David French: Not Woke Enough For The Times?
Above, a screenshot from an appearance David French made last year on Morning Joe, in which French trashed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for going after woke Disney. French blasted DeSantis's move as "unconstitutional" because in his view, DeSantis sought to punish a corporation for its political opinion. I'm can't recall how that all shook out in Florida, but I think DeSantis prevailed, probably because as I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong), DeSantis didn't seek to impose punitive measures on Disney, but only to remove its specially favored treatment under Florida law. In any case, this clip is an example of the best of David French and the worst of him: the best, because he points out potential legal problems with emotionally satisfying things Republican politicians want to do, and the worst because French these days rarely seems overly bothered by the kind of acts by culture warriors of the Left that provoke responses by the Right. Maybe it's because he lives in the old GOP world, where corporations are to be treated with deference. I dunno. I haven't followed French's writing much in the last year. I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, in gratitude for the hard work he did for ADF defending religious liberty in the past, but also because I think culture warriors like me need to hear dissenting voices.
So, you may have heard that David French has moved over to The New York Times as an opinion columnist. It's a good hire for the Times. David is a conservative Evangelical whose positions often align broadly with the Times's -- especially on the matter of Donald J. Trump. In fact, here's the link to French's latest piece from the Internet front page of the paper this morning:
I know David French a little, and consider him a friend. I disagree with him more often than I agree with him these days, but I consider him to be an honorable opponent in these debates. In the whole Ahmari-French throwdown a few years ago, more of my sympathies were on the Ahmari side, but I despised the way French was turned into a hate figure by many on my side. My disagreements with him aren't personal; I try very hard not to personalize my politics with anybody.
Yet I understand also why he is so disliked by the Right. David stands for a kind of conservatism that, to people like us, is at best inadequate to the realities of the moment, and at worst collaborating in our own defeat and marginalization. I think it is true and just to describe David as a "principled conservative". He doesn't blow with the wind. The problem is that the principles he stands on often -- not always, but often -- were formed during a time when classical liberalism was still defensible, because the center in American politics was more or less holding. He is an unreformed Bush-style Republican. He even still thinks the Iraq War was the right thing for us to do. I don't say that to insult him; it's just who David French is.
From what I understand, some conservative Evangelicals dislike him in part because they see him as too willing to compromise with the Evangelical Left. French has also gone totally squish on DEI, and his famous defense of Drag Queen Story Hour as a "blessing of liberty" outraged his critics. (Note: French did not say that DQSH itself was a blessing of liberty; he said that the fact that both story-reading drag queens and Bible-reading Christians have equal access to the public library is a blessing of liberty. It's a meaningful distinction, but critics could easily say that no system of liberty that allows this sort of thing to be done to little children is in any sense a blessing.) To get the basic Evangelical critique of David French, check out this 2021 blog post by Bethel McGrew. I don't want to go into it all here because anybody who has been following the controversies over David French knows all this stuff.
Why do I bring it up? Because there is a move now by powerful LGBT wokesters to cancel David French off the pages of the Times, because his Evangelical Christian beliefs do not line up perfectly with the Cultural Revolution. Their Francophobia is part of a broader campaign to intimidate the Times into declining to practice journalism that upsets activists. From a public letter sponsored by GLAAD, and signed by many LGBT organizations, and some prominent celebrities (including filmmaker Judd Apatow):
Article after article, page after page, day after day, we have tried to educate you and your colleagues. We have sent emails, made calls, tried to help reporters source stories, and in one case, after more than four months of trying, some of us were even able to sit down and talk with you. It is clear that our behind-the-scenes outreach has had zero impact. What has had impact, however, is your irresponsible coverage.
The Science Desk decided to spend more than a year undermining support for transgender youth by writing "just asking questions" stories about medically approved best practices for gender-affirming healthcare. The Opinion editors gave noted cisgender heterosexual Pamela Paul space for her unfounded thoughts about how LGBTQ people should describe themselves, as if the Times could not find anyone with lived experience in the LGBTQ community to write about our issues. Then the Times boasted about hiring David French, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group that actively spreads misinformation about LGBTQ people and pushes baseless legislation and lawsuits to legalize discrimination.
