Conservatism and Its Discontents

It turns out that “David Frenchism” has much in common with “Sohrab Ahmari-ism”

Justin Lee
Sep 13, 2019 · 14 min read
Credit: Gabriel Perez (Getty)

The intra-conservative contretemps between Sohrab Ahmari and David French has thus far been a study in failed communication. From Ahmari’s opening salvo on Twitter to French’s rebuttal and the endless proliferation of hot-takes across the conservative idea-sphere, both sides have continuously spoken past each other.

Team Ahmari has struggled to articulate its philosophical critique of the liberal order, while the Frenchists seem constitutionally incapable of acknowledging that the dispute is essentially about metaphysics.

The much anticipated debate between Ahmari and French, held Thursday, September 5th at the Catholic University of America, was more of the same. However, today’s panel discussion at Notre Dame suggests that both sides may be on a trajectory toward mutual comprehension.

(For those unfamiliar with the dispute, I recommend Cathy Young’s thorough overview in Quillette, with the caveat that she leaves unaddressed the crucial question of Enlightenment liberalism’s metaphysical coherence.)

Neither man acquitted himself well in the first debate, which in Ahmari’s case was certainly understandable. Ahmari’s wife had given birth the day before and he was frazzled enough not to have removed the hospital visitor’s bracelet from his wrist. He was nervous, disorganized, and struggled to make himself heard through a malfunctioning microphone. David French was much better composed and clearly well prepared. He spoke confidently, and at times eloquently, despite contradicting himself almost as a matter of course and dodging the more complex questions of political philosophy raised by Ahmari and Ross Douthat, who moderated the debate.

Much to Douthat’s consternation, too much time was spent arguing over the appropriate response to the recent phenomenon of Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH). While DQSH serves nicely, for all three men, as a condensed symbol for the sort of civilizational decadence driving the feud between liberal proceduralism, with its dogmatic embrace of viewpoint neutrality (“David Frenchism”), and nascent national conservatism, with its desire to force government to serve the common good (“Ahmarism”), it distracts from the real problem: the devolution of the liberal order into totalitarianism in a post-Christian society.

This problem received more attention in the second event thanks to Charles Kesler, whose participation lent the panel a scholarly center of gravity, and to the event being situated at Notre Dame, which is home to Patrick Deneen, whose scholarship has been vital to conservative reassessments of classical liberalism.

In this second meeting, both Ahmari and French clearly polished their ideas and presentation and one could sense a synergy among the participants utterly lacking in the previous debate. Ahmari did a better job pressing French to confront the deformations of soul and community produced by the idolization of autonomy, but he failed to articulate how the problem is rooted in metaphysical incoherence. Any serious discussion of the future of conservatism must begin with a deeper understanding of this problem.

What I am driving at is articulated well in Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, which argues that liberal individualism is nihilistic — insofar as it possesses no coherent, metaphysically grounded vision of the good — and thus devolves over time into its opposite. “Having shorn people’s ties to the vast web of intermediating institutions that sustained them,” Deneen observes, drawing on Tocqueville, “the expansion of individualism deprived them of recourse to those traditional places of support and sustenance. The more individuated the polity, the more likely that a mass of individuals would inevitably turn to the state in times of need.” In other words, liberal individualism “frees” people directly into the encompassing arms of the state.

It’s important to remember that liberalism and communism are both products of Enlightenment thought and both embrace the same laughably false anthropology. The architects of liberalism, Deneen explains, “rejected the classical and Christian understanding of human beings as fundamentally relational creatures—‘social and political animals’ — and proposed that liberty, rights, and justice could best be achieved by radically redefining human nature.” This redefinition understands people to be individuals fundamentally “separate from nature and one another.” This claim, rooted in both Locke and Hobbes, is unavoidably metaphysical. The human, according to liberalism, is that being which determines for itself what is reality.

That different persons determine that reality differently necessitates the existence of a powerful force to coerce order. Writes Deneen:

The expansion of liberalism rests upon a vicious and reinforcing cycle in which state expansion secures the end of individual fragmentation, in turn requiring further state expansion to control a society without shared norms, practices or beliefs. Liberalism thus increasingly requires a legal and administrative regime, driven by the imperative of replacing all nonliberal forms of support for human flourishing (such as schools, medicine, and charity), and hollowing any deeply held sense of shared future or fate among the citizenry.

This, according to Deneen, is why liberalism’s success is also its failure. This insight is less interpretation than mere historical description, narrating the fruit of liberalism’s contradictions in a vein similar to Augusto Del Noce’s study of communism’s “heterogenesis of ends.” Increasingly it is taken as a matter of course by a certain coterie of conservative intellectuals who frequent the pages of First Things, The American Conservative, Claremont Review of Books, and a handful of other journals, thinkers with a fondness for deep genealogy. Alas, it is all but unknown among the most influential writers at National Review (with the notable exception of Michael Brendan Dougherty), who, despite their many merits, are likelier to feign incomprehension than grapple with its troubling implications.

It is no surprise that David French has struggled to engage Deneen’s critique, which is in many ways the driving force behind Ahmari’s position. French’s intellectual strengths, built over a long and fruitful career litigating in defense of religious freedom, are practical and naturally favor the concrete to the theoretical.

Early in the first debate he pressed Ahmari to concretize his response to DQSH: “What public power would you use and how would it be constitutional? … And if it’s not [constitutional], do you believe it’s worth changing the Constitution?”

In answer, Ahmari argued that because the story hours are “obscene,” local ordinances provide a possible solution. French responded that such ordinances would not pass constitutional muster. His assumption was that this requires doing away with “viewpoint neutral access” to public spaces. He further argued that “the typical Drag Queen Story Hour would not violate even old school obscenity laws.”

The brief exchange illustrates a common confusion made by conservatives enamored of classical liberalism. As Douthat noted, in this instance, the legal interpretation that French employs — and which he mistakes for “originalism” — was developed in the 1940s. An earlier (more original) reading of the Constitution would have allowed such viewpoint discrimination without a second thought. Even today, it’s not inconceivable that a sympathetic judge might allow that DQSH constitutes obscenity under the (admittedly incoherent) prescriptions of the Miller Test.

French believes that liberal proceduralism is essential in view of America’s incredible diversity, and expressed this view passionately during the first debate.

The only way this place survives as a united country is if we apply 18th century solutions to this 21st-century division. The First Amendment of the United States. Rediscover religious freedom. Rediscover commitments to due process. Rediscover all the instruments of change and all of the instruments of argument that we have used for generations to make this country a greater and more just nation.

He also declared, rather pithily, “I’m going to fight for the rights of others that I’d like to exercise myself.” For French, this “legal version of the golden rule” extends even to DQSH. After all, if we establish a precedent allowing us to deny drag queens access to children’s spaces at public libraries, perhaps someone else will deny Christians the freedom to hold Bible studies there. French expanded this argument in a subsequent column:

Few American communities benefit more from court-mandated equal-access rulings than the American Christian community. Strike down viewpoint neutrality as a principle (or close public access to public buildings entirely), and you would suddenly find the doors of university classrooms, library reading rooms, and publicly-owned civic centers slammed in Christian faces in cities across the land. …

During the debate, Sohrab ominously mentioned that there are 35 “chapters” of drag queen reading hour across the land. Yet there are thousands of churches that access public buildings. There are tens of thousands of chapters of Christian groups such as Young Life, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Cru, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship that access public buildings. In any given year, there are millions of American Christians who use those spaces to preach, teach, worship, and evangelize. Even if you don’t care about constitutional principle — if you only care about raw power — equal access is one of the most powerful tools in the American Christian arsenal.

Clearly, there is an argument to be made for viewpoint neutral access to public spaces, right?

