Token Dissonance

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

"Drain the swamp! End bigotry, patriarchy, and oppression forever!"


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2016: The End of All Things

“Not everything is a god that failed.” –Tristyn K. Bloom

smod-sweet-meteor-of-death

“Drain the swamp! End bigotry, patriarchy, and oppression forever!”

As the votes keep rolling in from Donald Trump’s election, I wound up in an argument with a dear friend about slavery and the Electoral College. Like many of my intelligent and thoughtful liberal friends, this New York transplant has developed a deep frustration a number of established institutions and contemporary trends that underscore substantial partisan divisions in the ways different sets of Americans understand the world we share.

A lot of anti-Trump people from underprivileged backgrounds feel particularly exasperated at the insistence of an notion they consider an insult to injury. Namely, after suffering the indignity of a Trump electoral upset, they are now being pushed (by people like me) to empathize with the plight of voters within the coalition that won control of everything without them. Their irritation is probably quite similar to that of conservatives who chafed at the 2012 autopsy and the perceived defeatism and collaborationism that spawned it and a litany of harsher criticisms.

I hear them, and conservatives certainly ought to do better to reach out and engage the concerns of Blue America, as I hope we will. (I confess he’s not yet off to a great start.) But for today, perhaps the most pertinent takeaway from 2012 is that people really are going crazy, but the world is less crazy and hopeless than it seems to those in despair.

I’ve written extensively about how many Clinton voters—a clustered, urban coalition of educated whites and not-enough-minorities—were trapped in echo-chambered bubbles far removed from the vast expanse of Trump-voting America. If you haven’t yet, take a moment to look over my analysis of election demographics and deeper exploration of Trump voters’ motivations. But it’s not enough to understand what happened on Election Day and why. The project now is what happens next.

The most pressing first step is putting things back in proper perspective. Politics is fickle, and November 8 was just another election in a (hopefully) endless string of them. In 2012, Barack Obama’s reelection was like an echo to George W. Bush’s triumph eight years earlier. Both won a majority of the vote in a bitter contest against an ideologically flexible, charisma-deficient challenger on high-interest loan from the Massachusetts gentry. Each saw his respective party attain a 55-seat majority in the Senate amid rumors of permanent electoral dominance. Both majorities were embarassingly undone in the immediate next election.

While the Democratic minority will almost certainly lose seats in the Senate in 2018, they could very well take back the White House in 2020, by improving just a point or two on Clinton’s margin, and recapture the Senate in future elections. After all, it was only eight years ago that they won a supermajority. More immediately, President-elect Trump and the GOP Senate will have to negotiate and compromise with Senate Democrats to overcome the filibuster and get anything done. And there’s a lot that can be done or considered. But level heads are required.

It’s consoling to imagine Trump’s “losing” the popular vote, like Camelot’s own John F. Kennedy. Even in an election where nobody cared about or tried to win it, the popular vote could somehow indicate the limits of his electorally victorious appeal. It’s quite another to engage in revisionist history, like notoriously eccentric Yale law professor Akhil Amar (my alma mater doesn’t always send its best) and our friends at Vox, and pretend the Electoral College exists to protect slavery. Such nonsense does violence to history. In reality, the College was created with support across regions and interests for the same reason most constitutional protections exist—to protect against the ravages of direct democracy.

A popular vote for president was strongly opposed in the anti-slavery North, where delegates from multiple states described the idea as “radically vicious,” and “the great evil of cabal and corruption.” Consequently, that Massachusetts did not even put presidential candidates on the ballot in the post- and antebellum decades before 1880. Prior to that, Citizens in Massachusetts voted directly for Electoral College electors, who then voted for president, and it was up to the parties to ensure their voters elected the right people. Here’s an example from the famously contentious election of popular-vote-loser Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876:

1876-massachusetts-gop-voting-guide-for-potus-electors

Presidential and veep candidates are not voting options

While our leaders the American polity may be moderately less elitist today, the Electoral College remains, like our high bar for constitutional amendments, a measured check on the mercurial rapacity of direct democracy. Beyond encouraging candidates to build geographically diverse coalitions and allowing for quick, decisive victories, the system mitigates vulnerability to systemic fraud or claims of it. By contrast, a national popular would require uniform standards for voting—absentee, early, etc.—that would have to be federally centralized (a problem for conservatives), and uniformly rigorous voter ID requirements that are aggressively and meticulously enforced to the point where illegal immigrants and non-citizens would not be able to procure one (a probable nonstarter for progressives) to guard against fraud and unfairness.

Of course, the Electoral College primarily exists as an homage to the primacy of states in our constitutional system—the sovereign states, after all, created the federal government and alone have the power to amend the Constitution. So it’s not surprising that short-sighted opposition of convenience to the College (which is a bipartisan “sore losers” phenomenon) would reach its logical extreme in a movement to abolish states and thus the federalist division of power that exists for them. As one right-side-of-history writer phrased it in The Washington Post: states are “a relic of the past.”

In a bit of equal and opposite lunacy,  secession is apparently cool again. Would-be rebels in California even managed to get “Calexit” (the California analogue to Brexit) trending on social media as they marched on Sacramento. Silicon Valley is even offering support for a referendum on rending the Union. Because, of course. (As any good Southerner will doubtlessly inform you, states can’t secede after Labor Day.)

But it doesn’t stop there. Reason managing editor Stephanie Slade astutely noted the Left’s pervasive insistence on making everything about racism or homophobia has really gone off the rails. This is happening even as the left-wing partisans at Vox are acknowledging that shouting, “Bigot!” at people is a marvelously poor way to combat bigotry.

Let’s take a deep breath.

I realize progressives and other anti-Trump partisans are tired of being told to calm down and just accept that President-elect Trump will become President Trump. I realize that many do sincerely think him a unique danger to the American project and the well-being of their peers. I’m not going to argue down every point or defend the wrongs affixed to Trump’s public record. I will, however, remind you to keep things in perspective.

A year ago, when we all knew more or less as much about Trump as we do now—i.e., every issue that arose thereafter was, as I’ve quoted before, hardly surprising but freshly disappointing—the future Trump antagonists didn’t think him so bad on the merits. In fact, as my friend River Tam noted recently, folks on the Left spend the last year and change telling us that Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and Mike Pence were all no better (or worse!) than Trump.

For just a sampling, you can just read (for the the following URLs ranging from Salon and Vox to the Washington Post and CNBC.