Now, if you are a Times subscriber like me, you know well that the newspaper's coverage of all things LGBT has been celebratory and advocacy-oriented. What the GLAAD trolls oppose is the very few recent stories in the paper that have questioned the Narrative -- around "gender affirming care" for children, and other things. These people are totalitarians who want to eliminate from public life anyone who disagrees. Here is what GLAAD and its signatories are demanding of the Times:
We could spend paragraphs listing every anti-LGBTQ and every anti-trans article the Times has printed in just the past year, but we would rather focus on action. Here are our demands for the New York Times:
STOP: Stop printing biased anti-trans stories. Stop the anti-trans narratives immediately. Stop platforming anti-trans activists. Stop presenting anti-trans extremists as average Americans without an agenda. Stop questioning trans people's right to exist and access medical care. Stop questioning best practice medical care. Stop questioning science that is SETTLED.We will do all we can to make sure that Times writers and editors have the necessary information and access to experts to report responsibly on trans people and issues. But we will be strongly recommending that trans youth and their families skip interviews with the Times, in order to keep them out of harm's way. Timing: Immediately.
LISTEN: So many trans people are wary of the Times, and do not trust the Times. Hold a meeting with transgender community members and leaders, and listen throughout that meeting. Listen to trans sources, trans people, and organizations working with trans people. Listen to trans youth who have been abandoned and abused by their parents. Listen to trans youth who have been loved and supported by their parents. Listen to trans adults who can tell you about their experiences and shed light on what it was like to be a young person.Timing: Hold this meeting within 2 months.
HIRE: Genuinely invest in hiring trans writers and editors, full time on your staff. We know many trans writers and editors do not trust the Times. We don’t trust you either, so we don’t blame them. But do the work: Stop, listen, and hire. If you stop the egregious, irresponsible coverage, and listen to trans people, you will start to rebuild credibility and trust. It is clear the cisgender writers and editors at the Times – regardless of their sexual orientation or membership in the queer community – just are not able to cover trans people and issues accurately. So let trans people do it. Let trans people into your workdays, your briefings, and your story meetings.Timing: Hire at least 2 trans people on the Opinion side and at least 2 trans people on the news side within 3 months.
The Science Is Settled™, ya bigots! Et cetera.
This would be the time for the New York Times to find its spine and tell these wokesters to screw right off. But a separate yet parallel letter published yesterday includes the signatures of Times contributors. They complain about an impressive analytical piece Ross Douthat wrote in 2022 exploring the arguments of the various sides in the culture war over LGBT. In it, he wrote in conclusion:
The effects of this debate-ending impulse on liberal discourse is the third complexity lurking behind my initial categorization. Within liberaldom right now you literally cannot know, outside of private conversation, whether someone is fully in the first camp, more inclined to the second camp or even drawn toward the third. There is a gap between what people are willing to say in public and what they really think that’s unprecedented on any controversial issue I have seen.
This — call it discretion, if you want — is partly voluntary, based on a desire to be a good ally, to show maximal kindness, and not give any aid and comfort to conservatives, Republicans, Ron DeSantis.
But it’s also enforced: A version of the Rowling vortex quickly surrounds anyone who argues skeptically about the rise in transgender identification or suggests that hormonal and surgical treatments are being overused, whether that person is a journalist, an author, an academic researcher, even a gender-dysphoria clinician.
That enforcement has not prevented these skeptics from presenting their arguments, from having books that sell or well-subscribed Substacks. But it effectively limits debate within crucial liberal institutions, so that the skeptical position feels almost untouchable in the academy.
This increasingly means that American liberalism all the way up to the Biden administration is drifting away, on these questions, even from the most liberal and secular parts of Europe. From Britain to Sweden there is an increasingly vigorous debate around adolescent medical interventions, widespread doubts that they are actually supported by the data and a partial reconsideration of their general application to transgender-identifying youth. In liberal America there is mostly just an orthodoxy, even if the cracks show here and there.
This uniquely American climate also raises uncomfortable questions for the few conservatives, like myself, who enjoy a substantial liberal readership. You will notice that I have written this essay in a studiously cautious style, on the theory that as I am in fact a known social conservative, my too-vigorous prosecution of the skeptics’ case would serve only to reinforce the current progressive orthodoxy — enabling the response that, see, to doubt the wisdom of puberty blockers or the authenticity of teenage self-identification is the province of Catholics, religious conservatives, the out-group.
But of course this is also a theory of conflict-avoidance, shading into cowardice. So to end more straightforwardly, I will make a prediction: Within not too short a span of time, not only conservatives but most liberals will recognize that we have been running an experiment on trans-identifying youth without good or certain evidence, inspired by ideological motives rather than scientific rigor, in a way that future generations will regard as a grave medical-political scandal.
Which means that if you are a liberal who believes as much already, but you don’t feel comfortable saying it, your silence will eventually become your regret.
This column was a model of analysis. If you read the whole thing, you'll see that he presents various sides, then concludes with a warning to those on the Left who are trying to stifle skeptical discourse around the trans kids issue. So what does the new letter do? Damn Douthat for his warning:
Douthat’s piece was published in the Opinion section, which lost one of the paper’s most consistently published trans writers, Jennifer Finney Boylan, following the Times’ recent decision not to renew her contract.
