Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

French-Ahmari: A Report From The Scene

A clash that exemplified the divide in contemporary US conservatism
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[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:

  • There was near-universal consensus that French mopped the floor with Ahmari, even if he wasn’t particularly persuasive for his position. He stuck to the legal and constitutional arguments he is most comfortable with and knowledgeable about, revealed legal flaws in Ahmari’s claims, and consistently pressed Ahmari to be specific in his proposals, which revealed a shallowness of thought in Ahmari’s arguments. Amongst the French-skeptical folks I spoke with afterwards, a main topic of conversation was who else might have represented the post-liberal/national conservative position better (Patrick Deneen was the most frequent name to come up).
  • There seemed to be something of an age divide. The older folks in the room seemed to more likely to be in French’s corner, whereas all of the Millennials and Gen Zers I talked to instinctually agreed with Ahmari (even if they didn’t think he’d acquitted himself well).
  • This was obviously personal for French, and Ahmari seemed far less prepared than French. (“You come at the king, you best not miss.”)
  • In some ways, the debate itself was emblematic of the divide in American conservatism. The classical liberal (French) was polished, rehearsed, and supported by the conservative establishment, arguing that we need to stay the course and not throw the baby out with the bathwater (or in French’s memorable analogy, not storm the cockpit United 93-style and choke out the pilot over a bit of turbulence). The postliberal (Ahmari) was combative, passionate, and full of spleen, but relied more on bravado than argumentation and didn’t seem to have a concrete sense of what he was for, rather than what he was against.
  • There was a palpable Catholic and Protestant difference in their arguments. French was explicitly concerned with Christians’ ability to preach a life-giving Gospel, even without equality in the public sphere. Ahmari was concerned about public religiosity and practice, and the impact of the public sphere not on firm believers but on the marginal, overworked working class family that can’t afford to put their kids in Christian school and maybe isn’t particularly educated or sophisticated about their faith.
  • The conversation revolved much too much at the highest levels of culture and law. Ahmari would have benefited from pushing the conversation towards the role of professional associations and “woke capital”: the American Library Association, American Bar Association, medical review boards, college accreditation agencies, HR departments, etc. What practical or ethical limits does David French see in rooting out the post-liberal Left in these institutions that actually shape the public space on a day to day basis?

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

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fAG28K0nGAU]