In March, First Things published a manifesto of sorts signed by several mostly youngish, mostly Roman Catholic writers, who argued that “there is no returning to the pre-Trump conservative consensus that collapsed in 2016,” that “any attempt to revive the failed conservative consensus that preceded Trump would be misguided and harmful to the right.”
Against whom, concretely speaking, was this declaration directed?
I don’t claim to speak for the other signatories. But as one of the principal drafters, I have given the question a great deal of thought, both before and since the document’s publication. And I can now say that for me, “Against the Dead Consensus” drew a line of demarcation with what I call David French-ism, after the National Review writer and Never-Trump stalwart.
What is David French-ism? As Irving Kristol said of neoconservatism, French-ism is more a persuasion or a sensibility than a movement with clear tenets. And that sensibility is, in turn, bound up with the persona of one particular writer, though it reaches beyond him to pervade a wider sphere of conservative Christian thinking and activism.
It isn’t easy to critique the persona of someone as nice as French. Then again, it is in part that earnest and insistently polite quality of his that I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis facing religious conservatives. Which is why I recently quipped on Twitter that there is no “polite, David French-ian third way around the cultural civil war.” (What prompted my ire was a Facebook ad for a children’s drag queen reading hour at a public library in Sacramento.)
I added, “The only way is through”—that is to say, 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.
French prefers a different Christian strategy, and his guileless public mien and strategic preferences bespeak a particular political theology (though he would never use that term), one with which I take issue. Thus, my complaint about his politeness wasn’t a wanton attack; it implicated deeper matters.
Such talk—of politics as war and enmity—is thoroughly alien to French, I think, because he believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side. Even if the latter—that is, the libertine and the pagan—predominate in elite institutions, French figures, then at least the former, traditional Christians, should be granted spaces in which to practice and preach what they sincerely believe.
Well, it doesn’t work out that way, and it hasn’t been working out that way for a long time—as French well knows, since he has spent a considerable part of his career admirably and passionately advocating for Christians coercively squeezed out of the public square. In that time, he—we—have won discrete victories, but the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us, and I think that French-ian model bears some of the blame.
To take one of numerous instructive examples, when the progressive clerisy launched an inquisition against the actor Chris Pratt in February over his membership in the wrong kind of church, French appealed to a fictional pluralism. “A core (and very basic) tenet of pluralism,” he wrote,
is the notion that people of diametrically opposed belief systems can live and work side by side so long as they treat each other with dignity and respect. I’ve spent my entire career working with people who believe that my religious beliefs are wrong, that my stance on sexual morality is wrong, and that my political judgments are deeply misguided. Yet even in the case of profound disagreement, it is easy to treat people well. It is easy to treat people fairly.
Conversely, it is the height of intolerance to believe that it is somehow problematic — absent any evidence of mistreatment on the job or on-set — that a person disagrees with you on matters of faith. And if it is an obligation for colleagues to go beyond “welcoming” each other to “affirming” each other’s deepest beliefs, where is the affirmation of faithful Christians?
French is, in effect, telling the cultural revolutionaries: We will grant your autonomy in the neutral institution (in this case, Hollywood). Won’t you grant us ours? Though culturally conservative, French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar: He sees “protecting individual liberty” as the main, if not sole, purpose of government. Here is the problem: The movement we are up against prizes autonomy above all, too; indeed, its ultimate aim is to secure for the individual will the widest possible berth to define what is true and good and beautiful, against the authority of tradition.
Only, the libertines take the logic of maximal autonomy—the one French shares—to its logical terminus. They say, in effect: For us to feel fully autonomous, you must positively affirm our sexual choices, our transgression, our power to disfigure our natural bodies and redefine what it means to be human, lest your disapprobation make us feel less than fully autonomous.
They have a point: Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community. Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way. Thus, it represents the interiorization, and fulfillment, of French’s worldview. And this is how David French-ism gets trapped.
The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop? Why shouldn’t this new, aggressive vision of maximal autonomy not overtake the old?
Here French and others fall back on religious liberty. French has done yeoman’s work in defense of Christians and other people of faith persecuted in America. But in the long term, religious-liberty absolutism will put Christians and other traditional believers in a bind. If the moral law is merely a matter of ancient, if sincere, conviction, then of course it must give way to the demands for autonomy of people in the here and now.
Archbishop Charles Chaput made this point in his 2017 book, Strangers in a Strange Land. If traditional moral precepts are “purely religious beliefs,” he wrote, then “they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”
Again and again, French insists on the sincerity of the believers whose causes he takes up, as if asserting sincerity of belief can move the heart of an enemy who finds you and your beliefs repulsive: “The biblical sexual ethic is based on a sincere conviction. . . .” “Evidence of devout faith is frequently evidence of a sincere commitment to fairness, compassion, and the faithful discharge of one’s constitutional duties. . . .”