Rubio:
http://www.vox.com/2016/2/20/11067932/rubio-worse-than-trump

http://www.cnbc.com/…/rubio-cruz-scarier-than-trump-investo…

Cruz:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/00a425fa-a360-11e5-9c4e-be…

http://www.salon.com/…/ted_cruz_is_worse_the_only_thing_sc…/

http://www.usatoday.com/…/cruz-trump-not-viable-c…/82718646/

Kasich:
http://www.salon.com/…/stop_mooning_over_john_kasich_hes_n…/

http://www.vh1.com/news/259050/cruz-kasich-trump-the-same/

Pence:
http://thehill.com/…/300052-warren-pence-no-better-than-tru…

https://www.thenation.com/…/trumps-vice-presidential-pick-…/

http://www.sacbee.com/…/…/erika-d-smith/article89702297.html

If even John Kasich, this cycle’s Jon Huntsman but with more sanctimony and less economic conservatism, is the same or worse than Trump, then our new reality-show commander-in-chief is hardly a unique threat to the Republic. The absurdity and hypocrisy of this blanket leftist hysteria against Republicans is not lost on more critical observers:

In February, Jonathan Chait, a writer for New York magazine and the author of a forthcoming book explaining how super-terrific Barack Obama’s presidency was, wrote a piece titled “Why liberals should support a Trump Republican nomination.” He listed three reasons: Trump would lose, Trump would wreak havoc on the GOP, and Trump would be better than the other Republican candidates.

“If he does win,” Chait wrote, “a Trump presidency would probably wind up doing less harm to the country than a Marco Rubio or a (Ted) Cruz presidency. It might even, possibly, do some good.”

The day after the election, Chait declared on Twitter “This is the worst thing that has happened in my life.”

Okay, then.

Shortly after the election, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece titled “There’s no such thing as a good Trump voter,” likening some 60 million Americans to a racist lynch mob. Last year, Bouie penned an article with the headline “Donald Trump is actually a moderate Republican.”

Of course, Chait and Bouie are not alone. Progressive figures such as Paul Krugman, Matt Yglesias, Robert Borosage, Amanda Marcotte, and Bill Maher all said during the primaries that Trump was less scary than, say, Rubio or Cruz. (See Warren Henry’s excellent survey in The Federalist for details.)

Moreover, Trump’s history of left-leaning politics is arguably at least as great a concern for conservatives as for liberals—he’s already pushing massive infrastructure spending, because somebody has to show Bush and Obama how to make borrow-and-spend budget disasters great again. Democrats (backed by welfare-corporatists) may well end up aligning with Trump to fight conservative Republicans on such priorities, just as Republicans aided Obama in beating back progressive Democrats’ opposition to free trade.

One of the reasons the conservatives who opposed Trump seemed so quick to get over his upset win is that we simply had more time to mourn. Cruz and Kasich dropped out of the race a half-year ago. Other preferred candidates bowed out months earlier. Even the most stalwart opponent of Trump (and presumably Clinton) from the Right has had a long time to prepare for the disappointment that was inevitable with this election. Jonah Goldberg might have channeled the beating heart of movement conservatism when he said of the general election, “This ends in tears no matter what. Get over it.”

That was eight months ago.

Eight months from now, I expect many more heads will have cooled on the Left, as well. That’s not to say progressives (or conservatives) will or should forget the darkness that pulsed through Trump’s campaign appeal. That’s not to say that anybody should drop principled objections to the many concerning statements Trump made since bulldozing his way into the race last summer. Or blithely ignore disturbing characteristics of his advisers or policies. Compromise of your integrity is no more necessary to engage Trump than to engage any president or politician.

However, the cultish conviction that Trump can be denied normalizing is a shibboleth of denial. He won the election; he is going to be president. He is already normalized. That ship is out to sea. Accepting reality for what it is, Italian immigrant Luigi Zingales offered invaluable insight on engaging Trump through the parallel of Italy’s charismatic yet scandalous billionaire playboy former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi:

Mr. Berlusconi was able to govern Italy for as long as he did mostly thanks to the incompetence of his opposition. It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity. His secret was an ability to set off a Pavlovian reaction among his leftist opponents, which engendered instantaneous sympathy in most moderate voters. Mr. Trump is no different.

We saw this dynamic during the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton was so focused on explaining how bad Mr. Trump was that she too often didn’t promote her own ideas, to make the positive case for voting for her. The news media was so intent on ridiculing Mr. Trump’s behavior that it ended up providing him with free advertising.[…]

The Italian experience provides a blueprint for how to defeat Mr. Trump. Only two men in Italy have won an electoral competition against Mr. Berlusconi: Romano Prodi and the current prime minister, Matteo Renzi (albeit only in a 2014 European election). Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.

From here on out, the only way conservatives or progressives are going to do battle with whatever bad ideas will emerge from the Trump administration—and win support for good ideas from the people and in Washington—is to move beyond personality and identity politics to a contest on the merits of policy. The more that Trump is treated like an ordinary president who won an ordinary election through ordinary voters with ordinary interests, the easier it will be to bring his star back to Earth and subdue his nuttier proposals on the merits. By and large, conservatives in Washington and beyond the Beltway seem to have learned this lesson through months of preparation. Perhaps, at some point, our progressive friends will, too.

In the refreshingly measured words of a retired left-wing satirical pundit:

I don’t believe we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago. The same country with all its grace and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength, and resilience exists today as existed two weeks ago. The same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama.

Every so often, even Jon Stewart is right. If not, then perhaps, as a former Democratic candidate for my congressional district in Virginia proclaimed in the wake of Trump’s election, the “Democratic Party deserves to die.” But America is not dying; we will survive the night.

This is not the end of all things. Just the end of another beginning.

"Hillary Clinton can do this for you." 
"What is, 'Not a damn thing.'"


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It’s Not Racist To Want Respect

“I am interested in him for love of myself, and the reason for the precept is in nature itself, which inspires in me the desire of my well-being in whatever place I feel my existence.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“We’re dying out here, and nobody cares about Kansas… I wanted to fly, once. Then I got too sick and nobody could afford to help me and Obamacare ironically made it even harder to get medical coverage and now I catch myself staring up at the sky with an envy you’ll never understand.” –GB ‘Doc’ Burford

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“Hillary Clinton can do this for you.” “What is, ‘Not a damn thing.'”

I watched the cold open for Saturday Night Live’s first post-election show almost on loop. Kate McKinnon’s rendition of Hallelujah is a moving tribute to the recently departed Leonard Cohen, but also a haunting ode simultaneously reflective of Hillary Clinton’s stunning political collapse and evocative of many millennials’ happy, golden college days. In that last capacity, it inspired some of the greatest sadness I’ve felt after the Election Day surprise, and for that moment I suspect I could appreciate the immense sorrow of decent, honest people who voted for Clinton and honestly believed, for whatever reasons, that she would have made a good president.

Going into this cycle, I wanted Hillary Clinton to be defeated, and I wanted Barack Obama’s legacy largely undone. I’m not sorry that such a result came about. But as much as I opposed them politically, I’m compelled to admit I didn’t want them to lose like this—humiliated and broken by a candidate of such marvelous deficiencies that his own voters acknowledged him unfit for the office. I didn’t want that for my friends, whom I dearly love, who invested their hopes and dreams in what they hoped was an election that would be a catalyst for a better world. Clinton and Obama deserved to lose, and their Democratic Party deserved to fall, but in a mildly less cruel world, the falling could have been a softer note of optimism and new hope reminiscent more of 2008 than 2000. But alas, here we are.

