Token Dissonance

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


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Memento Mori

Update: This post was adapted by The Huffington Post. You can find that article here.

“It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.” –General George S. Patton

“Someday, perhaps, it will be pleasing to remember these things.” –Virgil

How can anything be worth anything if it lasts forever?

Valar Morghulis. Valar Dohaeris.

My great-grandfather, Arthur, was a fatherless man. He was born black and Irish in the Deep South in the eleventh hour of the 19th Century. He married Elizabeth, an immigrant from the Bahamas, and she bore them 17 children, among whom is my maternal grandfather. Although Arthur died half a dozen years before I was born, I have always been aware of his nearly seven score years of life through the tales his great family still heartily recalls well into the 21st Century. Two ghosts of those tales seem particularly relevant today.

My great-grandfather’s father, the Irishman, died in a now century-old war before his son could ever know him. Arthur did get to know his own sons, however, and one of them was a man named Earl, who went to fight in Vietnam. Not unlike the grandfather he never met, Earl left a young family behind to serve his proud country. And also akin with that late grandfather, Earl never again saw his homeland, or the wife and young daughters he left there.

Today, most of Earl and Arthur’s American family remains in Florida and Georgia, where they have lived for more decades than hardly anybody can remember. The Army brought my parents to the D.C. metro area years ago, and, occasionally, some of our kin will make the long trek up the South Atlantic coast for a visit. When the weather is glorious, or at least tolerable, my parents will take them to the National Mall to stroll through the grandeur of the Capital of the American Republic our forebears built. Although our itinerary may vary, a sense of rooted wonder always carries us to the dark marble wall that commemorates the fallen of Vietnam. We always remember to scratch Earl’s name onto pieces of paper that we bring for this familiar ritual. Granny hates being in photographs, but she always submits to a few still-frames of time on these occasions.

We usually smile.

Growing up in the military, I learned that Veterans Day was meant to celebrate peace and those who returned from service to America and her values of liberty, justice, and honor. This November, I will celebrate my father, mother, sister, and brother for their service.

As a point of distinction, Memorial Day commemorates sacrifice and loss: the ultimate cost of freedom. In reflecting on the passing of warriors like Arthur’s father and son, we remember that all men and women are born to die, and what matters is the how and why of our ineluctable departure. We remember that our free Republic was built upon the ashes of dreamers and is maintained upon the hallowed dust of sacrifices honored. We remember that our lives are never solely ours, and our deaths are no more the bookend of our stories than our loved ones will allow.

For as long as I can remember, funeral days have always nurtured times of celebration in my family. The former homes of those gone to glory become sites where the living gather to eat, drink, and merrily recall halcyon days past and grievances overcome. By celebrating life—and all that has been done so that we might freely enjoy it—we consummate the purpose for which our loved ones lived and died, whether in far-flung wars or quietly at home after untold suffering. It is for this very purpose—the enduring happiness of those whom we shall someday leave—that we now live and remember.

Happy Memorial Day!


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The Future of Old Institutions

“There is no such thing as society. There is living tapestry of men and women and people, and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves and each of us prepared to turn round and help, by our own efforts, those who are unfortunate.” –Margaret Thatcher

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end…” – Semisonic on my graduating to Yale from this dear high school.

It is a fascinating experience to play the unfamiliar role of “student ambassador” to twelfth-graders in one’s former high school. Although some of those students were considering the Ivy League, none had heard of how its “need-based” financial aid policy might offer middle-class kids a better value than a state school. In fact, most were broadly unaware of basic differences between the institutions they sought to attend. It was the oddest thing, returning to a perspective where even the brightest were simultaneously unaware of the range of opportunities before them and largely oblivious to that unawareness.

Later, while wandering the distantly familiar halls, I happened across a fellow ex-cadet from our school’s popular JROTC program. Immaculately poised in his Marine Corps dress blues, Alex sat across from the cafeteria at a table decorated with promotional material. We had a good laugh for old times’ sake. He asked me about the liberals in New England, and I asked him about the Corps and his wife Amanda, who had succeeded me years ago as the notoriously ruthless executive officer of our former battalion. The soft drawl in his voice beckoned a reflexive smile, as did his unaffected style of common-sense, “real world” politics. It all reminded me how far I was from the privileged, insular urbanity of Yale.

It is incredible how things change in four years.

