Token Dissonance

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


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Our Neighbors’ Keepers

“We look at clouds. We dream of machines.” –Kevin Williamson

xkcd honest_1146

“How about we go back to that ‘madder than hell‘ line? That work?”

Back in college, I used to spend a few evenings a week with a set of philosophically or politically inclined peers in the constituent parties of the Yale Political Union. With wooden gavels, pedantic snark, and occasionally insightful wit, we would debate questions big and small about the nature of rights, duties, citizenship, morality, education, faith, reason, and an innumerable host of ideas about the world, its foundations, and our place in it all. While those bright college nights are long behind me, I had the recent pleasure of attending a facsimile of the old debates, when a number of my friends in the D.C. area opted to borrow from that format to explore our ongoing disagreements out in the “real world” for the edification of all involved.

The debate topic, “Every dollar spent on dog food is taken directly from the mouths of the poor,” allowed for vigorous dispute and concurrence on, among other things, the nature of ethics, duty, charity, and love, wherein even those on the same “side” of the resolution found many thoughtful occasions for profound disagreement on underlying principles. By the end, we even had some attendees rethinking their outlook on life and resources, as one should expect from a good conversation.

One particularly resounding strain of thought dealt with how profoundly difficult it is to sincerely help people. Many who fall upon hardship have not fully grasped how they stumbled into their peculiar circumstances, nor are they always aware how to identify or resolve the weight of their own affliction. Indeed, the best means to support those in need—whether the economically destitute or damaged souls in the bodies of the well-to-do—are often realized through an ongoing engagement built on persistent humility through trial and error.

Providing the love or innovation that rebuilds broken lives is, in short, an intensely personal and organic engagement, rather than a bureaucratic and mechanical one.

The value of such constructive familiarity is the ability to deliberately understand and influence the individuals and communities affected by your actions and be deliberately understood and influenced in turn. It is this dynamic rapport that allows for, as my friend (and debate attendee) Leah Libresco puts it, neighbors (in the metaphorical sense) who understand what to offer each other beyond whatever initial attempts at charity may awe or falter. Likewise, it is the inevitable lack of such rapport that consigns distant, centralized administration to its trademark unresponsiveness—i.e., the inability to adequately identify, learn from, and remedy mistakes before they become disastrous.

We can see the gangrenous limbs of this truth rotting throughout the impermeable labyrinth of ambitious public policy. The old liberal conception of the welfare state, a degraded simulacrum of communal investment in the most vulnerable of us, ravages communities unabated and still facilitates entrenched social dysfunction. The ongoing scandal with the Department of Veterans Affairs has shown that, despite the best laid schemes of donkeys and elephants, the federal government of the United States cannot even, as Kevin Williamson notes in National Review, “ensure that its own employees and contractors do not negligently kill its other employees and former employees.” This dark realization about the VA’s grotesque inadequacy is all the more unsettling against the backdrop of state governments’ inability to manage even the presumably simpler task of operating Obamacare’s online exchanges.

And lest we forget, liberals once held up the VA as an exemplar of “actually socialized medicine” to be instructive for Obamacare In the words of Vox founder and progressive “wunderkind” Ezra Klein:

“If you crudely ordered America’s different health-care systems from least government control to most, it would look something like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration (Medicare is single-payer, but VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors).

If you ordered America’s different health systems worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration.

That symmetry should get more attention in the health-care discussion than it does.”

Given the kinship of government control between “the healthcare discussion” that produced Obamacare and the “socialized medicine” of the VA, we should certainly have that discussion Klein wants. To start, let’s glance at the federal-run healthcare exchanges in my native Florida, where Obamacare-compliant plans are facing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services for discriminating against customers with HIV. In Klein’s triumphant ranking of “America’s different health systems [from] worst-functioning to best,” where do these results fall?

Not that along ago, the critics of Obamacare pithily expressed their Big-Government skepticism by asking, “Do you want to put the folks who run the DMV in charge of your health care?” Now, in Florida and elsewhere, the more sobering realization is that the folks at the DMV may be among the best of a system that, at its worst-functioning, enables fecklessly homicidal bureaucracy in a Cabinet-level department.

(Sadly and predictably enough, the homicidal healthcare bureaucracies of “actually socialized medicine” are not unique to the United States).

Whatever your opinion of President Obama—and it is hardly a secret that I’m not a fan—the problems plaguing the VA are less about his failings (which are legion) than the flaws inherent to so vast and impersonal a would-be “neighbor” as the federal government. It is inestimably difficult to help people, especially in ways that will meaningfully better the trajectory of their lives and ennoble the good neighbors in their interdependent networks. While the recent failings of government “beneficence” naturally call to mind one of President Reagan’s more famous lines, I will instead note another insightful observation from the aforementioned (and –quoted) Kevin Williamson (emphasis his):

“It will not occur to very many of the people with a strong emotional stake in that debate that it does not matter whether we choose x or y if that is the beginning and end of the conversation. There is a prior conversation that must take precedence, one in which we answer a more fundamental question: How confident should we be that our policies will produce the desired outcomes?