Having said all that, the blame for Clinton’s humiliating electoral college defeat ultimately falls squarely on her, her blame-shifting campaign, and the media-elite cabal that conspired with them in a toxic way of thinking. Contrary to early reports, the 2016 election featured high turnout and the largest number of votes cast in American history. Trump may have gotten fewer national votes than Clinton overall, but that’s a meaningless game that nobody was playing. (Just ask Barack Obama, circa June 2008.) Clinton and the Democrats lost because they failed to make the case for why they deserved win, and seemed to consider the need beneath them. And in truth, through all the wailing and gnashing of teeth, they did not deserve to win. Through all the condemnation of Trump’s hate-filled campaign and its reportedly bigoted aftermath, the Democrats ran one of bitterness, contempt, and overt disrespect. The toxic irony did not go unnoticed.

The high-octane nightmare fuel of 2016 propelled partisan rancor to a fever pitch, where the usual leftist accusations of bigotry against Republicans as such have reached new precipices of belligerence. As noted in my previous article about Trump’s winning appeal, his only substantial loss in support relative to previous Republican candidates was among college-educated whites. As Nate Silver’s team essentially confirms at FiveThirtyEight, Trump made election-winning gains among all nonwhites measured (if Trump had done as poorly as Romney with nonwhite voters, Clinton would be president-elect) and held roughly even among women because his gains with blue-collar women cancelled out losses with the college-educated.

Evidence that raw hatred of Trump was concentrated among (mostly liberal) affluent, urban whites extends beyond exit polls. According to Pew, white people are the only ethnic demographic of Clinton supporters where a large majority struggle even to respect Trump supporters, rising to a full two-thirds among college-educated whites. Most Clinton-backing blacks and Hispanics people have no such trouble acknowledging that people had defensible reasons for voting Trump—even though they plainly disagreed with those reasons.

There is something very revealing in this breakdown. Overwhelming majorities of Hispanic and especially black voters opted for Clinton, even if by election-swinging smaller margins than for the last two Republican presidential candidates. And yet, those same nonwhite Clinton supporters, whom we are told have the most to lose from a Trump presidency, seem uniquely able (or willing) to understand and respect the perspectives of those (mostly white) people who disagree. Most white people voted for Trump, but the large minority that didn’t largely live in different worlds. The bulk of white Trump voters are blue-collar, non-collegiate types who have long been infamously acceptable targets of mockery and condemnation from college-educated whites—a cloistered, coastal, classist lot that is famously given to such unironic nonsense as “intolerant of intolerance.”

Gleefully uncharitable critics would say that affluent white progressives are, as a group, snobby, insular, and self-righteously intolerant. That’s plainly a stretch for most. Still, even The Onion acknowledges a palpable lack of urban-progressive self-awareness in a perfectly mischievous post-election article titled, “DNC Aiming To Reconnect With Working-Class Americans With New ‘Hamilton’-Inspired Lena Dunham Web Series.” (That satire is likely based on a real-life collusion between Hamilton and the Clinton campaign on Broadway. Some things you can’t invent.) The aforementioned Saturday Night Live had this milder presentation of the same sentiment (notice the relative calm of the black characters vs. the hysteria of the whites):

This elite socioeconomic and political solipsism naturally metastasizes from and reinforces an urbane tribalism and its attendant echo chamber around What That Really Matters. The “conversations” college-educated whites (and the educated nonwhite progressives who live among them) endlessly congratulate themselves for “bravely” having are taken as the true and normative priorities of the polity as a whole. The conclusions and assumptions of these affluent cosmopolitans are taken as the logical and rational denouement of facts, logic, and empathy per se. The surface demographic diversity they systemically mistake for substantive understanding of vastly different walks of life is taken as a sign that their altruistic political preferences are honest-to-God (if they believe in Him) “empowerment” of the marginalized and downtrodden. Hollywood and New York-based media continuously reinforce these perceptions, as do the gentry Democrats of our segregated capital. Naturally, free of the daily cultural experiences, cues, and perspectives that underlie more conservative worldviews, these affluent, educated, urbane progressives struggle to grasp how good people could oppose them. But millions of good people do, and do so strongly.

One facet of this problem is, as Claremont Review of Books editor William Voegeli once put it, doing good for too many (affluent white) progressives is “more about the doing and the doer than it is about the good.” That is, whatever progressives “sense” is the right approach to social justice must be right, whatever the actual data, and anybody opposed to it (say, because the facts don’t line up) must therefore be an advocate of repression and villainy. It is not surprising that Trump voters, especially younger ones, have little trouble respecting Clinton supporters, because conservatives as a rule, especially younger ones, generally can understand progressive thinking and as such assume (or choose to believe) that progressives mean well. Hence the endless right-inflected jokes about “bleeding hearts,” “tree-hungers,” “Kumbaya liberals,” “strongly-worded letters,” and other remarks that convey a link between leftism and naivete or silliness. By contrast, leftists often assume conservatives are motivated by stupidity, bigotry, exploitation, or bad faith—often in combination—and as such are more likely to expel political dissenters from their social networks and discriminate against them in hiring.

Apropos, blue-collar white Trump voters disproportionately respect Clinton supporters, even though they know the feeling is not mutual, while their white-collar white non-peers overwhelmingly refuse to respond in kind. As a poor, disabled Kansan with three degrees put it in Medium:

Twitter’s response so far seems to be pretty much this: Trump winning is a big win for racists everywhere, this is all about racism, it’s a “whitelash” against Obama, what are we gonna tell our kids, I’m crying now, etc etc etc.

So that’s Narrative A, that racism has won and we’re all boned.[…]

It makes sense, then, that Narrative A is so popular among my liberal friends. It also makes sense that they’re so heartbroken at this election; they’ve spent so much time mocking, deriding, belittling… that when they lost… well, how would you feel? How would you feel losing so soundly, on every level of American government, to the people you’d been making fun of for so long?

So. Right away, just going with that Vox piece, I feel like a big part of the distress, and a big part of the reason people want this to be about racists, is because of how horrifying it would be to confront the truth that making fun of people you dislike makes you an asshole.

Easier to feel like you’ve been wronged, like you’ve been hurt, and kind of gloss over the people that you’ve been laughing at and mocking for so long who just thrashed you in an election.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re acting like the bully in a bad 80s teen movie who just lost and won’t stop crying about it. […]

Trump won because a bunch of desperate people nobody’s listening to decided to go for the guy who pretended to listen.

This is not to deny that plenty of Trump supporters behave horrifically (as do plenty of Clinton voters), nor to suggest that many (mostly white, affluent) progressives are dispositionally averse to substantive empathy and charity. Obviously, this is not true. To Trump’s credit, he has condemned violence and harassment in his name, and I hope any bad actors among his flock take that to heart. But it was always more likely that jilted Clinton supporters would be the ones rioting in the streets demanding a constitutional crisis to overthrow a duly elected government, if only because their coalition includes the self-described activists who have been rioting episodically for years. As Billy Cooper shadily tweeted, “Love trumping hate involves a lot more assault and arson than I anticipated.”

The vast majority of his supporters of diverse demographics did not vote for Trump because they subscribe to or condone racism, sexism, homophobia, or whatever other aspersions are cast against them. They voted for him because the Democratic nominee excoriated them and refused even to ask for their votes, and the Democratic establishment is pretending policies like Obamacare is “working” while they are actually ruining people’s lives. They voted for him because he was the Republican, and she was the Democrat. They voted for him because they are concerned unchecked immigration might lead to European-style violence and societal chaos, among other ills, but Clinton’s party refuses to take this seriously. They voted for him because they want to arrest they cultural mayhem dominating college campuses before it can hurt them.

They voted for him because they have deep, legitimate, substantive concerns about the current and future challenges facing America, but smug people on TV want to talk about “locker room talk” while virtue-signaling people on social media insist ad nauseam that sexism and a “phony” email scandal are the only conceivable reasons Clinton was “not 50 points ahead.” They voted for him because Trump addressed many of their concerns, albeit crudely (a plus for some), while Clinton, her supporters, and the media (but I repeat myself) dismissed it all as racism or bigotry. They voted for him because the guy pretending to listen to you is probably better than the woman who doesn’t even bother.

That Trump would wreck the people who hate his voters like Miley Cyrus starting a war was the dripping icicle in the desert. As Clive Cook aptly describes the new reality, the deplorables struck back:

Apparently it takes more than four years of college to understand this: You don’t get people to see things your way by calling them idiots and racists, or sorting them into baskets of deplorables and pitiables (deserving of sympathy for their moral and intellectual failings). If you can’t manage genuine respect for the people whose votes you want, at least try to fake it.

However, forgive me if I go further. It really ought to be possible to manage some actual respect. The complaints that Trump is addressing deserve better than to be recast in caricature then dismissed with contempt. […]

Trump is a reckless loudmouth, often saying things that beg to be misunderstood — but consider the endlessly repeated “Mexicans are rapists” controversy. What his supporters understood Trump to mean was that illegal immigrants have committed crimes, including rapes; that those people shouldn’t have been in the U.S. in the first place; and that if the system had worked, the crimes wouldn’t have happened. In the universally-sanctioned retelling, this became “Trump calls Mexicans rapists.” Perfecting the device, Tim Kaine explicitly accused Trump of saying, “All Mexicans are rapists.”

This nonsense utterly failed as persuasion. It didn’t refute Trump. It was a patent refusal to engage, expressed for good measure as a slur against people who disagree.

For all this, Trump voters largely decided whom to vote for in the last weeks before the election, when he was arguably on his best behavior (i.e., by staying out of the news). This grappling with different options might be part of why they’re more likely to respect their Clinton-voting peers, who mostly made up their minds months ago. Among other things, it’s an odd claim that voters motivated to empower bigotry could not figure out which candidate was best for that cause until late October. It’s roughly as bizarre as the implication that Trump’s gains with nonwhites demonstrate America’s exceptional danger to nonwhites. (Unless, of course, one concedes that Obama’s America has been exceptionally inhospitable to “people of color.”) But in any case, Trump made an argument that his campaign was greater than the sum of his flaws, and Democrats refused to see how this could be appealing.

Trump and his campaign went to blue-collar communities, even in the core of the Democrats’ supposed “blue wall,” and treated them like they mattered. He talked a populist, Sanders-style game on trade policy that could be disastrous if he’s serious, but he took their concerns head on. He told them he felt their pain and offered the only set of solutions that responded directly their particular concerns. Hillary Clinton and Robby Mook’s Democratic operation, according to high-level Democratic insiders, refused to do this. Bill Clinton, “your standard redneck” export from the flyover states, tried anyway because he knew it was important, but as his wife and her supporters loved to remind us, he wasn’t on the ballot. And it wasn’t enough.

Democrats long enjoyed listing off the states that hadn’t gone Republican since President Reagan or the first Bush like a talisman to exorcise the specter of Republican relevance. But the inverse of that project is perhaps more instructive now. Bill Clinton won a two-pronged wall of states so dominant that it actually isolated thwarted GOP-voting states into three non-contiguous silos. This time, Democratic-voting states are clustered in isolated pockets more or less where one would expect them to be. The states Bill won twice that Hillary lost include: Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—with near misses in Maine and Minnesota. Bill also won Georgia and Florida once, each in different elections. Hillary lost both.

The Democrats banked on turning out high turnout in urban areas to overcome Trump’s appeal to rural voters. And Clinton did rack up huge margins in urban cores. Meanwhile, the rest of the country—the suburbs in red states, suburbs in purple states, suburbs in blue states, mid-sized cities, smaller cities, and, of course, rural areas—swung overwhelmingly beyond Clinton’s reach, relegating her supporters to impotent urban bubbles mostly near the coasts. It’s not difficult to appreciate how Trump and Clinton voters made entirely different electoral cost-benefit analyses through entirely different conversations about entirely different priorities.

As The Washington Post shows:

urban-suburban-rural-split-election-2016

The Washington Post

The 2016 cycle turned out to be a change election, and the Clinton campaign did not reflect that. Voters are deeply frustrated with a host of issues, from the escalating disaster of Obamacare to the cancerous spread of political correctness that assails the president of Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia for quoting the author of the Declaration of Independence and a Virginia precursor to the very First Amendment that guarantees the right of anti-Jefferson advocates to represent everything wrong with higher education. They are increasingly convinced—across race, income, and vast stretches of the country—that the reigning center-left establishment does not wish them well, so they pounded the table and voted for a man they distrust and many thought might be bigoted because, as progressive like to say in other circumstances, they had to do something.

And for those understandably hung up on the bigotry they saw permeating Trump’s campaign, I won’t argue down that point, as it’s both completely legitimate and much less pertinent than it seems (beyond reinforcing the obvious need to watch the Trump administration like a hawk). To highlight this truth and offer what I hope is an olive branch of insight, I’ll turn to an invaluable insight black Ole Miss trailblazer James Meredith taught us 27 years ago in going to work for Jesse Helms: if the bigot is the only one offering you a job, you take it.

In a progressive election postmortem for The American Interest, Artemis Seaford sums up well the reality of reckoning honestly and constructively with the cultural and socioeconomic divides of Trump’s America:

There is nothing prima facie objectionable with such a reaction. However, just below its surface lies the proposition that nearly half American voters have finally shown us their true bigoted, misogynist colors, and the implication that it is up to us, liberal savants, to show them why they are wrong. Going down this route means going about liberal “business as usual.” It means digging in our heels in the face of an external threat and doubling down on our positions, taking them even more for granted than before.

A more productive response would be to engage in thoughtful soul-searching about what we missed. This will require recognizing that tens of millions of Americans voted for Trump despite his bigotry, not because of it. Our demand that they simply put universal values above their own perceived self-interest was a step too far, and their refusal to comply does not automatically make them racists. But it does say something about the moment we live in that we have so far failed to put our finger on.

