Can Conservatives Afford to Be Nice Anymore?
Tucker Carlson's famous Fox News monologue about the moral pitfalls of unquestioned free-market worship continues to cause aftershocks.
The right has long had the debate on just how healthy individual autonomy is for societal well-being. But the combination of Donald Trump's nationalist vision overtaking the Republican Party and the Left molting its concern for solidarity in favor of radically subjective individualism has raised anew questions about what broad-c conservatives are willing to accept in a well ordered society.
For example, are drag reading hours in public libraries really appropriate for kids?
Cross-dressing storytime is what set New York Post op-ed editor Sohrab Ahmari off in a scathing attack on one right-wing writer. In First Things, which has latterly become a kind of authorial billet for non-traditional traditionalistic conservatives, Ahmari takes issue with what he calls "David French-ism," which takes its name from National Review essayist David French.
Who is David French, and why is he lucky enough to get his own ideology?
Ahmari treats French like a synecdoche for all hail-fellow-well-met conservative types who think the Left will leave them be with their personal religious beliefs, even if they're viewed as bigoted. Ahmari contends that French and other libertarian-friendly conservatives believe that "the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side."
Ahmari is not so dewy-eyed. He knows the score, and it's heavily weighed against the side of conservative Christians. A converted integralist and recent recruit of the "politics as war and enmity" vision, Ahmari thinks rapprochement with a cultural left that showers preteen strippers with dollar bills is unrealistic. Instead, he'd rather bring a sword, capturing the state to carve out a permanent place for the faithful. In his own words, Ahmari wants to fight the "culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good."
French, in Ahmari's dichotomy, wishes for only a respectful counterpoise to liberalism's ever encroaching reach into private and public life. Ahmari forthrightly wants to beat it back into submission.
Ahmari correctly points out that French is actually a classical liberal rather than a conservative. He goes farther, not just accusing broad liberalism of undercutting Christian dogma, but also assailing French as a naïf who thinks vivre et laisser vivre is a worldview acceptable to the Left.
We already know there's more than a bit of truth to the idea that the Left won't let Christian beliefs on sex and morality stand in the public square. Just see how Vice President Pence is talked about the in media for his orthodox beliefs on sexual relations or, alternatively, how conservative judicial nominees are treated by congressional Democrats.
Christian proscriptions on sexual debauchery make the belief system inimical to a Left that views autonomy and non-judgment as the pinnacle of human flourishing. And as long as such a perverse liberalism is engrafted in the upper strata of American culture — Hollywood, academia, the theater, the media — then traditionalists will continue to be marginalized, eventually to the point of public extinction, where the Bible becomes a samizdat.
Ahmari's urgent sense of the Left's no-quarter approach to the culture war is important. It's reminiscent of Rod Dreher's blog-writing years ago, warning that winsomeness won't save Christians from the liberal inquisition.
The problem with Ahmari's blistering critique isn't his portentous prognostication — it's the target. David French has responded, and the reply makes Ahmari's volley feel off the mark. French isn't an overweight armchair warrior composing polemics from a chic Washington, D.C. corner office, his greasy beard glistening with sweat after walking a block and a half to pick up lunch because his intern is out. David French is the ideal kind of American citizen: a patriot who served his country and now uses his profession to serve God and the Constitution's First Amendment. His heart was even big enough to adopt a little girl from Ethiopia, for Pete's sake.
He's also done the real work that many defenders of the faith have ever done only in writing: he's tried actual cases defending religious liberty. And he's won more than just legal victories. "I and lawyers I was proud to work with didn't just win these court cases, we persuaded left-dominated institutions to turn back from repressive illiberalism and recommit to religious pluralism," French wrote in rejoinder to Ahmari.
It's tough to think of a worse target for Ahmari's jeremiad against babe-in-the-woods conservatism. There are indeed prominent thinkers and writers who espouse the comity-laden message French does but who aren't equipped for the no-holds-barred culture war that's escalating. Ahmari chose the wrong figure to personify naïveté.
That's not to say his essay doesn't perform its own service. Ahmari has lent his voice to a growing sect in conservatism. The question of how much liberalism a society can endure before losing its stability and historic bearings to antinomian solipsism is one rarely considered by French and his high-minded ilk. As Tim Carney demonstrates in his recent book, Alienated America, the country's societal capital continues to be spent at the expense of a no-gods-before-me autonomy.
More importantly, Ahmari doesn't shy away from what I call the camp-of-the-saints dilemma. Jean Raspail's racist yet prescient novel grapples with the existential conflict between survival and principle. How do you keep your society intact when your own deeply held beliefs suggest a suicidal satyagraha? Put differently, how do Christians love their neighbor when their neighbors hate their guts and openly wish to reduce them to second-class citizens in the public square?
Does it ever become necessary to fight back, and be like Isaac in Manhattan and "get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them"?
This is the hardest question post-liberal types like Ahmari have to answer. What it comes down to is force: how willing is a conservative to use the government's monopoly on violence to his own greater ends?
With the Left taking ever greater liberty to shut down Catholic adoption agencies, penalize Christian charities, and even turn Christians into workplace liabilities, sooner or later, conservatives of all camps will have to make a decision. It's either the cheerful sidelines or the fray. And if it's the fray, what does a lasting victory look like?
Ahmari has taken a step to answer that pressing question. French and his sympathizers would be wise to take a more realistic view of the public square, which increasingly is unwelcome to them.