[…]

Not every regulation or government program is doomed to fail. But we might consider the slightly terrifying possibility that when government does get something right, it does so by accident, temporarily, and for reasons that it cannot understand or replicate. This may be why the sheer volume of law and regulation has been climbing so rapidly: Intuiting its own inefficacy, Washington is throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks… We’d be far better off paying veterans’ medical bills out of the Treasury than trying to operate a network of hospitals and clinics. And no matter what Washington promises to do to solve this problem, it is a good bet that the policy enacted will not produce the result intended. Reform is a random walk.”

As much as we might like to believe otherwise, the government cannot and will not respond to us as one with a stake in our well-being. Whatever the dreams and competence of its necessarily ephemeral leaders, the Leviathan is simply too distant, labyrinthine, and self-involved to evolve with the self-interested rapidity of a private business, or the soulful agape of a longsuffering neighbor.

Thus is the eternal life of government programs.

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The Ethnic Strategy, Part 1: Racism & American History

“Nixon, for political reasons, wooed the white South…but he did not…exchange civil rights for white Southern votes.” –Dean Kotlowski

Look at all those racists pandering to minorities by supporting a black man apologizing for racism! The scoundrels.

Given that we have a black president, and some of his supporters conveniently discovered that criticizing him is tantamount to racism, it’s hardly surprising that I’m responding to an article—in a mainstream publication, no less—entitled “Is the Republican Party Racist?

Why is it that the Left is so obsessed with the spectacle of Republican racism? Is it unease with a dark racial history, from the social tensions and racial violence in the North to the governmental Jim Crow activism of Progressive Democrats in the Wilson Administration? Is it the compulsion to rationalize the atrophic effects of welfare and other leftist policy on black families, or that minorities are more likely to have jobs, live in better-off neighborhoods and attend better-performing schools in the Sun Belt than the Frost Belt? Or does this obsession spring from simple, unbridled contempt for the dissidents who give the lie to the Left’s hallowed illusions? Whatever the reasons, the accusation is worth addressing head-on.

So let’s talk about history.

The tale of Republicans and Democrats swapping philosophies or constituencies immediately after the Civil Rights Movement is, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, more mythology than fact. Ike captured four states from the former Confederacy (six, if you include bellwether Missouri and reliably conservative Oklahoma) in 1952—before Rosa Parks, Brown v. Board, or the Southern Strategy. The 1952 GOP platform for Eisenhower-Nixon included a Civil Rights plank that condemned “bigots who inject class, racial and religious prejudice into public and political matters”; opposed “discrimination against race, religion or national origin”; and supported federal “action toward the elimination of” lynching, poll taxes, and segregation in D.C. In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10479, creating the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, to enforce equal employment opportunity against discrimination within the federal government. He won half of Dixie in 1956.

For all the talk of Richard Nixon’s racist strategy (some of which was probably warranted), the 1968 Republican platform specifically mentions “the black community, the Mexican-American, the American Indian [who] suffer disproportionately” in inner cities (this being the era of “white flight”) and then goes on to list proposals for cleaning up those cities. (All of which may have contributed to his losing much of the then-recalcitrant Deep South to Wallace.) Granted, none of this helped him win the black or Hispanic vote in the face of the Democratic Party championing civil rights legislation (overwhelming Republican support, notwithstanding) and having put Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. But it’s worth remembering that the only black U.S. senator at the time was a Republican.

In office, President Nixon’s conservative approach to integration brought the percentage of Southern blacks in all-black schools down from 70% to 18%, as he strengthened anti-discriminatory laws, increased funding for civil rights enforcement, and developed minority business initiatives. (I should note that some liberals are curiously inclined to see this as some sort of closet progressivism in the Nixon Administration, but that’s another discussion.) Perhaps most noticeably, Nixon enacted “the most far-reaching federal expansion of affirmative action” in 1969 and 1970. Thus he won Dixie, and most of the country, in 1972.

On the subject of racial antagonisms and regional realignments, Democrat Jimmy “the time for racial discrimination is over” Carter nearly swept the South in 1976 (he narrowly lost Virginia), while losing most of New England and the bulk of the West en route to a narrow victory overall. Likewise, Republican presidents weren’t shut out in the Northeast and California until 1992. Presumably, all those yankees weren’t just palling around with racists until Bill Clinton (and another bad economy) came along with his charming liberal drawl.

To be sure, there was plenty of active racism in the South (and elsewhere in America) in the 60s and 70s, and varying degrees of subtle racism persisted afterward. Moreover, there are racist Republicans today, some of whom get elected to public office. There are also racist Democrats today. Some of them get elected to public office. But the question here is whether racial dynamics meaningfully define Republican policy or electoral success.