It’s a horrible situation for everybody when two fantastically repulsive candidates are the top-tier options in what has long been widely perceived as a binary system. But when wedged between, if you’ll indulge a rhetorical leave of charity, the Scylla of a corrosive progressive oligarchy that seeks to raze everything you value and the Charybdis of a uniquely unqualified boor whose grating treachery is your best hope of devouring those who would subdue you, there is no moral high ground. Might, as all good souls know, does not make right. But when no option is right, it’s not unreasonable to prefer to have might at least insecurely on your side than reliably against you.

Capitalism: The motivating fear that something, somewhere, could be more convenient


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The Tyranny of Social Justice

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” ―C.S. Lewis

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Capitalism: The motivating fear that something, somewhere, could be more convenient

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law a broad salvo for powerful special interests against the less privileged New Yorkers he purports to champion. I’m referring, of course, to the latest instance of grotesque regulatory capture that is the Empire State’s new anti-Airbnb legislation. Put mildly, it has the insidious effect of protecting politically connected businesses—i.e., the hotel industry—from the healthy, consumer-friendly pressures of free-market competition.

To be clear, the chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City, Vijay Dandapani, admits this openly:

“This smart and innovative legislation will allow law enforcement agencies to better target, track, and penalize lawbreakers, while also protecting one of New York’s most vital economic contributors—the hotel and hospitality industry.”

Famed New York hotelier Donald Trump would be pleased.

The usual term for such manipulation of government power to serve special interests is cronyism. New York has a well-documented hostility to the kind of policies that encourage innovation by forcing companies to sink or swim on the strength of the comparative value they provide consumers, rather than the elasticity of their government connections. So, as my college friend Jay Schweikert once said of the 2016 cycle, this development is hardly surprising but freshly disappointing.

But, as C.S. Lewis notes of the worst tyrannies, Cuomo and the New York cronyists social justice warriors don’t just satisfy themselves with the mere fact of regulating away opportunities for the politically disadvantaged. As they seem always compelled to do, these elites invoked the eternal progressive shibboleth of looking out for ordinary people while actually screwing them over.

Democratic Assemblywoman and bill sponsor Linda B. Rosenthal of Manhattan described it to The New York Times as follows:

“New York is taking a bold step that will hopefully set a standard for the rest of the country and other countries in the world that are struggling with the impact of Airbnb on affordable housing.”

 The same article included this telling contextualization of a statement from Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi:

Regulators and affordable housing advocates around the world worry that Airbnb is making it easier to illegally rent out apartment units for short stints to travelers, taking units off the market for full-time residents and driving housing costs higher. Mr. Azzopardi said that illegal rentals “compromise efforts to maintain and promote affordable housing by allowing those units to be used as unregulated hotels.”

If you simply took the Times reporting and New York officials’ statements at face value, you might be inclined to think state leaders had scored a victory of some merit against rapacious corporate powers. But this willful legerdemain disguises two severely inconvenient but highly relevant truths. First, the new law imposes steep fines, not on Airbnb, but instead on ordinary people, like you and me, who advertise openings through the service. (A federal lawsuit argues this is illegal and unconstitutional.) So if you want to fill some empty beds in your place to help pay your rent, you could get slapped with a $7,500 bill from a government that ostentatiously pretends to fret that your cost of living is too expensive. Second and relatedly, Airbnb, unlike the hotel industry, provides flexible income and economic opportunity to people who can’t afford lobbyists:

The politicians are responding to hoteliers and unions that claim that mini-Donald Trumps are buying up properties and renting them as “illegal hotels.” This doesn’t check out: More than 95% of New York Airbnb hosts sharing their entire home post only one property, and the company last year yanked roughly 3,000 illegal listings out of some 44,000 in New York. The hotel industry also riled up some affordable housing groups to say that Airbnb is driving up the cost of rent. One irony is that more than three-quarters of hosts say that sharing their space helps them pay rent.

The real complaint is that Airbnb is unwelcome competition, and here’s how you know: The company already offered Empire State regulators everything they claimed to want. Airbnb said it would ban New York hosts from renting more than one property; require online registration for hosts; ban users who break policies three times; and collect state taxes so that hosts couldn’t cheat. That’s right: Airbnb wanted to help New York dig up more revenue.[…]

This is a classic restraint of trade, and all the more odious that it will hurt the people Democrats claim to champion. Airbnb points out that hosts in zip codes with the highest percentage of black New Yorkers earned $43 million from rentals in 2015, and that more than 21,000 millennials host an Airbnb property.

The astute observer will note that progressives imposed exorbitant housing and hotel prices on Airbnb users, many of them lower-income minorities, from New York to San Francisco, long before modern technology made Airbnb possible. The progenitors and supporters of these regulatory labyrinths almost certainly had the best intentions in maintaining policies that keep rents high and undercutting innovation, like Airbnb, that helps people pay those rents. But as famed paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant reminds us, some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.

A similar dynamic played out with the curious story of ridesharing services in the notoriously progressive metropolis of Austin, Texas earlier this year. The taxi industry in the Lone Star capital pushed through a package of onerous regulations, including fingerprinting requirements for drivers (who are already subject to background checks), in the guise of promoting “consumer safety,” a “level playing field,” and other anodyne lies. In reality, the rules undercut Uber and Lyft’s ability to operate efficiently and compete with taxi companies in the city. Incidentally, the new security requirements were about as conducive to safety as the TSA, with comparable downsides for minorities. Brishen Rogers sums up the point well in a white paper for the UChicago Law Review:

[Background] checks are no panacea. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has emphasized, background checks have limited predictive value and can have a disparate impact on minority drivers. More generally, however, there is no indication that criminal law will not deter assaults just as well in Uber cars as it does in taxis. In fact, criminal law may work far better, since any passenger who suffers an assault by an Uber driver will actually be able to identify their driver. Not so in a street-hailed cab.

Rogers goes on to note, among other things, that ridesharing companies’ transparent ability to track data on driver and passenger interactions afford Uber and its peers the ability to combat the rampant racial discrimination for which taxis are notorious. But notwithstanding all that, the taxi industry succeeded in chasing Uber and Lyft from Austin, and 10,000 drivers  who benefited from flexible schedules and supplemental income, as even famed Obama loyalists acknowledge, were effectively pink-slipped.

For those keeping score: progressives who claim to value consumer safety, non-racism, accountability, economic security, and equal opportunity directly favored an allegedly racist industry with weaker mechanisms for accountability by reducing economic security for thousands of people through diminished opportunity without making anybody safer. The taxi industry’s expulsion of ridesharing from the second-largest state capital in the country is primarily a blow against the members of and aspirants to the city’s middle class who benefited from a boon in transportation choices.

That cronyism for progressive donors (in this case, Big Taxi) made for effective manipulation of progressive voters’ obsession with good, social justice intentions (to drive out competition for those donors) to achieve harmful results (see above) is how the game works.

great-white-to-the-rescue

“I shop at Whole Foods, and I’m here to help!”

The treacherous campaigns against the sharing economy are reminiscent of Obamacare springing from its Trojan fact checks and administrative lies to torch Medicare recipients and the besieged middle class with catastrophic deductibles and coercive spikes in costs. Obamacare, the exclusive product of “economic justice” warriors and the progressive donor class, saved its worst for the little guys who can’t afford progressive elite’s sanguine abstractions about a poor product and growing suffering. But, as with everything else, we are to believe this cratering fiasco is good for the people it mobs. Apropos, Matthew Yglesias at Vox (because, of course) argues the solution to Obamacare’s rising premiums is stiffer penalties on cash-strapped folks who lost their former plans and can’t afford the mandated new ones.

As technology improves and ambitious entrepreneurs develop more disruptively valuable products and services, the friction between legacy industries and innovative market paradigms will only increase. Desperate but well-connected benefactors of obsolescing fiefdoms will ever more rapaciously seek to restrain the economic progress that would subdue them. They will always claim to champion the interests of the very constituents they ravage for their misbegotten sustenance, as taxis and hotels cannibalizing the income of their once-emancipated subjects. But either progress will devour the dependents of cronyism, or the restraints will nibble away at the powers that impose them.

Someday, perhaps, New York, Austin, Washington, and other locales will have leaders who understand this—and make the right call.

a-softer-world_hammerhead-733-rousseau


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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.

 


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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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Where the Safe Things Are

“We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” –Tennessee Williams

“Though when pushed on what exactly makes them feel unsafe or to point to specific incidents of crimes or physical harm on campus, they yielded no answers.” –Casey Breznick

YPU debates affirmative action

This is what a revolution looks like.

In light of the emotion and confusion over recent protests at Yale, one might think I would sympathize with the idea that racism persists on campus. In truth, I do. When I see videos of the protesters at Yale and Mizzou and read articles from their supporters, however, I most strongly feel a range of emotions from pity to furious contempt. I could not help but think how embarrassed my parents or family would be to see my shrieking profanities in the face of a remarkably patient administrator—let alone the Master of my residential college. (For the record, I was in Timothy Dwight College, Silliman’s geographically smaller neighboring rival that is culturally and morally superior in every way.) I could not help but feel revulsion at how unlikely all these white “allies” would condone such churlish behavior among their racial peers, or were the races of student and master reversed.

But he was white, and she was not, so we are supposed to stand in solidarity with the black student. Full stop. So it goes at Yale, Mizzou, Ithaca College, Claremont McKenna, and however far the silk road goes.

The funny thing is, nonwhite people vary as richly and profoundly as white people. This note may seem obvious, but I know of too many nonwhite people afraid to speak out about how these “solidarity” protesters do not speak for them to omit it. I likewise know too many white people who think they are agents of tolerance and diversity in shoring up the “solidarity” narrative that marginalizes so many nonwhite voices.

The disconnect is in part a necessary consequence of a precious yet besieged reality: There is no such meaningful category as a “person of color.” The very idea of it is at best troubling and at worst the strange and sour fruit of a tree poisoned with the wicked roots of a slavish past. The indomitable River Tam, the pseudonym of a brown female Yalie who posts biting criticisms of received “wisdom” on social media, makes the point well in a post I highly recommend reading in its entirety:

The second problem with the “students of color” rhetoric is that it elides the tricky business of non-white students enacting problematics [5] against other non-white students. When you say “students of color feel unsafe,” the implicit message in that sentence is “because of stuff that white students are doing.” [6] But on a campus where 40%+ of students are not white, this charade is hard to maintain.

One of the perpetrators of the Yale Halloween Blackface Scandal of 2007 was a well-meaning non-white international student who was trying to dress up as a shadow. The only time I ever heard an actual racial slur directed at me during my time at Yale came at the hands of a non-white student. A Lebanese-American Yalie dressed as an Indian Chief for Halloween. (our Native American classmate told him off for it). I witnessed a black girl telling off an Asian girl for dating a black guy using the old “stealing our men” reasoning. Jokes about Chinese people eating dogs, Hispanic kids knowing how to mow lawns, black kids being better at basketball. I heard it all. And not from white kids.

[…]

My final point is a simple one: ‘people of color’ is an ugly euphemism because it’s a euphemism of an ugly concept. I prefer the term ‘non-white people’ because that way, the concept can live and die in the daylight. The term ‘non-white’ was purportedly abandoned because it was white-centric. But the problem was never that the WORD is white-centric, the problem was that the CONCEPT is white-centric. The euphemism conceals this – it perpetuates a white-centric model of racial identification and a view of the world that pits white people against everyone else. That’s why I keep using the term non-white – it’s an ugly word born of an ugly dichotomy and I want it to die in the daylight.

I was called an “Uncle Tom” and worse at Yale, including less savory permutations of the term, “house Negro.” (My critics, to their deficit of credit, were polite enough to refrain from spitting on me.) Dear friends—white and brown—told me how much unlike a “typical black person” I am for, among many other things, not being as hung up as they were on “oppression.” I’ve had affluent white liberals lecture me with varying degrees of condescension on the plight of “people of color,” gays, and working-class people in America. (Mind you, I was a progressive-ish Democrat at the time, so the disputes were not partisan.) That a lot of these people came from segregated backgrounds—whereas mine was near the pinnacle of diversity—made it all that much more deliciously ironic. But irony is one of the few consistencies of our eternal “conversations about race.”

Had I been on campus during this late unpleasantness, I might well have been another black kid spat on by the obstreperous victims in need of “safe spaces” and “validated experiences.” To say that I feel alienated from a culture where such views are elevated to “the voices of people of color” is to describe the Pope as a Catholic bachelor.

Detractors of the email Silliman Assistant Master Erika Christakis sent in response to student concerns like to say the broader “discussion” and protests were about more than an email or the alleged SAE incidents. This may well be true, but these issues are nonetheless informative in precisely the opposite ways the protesters and their comrades argue. Rather than showing examples of systemic racism and cultural sensitivity at Yale, the protests and their defenders betray profound flaws in the entire worldview of their argument.

The Halloween email dispute was not, as a South Asian friend furiously reminded me, about allowing or encouraging students to be offensive. It was about the gray areas where reasonable people of any color and ethnicity might reasonably disagree or express concerned confusion in fear of administrative or other forms of harassment. From the Christakis email:

As a former preschool teacher, for example, it is hard for me to give credence to a claim that there is something objectionably “appropriative” about a blonde-haired child’s wanting to be Mulan for a day. Pretend play is the foundation of most cognitive tasks, and it seems to me that we want to be in the business of encouraging the exercise of imagination, not constraining it. I suppose we could agree that there is a difference between fantasizing about an individual character vs. appropriating a culture, wholesale, the latter of which could be seen as (tacky)(offensive)(jejeune)(hurtful), take your pick. But, then, I wonder what is the statute of limitations on dreaming of dressing as Tiana the Frog Princess if you aren’t a black girl from New Orleans? Is it okay if you are eight, but not 18? I don’t know the answer to these questions; they seem unanswerable. Or at the least, they put us on slippery terrain that I, for one, prefer not to cross.

Building on this point, my friend and fellow Yalie Kate Maltby adds further perspective:

That’s not to say that everything I encountered at Halloween was comfortable, though there are already university directives for dealing with clear-cut racial mockery, like blackface. But it was complicated: take my fellow international student, a black man from Africa, who dressed as a tribal demon from his homeland, only to be confronted by African Americans for looking too much like a racial stereotype.  Or drag: the Halloween drag of straight frat boys was mincing misogyny on display; the carefree, joyous cross-dress of queer students experimenting was a liberal celebration. Do we ban both?

I could add my own stories, like one of a Native American friend who preferred to don feathered headdresses and shoot bows and arrows while the rest of us were shooting guns. Are we to believe he is “appropriating” Amerindian culture or otherwise helping to marginalize somebody somehow? We could go on. The issue was not blackface but what counts as offensive (and what “cultural appropriation” even means), who gets to decide, and what happens if administrators dislike a student’s attire. Critics like to note the original email was a request or advisory that entailed no enforcement mechanism, and I hope they remember that thought when they receive “friendly suggestions” from their boss or parents or anybody with the resources to make their lives difficult. Sometimes, as they say, the power dynamic itself is sufficient cause for concern.

A related and arguably more damning flaw is the strain of insidious misdirection—what some might call “invalidating lived experiences”—of racializing the contours of dispute to erect a wall of false consciousness through manicured demographic narratives. Detractors of the Christakises purport that nonwhite people stand with them, and their dispute is with the unreconstructed insensitivity of whites.

Obviously (ahem), this is not true.

But the proponents of that view take pains to promote it, even to the point of willful dishonesty. Take as an example this Medium article criticizing the insightful Atlantic article Conor Friedersdorf wrote about the email ordeal. The anonymous author explicitly parrots the paradigm of ignorant and harmful whites, who are apparently demanding the right to be offensive, besieging marginalized nonwhites who seek only sensitivity and understanding in denouncing the email. I happen to know the author knows this split to be false. The quote “sympathize one iota with” comes directly from a Facebook post I made about exactly the (non-email-related) situation described in that paragraph, though neither my name nor race are mentioned. It is visible only to my friends, who would also be able to see I, among so many others, posted and effusively endorsed the very Friedersdorf article the author argues is endemic to how white people think.

The height of this supple illusion comes with favorably trafficked articles and posts about nonwhite students detailing unpleasant but nonviolent experiences they encountered—from costumes they find offensive to wishing they had more [insert demographic group] friends at a party—and proclaiming to feel “threatened” or “unsafe.” But rarely is anything resembling a realistic threat ever mentioned. An old lady asking old-lady questions about the number of black students at Yale is less imposing than the homeless people Yalies encounter daily. Likewise, finding it unpleasant to be the only [race/ethnicity] person in the room (a situation I know well) likely speaks more to your familiarity or relationships (or lack thereof) with the people in that room—and not to any propensity for them to hurt you. I am not aware of any campus epidemics of white students attacking lonely minorities. Violence would of course demand police and other intervention. In lieu of that, however, what exactly is this demographic fear, and why is it any more reasonable or less damning than someone crossing the street to avoid a black or Latino stranger because of stereotypes?

I realize words can hurt and bad assumptions can be uncomfortable. But somebody telling me I’m not like “a typical black person,” being surprised to learn that I can swim (passably), or wondering if I can offer the “black” perspective on something does not qualify as a threat. (I’ve heard all such things and more, including analogous LGBT comments.) It is at best an opportunity to correct a misconception (the old wisdom of winning hearts and minds) and at worst a nuisance that by no means defines my daily experience or conception of the world. Nor should it.

It would be one thing if those using the language of safety and threats on campuses across the country could point to crime statistics and incident reports highlighting an actual trend of danger particularly for nonwhites. Or if they could show a demonstrable trend of racially discriminatory grading or academic/administrative sanctions. (No, a professor insisting on standard grammar does not count.) But they rarely do, at least not at Yale. Instead, we get mobs besieging unaccompanied administrators, accosting members of the media, forcing or demanding prominent resignations, and spitting on nonwhite people (when not inveighing racial epithets) whose views and perspectives are apparently less worthy of respect or validation.

We are told (as we always are) misbehaving protesters are isolated incidents which yield no broader narratives. Minorities are simply too hot with passion for civility, reason, or self-control in the face of the kinds of difficulties millions of people somehow endure without flying off the rails. Yet, respectfully civil emails and highly dubious incidents are heralded as symptoms of a great disease. Memorials to 9/11 are “unsafe” because racism. I don’t get it. Moreover, I don’t believe I should get it. If I am pained and uncomfortable about all this, it’s because a University I love has been hijacked by a fever dream of doublespeak and aggrieved illiberalism, and there are still white people telling me not to “disenfranchise” nonwhites while my nonwhite friends feel alienated and marginalized by a “diversity” culture that appropriates their experience without representing it.

Which brings us to the third flaw in the protesters’ worldview: There is little “courage” in what they are doing, and it is nigh on Orwellian to say people who bait accolades, sympathy, and supine administrative attention have sacrificed anything by telling tales (whether true in reality or in a certain point of view) of pain. Sure, some media may (rightly or wrongly) mock them, but what of it? The privilege of Yale or another alma mater does not evaporate upon a few critical stories arguing different points of view.

I do not see courage in a privileged black student screaming profanities at a mobbed college Master while he patiently tries to engage with the respect she and the crowd refuse to reciprocate—to say nothing of the authoritarian demand for his firing. I do see courage in the Master’s patient engagement and perseverance. I do not see courage in feigning KKK threats or having conniptions over people taking pictures with people wearing uninspiring costumes. I do not see anything to encourage in demanding exams be cancelled or crying when “sensitive” policy debates aren’t rescheduled because students lack the discipline, fortitude, or self-respect to be composed and endure what the warriors of real civil rights struggles—from Selma to Stonewall to ISIS—would probably see as a pride den of origami lions.

I do not see courage in the masses of the “marginalized” physically repelling the eyes of the media or attacking free speech—which irony is not lost on those aware of the critical symbiosis between freedom of the press and the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement. I do see an admirable example in the widely beloved Mizzou professor who implored his class to stand up to bullies and defeat them—and in the Mizzou administrators who rejected his resignation when “marginalized” voices somehow mustered the social heft to marginalize him. I do see courage in the editorial board of the Claremont Independent standing up to the insanity of the scalp-claiming racial delirium at Claremont McKenna.

What I see in the ill temperance and deficient perspective of the protesters and their horrifying applauders is the soft bigotry of low expectations that I hate with more intensity than any microaggression could ever sting. But we all, I suppose, were children once. Some of us even grow up.


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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Racism

“It is tough to watch another person being beaten. And I’m not a proponent of what some might view as child abuse. But when the person being beaten is harming his community and his future and the person doing the beating is his angry mother, she gets no argument from me — because she was right.” –Jonathan Capehart

Thank God for a good mom!

I do not see Toya Graham as a hero. Rather, I find her ordinary, sympathetic, and reasonably enraged by the enormity of injustice proliferating around her, from reports of horrific police brutality to the arsonist riots. In short, I see her as a loving mother doing what she can in an awful situation most of will hopefully be blessed never to experience.

I can understand why many people in and watching the media have hailed her for snatching up her riotous son from his criminal path. She did a good thing, and hopefully her son will profit from her care. I cannot understand why anybody should think the celebration of Graham is the latest footnote in a long essay on “white supremacy” that apparently underlies the multicolored criticism of the Baltimore riots.

Among the many contemptible expressions that littered the reactions to the responses to the riots was this particular gem of mind-numbing inanity from Salon’s Joan Walsh:

“The hypocrisy of the white mainstream applauding Graham is sickening. Let’s be honest: many white folks are reflexive critics of the greater frequency of corporal punishment in the black community.  Witness the media horror at Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson beating his young son. If Graham beat her child like that in the aisles of CVS, you can be sure somebody would call CPS.”

It is difficult to know where to begin with the things that are wrong with this paragraph (among the many other things wrong with the broader article). So for starters, let’s posit that a mother slapping at a teenage boy for participating in a riot is on a different plane of action from a professional football player whipping a small boy so viciously that the boy suffered bleeding wounds on his back, legs, and genitals. Let’s also posit that had Graham “beat” her teenage son in the aisles of CVS for attempting to burn down that CVS, nobody would call CPS, though many Americans would still call that mother a hero.

I will even go so far as to add the radical claim that many a parent would have handled themselves with considerably less self-control were their child to join a riot and then treat his outraged mother with such repeated disrespect as that teenage boy did his mother. It is unclear to me what race has to do with any of that.

In the interest of being philosophically and discursively charitable, I clicked on the link Walsh included in that excerpted paragraph and discovered another Salon article from Brittney Cooper, a biracial Princeton alumna from D.C. who now teaches middle school in New York City. The article peddles a familiar (and erroneous) trope that white people do not discipline their kids, while black people do. Moreover, it ties in the discredited myth that Michael Brown was murdered, rather than killed for attacking an officer, to suggest the purportedly broad racial disparity in corporal punishment is indicative of black parents focusing too much on “producing well-behaved children in a world that clearly hates them.”

Cooper’s article and argument are infinitely more sympathetic than Walsh’s subsequent screed, and I can certainly share her frustration at unregulated children frolicking as public testaments to infuriating parental disengagement (or worse, appeasement). But ultimately the analysis is flawed in part by presuming a dark conclusion—that the world hates black people—and extrapolating false claims—that Michael Brown was murdered, or whites are profoundly averse to disciplining their children—from that conclusion.

Spanking—or, more clinically, corporal punishment—is not a black phenomenon. It is and has been an incredibly common mode of discipline across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines. While there may be some degree to which that method is declining, especially among the kind of well-to-do urbanites who comprise the media elite, corporal punishment remains far more prevalent than most media would have you believe.

Insofar as there are demographic differences, spanking is exceedingly common in the South, regardless of race or class. A Time article on a Dallas study from 2011 documented several dozen families in which spanking small children, even for petty misbehavior, was so common and “normal” that the presence of recording devices in their homes did not keep parents from doing so.

“The parents who recorded themselves represented a socioeconomic mix: a third each were low-income, middle-income and upper-middle-class or higher. Most were white; about a third were African-American.”

Relatedly, Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight took an extensive look at the General Social Survey’s findings about opinions of the acceptability of spanking. As of 2012, the GSS noted the highest levels of acceptance of corporal punishment among blacks, Republicans, born-again Christians, and Southerners—each at about 80 percent. The nation as a whole was at 70 percent (about where whites are generally).

As interesting as the racial disparity may seem (10 points), it’s smaller than other disparities—regional (more than 15 points between South and Northeast), political (about 15 points between Republicans and Democrats), and religious (10-15 points between born-again Christians and everybody else). Moreover, blacks are famously more likely to be born-again Christians than other American racial groups. Likewise, most black Americans live in the South, and many of the minority who don’t have deep roots in the region. Similarly, Republicans—notably underrepresented among African Americans—are also more likely to be born-again Christians and live in the South, and as mentioned above, all four groups accept spanking at roughly equal rates.

As far as actually spanking children, beyond just accepting the practice, an ABC poll on the topic also found a pronounced regional disparity:

“Among Southerners, 62 percent of parents spank their kids; that drops to 41 percent in the rest of the country… The U.S. Department of Education has reported that school-sanctioned spanking is most prevalent in Southern states – Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Louisiana.”

Taken altogether, the relatively higher rates of approval for corporal punishment among black families is not quite as dramatic or distinctive as some media would have you believe. In all likelihood, the cultural differences between white Southerners—who are mostly Republican and largely evangelical—and black Americans—who are mostly Southern and largely evangelical—are simply not remotely as large or profound as some might think.

I’ve bonded with many fellow Southerners, black and white, over being sent out back as children to “pick a switch” and the various ways we would try (in vain) to find one that would not hurt much. I’ve also heard permutations of that singularly haunting phrase, “I thanked my parents for every spanking/whooping/beating I ever got,” with eerily kindred pride from countless people (most recently a young, Yale-educated, middle-class white woman from Mississippi) across the spectrum of color.

The experiences of fellow Southerner Elizabeth Spiers is an insightful example of the broader cultural point:

“My parents are Southern white fundamentalist Christians, and we grew up in a working class community where nearly everyone else was a fundamentalist Christian and about 65% of the population was white. I don’t think I can recall a single person I knew who didn’t get spanked as a kid. I also went to school for twelve years at a tiny segregation academy* that was not parochial, but still had teachers who felt comfortable reading Bible stories in class and taught Creationism as a competing theory to evolution. There were 32 kids in my graduating class and no black students. Corporal punishment was doled out as a response to any sort of misbehavior and the principal would even spank 16 and 17 year old guys who were on the football team.

So spanking was part of life–at school, at home and throughout the community. I got spanked and slapped across the face as a kid, and so did my brothers. And the fact that my parents did this made them no different from anybody else’s parents.”

The demographic peculiarities of her community and school aside, there is not much in that description of the pervasiveness of corporal punishment in Southern Christian life that would not strike many a black person in America as intimately familiar.

There are many problems that disproportionately plague black America, and there are various remnants of racism that make the struggles of life harder than they should be. But noting that black people are known to spank their kids or pretending that white people either revel in that violence or disdain it in racial snobbery is perhaps even less productive or valuable than arguing over the imaginary racism of describing looters and arsonists as “thugs.”

In closing, I should note that nothing written here should be construed as my endorsing corporal punishment. Having grown up in a world inundated by the crack of the disciplinary belt (and a legion of other objects)—like Spiers, Cooper, and so many other Americans—I wholeheartedly agree with Spiers’s take on the subject:

“That said, I can tell you right now that if or when I have them, I will never hit my kids. I don’t believe in it morally, philosophically–and I don’t believe it works.”

Amen to that.