Do you know why the Times didn't renew JFB's contract? As a Times subscriber and erstwhile Boylan reader, I can guess: Boylan's op-eds were dead boring. Gazing into the trans navel, trying to find something interesting to say. Naturally activists loved it -- but ordinary people, not so much. You don't have to agree with Douthat's point of view to recognize that he always has something interesting to say. But there is a kind of progressive mind that does not want to be troubled with ideas that conflict with the Narrative.
There are some big names on that list -- well-established journalists, men and women who ought to know better than to throw in with this kind of anti-journalism crusade. Incredibly, the signatories believe that The New York Times newsroom is an unsafe place for trans and pro-trans people to work, because the newspaper publishes reporting and analysis that they dislike -- this, despite the fact that the Times's overall record on writing about trans issues is massively progressive. The letter ends like this:
There is no rapt reporting on the thousands of parents who simply love and support their children, or on the hardworking professionals at the New York Times enduring a workplace made hostile by bias—a period of forbearance that ends today.
Fine, don't publish these people anymore. Let them write for lesser publications that care more about following a party line than pursuing the truth, or giving voice to a variety of perspectives.
This really is a line in the sand for the Times. It cannot allow itself to be pushed around like this. If these people don't want to contribute to the Times anymore, great. That is their right. But to demand that the paper of record -- the most important journalistic entity in the country, and indeed the world -- close its eyes to an extremely important debate happening now, declaring in effect that there is no debate, is abhorrent and intolerable. The Times leadership cannot ride this one out: it must take a public stand in favor of open, fair discussion.
And this also calls into question the approach of David French to these matters. I have always understood David to be a classical liberal; indeed, one of the fundamental reasons he passionately opposes Donald Trump, and what Trump stands for, is that he sees Trumpism as a threat to the classical liberal position. I also believe that David is naive about the opposition that he, and we who are further to the Right than he is, face. Nevertheless, unlike many of my friends and allies on the Right, I've thought of him as an honest broker. Not a bad person, just mistaken. I still do. But surely he must see now that the forces arrayed against us from the Left are totalitarian, in that they would deny even classical liberals like him and Douthat a platform at all, because they dissent from the Narrative. They want to drive us all out of the public square. They cannot be compromised with, only defeated.
Last night in Budapest, I had dinner with a veteran Hungarian conservative journalist. He explained to me that the journalistic culture and tradition in this country is very different from the American one. Here, there has never been a tradition of what we Americans call "objective" journalism -- that is, the idea that newspapers and publications should strive to give all sides of a story, impartially, in the news pages. Hungarian journalism has always been partisan, he said. In journalism schools, this has always been the understanding, though he said journalism professors often privately say that the American model is healthier. So, when you read about the US Government spending money to bolster the "independent" journalism sector in Hungary, understand that US taxpayer dollars are going to subsidize left-wing, anti-government media. Conservative journalists I have spoken to here over the past two years say that if the Orban government had not opened up space for conservative media, there would have been zero chance that right-of-center journalists would ever be hired at the existing publications, which are all on the Left. This is because of how Hungarian journalism works, and has always worked. If you, as an American, project the US model onto Hungary, you are going to get a lot wrong.
Me, I prefer the American model: right-wing publications and left-wing publications, with a broad center filled by papers like the Times, which at least try, in principle, to be balanced. The Times has always been a liberal newspaper, but I have subscribed since the early 1990s because I need a major source of news, and I can read through the Times's progressive bias to get valuable content all the same. But the Times has not come through the Great Awokening well. It has become more partisan to the Left, as has all major American journalism. (I used to contribute to liberal NPR, until I judged it became so woke it no longer provided value.) It is clear that American journalism is becoming more like the Hungarian model. People like the writers who signed on to that second letter are fine with that. They believe that conservatives of all kinds -- including right-liberals like David French -- are intolerable. And so far, they are winning. They have marched through the institutions, and are now consolidating power.
Back in the mid-2000s, I was editor of the Sunday commentary section of the Dallas Morning News. I was well known as a conservative columnist and commentator, but when I wore the editor's hat, I considered it to be a solemn professional responsibility to be fair and balanced. I published as many writers from the Left as from the Right. I wanted my bias to be only towards the interesting, no matter who wrote it. If I were a Times editor, I would follow the same standard. This is one reason why I could not work in mainstream journalism again. I could already see things changing back then. As I've mentioned here before, when I had a friendly argument with a younger colleague who said that our newspaper should not give coverage to those opposed to same-sex marriage, even though many, and maybe most, of our subscribers back then (this was around 2006) opposed gay marriage, because that would be like treating the KKK as having a legitimate point of view in the Civil Rights movement, I could read the handwriting on the wall.
