Token Dissonance

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


1 Comment

Recession & the City

Update: This post was adapted by The Daily Caller. You can find that article here.

“Where are the jobs?” –Middle America since 2009

Don’t live here if you can’t drive. Look at your life; look at your choices.

I left the hospital to go home for the first time in the back of a car. Thereafter, I grew up driving everywhere. After the Army took our household away from Florida, our habitual roundtrip drives stretched across the Southeast to locales as distant as Maryland. But whether I was heading down half the Eastern seaboard or simply to football practice, the mode of transport was an SUV, minivan, flatbed, or sedan—all of which were fixtures of my youth. Thus is life in suburban America.

You can imagine my bemusement when I encountered New Yorkers and other urbanites in college who had never sat behind the wheel of a car. But after college life in Greater New York, I now understand the broad restraining orders their hands hold against steering wheels. In New Haven, most amenities were within a fifteen to twenty minute walk of our residences near downtown. For greater bustle, frequent Metro North trains would take us down the Connecticut coast to New York City in less than two hours. While my friends living in nearby Hamden or Seymour had to commit to a 10-minute drive, even for a quick bite to eat, it would have been indescribably inconvenient to own a car in the Elm City.

Now that I’m in Northern Virginia—and let’s be honest, D.C. public transit, while admirably cleaner, is not remotely as functional as in New York—I confess to missing the convenience, even as I enjoy the old brand of freedom a car allows. Yet it turns out my urban friends’ peripatetic lifestyles, abetted by public transport, are becoming more normal in 2010s America, especially among my generation. Part of this shift predated the Great Recession, but the lasting effects of a staggering economy have clearly cast their shadow.

In post-recession America, many cities are now growing faster than their suburbs. Of course, rural living has been on the decline for quite a while—even the famously “country” land of Dixie has long been mostly urban-suburban. But for years, it has been a truism that the tale of Middle America is set in suburbia, which remains as distinct from downtown as from the sticks. To have “arrived,” we have always been told, is to have a spacious yard and white-picket fence, which amenities are not well suited to Manhattan or Dupont Circle. However, millennials are increasingly “arriving” to lives of perpetual internships and the soul-crushing yawn of socioeconomic uncertainty. Meanwhile, the white-picket fence and the cars that pass it are sinking into poverty as our so-called recovery breezes airily past even exceptionally talented people cursed with the trappings of ordinary living.

Cities are beating out suburbia because people are looking for more compact, economical ways to live. For many, this means concrete needs like driving less, so as to be as close as possible to the office, the store, and a respectable array of entertainment options. It’s about doing more with less, even as the flow of wealth toward downtown makes compact living ever less affordable. But that’s really just a nice way of saying that folks are increasingly stuck, and there is no clear end game in sight. What happens, after all, when a growing number of Americans cannot afford either a car or to live where public transport is actually useful?

This problem is bipartisan. For liberals, the escalating costs of alleviating suburban poverty will exacerbate the strain on a weakening welfare state, which conservatives increasingly distrust. For the Right, masses of young people stuck in unflattering college-like circumstances are not exactly the most fertile circumstances for building a robust new generation of stable families and conservative disposition from what is now an overwhelmingly liberal demographic that wants government to do more.

At some point, our political leaders will redouble the focus on jobs and broad economic growth that has so far eluded the policies of this government. Whatever one thinks about the economic effects of immigration reform, modernizing our immigration system will not alone be enough to save the American Dream. For that we’ll need to figure out how to pull the cars and white pickets back from underwater—and to set the promising interns in the cities free.


1 Comment

The Faith Americana

“But ye [are] a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” –1 Peter 2:9

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s…” –Matthew 22:21

What better signs can you think of for violent extremism and political knavery?

I took a trip down to Charlottesville a few weeks ago to spend time with friends on the picturesque grounds of the University of Virginia. Though a Yale man, I tend to find myself easily at home in a world historically referred to as the “Harvard of the South.” (We will ignore any wisecracks from Duke, Vanderbilt, or Chapel Hill affiliates in the audience.) In an academic sense, Wahoos are not terribly dissimilar from Yalies or peers at other top schools in places like the People’s Republic of Unhappy Hours, Michael Bloomberg’s Animal Urban Farm, or that turnpike Chris Christie governs (I’m told there’s a Garden State around there somewhere). Politically, there are plenty of liberals, progressives, and Democrats, as can be found in abundance at most schools, even in places like South Carolina.

