It’s now common wisdom that David French won his September 5th debate with Sohrab Ahmari. Though more #TeamSohrab myself, I think it’s true French came out the better. The decisive factors in this outcome were more than merely intellectual however. Ahmari’s microphone kept shorting out, repeatedly interrupting his train of thought. Why this was not fixed the first time it happened is anyone’s guess. Ahmari looked tired (his wife had given birth to their second child literally the day before), whereas French, on his side, looked rested, showered, caffeinated … and angry. Probably Ahmari should have requested a reschedule for a month later. But was French’s debate win really so decisive?
Both men made powerful arguments, but in large part kept talking past each other. It’s not perhaps that one was usually wrong and the other right, but that their stresses are so differently placed. Many of us, I’m sure, can get behind a vision of conservatism going forward that combines the two approaches. Still, it’s clear Ahmari is the one bringing something new and necessary to our sense of where we’re at. His call-out against “David-Frenchism” that appeared in First Things and set the whole process moving was long overdue, regardless of any personal ill-will it stirred, and notwithstanding the fact that both men are Christians facing the same enemy.
Far from crestfallen, Ahmari has since come out with a hard-hitting piece revisiting some of his wider concerns. He channels arguments compellingly made by Patrick Deneen in his brilliant Why Liberalism Failed. Among these, especially, the argument that liberalism, choosing “value neutral” individual autonomy as the highest good, has also necessitated an increase in state intervention to keep the newly “autonomous” barbarian hordes in some semblance of order:
Overthrowing these limits [those recognized in previous Western social orders] prevents us from making lifelong commitments and plunges us into sterile decadence. Our consequent dysfunction frequently necessitates restrictions more onerous than any imposed by nature or tradition. The vast administrative state arises in order to regulate societies that have been deregulated by an individualistic liberalism.
Our combination of dysfunction and growing Panoptical state overreach is obvious, no? But that state overreach, in our liberal West, is also increasingly value-laden, and geared toward punishing those who offend left-liberal SJW hypersensitivities. I do think one of Ahmari’s tacit points all along, deafness to which has led many to misread him, is that “value-neutral liberalism” has proved to be a pipe dream. What we’ve ended up with instead, pragmatically speaking, is something like: Their values are “neutral”, ours are just “bigotry”.
And worse: Given that “bigotry” is “harmful”, our values will ultimately need to be censored.
Isn’t it clear that this is the endgame envisioned by all the Democratic presidential candidates now on offer? The First Amendment protections David French has done so much to buttress are crucial, yes, but will they really prove decisive when the electorate swings leftward again? Isn’t a more aggressive strategy necessary to keep our tired troops united in the face of such a united aggressor? And doesn’t, per Ahmari, populism offer much as part of this strategy?
To return to Drag Queen Story Hour, the Rainbow-inspired atrocity that set off the Ahmari-French conflict, one thing that kept striking me watching the debate was the uncanny recognition that French (and thus potentially millions of smart conservative liberals) didn’t even think it possible or wise for sane Americans to come together to protect the sexual integrity of children. Children!
As an American in my fifties, who clearly remembers the ’80s and ‘90s with their overriding concern to keep kids separated from sexual deviants, this new caving to the “autonomy” and “rights” of perversion is downright eerie. It’s an entirely new ground that’s appeared, a vast island of muck arisen out of nowhere just yesterday. And David French already sees it as unassailable territory, because of what, “value neutrality”?
This is an instance where French’s blindness to the big cultural picture is deeply troubling. In Britain and the US, the number of trans-identifying kids, slated for hormone suppression and worse, has risen roughly 4,000% in the past ten years. Yes: 40x! But Drag Queen Story Hour does not represent a real crisis?
At the same time, where the liberal state apparently cannot allow conservatives to intervene in DQSH because of “value neutrality”, it has no problem seeing my career ruined if I commit the “offense” of typing here or there on social media that “Same-sex marriage is not marriage.” And yes, although my loss of career at present would only be the woke market, rather than the state, talking, all our mainstream Democrats are now on board with their “Equality Act” to make sure the state follows my loss of career with fines or jail time.
Given all this, the poison fruit of a mere decade during which the left did not even monopolize power, what can be expected if they do gain any lengthy stretch of power? And French can scoff or laugh at Ahmari’s mention of potential “Colosseums” in the near future? (French is scoffing along with mainstream liberals, as one can see in this Yahoo fluff piece. Me I think Rod Dreher’s “Law of Merited Impossibility” is more apt: “It will never happen, and when it does, you bigots will deserve it.”)
While on stage, French also indicated that in his view pornography is not protected under the First Amendment. It did seem a strange disconnect from his arguments on value-neutral liberalism and his legal indifference to things like DQSH. Is pornography unprotected by the First Amendment because its obscenity is an assault on the sexual integrity of the viewer? If so, is that not also a viable argument vis-a-vis DQSH—that sexual integrity, in this case of children, is being assaulted? Yes, conservatives’ ideas of sexual integrity will not be accepted by the left, and as for the left’s ideas—they are constantly shifting and hopelessly self-contradictory. Still, if it’s true that sexual integrity has any relevance to what is or is not afforded First Amendment protection, French has some explaining to do.
At one point in the debate Ahmari quoted something French had written in the years before Obergefell, to the effect that “if the gay couple down the street gets married, how would that affect me?” French quickly responded that his thinking had since changed, implying that quoting him from that era was irrelevant. But I’d say it was French’s response here that is irrelevant. Ahmari’s point was clearly that French’s brand of liberalism, before Obergefell, had set him up to minimize the conflicts SSM would bring. Why then should conservatives trust French to read the writing on the wall now in 2019?
As a Christian concerned with religious liberty, I have enormous respect and gratitude for French. But I think he is misreading the larger cultural issues, and that his Never-Trumpism is part and parcel of a perhaps too self-congratulatory optimism about the status quo. Though I’m not a pessimist by nature, I cannot accept French’s rosy depiction of where America’s Christians now stand in relation to the liberal state. Which is why I predict Ahmari’s voice will only prove more prescient as time passes. Thus my title here.
(For a more trenchant argument than mine as to why French’s debate victory is ultimately Pyrrhic, Michael Warren Davis’ piece in Crisis is a MUST READ. In brief: It’s the Overton window, stupid.)
Check out my novel A Taipei Mutt, now in second edition. More bark, nastier bite.