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I saw a lot of this sentiment today in the run-up to and the aftermath of the House vote to suspend the Syrian Refugee program:
Yep, that’s some good old-fashioned savvy Beltway Insider Realpolitik. That’s a man dropping hard truths from tough experience on arrogant and naive dogooders who don’t have the sense to roll down the windows of their Toyota Priuses long enough to know which way the wind blows.
It’s also morally bankrupt bullshit.
There may be good reason to revisit or alter the refugee program. Concerns over the rigorousness of background checks, for example, which I understand give reasonable people pause. But concern about such things were not the terms – or, at the very least, not the public terms – under which this “political fight” was initiated. Rather, it was launched, with rocket fuel, on the basis that the Mooslim Hordes were going to overrun our defenses and blow up our women and children. That, unless we round ‘em all up or keep ‘em all out we’re inviting death and destruction.
Specifically, to the extent the previously settled matter of accepting 30,000 refugees under the auspices of our very-well-functioning 35-year-old refugee program became “a political fight,” in the first place was because, in the wake of the Paris attacks, certain governors – legalities be damned – immediately declared their states off-limits to refugees. Certain politicians, most notably presidential candidates, began calling for religious tests, internment camps and, in the case of Donald Trump, literally advocating for the forces shuttering of mosques and the registration and issuance of special identification to a religious minority.
This was not rhetoric calling for a committee meeting about beefing up background checks or raising procedural issues demanding the attention of the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security. This was, rhetorically speaking, a demand of total capitulation lest we admit our desire to actually see America burn. Against that backdrop, guys like our friend Barro above and those who complain about “tone” came out of the woodwork to lambaste allegedly deal-breaking “preening” while saying very little about how utterly frightening and horrifying the anti-refugee rhetoric has become since the moment the shots stopped ringing out in Paris.
On some level I get the appeal to political calculation. While people often claim that the matters of the day present clear moral choices – that their side is right and just and the other side is wrong and evil – matters which truly present such stark choices don’t actually come along that often. With the exception of a handful of issues, some of which are non-negotiable for either the left or the right, compromise and discussion can almost always be had and savvy political thinking rules the day. Pragmatism is not the worst way to approach an issue. It’s usually the best, in fact.
Occasionally, however, matters are thrust into the public arena for which savvy political plays are rather beside the point. Where the balancing of policy and elections and messaging take a back seat to basic human decency and the appreciation that, short-term calculations be damned, there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong and that one does not abandon one’s ideals and give even tacit endorsement to ugliness and evil for any reason, let alone political expediency. Slavery, women’s suffrage and basic civil rights battles are the most notable in our history, but there are others. And I’ll be damned if the events of the past week don’t represent another.
If standing up and speaking out strongly against those who, with a straight face and with no apparent grasp of basic history, stridently advocate that we turn our backs on innocent civilians who are being persecuted and attacked is “preening,” I will most definitely preen.
If calling out as depraved those who would argue for the surveillance, registration and internment of a religious minority is an unwarranted claim to moral superiority, I will make that claim always and without fail and dismiss their notion of whether it is warranted or not.
If told that my unwillingness to negotiate away the essence of what I believe to be the heart and soul of America – its role as a beacon of hope and, when it wants to be, an example of kindness, tolerance and comity – will cost me a political fight, I’ll take that loss with my head held high.
If reacting harshly against rhetoric which, Godwin’s Law be damned, is downright akin to fascism is an unwise political play, I’d rather be a fool.
I don’t have any idea of what, if anything, the United States should be doing to help bring the civil war in Syria to an end. I likewise don’t know whether the events of the past 24 hours or so will make a tremendous difference one way or another to the plight of the millions of refugees seeking safety and escape. Like a lot of bleedin’ heart liberals, I have quoted Emma Lazarus’ “New Colossus” on Facebook but I likewise realize that even the politicians who roughly share my view in all of this aren’t advocating that we accept a truly significant number of refugees. But I do know that the rhetoric and proposals coming from those who would keep refugees out of the United States has been abhorrent and vile and that it is nothing of which we as Americans should be proud, especially given the examples of recent history.
If pointing that out harms my chances of winning a political fight, it’s not a fight I very well want to win.
These days colleges make a big effort to match incoming freshman with compatible roommates. They use computer programs, algorithms, detailed questionnaires and personal interviews to do their best to ensure that kids sharing a dorm room hit it off in a healthy and mutually productive cohabitation.
In 1991 at Ohio State they allowed blind sociopaths to pull names out of hats.
Halloran House is a post-war institutional low rise thing tucked away on Ohio State’s North Campus. More luxurious new builds in the area have rendered it obsolete and it’ll likely be phased out soon, but it was fairly desirable 25 years ago. It housed four-person suites, each with a bedroom containing two bunk beds, a separate study area with four desks, some lounge chairs and a private bathroom. This was a pretty solid setup compared to the standard two-person bed/desk rooms with one bathroom per floor down on South Campus, as you could sleep in the dark and relative quiet while your roommates did other things.
My roommates seemed OK at first. Brad and Mike were fairly standard-issue Midwestern bros who reeked of Claiborne for Men and were hellbent on joining a fraternity. The third roommate, Kevin, was a quiet, somewhat artsy kid from small town Ohio who you figured caught a lot of hell back home for wearing black all the time and liking The Cure. Our first few days together were fine as we did the sorts of things kids new to college always do: lied incessantly about our experience with women, the things we knew and the books we’ve read.
A couple of weeks into Fall Quarter Brad and Mike started pledging Sigma Alpha Mu. This was not all that bad a thing for me, actually. For one thing it meant that they were gone a lot, giving Kevin and me a defacto two-person suite. Also, some of the hazing they endured worked to our benefit. One of the milder forms of hazing was “Wing Duty.” On Tuesday nights, BW3 – then a local restaurant, now the national chain Buffalo Wild Wings – offered 20 cent wings. For Wing Duty the frat brothers would go find pledges, give them a long, complicated wing order for everyone in the house and force the pledges to pick it all up and deliver it. One time, when Brad and Mike got rousted for Wing Duty, the frat guy looked at Kevin and me.
“You two: you want wings?”
“Um, sure” we said. The frat brother turned to Brad and Mike.
“Get them what they want too. And if you fuck it up, IT’S YOUR. ASS.”
But for as nice as that was, there were many other bad things, mostly due to the frightening amount of alcohol fraternity pledges drink.
One night Mike stumbled back to the room while Kevin and I were there. He was glassy-eyed and slurring, carrying a bottle of Cisco, which is a fortified wine which newspapers referred to as “liquid crack.” Mike went into the bathroom and we heard the shower turn on. Twenty minutes later it was still running and we hadn’t heard a sound from Mike. We went in to find him on the floor of the shower, soaking wet, fully-clothed, half-conscious and breathing shallowly. We called 911 and Mike was taken to the hospital. He came back the following evening, hospital bracelet still on, drinking a beer and bragging about how his future frat brothers were now calling him “The Cisco Kid.” Which, for as horrible as all of that had been, was pretty clever and, perhaps, the entire point of the previous evening.
Then there was the time Brad came back to the dorm at 3AM with no shirt on because he had wrapped his profusely-bleeding hand in it. I asked him what happened and he said he fell down and cut himself on some broken glass. Given the amount of blood soaking the t-shirt I didn’t buy it. When I pressed him he told me that on a dare from a frat brother he punched a bar mirror. Jack Daniels he thought, but wasn’t certain. When the shirt was completely soaked and the bleeding showed no sign of stopping I convinced him to go to the ER. He came back a few hours later with dozens of stitches, a thoroughly bandaged hand and prescription for Vicodin which really excited Mike. Over the next few days I’d come back to our room to find Brad and Mike laying around, listening to some of the more depressing music from Kevin’s CD collection and asking each other “you feelin’ anything yet?”
Brad and Mike’s crimes weren’t always victimless. One morning I sat down at my desk to do homework and my keyboard wouldn’t work. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it. Eventually I picked it up and shook it, only to have water pour out of it. Then, looking closely, I noticed there were tiny chunks of … something between some of the keys. I kind of freaked out for a minute. Then, when I gained my composure, I wrote “WHAT THE FUCK?!” on a piece of paper, taped it to the keyboard, left it in the middle of the room and went to the computer lab. When I came back a few hours later, Brad and Mike were sitting there with worried faces. Brad spoke up before I could say anything.
“Ok, so … first, um … we’re not sure which of us puked on your keyboard. But one of us puked on your keyboard. We just sort of looked up and, like, puke. It was just … on there. Anyway, we’re TOTALLY sorry about that, for real. We thought it was OK after we cleaned it off.”
And maybe it would’ve been OK, actually, if they hadn’t cleaned it off by running it under the shower. Which they sincerely believed would work. To their credit they paid for a new one immediately. Which was a big deal, as keyboards weren’t cheap in 1991.
For as bad as all of this was, there were some lighter moments.
