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French-Ahmari: A Report From The Scene

[Note from Rod: I am in Yurp, and because of the time difference, could not watch the livestream of the David French/Sohrab Ahmari match-up at Catholic U. last night. My CUA professor friend and sometime TAC contributor Jon Askonas was there, and at my request, filed the following report for this blog’s readers. Thanks, Jon! — RD]

Last night, Sohrab Ahmari and David French met to debate the future of cultural conservatism, moderated by Ross Douthat and hosted by the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America. The large lecture hall packed over five hundred people (many standing) in to listen, with the air and energy of a Vegas prize fight. The debate wasn’t just philosophical — Ahmari’s original column had had something of a personal tinge, and you could tell that French was there not just to vindicate his position but to defend his name.

Much of the conversation revolved around Drag Queen Story Hour, as Ahmari’s original motivation and as a paradigmatic example of the “cultural crisis and a moral emergency” that Ahmari argues “David Frenchism” is unprepared to handle. It was a bit annoying that the debate didn’t much move off of this terrain, but revealing in a number of ways.

French’s response was, effectively, to categorize DQSH as something he might personally abhor but with which it was necessary to abide in exchange for “viewpoint neutrality” as a hard-fought principle of public access, which a tremendous variety of Christian organizations draw on (in order to, say, book rooms at a library to hold a Bible study). He also labeled it a fringe phenomenon, with only a few dozen chapters around the country.

Ahmari’s pushback was that French was underselling DQSH as a cultural phenomenon (or what you might call a condensed symbol) indicating who really controls the commanding heights of American cultural institutions, and that “viewpoint neutrality” was a sham if people engaged in self-censorship, which Ahmari held to be the real goal of the left, not formal legal censorship.

In the conversation that ensued, French defended the First Amendment, “viewpoint neutrality,” and due process as fundamental rights that protect Christians and religious groups more than anything (based on his legal work), even if it also protects things Christians don’t like. He pushed Ahmari to be specific about the legal tools he would use to fight against things like DQSH, to which he (Ahmari) did not have a great response.

French believes that these legal norms, vigorously defended, are enough to make a public space in which Christians can worship and evangelize freely. He sees a more-or-less upward trajectory in religious rights, based on decades of hard-fought battles, and sees any attempt to use the state to promote a cultural moral consensus as both unethical (he invoked the Golden Rule) and likely to backfire.

Ahmari, for his part, was strongest when he returned to a sense of cultural and moral emergency which suggests that something is wrong in American life, and when he focused on the conditions of belief or morality for the masses, not just the devout. He poked some holes in French’s originalist jurisprudence (hard to believe the Founders would have found DQSH to be protected speech), but struggled with the details, or to mount a sustained offense. It seemed like Douthat, the moderator, made most of his best points for him (in the form of “summations” of Ahmari-ism posed as questions to French.

In the ensuing hours, a few conclusions have congealed:

Thanks again, Jon. Here’s a video of the event, which lasted 90 minutes: