If you aren’t yet sick of the French And Ahmari War — and honestly, you shouldn’t be; it’s about something substantive within conservatism — here’s a really good New Yorker interview about it with Ross Douthat.This part jumped out to me:

Do you see a connection between the way the culture generally has developed and the way Republican élites, who are in many cases not social conservatives, treat social conservatives within their coalition?

I think that there’s some connection. I think that for social conservatism to make sense as a political world view, it has to have a more capacious understanding of what kind of society it wants than just saying, “Leave us alone and let us pass laws against abortion.” I don’t think this is a main reason that religious identification has diminished or that marriage has declined or birth rates have declined. All of these are obviously driven by many, many factors.

But I think the argument that social conservatives want to make about American society is weaker than it could be, because it’s seen as narrowly focussed on a few issues, not having a strong economic-policy vision, and, more broadly, not having a story that’s distinct from the story that more libertarian conservatives would tell.

You wrote, “But what, specifically, do these conservatives want, besides a sense of thrill-in-combat that French’s irenic style denies them? I don’t think they are completely certain themselves.” You don’t seem to get much from the “thrill-in-combat” stuff that a lot of Trump supporters like about the President. But what is it that you want?

You’re right, I don’t thrill to Donald Trump’s approach to politics at all, but I think that, to the extent that they’re asking for more influence over economic policy and a conversation about the philosophical roots of liberalism, I’m there for that conversation, if not necessarily some of the more radical places it could go. But, yeah, to the extent that they’re suggesting a different Republican Party that is more populist, that supports working families, then I’m totally there for it.

Douthat’s remarks made me realize why I have been only minimally interested in actual politics for so long: because there has been nobody to speak for the things that interest me, and no prospect of such a person emerging. Within the conservative coalition, social conservatism has been dominated by Evangelicals, who by and large have had an uncomplicated relationship with free-market fundamentalism. I’m generalizing here, but Catholics, and those of a more Catholic sensibility, have gone along with this because the Democratic Party has grown ever more radically pro-abortion, pro-LGBT, and hostile to religious liberty. The “more capacious understanding” that Douthat quite rightly says we social and religious conservatives should have has, in my view, never had a real chance to emerge on the Right, except in books, journals, and blogs.

Well, thanks to Donald Trump, it now has. It’s thanks to Trump for this reason alone: because he broke up the Republican Party’s ideological ice shelf.

Here’s another good quote from Douthat:

I think the question that Ahmari is raising but that is also sort of generally in the air is whether secular liberalism has a kind of stopping point that accepts the continued not just existence but flourishing of conservative religious traditions that aren’t on board with the cultural-liberal consensus. I’ll be totally honest, I don’t know what the answer is, and one of the reasons this debate is interesting is that I think the shift in secular liberalism’s attitudes toward people of my beliefs, for instance, over the last twenty years, has been dark and startling in a lot of ways, and it does raise the question of where is the stopping point, where is the stable ground, and what strategy is most appropriate in response.

Read it all. That’s a very smart point, and, I think, very close to the core of the French-Ahmari dispute. I hadn’t quite thought of it like Douthat puts it, but he’s right: whether you think Ahmari is right or French is right depends on whether or not you think the liberal order has a brake on wokeness. I confess that I don’t really know. As I’ve said, I am strongly inclined to Ahmari’s side, but I worry that because someone like French, who has actually fought these battles in courtrooms, knows more about how this actually works, I am being too alarmist. And I also don’t share the willingness of at least some of the Catholic integralists to impose my idea of right and wrong on others.

On the other hand, I also worry that the attempt to find a middle ground makes me and people like me into suckers — and this is what Ahmari gets that French doesn’t.

I’m sorry, I wish I had a more clear answer here. I’m trying to think through this too, and appreciate all the various things I’m reading. This might be the place for me to say that both of these men are friends of mine, and I respect them both very much.

This essay by Georgetown political theorist Joshua Mitchell, though, puts things into a certain perspective (I dramatically understate the case). I don’t want to say too much and discourage you from reading the whole thing, but it is a hell of a piece, and it lands in the French-Ahmari War like the Hiroshima bomb.

Mitchell’s basic claim is that the Republican Party, and its standard political categories, are insufficient to the current moment. Why? Because the Democratic Party has been conquered by identity politics, which are a pseudo-religion. More:

Neither liberals nor conservatives understand the weapon of identity politics, and the immense destruction it can cause. Identity politics does not simply parse different kinds of people. Identity politics is concerned with the relationship of transgression and innocence between different, purportedly monovalent, kinds of people. Identity politics is not just about who we are, it is about a moral stain or purity that defines who we are.

The language of stain and purity, of transgression and innocence, is Christian language. Other religions are concerned with these categories as well, but our long familiarity with Christianity in America means that the invocation of these categories by the practitioners of identity politics derives from Christianity, and from Protestantism in particular. Surveys may indicate that America has lost or is losing its religion; the fever of identity politics that now sweeps the nation suggests these surveys are looking in the wrong place and asking the wrong questions. America has not lost its religion. America has relocated its religion to the realm of politics.