Provisionally, yes. But such free speech absolutism also affords the opportunity for perverted men to openly view hardcore pornography on public library computers. (It is hardly surprising that the porn industry’s lobbying group euphemizes itself as the Free Speech Coalition.) Any jurisprudence that lends First Amendment protection to pornography is more a product of a “living Constitution” hermeneutic than anything recognizable as originalism. And yet, as far as “viewpoint neutrality” is concerned, this is the very hermeneutic embraced by the “originalist” David French.

Contradictions of this sort are characteristic of Frenchism, as is the failure to situate jurisprudence within a larger genealogy of ideas. This is most evident with respect to matters of religion in the public square.

Whereas French is wary of the government giving privilege of place to any faith — believing this a violation of the establishment clause — Ahmari desires a return to a sort of de facto deference to Christian values. “We need a state and public order that supports the flourishing of religion,” Ahmari said in the first debate, arguing for a watered-down Constantinianism as corrective to a state apparatus structured to indoctrinate children into secular progressivism. This is necessary, he argued, because while well-to-do elites (like he and French) are able to shield their children from progressive indoctrination by private schooling or homeschooling, the average American parent simply cannot afford to do so.

In the first debate, Ahmari observed that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both presume “a kind of religious horizon” for American life. This is confirmed by even a cursory exploration of the Founding. As John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In Ahmari’s view, the Democratic Party, by embracing secularism and rejecting a religious vision of the common good, has betrayed America’s Founding. The same should be said for the GOP and the country in general. In a piece here at Arc, Steve Stampley offers a different history of the Founding, but more work needed to be done by Stampley to connect our concepts today to those of the early architects of American government.

While Ahmari’s history is sound — if not the conclusions he draws from it — it is incomplete. As French pointed out during both events, when Protestantism was ascendent it had no qualms with employing state power to suppress Catholicism. Indeed, the country is still dealing with the aftermath of the anti-Catholic bigotry of the Blaine Amendment, which failed in Congress but was adopted in whole or in part by 38 states. Catholics like Ahmari, French argued, should thus support French’s reading of the First Amendment and celebrate its extension to the states via the doctrine of incorporation. A more modern interpretation of the establishment clause has given Catholicism its best chance at thriving.

This discussion was deepened at Notre Dame with a frank examination of pluralism. While America has always been a plural nation, the nature of that pluralism has transformed profoundly over time. It was refreshing to see Ahmari, French, and Kesler agree that a baseline moral consensus is a necessary precondition for genuine pluralism. From the Founding through the 19th century, that consensus was Protestant morality, and sectarian conflict was primarily conflict among different denominational inflections of Protestantism. But today, as all three panelists acknowledge, there is no broad moral consensus. After 60 years of academic deconstruction permeating our national consciousness, we are witnessing perhaps the final unraveling of the public values that make genuine pluralism — rather than mere plurality — possible.

Ahmari is more pessimistic than French and believes that state power must be used to halt this unraveling and reestablish the conditions in which pluralism can thrive. An interlocutor better versed in the history of economic development might have pointed out that the expansion of state power has itself driven the moral fragmentation Ahmari so decries. Any wielding of state power risks exacerbating the “vicious and reinforcing cycle” that so concerns Deneen.

French fears that Ahmari’s policy will inevitably pave the way for anti-religious coercion when progressives return to power. But implicit in French’s fear is an acknowledgement that the conditions for pluralism are themselves sectarian. Ahmari is more clear-eyed about this. Answering a student’s question, he claimed that the Founders all explicitly or implicitly subscribed to natural law tradition and admitted that this tradition is presumptively theistic. French is much less comfortable with this than either Ahmari or Kesler, knowing that such a position necessarily enfranchises some sects at the expense of others. He seems unable to recognize, however, that classical liberalism’s “separation of church and state” does the same thing.

The problem for French is that when the Constitution was written, “religion” was understood to mean primarily “Protestantism,” as has been demonstrated by studies such as David Sehat’s The Myth of American Religious Freedom. And even if French and other originalists insist that the word’s semantic range included enough other traditions to create space for a broader interpretation, they’re confronted with the much deeper problem of the concept’s genealogy.

