Token Dissonance

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


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Reflections on a Tempest in Arlington

“A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest,
 as rivers of water in a dry place,
 as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. The eyes of those who see will not be dim, and the ears of those who hear will listen. Also the heart of the rash will understand knowledge… The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places,though hail comes down on the forest…” –Psalm 32: 2-4, 17-19

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.”

“Serenity is not freedom from the storm, but peace amid the storm.”

I remember, distantly, that time the Army picked my family up and moved us across the Atlantic to a land the natives still call, “Father.” The oceanic climate deep in the continent was much too cool for my liking, and the winter days far too short. The coldest nights were little eternities unto themselves, yielding all too often only to the gray coolness of monotone skies along the Neckar—skies that seemed forever pregnant, never delivering. Until they had slipped from my grasp, I hadn’t realized how much I missed the endlessly soothing cycles of thunderstorms and sunshine that marked summertime in the American Southeast. Whether among the forests of Virginia, the swamps of Georgia, or along the waters of Florida, I could sit in that solace for hours.

At another time, in another climate I hate, I heard a gentleman speak about Edmund Burke at the meeting of a debating society near the southern coast of New England. He rhapsodized about the beautiful and sublime, of flowers and storms, of men and God. I remembered then the days and nights of violent atmospheric chaos I loved so peacefully, like a lamb cuddling into the fur of a lion and feeling ineffably safe. I remember those forays, early and late, into the philosophies of transcendence and stewardship of tradition. It was a reminder that man is as much a tiller of the world as a ward of powers beyond reckoning.

It was like faith made incarnate. In the quiet of the conditioned air and with the thunder rolling outside, I could see somehow a living truth in the requiem of light and darkness at the core of the paradox by which I was soothed by the presence of nature’s destructive power. What is it to feel safe—comforted, even—by confrontation with something that you know could very well hurt you but will not?

As I sit, years later, in an eleventh-floor apartment across the river from the capital, the storm raging beyond my balcony ignores me. It quakes in a vicious symphony of light and awe and mist, and I think of that captivating thought I heard in a movie: “God is in the rain.”

I suppose God may be in all things, but if there were a particular meteorological phenomenon that touched on the awe we feel for the divine, it would be the storm. When it comes to the winds of summer: the lower the pressure, the closer to God. Somewhere at the nexus of fear, awe, and solace that comes at a window looking out into the fury of heaven is the love a child feels for his parents—and in time, perhaps, the world he inherits, with rights and duties tracing back to the Father. It is the love of that which could wring destruction but will not—the love that begets trust, and the trust that begets love—that foments a sense of place, however tempestuous, and purpose, however elusive.

It is the beginning of everything sublime in our judgment.

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The Tradition of Ink and Wood

“To recognize that there is a need to distinguish…between the good and the evil in tradition, requires recognition of the preeminent role (not, lest I be misunderstood, the sole role) of reason in distinguishing among the possibilities which have been open to men since the serpent tempted Eve and Adam…” –Frank S. Meyer

“Some people aren’t books, they’re poems.” –A Softer World, 680

“Some people aren’t books, they’re poems.” –A Softer World, 680

Mom used to take me to bookstores on occasional trips to the mall or en route to some all-day set of errands. Barnes & Noble, Borders, some local community shop—I cared less for the name on the door than for the promises teased on back covers and inside flaps. She and I have long been avid readers, so these little sojourns to outposts of the empire of narrative were often my favorite part of an entire week. It’s a shame there were no frequent-traveler miles for wandering by print.

Years after our last trip together to whatever manuscript emporium, Mom bought me an eReader for Christmas. She asked me if I would use it. I told her I would, and I sincerely meant it. I have read a few books since that day. Not a one has lacked the tree-born pages so amenable to dog ears and annotation. It turns out that for all the time absorbed by the many screens in my life, I remained a reactionary on books. It was never even a conscious choice but simply a fact of me.

But the more I think on it, the more I find myself an unrepentant partisan of the traditional, battery-free book. The reason is not that I hate eReaders, want them to go away, or somehow associate them with civilizational decline—to the contrary, ebooks and other digital goods are the latest children of the mind, as worthy of celebration and use as their elder siblings. But in the end, the experience of a natural book is to the LED script of an ebook as the sound of your voice is to the lines of a text or as getting lost under the sky is to clicking through Google Maps Satellite.

It’s a bit like the ongoing conservation of conservatism.

On the one hand, you have traditionalists clinging to such antiquated values as family, honor, duty, loyalty, and transcendence because they speak holistically to the disparate and unified condition of humanity. Tradition, after all, is as much a project of aesthetics as of truth, as much for the heart as for the mind. It is the anchor of the eternally silent majority in cold, cosmic seas—the balance of agency and cupidity in the present by the democracy of the dead.

An eReader battery dies or “digital rights” management prevents you from sharing your ebook with a friend. But at any time you can read a paperback and give it to anyone as readily as your community imparts the peculiar stamp of its wisdom and flaws. A dog-eared page can trigger memories or fantasies as poignantly as a photograph in a loved one’s home. The annotations on paper are as stories told across decades, iced tea, pecan pie, and the background sound of children playing. There is something ineffably raw about a book that is lost in translation to yet another screen between you and the escalating abstractions of a rapidly digitizing world. There’s something about the way the markings and the mass carry separate, wordless stories of joy and pain, vulnerability and hope.

