It’s worth considering the important argument between Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post and David French of National Review over the past few days. As with many stupid arguments, it started on Twitter.
Thankfully, it bloomed into something more interesting. You can get the background here, with David French advancing his typical “decency and civility” argument against the current sentiments of conservatives locked into the culture wars.
I don’t want to pick on Sohrab, but I get this sentiment quite a bit. According to some folks on Twitter, I don’t “fight.” I’m too polite for these times. I’m too much of a squish. Apparently, the lesson I learned from a better lawyer than me has been transformed into a kind of defect. A weakness.
But in the example above, what did politeness, respect, and dignity cost anyone? We prevailed in the case. We vindicated our client and achieved a just result. At the same time, we treated other human beings with dignity and respect.
[This piece prompts the typical eyerolls I have toward the always predictable French. Can someone just form the Politeness and Decency Third Party already? I get it, it’s a view, just form it and Mitt Romney can caucus with it and then the rest of the center-right coalition can nod and move on.]
But at the same time, French’s argument – concerning a case before the Kentucky Courts – doesn’t engage at all with the situation Ahmari is talking about. He is talking about a situation constrained by the rules of civility required within a court proceeding, where failing to abide by said rules can find you in contempt. He is not engaging with the culture war situation Ahmari mentioned, hot-button, toxic, and without any of the mitigating entities promised by the American court system.
When French asks, “what did politeness, respect, and dignity cost anyone?”, he sounds like a hockey coach planning to run an all-finesse team out onto the ice. Perhaps their politeness, respect, and dignity will be awarded with a honor in defeat medal. Ahmari is more interested in a form of victory, as he sees it – which could be defined as a restorationist aim, or perhaps “leave us alone, or else” – and he blames French’s mindset for much of the losing.
Read his piece at First Things.
It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)
I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, 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 prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.
Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes 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. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.
Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time—as French well knows, since he has spent a considerable part of his career admirably and passionately advocating for Christians coercively squeezed out of the public square. In that time, he—we—have won discrete victories, but the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us, and I think that French-ian model bears some of the blame.
I had the good fortune to grow up around a great many Christian people with Frenchian sentiments. They are very good and decent, but they also had a skewed perspective on politics and culture that assumed their foes in the public square would abide by certain rules and expectations that went out the window decades before.
There is a sweet naïveté and optimism to this belief, unburdened by awareness of the cultural Hindenburg we all currently inhabit. How could the ACLU, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders take stands against the active expression of religious belief when they all endorsed RFRA themselves two decades earlier? Bill Clinton signed it! Wouldn’t the hypocrisy shame them straight into the corner? Haha, you bigoted saps, watch and learn.
It is not particularly comforting to recognize we have reached a point in America where politeness and decency is no longer the best approach to politics. Most of the political class agrees with French. They would vastly prefer a world where everyone in politics has an approach like Paul Ryan. But even as the political elite, both leaders and staff, have insisted on that approach for years where culture and policy fights are concerned, something has come along which disrupts their chiding message about a cultural defense with the ease and give of a soft-boiled egg. It embraces the happy while forgetting the warrior part. Domesticated animals are always more welcome at the garden party atmosphere of the plexiglass roundtables shot through the airwaves, where people say “I think” about the news.
Consider the possibility that the people, honorable or dishonorable alike, who forever urged politeness and good behavior are wrong. Consider the possibility that the progressive movement has embraced views that will no longer tolerate even the presence of offensive views, as they are now practically the same as violence. Consider the possibility that a lifetime New York limousine liberal, mugged by the reality of abortion and convinced of the transactionalism of Christian voters, recognized a more brutal approach, an approach which actually spells out on national television what happens in a late term abortion, could be a better cultural defense than a thousand phone-ins to the March for Life.
It would be comforting to believe David French is correct about all of this. Many, even if they believe he is wrong, will continue to personally emulate his approach, unwilling to choose a more confrontational approach. The distaste with the Molotov is understandable. But the truth is the culture has long ago passed the point of consensus where it is possible for a peaceable navigation of the conflict.
Politics today is for the rough, the confrontational, and the unapologetic. It is not comfortable unless we lie to ourselves about where it is and where it is going. Instead, American Christians inhabit the position where their foes are animated by beliefs consistent with an apocryphal quote from Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune: “When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles.”
And it could get worse: it’s possible both the perspectives of these Christian conservative thinkers are too optimistic. Social conservatives should be most concerned that both French and Ahmari are wrong about what the enemies of freedom believe possible, that the harshest voices in the American left won’t be satisfied just driving traditional American values from the oped pages or the universities or the local boards. Instead, the left may be turning into the culture war white walkers, bent on utter and total destruction of everything American Christians hold dear – including the liberty to hold beliefs at odds with the consensus of the elite – and that they will root for that belief, even when it is hidden in their hearts.