A side point: media bias expresses itself not so much in the media telling people what to believe, but in the way it frames what is permissible to think about and discuss. Take the Ukraine war debate ("debate") in the US and western Europe. It is anathema to question NATO strategy on the war. There is only one legitimate position: the one that calls for throwing more money and weaponry at Ukraine, to wage this proxy war on Russia. The prudence of NATO's policy is not up for discussion; if you doubt it, then you are nothing more than Putin's whore, in their mind. The fact that every US and US-backed war this century -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya -- ended with calamity doesn't register with these people, not even when we are rushing towards open war with a nuclear-armed superpower. Understand that my point here is not that the pro-peace side is right and the pro-war side is wrong; my point is rather that we can't even have an open discussion in our media about it, because those who establish the framework of public debate have decided that there is no debate to be had. What kind of a liberal democracy is this? The United States and Europe are speeding towards war with Russia, and most Americans don't seem to understand what's really happening -- because the people whose job it is to inform them have decided that managing the Narrative is more important than a full and fair airing of facts and analysis. This is how things are going in Russia too, by the way -- but then, we are supposed to be better than Russia, aren't we?
So, look: if the Times gives even a hint of capitulating to accommodate these leftist bullies; and if even David French is too right-wing for them, then that will tell us something important and depressing about The New York Times. But what, I wonder, will it tell David French, and those who hold to his right-liberal view of the world? I confess that this isn't just about David French. You will have observed that my own professional convictions, stated in the paragraph above, are classically liberal. I have accepted that they are now intolerable within my chosen profession. I don't want to live in the postliberal world, not because I have any fondness of left-wing positions, but because I recognize that the United States is a highly diverse society, and keeping the social peace requires the kinds of compromises that liberalism fosters. This is what David French meant by saying that equal access to the public library is a "blessing of liberty."
But this really isn't tenable anymore, is it? From a conservative point of view, if upholding liberalism means men who masquerade as women have the right to go into the library and propagandize little children to doubt their own given maleness and femaleness, then liberalism is a suicide pact. From the point of view of the signatories to the Times anti-French, anti-Douthat letter, if liberalism means giving a platform to people who question the validity of the maximalist pro-trans position, then liberalism is harmful, and should be refused. And so forth.
What we are confronted with, then, is the unsettling fact that liberalism requires shared prior commitments -- commitments that fewer and fewer people have anymore. It requires a kind of philosophical elasticity -- that is, we have to share enough basic principles so that the tension from the extremes stretch us without snapping the cords that hold us together. In my view, the Left, over the past thirty years, has gone so far from the center that they have made it hard, at times impossible, to live with them.
For example, these Times contributors really do believe that the trans movement, and the institutions that propagate it, should have unrestricted access to children, and that those children should be encouraged to embrace chemicals and surgeries to work permanent transformations on their bodies, for the sake of realizing their "true selves." Parents should have no say in the matter, because The Science Is Settled™. This is monstrous, and frankly, I don't understand why the American people haven't taken to the streets to defend their children, as well as their wives and daughters from the danger the normalization of trans (as distinct from a certain tolerance) poses. You cannot go after people's children like this and expect the social compact to hold.
Similarly, you cannot mount a campaign to demonize half the country on the basis of race, and tell them over and over again that they are wicked people based on the color of their skin, and that they should be willing to accept dhimmitude because of their supposed moral inferiority. One of the glories of American liberalism -- I mean this sincerely -- is that it fought against this evil philosophy when it was used to harass and oppress black Americans. But now, well within living memory, it is coming back in a progressive iteration. And the propagators of this ideology are not powerful white racists in the American South, but leaders of front-rank American institutions, corporations, and others. I'm old enough to remember being taught in school, and by the media, that it was always wrong to judge people based on the color of their skin, not the content of their character. This was a lesson that many of my generation took to heart. I fought bitterly with my late father over it, too, and suffered a fracture in our relationship because neither of us would bend. (We eventually agreed decades ago not to talk about it, for the sake of having a relationship.) I came to see quickly that this color-blind liberalism, despite its imperfections, was the only way we could live in peace in diverse America. It still is. But the Left, with its rigid and hysterical extremism, is making it impossible.