This is an extremely dangerous thing, says Mitchell, though not for reasons you might be thinking. This is straight Rene Girard, but  decline of Christianity in our culture means that we have lost the ability to offer a non-violent means of resolving conflicts, of reconciliation, of discharging anger without tearing the community apart. Mitchell writes

the answer given by identity politics is that no healing power whatsoever is available to the transgressors.

He continues:

Identity politics must continue to expand the coterie of innocents whose “voices have not been heard,” who have been “marginalized,” or “excluded.” The politicization of the category “trans-gender” is therefore a necessary development of identity politics, irrespective of the small number of people who claim that identity category as their own. With all due respect to men and woman who struggle with anxiety and the essential strangeness of their world, Plato’s Republiclong ago chronicled this problem, which, sadly for many today, can only be thought through in sexual terms.

Thinking far more capaciously, Plato suggested in the “Allegory of the Cave” that the seemingly familiar world of the prisoners is, for those who have eyes to see the Truth, a strange world. Pressing contemporary terminology into service, the shadowy world of the Cave is the cis-world, in which most feel at home. The philosopher, Plato writes, knows his home is elsewhere, and looks elsewhere to find it. Identity politics rules out Plato, however. Indeed, it rules out the whole of the history of Western political thought. Anxiety about the essential strangeness of the world must be caused by oppressive heteronormativity, which victimizes you, the innocent one.

So declares identity politics. The permanent victimhood of all the identity groups heretofore postulated has not been enough. More innocent identity groups are needed, to add to the chorus of voices that seeks to purge the Prime Transgressor so that their wounds may be healed and their innocence restored. In the world identity politics constructs, the scandal associated with the existing state of things must grow exponentially, and the indictments leveled at the world as it is must become ever more comprehensive. Once gay men and lesbians were among the voiceless innocents; transgender identity politics now relegates those gay men and lesbians who are cisgender—that is, comfortable with being natural men or women—among the transgressors.

We must be clear where this seemingly endless increase in the number of transgressors ends: It ends with the indictment of Man himself, for which the resolution will be either the embrace of transhumanism or the eradication of Man altogether.

It’s interesting to me that I read this while at the same time I am immersed in side reading about Communism — specifically, Stalinism and the gulag. Bolshevism was a supreme manifestation of identity politics. Lenin and his successors did not care about anything other than asserting and exercising power. The value of human life was nothing to them. Nothing! If you were a member of a hated class — kulaks, priests, socialists, liberals, any enemy of the state — you deserved imprisonment, torture, death. In the Great Terror, if you had to ask why so-and-so had been arrested, you didn’t understand the nature of the Terror.

Back to the Mitchell essay. He says that the old liberal-and-conservative categories can’t deal with the threat posed by identity politics. As for conservatives, he writes:

The old conservative language is not an adequate weapon or defense against such a theological opposition. Family values? Pro-life conservativism? Platitudes good for fund-raising but little else in the war against identity politics. What identity politics seeks to destroy is the generative family, which in its estimation caries the stain of man and all of his repulsive prejudices forward from one generation to the next. So, too, does tradition, which is not a precious inheritance by whose light we are guided, but rather a resume dripping with the blood of the innocents who have suffered so that others may uphold their inheritance.

Destroying the generative family. Ah. I begin to appreciate what the professor meant four years ago when he told a Christian audience that we should not really fear gay marriage, but rather transgenderism, because civilization cannot withstand destroying the gender binary. I heard him say that, and really didn’t understand what he meant. I wish I had asked. Here is the latest propaganda blast from The New York Times, the flagship media entity crusading for the identity politics revolution. It’s about how the world looks through the eyes of people who claim not to be either male nor female, but both and neither. Excerpt:

Our talk shifted again from the past to the future. Jacobs spoke about foreseeing a time when people passing each other on the street wouldn’t immediately, unconsciously sort one another into male or female, which even Jacobs reflexively does. “I don’t know what genders are going to look like four generations from now,” they added, allowing that they might sound utopian, naïve. “I think we’re going to perceive each other as people. The classifications we live under will fall by the wayside.”

Among the voices of the young, there are echoes and amplifications of Jacobs’s optimism, along with the stories of private struggle. “There are as many genders as there are people,” Emmy Johnson, a nonbinary employee at Jan Tate’s clinic, told me with earnest authority. Johnson was about to sign up for a new dating app that caters to the genderqueer. “Sex is different as a nonbinary person,” they said. “You’re free of gender roles, and the farther you can get from those scripts, the better sex is going to be.” Their tone was more triumphal: the better life is going to be. “The gender boxes are exploding,” they declared.