The dynamics Claire Vaye Watkins, now an assistant professor at Bucknell, describes in her poor, rural Nevada high school have several points in common with my majority-minority alma mater in suburban Virginia. In particular, the cozy symbiosis between M.V.H.S. and the military had no parallels among private, elite universities. Local servicemembers—like my parents—sent their children to the school; JROTC facilitated easy access to the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and warm relationships with recruiters and military alumni. Unsurprisingly, many old classmates are in the military, where many have been married parents since before they could legally drink. (Before you gasp, my yuppie friends, this is normal where I grew up.)

Of course, myriad former classmates did go off to college. My old friends from U.S. Army bases in Germany preferred schools in whatever states they happened to graduate or somewhere they had ties. In Virginia, top-achievers went to the University of Virginia. Other promising students opted for other in-state schools, including Virginia Tech, Old Dominion, and Virginia Commonwealth. A handful departed for service academies. When it occurred to me to ask after their choices, most shrugged away the inquiry; they chased after their best interests within the realm of familiar networks.

Perhaps I am supposed to say, as Watkins suggests, that my community would be better served by more Ivy Plus attention. That may be true, and those elite institutions could certainly benefit from the infusion of more conservative, middle-class perspectives. Yet my friends seem generally to be doing well for themselves, which is more than I can say for me. So instead, I will make two observations about how the world may change—in the universities and in politics.

First: when the Supreme Court rules on marriage, it may also find race-based affirmative action unconstitutional. If so, there will be a panoply of didactic musings about post-racial mythology, insidious social trappings, blinding privilege, Asians, and so on. As a practical matter, institutions will face two options: (1) abandon diversity or (2) be more innovative in fostering it. Assuming most opt for the latter, they will have to get more creative in non-racial outreach to the underprivileged—as in, accounting for financial assets and concentrated poverty, rather than relying on income. But to get the applicants in the first place, elite universities will have to cultivate roots in places where for years the military and local schools have reaped uncontested from an enduring communal presence.

Second: Republicans for too long have been to poorer, browner, and younger Americans as Ivy League schools have been to middle-class public schools like mine: out of sight, out of mind. My being the third student in five years to matriculate from M.V.H.S. to New Haven was not enough to sustain a substantive connection between my alma maters. For that, Yale—or Harvard or MIT—would need to aggressively maintain relationships with faculty, two-way channels with administrators and parents, and a network of joint alumni who would shape the realm of possibilities for those who walk after them.

In the absence of anything resembling even an attempt at real connection with “Democratic” demographics, the GOP resembles little more than a distant collection of prejudices, most of them negative. Noises about broader inclusion are a fine start, but the game is a long one. Republicans will find limited returns in sudden “outreach” to minority neighborhoods a couple months before tough elections. A long-term investment in conversations with churches, college campuses, charitable organizations, and underprivileged career-seekers will bring conservatives into discussions where they were once despised or irrelevant. Never again should a sitting Republican congressman need to refer his unemployed kin to a functional subgroup of the Democratic caucus.

Resetting the conversation surrounding history, politics, and biases will not happen in a cycle. In the short-term, Republicans can expect rabid resistance from the Left against any attempts to expand the coalition of the Right. But poor, blue-collar, multicultural, and middle-class Americans are an abundant resource throughout this country. Any institutions that are to pass the test of time—politically, academically, or otherwise—are obliged to mine and develop that talent.


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Right Quick: Stronger than Frankenstorm

When I was born to a young soldier and his high-school sweetheart in the spring of 1989, the motto of the U.S. Army was, “Be All You Can Be.” It became something of a slogan for us young brats who dreamed of bright futures in a newly peaceful world. The Cold War was over, the economy was booming, bipartisanship was yielding results, and the 90s were a time of hortatory promise for American youth. All these years later, the motto is now “Army Strong”, and the American ethos it defends is one of resilience and spirited innovation in defiance of all forces of division. Amid ongoing war, recession, and profound uncertainty—as we yearn for the real and imagined glory of earlier times—we find our comfort in the Old Guard of Freedom, in the quiet dignity and faithful strength of those who defend a comfort we take as our inheritance.

We can merrily fret over storms at sea, with tempestuous cocktails and welcome reprieve from leaving the house, because soldiers remain at their posts, ever vigilant, come whatever darkness may. There is such pleasant insouciance in knowing that, of all possible fears, our greatest concern is not random terror, deranged tyrants, or martial crises, foreign or domestic, but a Category 1 hurricane. Our lady of wrath will certainly leave her mark, and there will  be brokenness to mend when she leaves. But Sandy, too, shall pass.

Thank you, fighting men and women of America, for leaving us to problems that we can be prepared for at home with batteries, whistles, and moist towelettes.

Some good-looking bayonets.

Stay safe.


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The Pride of Yale

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

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

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

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

How was this possible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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