intended when the policies were enacted. Just recently, honors student Atiya Haynes of Detroit found her promising academic career upended when a knife given to her by her grandfather for protection in a dangerous neighborhood was accidentally left in her purse. While this situation is certainly infuriating, it should hardly be surprising. Students from poorer or ethnic minority backgrounds have a long history of affliction from well-intentioned “zero tolerance” rules purportedly designed to help and protect them, though they are by no means the only victims.

When I was in high school nearly a decade ago, I almost fell victim to a zero-tolerance policy for a (not weapon-, drug-, or harm-related) mistake in which county policy would have required me to fail the relevant class that I actually wound up acing. (More ordinary repercussions for this genre of mistake usually escalate little further than detention.) Fortunately for me, my thoughtful teacher—well aware of the difference in consequences—kindly overlooked the classroom error in question, and I was able to remain an honor student, eventually go to Yale, and begin a promising, upwardly mobile professional life. Many other people from could-be-more-privileged backgrounds, especially those whose infractions involve things like accidental weapons or self-defense after being bullied, are not so lucky.

All of this brings us to the ostensibly unrelated case of Vox’s Ezra Klein and his alarming, if not altogether surprising, willingness to retreat from liberalism in difficult situations—specifically, his support for California’s deeply problematic “affirmative consent” law. The commonality, it turns out, is the determination to condemn good people to bad consequences for the sake of achieving some greater good that might not actually obtain.

In Klein’s own words:

“SB 697, California’s ‘Yes Means Yes’ law, is a terrible bill. But it’s a necessary one… the law is only worth the paper it’s written on if some of the critics’ fears come true. Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases — particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons — that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.


The Yes Means Yes laws creates an equilibrium where too much counts as sexual assault. Bad as it is, that’s a necessary change.”

Pause for a moment to reflect on that line of thought.

Seriously, take a moment.

Read it again.

I’ll wait.

Ezra Klein’s willingness to embrace what is accurately described as illiberal persecution of the innocent for the sake of noble goals is precisely the kind of ethically disturbing consequentialism that underlies the kind of policies, like “zero tolerance,” that disproportionately afflict those already poor and disadvantaged. It’s all well and good—and altogether predictable—for the wealthy and well-connected to perennially wax sententious about “necessary” evils from which they seldom suffer much. The rest of us live in the real world of administrative self-interest, systemic incompetence, political cowardice necessity, police brutality, and limited influence on or recourse for wrongs against non-elites who are less well-off than Klein’s socioeconomically cocooned friends. For us real-world folks, legitimate concerns about fairness and injustice in an invidiously ill-conceived system are not idle abstractions to whitewash away in the pursuit of utopian dreams.

And make no mistake; it is vituperatively utopian to imagine that the crimes of an admittedly unfair system will be justified by some larger social good. Most insultingly, there is little evidence that sexual assaults will decrease—they certainly won’t be eliminated—as a result of this policy change, and Klein uncharacteristically presents no evidence to support this critical premise. (This omission is particularly curious given that many schools, like the University of California system, most of the Ivy League—including my alma mater—and a number of other institutions, already have such a standard and could presumably provide supportive data.) There is ample evidence, however, of colleges already expelling accused students for what would charitably (to the colleges) be considered dubious circumstances.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf well encapsulates the enormity of Klein’s moral decrepitude (emphasis in original):

“Extreme problems require extreme solutions. When wrongdoers are going unpunished, intrusive countermeasures are justified, even if they create new victims. Innocent-until-proven-guilty is nice in theory, but untenable in practice. The state should strike fear into innocents if it leads to fewer victims of violent crime.

Ugly problems don’t always have pretty solutions.

These are the sorts of value judgments one expects from supporters of Stop and Frisk, ‘three strikes’ laws, the prison at Gitmo, and racial profiling to stop illegal immigration. They’re also the value judgments that Ezra Klein invokes in his endorsement of a California law requiring affirmative consent for sex on the state’s college campuses. As he puts it, ‘Ugly problems don’t always have pretty solutions.’


To understand California’s law as Klein does and to favor it anyway is appalling, if admirably forthright. It is akin to asserting that, to fight sexual assault, we must operate on the dark side. It is a declaration that liberal values aren’t adequate after all, using logic Klein rejects when it is applied to other policy areas.”

I cannot stress enough that Klein—like the left-leaning crowd inclined to take his opinions seriously in forming their own—rejects this very line of thinking when it is applied to almost anything they dislike else. The difference is perhaps explained by who Klein and company imagine the targets of this particular form of aggravated illiberalism to be—i.e., rich, white frat boys, rather than poorly represented minorities from poor neighborhoods—but whatever the case, the reasoning for accepting injustice remains hollow, given our purported national commitment to such concepts as fairness and civil rights. As Friedersdorf puts it:

“Long experience shows that drastic measures are best shunned when they violate liberal values, an insight that does not imply an insufficient commitment to reducing sexual assault on campus any more than opposition to Stop and Frisk means one doesn’t care about gun violence in New York City, or opposition to adopting a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard for terrorists would imply an underestimation of the problem terrorism poses or the devastation of its victims.”

Returning to the zero-tolerance comparison, Klein’s explicit admission—supported by evidence—that innocent people will be required to wallow in the filth of our social and cultural sins in order to build and sustain the Omelas of a world without campus rape begs us to ask: Who does Ezra Klein think will bear the brunt of these unjust prosecutions when ambiguous or nonverbal sexual enthusiasm is legally prescribed cause for expulsion?

When gun control laws get stricter, poor people and minority communities are disproportionately ruined by the prison-industrial complex. When zero-tolerance policies proliferate in schools, underprivileged people of color disproportionately find their dreams deferred by circumstances all but unfathomable to many a Vox reader. When students are consigned to a regime that encourages abuse, it would be odd to assume those same marginalized members of the so-called “coalition of the ascendant” will not find themselves disproportionately at risk of life-altering social and academic sanctions for allegedly not having procured and adhered to an explicitly detailed legal contract—which seems to be the only reliable way to meet the “affirmative consent” standard—governing every conceivable minutiae of sexual interaction.

Would it matter to Klein if men (or women) of underprivileged demographics are more likely to be accused of and rightly or wrongly punished (and punished more harshly) for—but not necessarily more likely to actually commit—sexual assault, which familiar disparity we see in other legal matters? Should it matter to his readers that he never even bothers to ask the question? (For the record, I do not know the answer to this, but it and many other good questions occurred to me because I prefer to seriously consider my neighbor before throwing him or her under the bus.) It should not be too much to ask those in Klein’s camp who these sacrificial lambs are likely to be—and not be—and what, if anything, we should think about that.

One of the things professional leftists prefer to elide, in the perpetual indignation of their dubious policy initiatives, is that the people who bear the costs of progressively intrusive policy disasters are the disadvantaged communities progressives purport to represent. And again, there is not even much (if any) evidence that California-style “affirmative consent” laws will improve campus sexual culture—a laudable and vital goal—any more than “zero tolerance” has improved the life of Atiya Haynes or countless kids like her. We owe it to victims of assault—and confused kids sincerely looking for guidance—to do better than this.

But at least we know one thing more clearly than before: when faced with prospect of thriving at the parasitic expense of those cursed with a lesser lot in life, Ezra Klein would not be among the ones who walk away from Omelas. I suppose, in the end, privilege is too comfortable and rewarding a perch for the progressives who get to enjoy it.