A New Jersey-based therapist in her 50s, who describes herself as a butch lesbian and who has worked with nearly two dozen nonbinary high school and college students, is more circumspect. She guessed that many of her assigned-female nonbinary clients would once have lived as butch or — a subcategory — stone butch lesbians. “Are we just being faddish in the wish for more and more individualized identities?” she asked. And what percentage of the nonbinary kids now coming to her will be calling themselves nonbinary 10 or 15 years in the future? “To tell you the truth, I can’t be sure.” But despite her skepticism, her sense is that something urgent is going on, that new and necessary territory is being delineated. She’s not, at base, at odds with Jacobs, who wonders if we will all gradually question whether “the gender binary is inherent to human experience.”

She’s right: something urgent is going on. Something has been unleashed. You, reader, might think: this is just craziness happening among a radical fringe. I’m telling you this is happening in schools here where I live, in deep Trumplandia. As Douthat avers, there are no brakes on the cultural left, and this deeply destructive ideology is being pumped into the heads of young people by the mainstream media constantly. It is a religion of nihilism, of disintegration. Emmy Johnson, with her “earnest authority,” proclaims the coming utopia: a thousand million genders, and the best sex ever.

This’ll tell you what I’ve been watching on TV lately, but here goes: I feel that we are in a cultural equivalent of Chernobyl: a reaction has started that cannot be contained.

Look, you know in The Benedict Option I say that we are late Rome, and that traditional Christians had better start learning from St. Benedict how to hunker down and endure this long Dark Age upon us? One of the things that made the Dark Ages “dark” is that when Roman civilization collapsed, people just forgot how to do basic things — things you wouldn’t imagine could be forgotten. Jane Jacobs was not a religious person, but she warned in her final book (2004) that we were headed into a Dark Age now, in part because we have constructed a society that is deconstructing families. Her point of view was based mostly on economics and geography (she was a famous urbanist, you’ll recall), but it’s all even more true with regard to culture. She did not live to see a culture in which the major sources of cultural authority and influence were advocating, and legislating, the idea that there is no such thing as maleness and femaleness.

Let me put it like this: we are deliberately forgetting how to put together families, and how to be men and women together, even how to be men and women. 

This is what identity politics ideology is doing to us. And it has captured the Democratic Party.

Now, think about Joshua Mitchell’s essay in light of this. And think about Sohrab Ahmari’s. Think about how Woke Capitalism — which commercializes identity politics to sell stuff — is evangelizing for this pseudo-religion, and how inadequate GOP free market dogma is to counter the civilization-destroying power of identity politics.

“Identity politics is exactly who we are,” said rising Democratic star Stacey Abrams. Yes, it is. And 20th century history shows us where this leads.

Do I really have to say again that Trump is not the answer? I do not read Joshua Mitchell as saying that Trump is the answer. Mitchell calls Trump a “gift” because Trump, whether he meant to or not, revealed the nature of the game, and of the challenge. And he revealed the impotence of the standard mode of conservative engagement. If I’m reading Mitchell correctly, he’s not saying, “Let’s all be Trumpists.” Rather, in his final paragraph, he’s saying that old-school liberals and conservatives both need to come together to grasp the radical threat posed by identity politics — and the fact that it cannot be resisted politely. Let me quote Mitchell again:

Neither liberals nor conservatives understand the weapon of identity politics, and the immense destruction it can cause. Identity politics does not simply parse different kinds of people. Identity politics is concerned with the relationship of transgression and innocence between different, purportedly monovalent, kinds of people. Identity politics is not just about who we are, it is about a moral stain or purity that defines who we are.

He ends with this line:

Liberals and conservatives concerned about the American regime must now do all they can to defend the politics of competence, and relentlessly aim their munitions at the religious idea that the Christian categories of transgression and innocence can be invoked in politics to redeem the world.

I know, I know: there’s a cataclysmic irony in standing behind Donald Trump to defend “the politics of competence.” Mitchell is NOT saying that Donald Trump is competent. He’s saying that Trump’s style is what it takes to fight the religion of identity politics, which, if not checked, is going to destroy us. Heather Mac Donald’s great book The Diversity Delusion is precisely about this: about how identity politics is destroying basic competence in academia, business, and science.

It’s going to take me a bit to digest Mitchell’s essay, and to think through its implications, which, I gotta be honest, I naturally resist. I genuinely want to be liberal, in the best sense, about these things. But at the same time, if Douthat is right, and this turns on “whether secular liberalism has a kind of stopping point” that accepts individuals and groups that aren’t on board with it, then it’s hard to deny Mitchell. And I don’t think secular liberalism, as it exists today, has within it that self-restraint. Secular liberals like Mark Lilla and Bret Weinstein have been victims of the identity politics heresy-hunters; they won’t be the last. The fundamental question is: can liberalism keep from destroying itself? And if not, how do we keep it from destroying us?

One more thing:

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