Culturally, though, something is a bit different in Charlottesville. It’s often hard to put a finger on exactly, but you know you’re not in New Haven, Cambridge, or the Big Apple of Billionaire Paternalism for reasons distinct from questions of size or walkability. Yes, you’re more likely to hear country music, but the town is surrounded by the rural South. Yes, the campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but much of that dignity proves elusive amid the ebb and flow of inebriated masses. Yes, people drive everywhere, but so do most Americans living outside a few select megacities in the Frost Belt or D.C. So what, you might wonder, are we talking about?

It comes down to little things, really.

I remember going to weekly meetings, years ago, for an avowedly conservative organization at Yale. Among other things, this organization made a point of prominently featuring the American and British flags, while waxing passionate about the virtues of Western civilization and its literary canon. Yet for all that admirable passion, I could not help but notice that they placed the American flag on the viewer’s right. The group’s leaders did not grasp the problem.

At Virginia, I have seen flags in windows, on walls, atop polls, and every way else imaginable. Never once have I seen a single one anywhere in violation of U.S. code. I’m sure such a sin must exist somewhere down there, but the hypothetical invalid would be drowned out by a student body that displays a near preternatural understanding of proper flag etiquette.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed a bar full of people break out into patriotic songs at the end of a Friday night out. I sought after a reason from the Wahoo compatriots of my friend Edward, and they responded, with patronizing grins, “This is America.” It reminded me of that time I was driving through the richly forested hills of Prince William County with my friend Marcus from Connecticut, and the national anthem halted programming on the radio at high noon. Bemused, Marcus had inquired of me the occasion for such an event. Back then, I shrugged off the Nutmegger’s question, as Edward and the Virginians later would mine, with a simple reply. “This is America.” What more reason do we ever need for such things?

It is stories like these that come to mind when I reflect on the disturbing fact that the IRS actively abused its power to target conservative groups with “Patriot” in their names or constitutionalism as their purpose or that simply formed to make “America a better place to live.” However one feels about the Tea Party or conservative activists, there is indeed something culturally sick about the notion that identifying with and promoting the Constitution or embracing the will to patriotism reliably demarcates political opposition. Leaving aside the matter of political ethics, what does it say about us when certain elements reflexively impugn the legitimacy of wide swaths of people simply because they seem to love America too much?

Of course, those who were skeptical of Barack Obama from the beginning might remember his infamous “clinging to their guns and religion” remarks and draw a line through the Department of Homeland Security adumbrating peril in “Rightwing Extremism” to the administration’s early hostility to critical reporting from Fox News and reach a natural conclusion that a tone hostile to conservatism was set in a top-down rejection of Americana and its general unsuitability for the ideas and values of Northeastern coffee shops.

Hardly anybody would struggle to imagine Presidents Reagan or Bush, Congressmen Ryan or Cantor, or a generic movement conservative being visibly moved by the flutter of a flag or the sight of a servicemember in uniform. How naturally, one must ask, does such an image come of President Obama or Nancy Pelosi or any other prominent progressives? Today, it would strike many people as odd or disingenuous were avowed liberals like Terry McAuliffe to swell up at the mere thought of American greatness, but is anyone truly surprised—favorably or pejoratively—that a Virginia Republican would pour out a libation of tears in reflecting on America’s ongoing promise to defend freedom? To be sure, the image is not a wholly partisan one—Democrats Joe Manchin, Zell Miller, or Frances Underwood certainly fit the type—but there seems a widening rift of that nature.

There are many questions of politics, law, and general malfeasance to ponder in wake of all these scandals that may or may not derail what is left of the president’s second-term agenda. But when the media storms settle, cultural divides and questions of discordant perspectives will remain. Why is it that we have become an America where one side—or region or disposition—of politics is known to see zealous love of country as a sacred virtue, and the other is expected to scoff at and distrust what it sees as an incubator of rabid violence?

The IRS scandal merely confirms this narrative of paranoid division. Whatever staying power the story has will derive largely from the fact that the chasm has now been yawning at us for years. And it has finally found a voice.