I confess that I honestly don't know how to face the future on these matters. I have held up Hungarian PM Viktor Orban as a model for American conservatives not because I think it is desirable or even possible to replicate the Hungarian system in the United States (it's not!), but because Orban, alone among leading politicians of the Right in the West, understands how power actually works in the postliberal West. He understands that the Left has hollowed out the structures and institutions of liberalism, and wears them like masks and skin suits to pursue illiberal leftist goals. And he is willing to fight back, and to do so competently and capably. Finally, we see in the emergence of Ron DeSantis, an American politician who understands what's what, and is willing to do more than shoot off his mouth about it.
I've gone on too long here, but it's because I really am conflicted, deeply conflicted, over all this. I wish we lived in David French World, where there was enough left of the shared classical liberal tradition to work out our disputes within it. We got Donald Trump in part because the David Frenches of the Right -- and maybe I was among them once upon a time -- did not grasp as we ought to have done the legitimate grievances of white working class people, angry military veterans, and others. We did not take them seriously and advocate for their interests. The Democratic elites are quite proud of their constituencies; the Republican elites are often embarrassed by theirs. Ergo, Trump. The reason I was not a Never Trumper was not because I felt warmly about Donald Trump, but because I recognized that as crude as Trump was, the old GOP Establishment needed to be bulldozed, because it had failed to advocate for the interests of its voters, and, with its Bush-era warmongering and slavish obedience to corporations and Wall Street, was actively hurting America's interests.
Far as I can tell, David French is a good man but also an unreconstructed Bush-era Republican. Alas for him if true, but what really interests me is whether or not there is any room at all in the emerging America for classical liberalism. My fondness for it has to do with the fact that I have a general "live and let live" attitude towards life. This was tenable when the extremes were kept at the extremes. But the Left, and the mainstream culture that it dominates completely, have brought the extreme right to the center. An old-school conservative friend texted me the other day in despair, saying that he misses being able to be proud of his country. I know the feeling. As I've said many times in this space, it's acutely painful to be living in the former Communist world, and hearing old people who suffered through the Soviet days, and who looked to America as a beacon of liberty and goodness, asking with pain and confusion in their eyes, "What happened to you all?" I often feel that David French is fighting for an America that sadly, no longer exists.
On the other hand, what's the alternative? We had all better hope that Gov. DeSantis's fierce pushback on all forms of institutional wokeness succeeds. He's fighting to defend a classically liberal position, it seems to me. With the exception of a relative few extremists on the Right, there aren't many people who want to see the current ideology of Sacred Minority supremacy replaced with white supremacy. We want a return to the principles of classical liberalism. But then there's the Deneen point: classical liberalism is what got us here. I would refine the point: classical liberalism detached from the Christian faith is what got us here. Liberalism only really works if it is rooted in a pre-rational set of shared commitments. As MacIntyre discerned decades ago, Reason alone is insufficient to uphold liberalism. What frustrates me, and has led me to a standstill in my thinking, is that I cannot imagine a form of government and a social compact that most of us can consent to, that upholds classical liberal standards without a broadly shared religion. It is grief-inducing to think about the inevitable conflicts ahead, as Americans (and Westerners more generally) either capitulate to technocratic, progressive soft totalitarianism, or commit themselves to ugly fights to defend their liberties. I am on the side of fighting, to be clear -- but I also don't want to be so apocalyptic that I miss out on legitimate reasons to hope for, and pursue, a peaceful resolution of our differences.
It's why, for example, I favor peaceful negotiation to end the Russia-Ukraine war. I think Russia was wrong to invade, but also that the US's hands aren't at all clean in this conflict. Neither Russia nor Ukraine is going to get what it wants, but we need to stop the killing now, before it spirals truly out of control. We can work out the details later, at the negotiating table. This common sense position -- well, I think it's common sense -- is derided as defeatism and Putin-lackeyism by the pure. But what good does it do to be right, but to have presided over the destruction of a nation, or even worse, if this war should go nuclear? This kind of militant purity is what drives the Woke, like the signers of that NYT letter. They don't care about anybody's objections to trans extremism. They want every dissenter silenced and marginalized. They don't want to share a country with the rest of us, unless we accept dhimmitude. I wish David French well at the Times, and hope that the paper's leaders rally to his defense. Still, I also wish I could understand how David French's kind of conservatism could drive this radicalism back. And I wish I could foresee a kind of conservatism that could successfully do that without becoming a right-wing version of the evil we will have defeated.
What do you think? If you can't comment below, please write me at rod -- at -- amconmag -- dot -- com, and I'll post the best responses in a separate post. Please put FRENCH in the subject line, so I won't miss it in the avalanche of email I get daily.
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UPDATE: Good news! Maybe the Times leadership learned from its capitulation to the George Floyd bullies inside the newsroom: