Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Murti-Bing Conservatism

Analyzing the French-Ahmari debate through Czeslaw Milosz's concept
Screen Shot 2019-09-19 at 7.44.29 AM

In his great 1951 book The Captive Mind, the anti-communist dissident Czeslaw Milosz offered a striking concept to explain why so many people of Eastern Europe who should have known better became defenders of Communism: the Pill of Murti-Bing. Tony Judt explains this briefly:

Milosz came across this in an obscure novel by Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, Insatiability (1927). In this story, Central Europeans facing the prospect of being overrun by unidentified Asiatic hordes pop a little pill, which relieves them of fear and anxiety; buoyed by its effects, they not only accept their new rulers but are positively happy to receive them.

I wrote about the Pill of Murti-Bing five years ago, saying:

For Miłosz, Polish intellectuals who capitulated to communism and Soviet rule had taken the pill of Murti-Bing. It was what made their condition bearable. They could not stand to see reality, for if they recognized what was really happening in their country, the pain and shock would make life too much to take.

This is why people who have no financial or status tied up in protecting abuse of corruption within an institution can nevertheless be expected to rally around that institution and its leaders. Those who tell the truth threaten their Murti-Bing pill supply, and therefore their sense of order and well-being. To them, better that a few victims must be made to suffer rather than the entire community be forced to wean itself from Murti-Bing.

You can see how useful this concept can be as a tool of analysis. People in troubled churches take the Pill of Murti-Bing all the time. So do people in some troubled families, and other troubled institutions.

I’m thinking about the extent to which Murti-Bing can be applied to American conservatism — this, in context of the French-Ahmari argument. Let me be clear: I’m not saying below that what David French offers is Murti-Bing conservatism. I’m saying that it might be. I offer this as part of my own effort to figure out what I think of this debate.

As you might guess, I’m very sympathetic to Sohrab Ahmari’s claims that liberal proceduralism amounts to a slow-motion surrender to nihilism. That we need a “politics of the common good” (he sets his thoughts down more comprehensively here). His basic complaint against David French is that French’s skillful use of liberal proceduralism (specifically, First Amendment jurisprudence) to defend conservative causes really amounts to negotiating the terms of our capitulation. I think he’s pretty much right about that.

Two things hold me back from full-on endorsing Ahmarism — two points on which I think French is correct.

First, French points out that conservatives actually have won some important victories in court using the First Amendment — which is to say, using basic tools of liberal democracy. Are we sure we can afford to discard those? Are we sure we can afford to discard them in a polity that is becoming less and less Christian by the day? The First Amendment may soon be the only protection orthodox Christians have.

Second, what is the source of the common good to which Ahmari wants to appeal as the basis for a new politics? For Ahmari, a Catholic, the answer is clear, or at least clearer than it is to non-Catholics, and probably even Catholics who don’t agree with their own church’s teaching. Much has been made of Ahmari’s outrage over Drag Queen Story Hour. For Ahmari, DQSH stands as a condensed symbol of a worldview he finds repulsive. I’m 100 percent with him here. French doesn’t like DQSH, but he believes that the good of pluralism requires tolerating DQSH (and for secular lefties to tolerate Bible studies in public libraries).

In my view, healthy cultures would not permit DQSH; the founders of the movement say explicitly that their intention is to queer children (that is, to make their minds open to queerness) by helping them to “imagine a world without gender restrictions.” But I wonder: if a society has to ban DQSH, isn’t it already pretty far gone into decadence? In the recent past, it never would have occurred to most people to bring drag performers out of nightclubs and into libraries to present to little children. It’s an extremely perverse idea … but that’s where we are now. French, who is a constitutional lawyer by trade, no doubt has an important point when he says that the ability to ban DQSH would inevitably give the state the power to ban this or that expression of Christian piety. By defending the right of DQSH to exist, French, in his view, is defending the right of conservative Christians like himself to have the same privileges.

For Ahmari, this is a step too far. It is tolerating a moral and social evil. This is what liberalism has become. One is reminded of John Adams’s observation that the US Constitution was made for “a moral and religious people,” and that without that binding inner sense of restraint provided by moral and religious codes, human desire would tear through the Constitution “like a whale through a net.” If I understand him correctly, Ahmari is saying that we have arrived at the point at which unfettered human desire is destroying the social compact by obliterating the bases that people need to live in healthy, stable community.

Again, this is not about Drag Queen Story Hour per se. It’s about a vision of the Good, and to what extent that should set the bounds of our politics. For French, DQSH is not necessarily good in and of itself; the good is the system that permits people who enjoy that kind of thing to engage in it — the same system that gives conservative Christians the rights to do what we enjoy.

Here’s the thing: I believe, with Ahmari (and Alasdair MacIntyre), that we have lost a shared sense of the Good, and that because of that, we will soon lose the ability to govern ourselves. The sense of the Good that is emerging in the US is one that is hostile to moral, religious, and social conservatism, and favorable to radical individualism — especially sexual and gender individualism. Procedural liberalism cannot ultimately protect us from this.

On the other hand, what does Team Ahmari have to offer to replace decadent liberalism? To put a fine point on it: what do they have that could win the support of a majority in America, while not crushing the minority? After all, we might hate each other, but we have to live together somehow.

I believe that Frenchism can only hold the barbarians at bay for so long. The Left is becoming increasingly illiberal, and absent some unforeseen radical change, its worldview will have captured all the institutions, including the courts. The arguments David French makes may no longer persuade jurists. Conservatives who put their faith in the ability of liberal proceduralism to defend our interests will themselves be crushed.

That said … what else is there? What else is realistically available to conservatives now? I honestly don’t know. Hence my dilemma.

Listening the other day to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, I thought that whether or not you consider Orban a hero or a villain has to do with whether or not you believe that Hungary is fighting for its survival, or not. That principle is broadly applicable to the Western liberal democracies. If you believe that the system is basically sound, you will be inclined to David French’s point of view. If not, Ahmari’s stance will seem more sensible.

That’s why I’m on Team Ahmari in principle. What deeply undermines my confidence is the fact that we have lost the culture, and show no signs of getting it back. Again: in a morally sane society, Drag Queen Story Hour would not even occur to anybody. I often feel that many of my fellow conservatives have taken the Pill of Murti-Bing, and are willfully numb and blind to what is overtaking us, and maybe even celebrate it as the glory of individual liberty.

Related to the Pill of Murti-Bing in Milosz’s book is the concept of Ketman: the practice of being able to lie in public about what you really believe while concealing your private thoughts, and successfully managing the cognitive dissonance. Those conservatives who have not taken the Pill of Murti-Bing regarding the decadent liberal takeover of our culture are practicing Ketman in this sense: they know, they really do know deep down, that something is sick in American culture. But they rationalize it away. If they really faced their own fears, they couldn’t live in peace with them, and would have to do something.

Sohrab Ahmari refuses the Pill of Murti-Bing and Ketman both. But does he have a realistic idea of what we should do? I don’t know David French well enough to say whether or not he’s practicing Ketman, or popping Murti-Bing pills, but I’m going to assume that he isn’t. I’m going to assume, in charity (because I believe he’s a good man, as is Ahmari), that he simply believes that there is no alternative within our Constitutional and social order, and that to abandon procedural liberalism would fail, and leave Christians and other social conservatives far more vulnerable in this post-Christian culture.

I wish I could say he’s wrong about that. But I can’t. The problem is that Ahmari’s diagnosis is correct, but the disease may well lack a cure. The patient — our Republic — might be condemned to die. That’s a cheery thought. No wonder people want to take the Pill of Murti-Bing…