This morning I have a post up at the Atlantic website on the scuffle Sohrab Amari kicked off with his recent attacks on David French. I want to add some cars to that train in the form of two sets of questions, and then a caboose.
First, though, I want to emphasize something that I said in passing in that post: that I basically share Ahmari’s view that the liberal order has become the Bad Liberalism — “tyrannical liberalism” — Neuhaus feared, and I agree that proceduralism is dying, is mostly dead maybe. Here’s one post, on matters closely related to the ones I’m dealing with today; and here’s the logic of Bad Liberalism in brief summary; and here’s a moment in which I grow nostalgic for a Proceduralism Lost. My critique does not concern Ahmari’s diagnosis, but rather some elements of his prescription. So, on to the questions.
First: Ahmari’s essay isn’t just a critique of David French – it contains a positive program as well:
Progressives understand that culture war means discrediting their opponents and weakening or destroying their institutions. Conservatives should approach the culture war with a similar realism. Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.
And when you recognize your moral duty, you will realize that your job is “to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”
Nothing about this is clear.
- Who are the “we” implied in “our order and our orthodoxy”? Social conservatives? Religious social conservatives? Christian social conservatives? Catholic social conservatives? What about Muslim social conservatives? What about faithful Catholics who aren’t social conservatives? Who, in short, gets access to the control room?
- Who is “the enemy”? This would be determined, I guess, by how you answer the questions above, but I wonder if David French — and any other Christian who defends the liberal social order — belongs to the enemy. (Probably not? Probably French is just an unreliable ally, like Mussolini to Hitler?)
- How, specifically, would “we” “enforce our orthodoxy”? Would atheists be denied citizenship, or have their civil rights abridged in some way? And by what means would this enforcement be achieved? “Weakening or destroying their institutions” presumably means, for instance, something more dramatic than, say, removing federal funding from Planned Parenthood — so, maybe, finding legal means to punish systemically left-wing companies like those in Hollywood and Silicon Valley? But even that doesn’t seem nearly enough….
Unpacking that last bullet point: I’m going to assume that Ahmari is not counting on an angelic army to descend and impose the reordering of the public square to the Highest Good; I’m also going to assume that he’s not advocating a coup by the American armed forces. I think that leaves winning a great many elections and winning them by large majorities. (I mean, reordering the public square to the Highest Good is not something that could possibly be accomplished without amendments to the Constitution.) And that leads me to my …
Second question: If you believe that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives” arising from the dominance of a tyrannical liberalism, and you want to defeat those enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their (trans) women, how, exactly, do you further that goal by attacking … David French? What precisely is the strategic benefit of that? If you’re Ahmari, don’t you need people like French on your side? Or do you think you’re such a massive movement that you can do without people like French? Or do you think that French will be abashed by the incisiveness of your attack, your mockery of “Pastor French,” and will come over to your side, ultimately meekly submitting to the claims of the Catholic Magisterium? Or do you think that other people will read your attack and think “Wow, just look at how Ahmari dealt with that pathetic loser French, I want to be on his side”? Seriously: How’s this supposed to work?
And now the caboose — something I said in my essay that I want to re-emphasize here. I noted earlier that I largely agree with Ahmari that there is a “crisis facing religious conservatives.” But I dissent from his claim that Christians should let the urgency of the situation determine their behavior. (“It is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of [French’s] that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives.”) If David French is right that civility and decency are commanded to Christians, then they are always commanded to us. We don’t get to set aside the commandments of God when we find them “unsuitable” to the demands of the present moment. That way tyranny lies, and a tyranny that clothes itself in (misdirected) obedience.
In these contexts, and especially when I am feeling discouraged about the course of events, I often think of a passage from the Lord of the Rings, the moment when Eomer of Rohan meets Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas. Eomer:
‘It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?’
‘As he ever has judged,’ said Aragorn. ‘Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.’
P.S. For a further exposition of the two liberalisms that Father Neuhaus discussed — “political liberalism” and “hegemonic liberalism” — see this essay by my friend and colleague Frank Beckwith.