Stated simply, it is impossible to meaningfully define “religion.” I’ll spare you a lengthy disquisition on why this is so and simply recommend Paul J. Griffith’s helpful essay “The Very Idea of Religion,” which shows that definitions of “religion” will always be narrowly sectarian (that is, theological) or else so broad as to be analytically useless. Suffice it to say that the term is a semous vacuum — by design. As William T. Cavanaugh explains in The Myth of Religious Violence, the concept of “religion” (and the distinction between “the religious” and “the secular”) as we understand it today emerged as a tool for consolidating state power by marginalizing certain peoples and perspectives out of public life. If “religion” and state power are to be kept separate — if religion is above all a “private matter” — all a ruling class need do to invalidate its opponents is to label them “religious.” This technique of power proved indispensable during the colonial period, used most notably by the British in their conquest of India.

Familiarity with genealogy and robust philosophical critiques of liberalism give Ahmari’s camp a natural advantage over Frenchism. This was more evident in today’s debate than in last week’s when, even with a sympathetic moderator, Ahmari failed to utilize his advantage and spent nearly the entire debate on his heels.

Ever the irenist, Douthat sought to direct Ahmari and French, both of whom he counts as friends, toward common ground. Liberal proceduralist arguments, he explained, were made in defense of slavery prior to the Civil War by those who feared full abolition would “rip the country apart.” Yet French sides with Lincoln, who rejected strict procedure.

When Douthat pressed French on the issue of pornography, how one should view it through a classical liberal lens, French acknowledge that the framers of the Constitution obviously wouldn’t have considered the First Amendment inclusive of porn. “Pornography as it commonly exists,” he said, “is not a protected category of speech.”

“That’s Ahmari-ism,” said Douthat.

“No,” French retorted, aghast, “that’s originalism.”

“An originalist interpretation of the Constitution allows for, essentially, moral legislation that reflects a Christian worldview about pornography. Right?”

French nodded, understanding he’d been trapped. “Yeah.”

Douthat summarized his point, explaining that Frenchism permits “a much larger zone for…state power to regulate public morality and promote Christianity than the current classical liberal reading of the Constitution.” By the close of the first debate it became clear that once Frenchism is forced to confront its own contradictions, it becomes something much more akin to Ahmari-ism. Were it not for the Q&A session, things would have ended rather amicably.

I greatly admire both French and Ahmari and have hoped since their feud began that it would shed its ad hominem cast. I had assumed Ahmari’s singling out of French was merely a rhetorical device used to force a larger debate about the future of conservatism. And perhaps it was. But it seems that real enmity has developed between the two men. It broke into the open during the Q&A when Ahmari ventured that a President French would have caved under pressure to withdraw Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination. He appeared to have meant it in jest, but French was profoundly offended. “You talk to me about courage when you walk with your boots in Iraqi sand in the middle of the Surge,” he said. “How dare you!”

Instead of backing off, Ahmari doubled-down and suggested that as a JAG officer French could hardly appeal to his service as evidence of courage. It devolved from there as Douthat struggled to mask his desire to get the hell off the stage. The event couldn’t have ended on a more disheartening note than mutual contempt. If anyone won the first debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, it was Ross Douthat.

Thankfully, in the subsequent discussion at Notre Dame both men engaged with exemplary decorum. In their comportment, if not always in the lucidity of their ideas, they offered a great example of what lively civil discourse should look like. Charles Kesler’s past collaboration with William F. Buckley, Jr. and current editorship of Claremont Review of Books made him a useful symbolic bridge between the fusionism of French and the populism of Ahmari, and his presence clearly had a leavening effect on the proceedings.

If anything, this latest event demonstrates that the future of conservatism should not be decided by polemicists alone. The movement must maintain a scholarly center of gravity, regardless of how heated things may become on the margins.

Justin Lee is an associate editor of Arc Digital. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in ZYZZYVA, Vice, The Saturday Evening Post, First Things, The Los Angeles Review of Books, ABC’s Religion and Ethics, The Independent, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @justindeanlee.

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