There has been quite a dust-up in conservative circles over Sohrab Ahmari’s article “Against David French-ism” in First Things. As my doppelganger wrote in that other site:
You may have heard of the recent dust-up over who has proper ownership of the term “conservative”, a fight that is related directly to the role of Trumpism in the Republican party and the conservative movement. Sohrab Ahmari wrote an article in the conservative First Things criticizing the conservative National Review’s anti-Trump commentator David French.
Ahmari argues that the NR-style conservatism, descended from Buckley more than Burke, is obsessed with the liberty of the individual and ignores how life actually unfolds in communities and groups. It is thus easy prey for a hard-edged Leftism whose demands for “personal autonomy” seem congruent with a libertarian view but the ultimate effect of which will be social change at the collective level that undermines values conservative hold dear. That is, the Left talks autonomy but knows at a deep level it is playing for keeps in the realm of culture.
We may have gone too far with Diversity, and with cultural power masquerading as autonomy. Conservatism’s opponents may already know that. As the cycles of history move, we may jettison the cultural free-for-all at play since the 60s and return inevitably to more cultural cohesion and to a greater sense of shared values. And so the question arises: whose?
It’s musical chairs time, and the Left, to mix a metaphor, is packing the court. Under the circumstances it may not suffice to argue, as French does, that all will be well if we tend our respective gardens, act in civil fashion and call for others to do the same.
The Ahmari-French proxy war goes on over how conservatives should handle its current pass, with some taking sides, some saying the taking of sides is necessary and inevitable and some bemoaning the taking of sides as inviting destructive internecine warfare on the Right, an updated version of fights between red factions in the 1930s and between anti-communists and anti-anti-communists in the 1950s. I say, per Pete Seeger: don’t interfere with the folk process! And pass the popcorn.
French himself has weighed in on the matter. You might be surprised that he defends himself since the gist of Ahmari’s argument is that David French, as the quintessential David French-ist, qualifies as a liberal under the Robert Frost definition: someone who is too broad-minded to take his own side in an argument.
But while French is broad-minded on political matters he is no slouch when it comes to defending his personal honor, and even though he is allegedly the nicest of guys he strikes back at Ahmari quite hard.
Alas, despite his military valor, his shots here seem to be off the mark.
When Sohrab Ahmari wrote his now-famous (at least in conservative circles) essay called “Against David French-ism,” he made three core points. Politics is “war and enmity,” “civility and decency are secondary values,” and the right should 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.
That’s not a fair accounting of what Ahmari wrote. Ahmari does not equate politics with war. He is quite clearly saying that the situation we are in is one of cultural warfare, and when at war one employs the methods of war.
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” . . .
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.
In other words, Ahmari treats French’s default individualistic view with respect–but he does not believe it is appropriate under the circumstances. French does not engage with this argument. I’d rather hear French–a man acquainted with combat and bravery–describe how he thinks his strongly individualistic views can withstand what amounts to a cultural assault.