On the other hand, you have libertarians beating the drums of pragmatism, efficiency, liberty, idiosyncrasy, and autonomy. Denying sentiment, they offer function. Against reaction, they demand solutions. No longer impressed either by tradition—and underlying assumptions of old authority and static truth—or establishment—and its atrophic will to complacency—they seek above all freedom from imposed shackles and entrenched stupidity.

A book is a tool to impart knowledge or provide entertainment. Where we progressed from vinyl to cassette tapes to CDs to iPods, we have evolved from oral tradition to manuscript to paperbacks to ebooks. Our lives are more efficient, our opportunities more plausible, our tools more expansively useful when technology captures libraries in the palms of our hands. There is something uniquely enabling about the power to construct and define your own domain in an increasingly automated society.

Where these perspectives meet is in the question central to the whole project of free society, and the narratives it keeps—what is freedom for?

Is it really convenient to have a universe in a Kindle if you no longer know the spontaneous pleasure of glancing at a shelf, grabbing an inviting title, and reclining into a place where the smells of wood, paper, and earth create worlds within worlds of imagining? Are you really better off if you no longer find reason to flip through an old favorite and reminisce over highlighted passages that once breathed clarity into vast labyrinths of mystery? Are you freer if your autonomy comes in automated packaging that will wipe away its every memory of you under the commands of a stranger? Under all the paeans for progress and efficiency, are you any less of a hopeful machine wanting pieces of the world to retain some piece of you when you’re gone? Or will we have people autograph our eReaders now?

I’m not saying abandon your Nook and your smartphone and read only through disposable media. I rarely read print news anymore at home, but I would be remiss to deny preferring the touch of an express paper to my smartphone on the morning Metro. I would never want to live in any dimension where the expanse of human knowledge is beyond reach of my hand. And I would not care to endure an era where all simple joys of old pleasures were ever abandoned for newer toys. What I cherish is knowing that the convenient genius of an eReader is always within reach, even as I freely choose to seek my stories elsewhere.

There should be a word for the things we do, not because they’re sensible, but because we want to.

This post was written in response to the Weekly Writing Challenge from The Daily Post.


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The Inheritance

“It has always been my belief that people who spend too much time with my work end up as lost souls, drained of reason, who lead lives of raving emptiness and occasional lunatic violence.  What a relief it is to see this documented.” – Liberalism Lemony Snicket

Turns out the gates of civilization are more fragile than we thought.

When I was growing up, Mom encouraged me to read a lot. She brought home encyclopedias, dictionaries, Bibles, and thesauruses so I could learn facts about the world. She took my siblings and me to local libraries on weekends in the summer, so we could exercise our minds during the dog days of bare feet, sweet tea, mosquitos, and moon pies. Dad kept saying, “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”, and “A mind is terrible thing to waste.” I certainly didn’t want to lose my mind.

When I think about my success in school and getting into Yale, I think first and foremost of my parents encouraging me to read. I think of books and all they taught me. For inasmuch as learning is sacred, books are acolytes of the divine. The idea of hurting them is somehow…sinful. They are, after all, a singular inheritance. If all society were lost tomorrow, and we had to start from scratch, we would rediscover writing, electricity, industry, astronomy, and all the gifts of science and math. But the lessons of our books would have gone the way of the nephilim and Atlantis. All those windows into vast tapestries of imagining and experience would never be more than half-remembered dreams from too many lifetimes ago.

So imagine my horror at discovering that some postmodern industrialist smilingly murdered a series of books to decorate storage space. The barbarians are inside the gates, indeed. I always imagined there was an abyss at the heart of civilization, the analog of the supermassive black holes within all the galaxies in heaven. I never thought I would catch of glimpse of what it might be like to see that void, that negation of all sapience—that ultimate nihilism. It’s enough to make you wonder—or cry or plea—is anything sacred?

One of the things that struck me in places like Yale—where a certain kind of liberalism is the smog you have to breathe—was how often the answer to that question seemed to be: “What does that even mean?”

Dear Reader, I cannot tell you what that means. If you have never felt anything like transcendence, purpose, or calling to rise above yourself, I cannot talk to you of Honor. If you have never believed anything worth fighting or dying for, even when the stakes seem impossibly trivial and the potential reward more spiritual than effable, I cannot speak to you of Sacred. If you have never met something so beautiful that the experience of it could only be a testament to Truth, I cannot convey to you Beauty. And if you have never fallen in love across a bridge of pulp and ink, I cannot explain to you why a book is more precious than a mockingbird.

I can’t make you care about or understand anything. I can only show you the little pieces of the world that I see. And through words across the cloud, you’ll learn something true or not. If you believe that something substantial would be lost forever if every book were ruined, then we are at least as far as the foothills of tradition, with its many idiosyncrasies.

If you cannot fathom freedom without this precious inheritance, then you have another portrait of why I am a conservative.