As ingrained as the racial narrative may be in certain quarters, the evidence admits of greater nuance. At the risk of inviting neo-Confederate aspersions, let’s consider economics (which usually factor so strongly in liberal worldviews):

[T]he shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth. In the postwar era, they note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the G.O.P. Working-class whites, however — and here’s the surprise — even those in areas with large black populations, stayed loyal to the Democrats. (This was true until the 90s, when the nation as a whole turned rightward in Congressional voting. [My emphasis])

The two scholars support their claim with an extensive survey of election returns and voter surveys. To give just one example: in the 50s, among Southerners in the low-income tercile, 43 percent voted for Republican Presidential candidates, while in the high-income tercile, 53 percent voted Republican; by the 80s, those figures were 51 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Wealthy Southerners shifted rightward in droves but poorer ones didn’t.

To be sure, Shafer says, many whites in the South aggressively opposed liberal Democrats on race issues. “But when folks went to the polling booths,” he says, “they didn’t shoot off their own toes. They voted by their economic preferences, not racial preferences.”

Racists, just like everyone else, vote their interests. If Woodrow Wilson could find time in his Progressive agenda of segregating the federal government to wage a Great War, promote human rights, and launch the precursors to the U.N., then presumably more modern racists can walk and chew gum. Thus it is unsurprising that racists do not, in fact, strongly favor any one party. There may be reason to suspect negative impressions of minorities might correlate somewhat with Republican voting habits (we will ignore, for simplicity’s sake, the question of racial friction from and between minorities), but that is a far cry from demonstrating the persistence of a “Grand Racist Party” that owes its electoral success and philosophical direction to ethnic antagonisms.

What does all this mean for more recent and current politics, from welfare reform to the rise of the Tea Party to conservative opposition to President Barack Obama? We’ll get into that in Part Two. Stay tuned.

This post is part of a series on racism and identity politics in America. Find the full series hereFind The Daily Caller adaptation here.


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Dispatches from Dixie: The Racial Barrier

Stop oppressing me!

In the past few months or so, we’ve wrestled with the cases of Travyon Martin in Florida, the Norfolk journalists in Virginia, and the welfare reform debate across the country. What all these cases have in common is they are 1) intensely divisive and 2) “racially charged”, as the media are fond of saying.

There are unmistakable ideological divides at work. The aftermath of Martin’s death saw many left-leaning folks attacking castle doctrine and demanding gun control. People on the Right vehemently defended gun rights, noting that castle doctrine allows for better self-defense, not a justification for murder. Similarly, the welfare debate has sparked a new round of arguments about the nature, purpose, and viability of the safety net, with interlocutors left and right falling into predictable refrains.

But the racial and sociological elements are far more troublesome and not terribly amenable to electoral redress. Nobody alive—except George Zimmerman—knows exactly what happened in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. Yet many liberals believe that Zimmerman is a murderer, the police were negligent or biased, and this is yet another example of systemic racism in America. These people are deeply suspicious of images invoking the Criminal Black Man in Martin’s past and look to Zimmerman’s history for latent racism. They also dismiss any comparison between this case and the one in Norfolk and blame racism for the welfare debate (and anything involving the South).

By contrast, the people who defend Zimmerman and are suspicious of Norfolk are deeply leery of media bias the other way. They do not understand why the common picture of Martin is several years dated, Martin’s past is deemed irrelevant but Zimmerman’s not, or why the media have pretended that “white Hispanic” is a thing in colloquial America. (Its recent inclusion on the census, notwithstanding, it is not.) These conservative-leaning folks see race-baiting in President Obama’s remarks as assuredly as their more liberal brethren see it in Bill O’Reilly. They see bias in the lack of coverage in Norfolk, where others see none, and don’t understand why it’s supposedly racist to require adults on welfare to work for it.

But lest the matter be further muddled, these racial elements do not map perfectly or completely onto politics or race. Plenty of blacks and liberals do not presume Zimmerman’s guilt, and plenty of whites and conservatives are nonplussed by Bill O’Reilly’s aspersions cast against a Tea Party Attorney General.

What seems clear is that the injection of racial politics into public debate—whether on gun laws, police conduct, or welfare—renders impossible productive conversation across the aisle. Many folks on the Right (and some on the Left) will never take Al Sharpton seriously, no matter how strong of a case he thinks he makes. Similarly, many reasonable people will require leviathan confirmation of any “racially charged” claim ever fomented by Fox News. And in the midst of all this, facile gestures—like equating hoodies with crime or black people with welfare—are promulgated ad nauseam, to no one’s benefit.

I have no profound solutions to all this, but I can make some suggestions. President Obama, stop wading half-assed into racially charged controversies. Liberals, stop accusing everyone of racism, everywhere, all the time. Conservatives, tell better jokes. And everyone, can we please stop whining about being oppressed?

This is America, for freedom’s sake.

Update: It seems some liberals in South Florida think it perfectly acceptable to feature a caricature of Republican Congressman Allan West beating up defenseless women. It should go without saying that were West a Democrat, this incident would spark outrage and charges of racism & sexism. To their credit, other liberals are calling out the campaign of Democrat challenger Patrick Murphy for the underhanded tactic. Is it just me, or are Democrats becoming increasingly desperate?