I’ve been roundly disappointed in reactions to Sohrab Ahmari’s piece decrying “David French-ism”. Reading through the first flurry of pundit weigh-ins, I kept thinking Huh? Did I miss something in the original piece? So I went back and reread it. No, in fact, on second reading I still didn’t find any blanket rejection of the liberal order. Ahmari was not, as many claimed, declaring himself a theocrat. It’s just not there.
Ahmari’s position, it seemed to me, was far more nuanced. In brief: The liberal order is such that it will typically end up imposing one or another vision of the good. For any liberal state to hold together, this is perhaps even a necessity. Our current left (with its hysterical identity politics playing on constant loop, with its penchant for censoring critics in the name of a bogus “safety”) has nearly succeeded in establishing its own vision of the good as paramount. The problem is that that vision is a disaster, whereas conservative ideas of the good, at least the kind held by Ahmari, have the imprimatur of a long history of cultural flourishing.
Given the stakes, given the left as it stands, Ahmari is arguing that conservatives need to begin playing hardball if they are not to be utterly silenced. This is the main thrust of his argument. Not reject the liberal order as such: rather, play a louder, more aggressive game within that order. Conservatives need to stop dreaming that mere proceduralism will save the American future.
Is that beyond the pale?
To reject David Frenchian proceduralism as a fix-all approach is not equal to becoming a fascist. Many of Ahmari’s critics don’t seem to get this. He is not arguing for an end to the Constitution or some kind of Catholic sharia; he simply seeks more direct engagement in areas of pubic life besides just the courts and polite conservative political reviews.
I myself think there’s a large and disgusted demographic of Americans who would agree with him on this. They want pushback. Why, they wonder, don’t our conservative leaders stand up to these pinkshirt bullies?
This is not to reject polite debate in arenas where it is necessary—say, in the courtrooms where David French has accomplished so much. I point this out because Ahmari was also widely attacked for stating what seems to me a necessary truth about our moment. He finished his essay with the words:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
Ahmari’s critics were horrified that he called civility and decency “secondary values”. But these critics at best misread his point, and at worst show that they’ve lost all sense of the hierarchy of values that comes with any serious thinking about the good. Luckily Matthew Schmitz of First Things debunks these misreadings in an excellent essay that you should take the time to read.
Ahmari’s post-battle talk with Mark Bauerlein (on podcast) confirmed me in my first reading of his piece. Since I think a lot of people still aren’t getting this, and others are tendentiously pretending not to get it, I’ll type some out by way of transcript.
Bauerlein mentions the Drag Queen Story Hour, which set off Ahmari’s argument with French, and wonders if conservatives who believe in proceduralism above all have any means of stopping this debased new institution.
AHMARI: If your conservatism is merely the upholding of procedure and maximal autonomy, with harm and consent as the only limiting principles, then you may win X, Y, Z legal battle over religious liberty in the courtroom, but the thrust of the culture will sweep you away. Because the ideology that we are up against says not only is drag to be tolerated in the drag queen bar or whatever … not only will it be legally tolerated, but it must be treated as normative, [that] for me [as drag queen] to feel fully autonomous in my identity, you will have to acknowledge that everything I’m doing is fine … Or if it’s a matter of the transgender thing, it’s not enough that you say So-and-so has a right to surgically transition: you must say that this person was always the gender that they became, and that their old name is now a taboo, it’s a dead name. That’s the full exercise of my autonomy [as trans], and it will [have to] destroy your autonomy for me to feel autonomous.
So that’s why I think that this idea that Sohrab Ahmari, by challenging David French-ism or this sort of conservatism, is proposing, you know, the restoration of the Papal States, or a kind of Catholic sharia—all these extremist labels that have been thrown at me—also reveals the kind of limits on the conservative imagination, that there’s only one configuration. And anything that suggests that we could go back to, for example, decency laws, or obscenity laws, must mean, you know, Vichy, or Pius IX, or Papal States. You know, there were people who were firmly in the liberal tradition—I cite Matthew Arnold in the essay—who say, Yeah, liberalism and autonomy in their proper spheres, but there have to be other limits [besides mere autonomy]: there are spaces in which the moral authority of the community must override individual rights, or free trade, blah blah blah. To be a bit pragmatic actually. Who’s the dogmatist [here]—the one who says, “In the face of Drag Queen Story Hour, if you want to do anything about it, you must want sharia,” or the one who says, “No, in its proper sphere, OK, but don’t try and make it normative for my children.”
Bauerlein then asks if Ahmari considers this development a result of the excess influence of libertarianism from the 1950s forward. Ahmari agrees, and points out that since 1960s especially, conservatives may have grumbled about this or that development, but nonetheless pursued a deregulatory approach in all spheres of life; one which, he implies, has given the left carte blanche to remake the culture according to its own perverse blueprint.
Honestly I’m tempted to type out more, but I think the main point on Ahmari’s supposed “illiberal turn” is clear. Listen to the whole thing.
And speaking of blueprints, I myself would like to see conservatives with a bigger voice than my own start getting on board with more concrete initiatives. There is news of a “Straight Pride” rally planned for Boston later this year. That seems a good start, though to me the choice of name seems a bit too reactive. I’ve long thought about the need for some kind of celebration or rally to counter the Rainbow Cult Processions that now gyrate through our cities. I’d call the event Back to Basics, or the Back to Basics Rally. Participants would be clear about a few central truths:
1) Transsexuality is not a matter of “discovering one’s true gender”, but a dangerous psychosexual disorder, one which quickly spreads (cf. Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria) among youth, especially girls.
2) Wise Americans raise their boys and girls to become healthy men and women, not sexually confused mannequins prey to a cultural fad.
3) LGBT activists currently have far too much sway in our schools.
4) During elementary and high school, boys and girls should be identified as such based on their physical bodies and should use corresponding restrooms and locker rooms. The respective pronouns are he, him and she, her. Public schools that do not uphold these basic standards should be sued, boycotted, and protested by parents. Such schools, through their pandering to a destructive sexual cult, gravely endanger American youth--as is already happening.
Back to Basics Rally participants would also, of course, celebrate:
1) the goodness and givenness of the body;
2) heterosexuality and the goodness of traditional marriage and family;
3) a sane return to basic biology;
4) healthy, age-appropriate education of youth.
In short, participants would celebrate the opposite of what our mainstream culture now promotes—the latter being a rebellion against the body via an LGBTQ dogma that demonstrates an ever-deepening fetishization of sexual and gender disorders under the rubric “Pride”.
Young people see gender-bending as a vehicle through which to gain the attention youth always crave, as well as a route by which they may dramatically mediate the suffering and confusion that come with growing up. That this gender-cultism often ends with hormone-blocking therapy and surgery is what makes the phenomenon truly tragic. Young people in rapidly increasing numbers are defacing their natural bodies and scarring themselves for life. Many will end up being sterile, will arrive at age thirty and wonder: “How could they have let me do this to myself?” That this will happen, that it’s happening already, is as obvious as Wednesday follows Tuesday.
Far too many American adults, our Kool-Aid-soaked “progressives” especially, are dismally failing the next generation.
Would Ahmari, or other conservative writers, get on board with such initiatives as a Back to Basics Parade? I’m not sure. But such a movement as I sketch out here, with raucous in-your-face rallies and parents up in arms against our sexually corrupted education system, seems the kind of thing Ahmari is calling for. This is not a rejection of the liberal order, but a rejection of the new gaythoritarianism that is corrupting American culture and endangering American youth.
Check out my Idiocy, Ltd. and begin the long, hard reckoning.