Brad took an Italian class Fall Quarter, taught by a graduate teaching assistant. Brad was the most white bread Midwestern kid you’ve ever met, but his last name was very Italian. And, though it was initially meant as some dumb hazing, the frat brothers started calling him “Giovanni.” He had started to like it. He told me that his T.A. liked it too and that she started calling him “Giovanni” in class. One day I got home and saw the light flashing on our shared answering machine.
“Giovanni,” a nearly breathless voice said, “it’s Susan. I just wanted to tell you that I had a wonderful time last night.” She then went on to speak for quite a while in Italian in a tone which made it clear that they didn’t spend the previous night studying. When Brad heard it he attempted to act like it wasn’t a big deal, and did so in a way that made it clear that he really wanted us to think it was a very big deal. There was some strutting around involved.
We rolled our eyes at him and acted unimpressed. I maintained that unimpressed stance until the day I came home from class to find Susan in our room, lounging in a chair, drinking wine, wearing nothing but underwear, making no effort to cover herself and asking if I could go someplace else for a while as she was “waiting for Giovanni.” I didn’t linger and look too long, but I lingered and looked long enough to realize that Susan was a really nice catch for an 18-year-old kid who barfed on computers and drunkenly punched mirrors.
Brad and Mike were moneymakers for me too. Pledging a fraternity takes a lot of time and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for schoolwork. By October I was getting $50-100 a pop writing term papers for them. It was easy, really, as they were taking mostly basic and in some cases remedial classes. The biggest challenge was making the papers sound appropriately basic and remedial. By November they were even recommending me to some girls from upstairs who were pledging their frat’s sister sorority. By my sophomore year I had gotten so used to writing other people’s papers for money that I took on work from an Ohio State football player who needed to get a B in English in order to maintain his eligibility. He maintained it and, eventually, had a brief NFL career for which I have chosen to take a small amount of personal credit.
Meanwhile, Kevin and I were getting along pretty well. We both came from small towns and, while I was never into the black clothes and The Cure thing like he was, a lot of my friends in high school were so he was a welcome reminder of home. Also, he was kind. I got the flu in mid November and Kevin more or less took care of me, helping me do my laundry, putting fresh sheets on my bed and making me tea. In light of that, To this day I’m still shocked it was Kevin, and not Brad and Mike, who was the reason I ended up transferring from that dorm room.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving and I had just gotten back to campus from the long weekend. I heard yelling from the room all the way down the hall. I opened the door just in time to see Kevin swinging a hammer at Mike’s head. Mike saw it coming and ducked out of the way. The blow hit a wooden closet door, splintering it badly and with great violence. Mike and I rushed Kevin, tackled him to the floor and wrestled the hammer away.
When it became clear that Kevin’s violent outburst was just a momentary one we let him up. He looked at us and ran out of the room. Later, in a meeting between Mike, me, Kevin, the Resident Advisor and a campus police officer, it became apparent that Kevin was less dangerous than he was simply not well. Being away from home, the nonsense from Brad and Mike and the normal adjustment issues every college Freshman faces were more than he could handle and he had lashed out at the nearest target. Rather than get arrested, it was determined that it’d be better for him to simply go home. His dad picked him up that evening and he didn’t return for the final couple of weeks before winter break.
Those last two weeks were quiet. Brad and Mike were almost never there so I largely had the room alone to myself. I probably talked to Susan more than anyone, as she called for Brad constantly and he was ducking her by early December. At first I made excuses for him but I eventually stopped bothering. Susan seemed to realize, in the end, that Brad was probably not worth the trouble. To this day I wonder what grade he got in his Italian class. I can’t imagine that exam was graded objectively, either one way or the other.
I was lonely. I missed Kevin and worried about him. I missed my high school senior girlfriend back home. Mostly I felt out of place in this little room in Halloran House.
Brad and Mike were obnoxious, but they were not malign. They also made me laugh. I always had a sense, even at the time, that in some weird way I would be lucky to have had them as my roommates, if for no other reason than the stories I would one day tell about them. But the business with Kevin changed things. I’ve since wondered whether he was suffering from depression or mental illness, but at the time I didn’t think about that. At the time I just wondered: if he could be driven to violence in four months, would I be able to survive nine?
Just before finals were over I put in a request to transfer dorms, figuring that I had gotten enough of a taste of “Animal House”-style silliness and needed to live with some guys who were more my speed. Aside from a couple of brief nods and smiles as we passed each other on The Oval over the next year or so, I never saw Brad or Mike again. And I never saw Kevin again after the night of the hammer attack.
I moved to Morrill Tower in January and found some guys who were more my speed. I also tripled the size of my CD collection thanks to the intervention of Satan Himself, but that’s another story. Maybe I’ll share that soon.