The battle between the “liberal” conservatives—that is, those who still believe in free markets and civil liberties—and the illiberal nationalist conservatives has been out in the open ever since Sohrab Ahmari launched a broadside against “David French-ism,” naming the National Review writer as his avatar for the supposed cultural weakness of “classical liberalism.” So a lot of us were anticipating the “Melee at CUA,” the event Thursday night at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, that brought Ahmari and French onto the same stage, with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat as moderator. It’s all up online here.
Despite the “melee” description jokingly invoked by French, this event wasn’t exactly billed as a debate—but it was totally a debate, and what I’m sure you all want to know is: who won?
The answer is not as simple as I would like it to be.
A lot of people thought French won hands down, and he definitely dominated the exchange with a much stronger and more substantive argument.
You may remember that this whole thing began when Ahmari had a meltdown on Twitter about Drag Queen Story Hour, a bizarre ritual in which bien pensant lefty parents in places like San Francisco take their young kids to see men in dresses read children’s stories. It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me, but it seems that a few hundred people across the country are totally desperate for a way to display to the world how painfully tolerant they are. At any rate, it was when David French pointed out that you can’t use the federal government to shut down these events that Ahmari denounced him as a weak-kneed compromiser.
The problem for Ahmari is that French is an actual lawyer with a long record of litigating First Amendment cases. His central argument last night was that he and others have spent decades fighting for the principle of “viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities” as a way of preventing discrimination against Christians at places like libraries, schools, and especially universities. It is precisely this achievement that Ahmari is proposing to tear down in order to stop Drag Queen Story Hour, without realizing what it will undo. As French pointed out, the problem with “free speech for me, but not for thee,” is that your side doesn’t always get to be the “me.” Given that the whole premise of Ahmari’s argument is that Christian culture is on the ropes, out of power, despised by the elites, it seems particularly suicidal to hand those very same elites greater flexibility to use government power to discriminate against groups they don’t like.
French’s argument was grounded in detailed, first-hand knowledge of the legal and constitutional issues, from someone who has been in the trenches. Ahmari’s, to put it mildly, was not.
That leads us to Ahmari’s other big problem: a total lack of substance for his own position. From the beginning of this controversy, it has been maddeningly unclear what exactly he is proposing as an alternative to David French-ism—that is, what Sohrab Ahmari-ism would consist of. After an hour in which Ahmari was repeatedly pressed on this issue by both Douthat and French, we didn’t get much closer to an answer.
When Ahmari complained that French didn’t want to “use the public power” to prevent behavior he disapproves of, French asked, “What public power would you use, and how would it be constitutional?” Ahmari’s answer was that he is proposing a congressional hearing where a bunch of conservative senators could do some grandstanding.
I could see, for example, a hearing held on what’s happening in our libraries, in which, you know, Senators Cruz, Hawley, and Cotton make the head of the Modern Library Association, or whatever, sweat, as they know they can…. And what does that do? It sends a cultural message that we’re up against this, we’re going to fight this, because it’s obscene.
As far as I can tell, there is no “Modern Library Association,” so I have no idea who is actually supposed to be grilled by Hawley and company. But you can see now why Ahmari is such a fan of Donald Trump. The president is famous for just this kind of symbolic culture war bloviating that actually accomplishes nothing. As Andrew Egger puts it, “Creating a new Christian order by scheduling a Senate hearing and ignoring any questions about how we’re going to pass a bunch of unconstitutional laws banning immoral content: This, then, is the full scope of the project of the new illiberal cons. Behold its majesty.”
Ahmari comes across, frankly, as a bit of a troll. He starts with a smug projection of his superior dedication to Christian morality, the main evidence for which is the smugness with which he projects it. But when asked to provide any details, he always slides into vague sloganeering. It’s the old Internet troll’s tactic of loudly complaining that nobody has the courage to even talk about a radical new idea—then, when given an opportunity to talk about it, refusing to do so. This allows the troll to pretend to advocate bold, courageous new ideas without actually having to advocate them.
Egger concludes that “there is no there at the heart of ‘illiberal conservatism.’ It’s not an ideological proposition. It’s a pose.” Or as someone on Twitter asked, “Do they not have a cogent plan on how to make their ideas reality, or do they and they don’t feel comfortable saying them out loud?” My best guess is that the answer is: both. This started as a pose of moral superiority without any substance to back it up—but if their trial balloon of illiberal sloganeering doesn’t get shot down, they will happily give it substance in ways they are still afraid to name, perhaps even to themselves.
Ahmari’s closest thing to an answer on this was a semi-endorsement of Senator Josh Hawley’s push for federal regulation of social media on the grounds that “I’m willing to ban things,” and “at least [Hawley is] willing to say, here’s a problem, and the state may have a role.” This is the old, notorious “there oughta be a law” mentality, applied to culture and religion. Ahmari wants the power to do stuff and ban things, without feeling the need to think too clearly about what and how.
But it gets worse. What does he see as the state’s role in this? “Not every parent is the way you and I and Ross is. A lot of parents don’t have the power, don’t have the time, they don’t have the resources to regulate these things. They could use a little state help.” So this is a literally paternalistic vision of the state as a super-mommy and super-daddy acting as surrogate parents—the sort of thing I thought we were supposed to be against, when the left proposes it.
Yet toward the end of the debate, Ahmari was tossed a strange kind of lifeline. Even stranger is who tossed it: David French. Pressed by Douthat about whether he would allow the government to “regulate public morality,” French conceded that he would. Here is the central part of the exchange:
Douthat: [There used to be] not an established church, but a kind of legal preference for public expressions of Christianity, and a legal preference or allowance for morals legislation around porn in particular, obscenity, that reflected Christian principles.
French: I don’t think that porn, for example, would fit within the original intent or original public meaning of the First Amendment…. Municipalities and localities have in theory often a lot of ability to regulate it….
Douthat: That’s Ahmari-ism, in a sense…. Your argument there is that the originalist interpretation of the Constitution allows for, essentially, morals legislation that reflects a Christian world view about pornography, right?
Douthat: You allow for a much larger zone for, potentially, state power to regulate public morality and promote Christianity than is allowed under the current classical liberal reading of the Constitution. That’s all I’m suggesting. Would you say that’s fair?
French: In certain areas, I would say, yes.
French tried to back off a little when it came to prayer in schools, where he cited its history as a tool of sectarian conflict used by Protestants against Catholics. My impression is that he did quite intend to go this direction, and in this case, he is the one who has not thought very clearly about what it means and where or whether he can draw a line between the kind of “morals legislation” he would support and the kind he wouldn’t. So it was a major concession. Douthat hailed it as a sign of agreement between the two men—”We’re all French-ists, we’re all Ahmari-ists”—but it’s clear which of the two was giving ground.
In effect, David French was the only person at the debate to offer anything like a substantive idea of what Sohrab Ahmari-ism would consist of. He won the debate against Ahmari, but lost it against himself.
I have some idea of the scope of the concession French unwittingly made, because for another project, I’ve recently been doing some research on the Supreme Court rulings in the early 1970s that established a supposed constitutional basis for local regulations against pornography. These are the rulings that established the idea of “local community standards,” and their basic argument, put forward by conservative Supreme Court justices, was that government has the authority to ban anything that is considered “offensive” by a local community.
Looking back more than four decades later, ask yourself which side of the cultural and political debate has actually put this into practice. It has not been the conservatives, because laws against pornography have largely been dropped. Instead, this idea has been embraced by the left, and it has been embraced particularly on the more stridently leftist college campuses, which enthusiastically embraced the idea of banning anything their little communities find to be “offensive.” This is precisely the problem French identified of “free speech for me, but not for thee.” Once the authority to decide what is “offensive” and to ban it is established, it isn’t necessarily used by your side or for your preferred purposes. Ironically, this is what French has spent much of his career fighting, and I find it interesting that he doesn’t see the connection.
This is why even the “classical liberal” conservatives have been caught so flat-footed by the illiberal conservatives. One of the themes Ahmari kept hitting again last night was his opposition to the “autonomous individual.” He has never had one of his conservative opponents really push back on that, because they all accept some area where religious doctrines should override individual judgment.
Defending individual autonomy is obviously essential to the defense of liberty, but conservatives are not really prepared to do it.
Yet despite French’s concession, Ahmari still managed to find a big way to undermine his side of the debate, impugning French’s personal courage by denigrating French’s military service in Iraq, sneering, “You were just a JAG.” Yes, “just” a military lawyer—stationed in a war zone.
This gave us all a reminder of what it means when Ahmari dismisses civility as a “second-order value” not to be extended to those who don’t share his values—which apparently includes anyone who disagrees with him, even an Evangelical Christian and military veteran. It gives the lie to Ahmari’s claim that the goal for which he his fighting is to preserve moral values, and instead it makes him look more like he wants to burn down the village of public morality in order to save it.
This is not the first time that the self-appointed guardians of public morality turned out not to have much credibility as representatives of those values. I remember the last time a “Moral Majority” tried to re-establish a Christian order through political activism. The project foundered in significant part because of a series of scandals that exposed the debauched lives of the televangelists types—the Jim Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggarts—who were supposed to put the “moral” in that majority.
Similarly, if Ahmari thinks, today, that the Catholic Church is going to be accepted as the new backbone of public morality, I’ve got bad news for him.
If these are the kind of authorities offering us a paternalistic moral order, I expect that a lot of us are going to say, “Physician, heal thyself,” and insist on our individual autonomy to make our own moral decisions for ourselves and our children. That is why, despite French’s help last night, Ahmari is still going to lose the larger cultural debate.