But they won’t listen. Tub-thump long enough about your sincere but irrational (in the eyes of the reigning ideology) views, and soon opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, polyamory, kids in drag, and much else of the same kind will come to resemble the wrongheaded and indeed irrational opposition to vaccination mounted by ultra-Orthodox Jews in New York. Sorry, Pastor French, but your superstition will have to give way to public health and the smooth functioning of the autonomy-maximizing society.
So what long-term strategy, if any, does David French-ism offer? In a word, culture.
Conservative liberalism of the kind French embodies has a great horror of the state, of traditional authority and the use of the public power to advance the common good, including in the realm of public morality. That horror is a corollary to its autonomy-maximizing impulse.
This goes back, I think, to its roots in English non-conformism. In Culture and Anarchy, his great Victorian critique of this mode of thought, Matthew Arnold says of the nonconformist that, because he has encountered the Word of God by his own lights, he sees no need for the authority and grand liturgies of a national church (still less the Catholic Church).
But as Arnold notes, while the nonconformist vision of an austere, no-frills, solitary encounter with God might be suitable in one context, it doesn’t satisfy other necessities, such as collective public worship befitting public needs. Or again, while free trade might have provided for growth in Britain’s urban cores, something middle-class liberals welcomed, it also created public misery and overcrowding that needed to be addressed—and not by individual initiative alone. And so on.
Mutatis mutandis, David French-ism. Forced to reckon with the fact that autonomy unbound hasn’t yielded freedom but new and insidious forms of digital tyranny, French treats as a nonstarter conservative proposals to intervene (“I oppose government efforts to regulate social-media speech policies”). Instead, he urges essentially a cultural solution. Silicon Valley should voluntarily adopt First Amendment norms, per French, and I wish him good luck persuading our programmer-kings to go along.
How do we counter ideological mono-thought in universities, workplaces, and other institutions? Try promoting better work-life balance, says French. How do we promote the good of the family against the deracinating forces arrayed against it, some of them arising out of the free market (pornography) and others from the logic of maximal autonomy (no-fault divorce)? “We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life.” Oh, OK. How do we combat the destruction wrought by drugs (licit and illicit), by automation and globalization and other forces of the kind? “We need to embrace the vital importance of religious faith in personal renewal.” Thanks, Pastor French.
For French, the solution to nearly every problem posed by a politics of individual autonomy above all is yet more autonomous action. But sentimentalization of family life won’t be enough to overcome the challenges posed to it by the present economy. Calls for religious revival are often little more than an idle wish that all men become moral, so that we might dispense with moral regulation.
Government intervention will not be the answer to every social ill. In many instances, free markets and individual enterprise can best serve the common good, albeit indirectly. But I take issue with David French-ism’s almost supernatural faith in something called “culture”—deemed to be neutral and apolitical and impervious to policy—to solve everything. Questions that are squarely political—that is, that touch on our shared quest for the common good—become depoliticized by this culture-first strategy. The libertine camp prefers the same depoliticization, of course; they’re much better at winning in the realm of culture than David French will ever be.
Voters across the developed world have had enough of depoliticized politics. In the United States, this great “no” culminated in 2016’s election of Donald Trump. With a kind of animal instinct, Trump understood what was missing from mainstream (more or less French-ian) conservatism. His instinct has been to shift the cultural and political mix, ever so slightly, away from autonomy-above-all toward order, continuity, and social cohesion. He believes that the political community—and not just the church, family, and individual—has its own legitimate scope for action. He believes it can help protect the citizen from transnational forces beyond his control.
French’s response to these developments on the right has been predictable: He has spent two years promoting the now-discredited Russian “collusion” theory; moralizing and pretending we don’t face enemies who seek our personal destruction (just ask Justice Kavanaugh); and haranguing his fellow evangelical Protestants for supporting Trump, as if they were the only American voting bloc ever forced to compromise. As an activist, French has benefited from the Trump GOP’s ascendance, but he has kept his hands clean, his soul untainted. As anyone familiar with the Amelia Sedley character in Vanity Fair knows, a kind of airy, above-it-all mentality can supply its own vain satisfactions.
But conservative Christians can’t afford these luxuries. 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.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post. He is at work on a book, exploring 12 fundamental questions our culture doesn’t ask.
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Charles Murray, one of America’s most influential social policy thinkers, has come out with a widely discussed new book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which argues that Americans are splitting into two divergent classes, and that this growing divide could end American life as we have known it.
A self-described libertarian, Murray started his career as a liberal Democrat who spent six years in the Peace Corps and voted for Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election. His political transformation came while he was researching his landmark 1984 book, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, which marshaled exhaustive evidence that American welfare programs were harming the very people they were supposed to be lifting out of poverty.
Losing Ground was fiercely denounced by the political left, but soon won mainstream acceptance that the War on Poverty was failing. The simple fact is there wouldn’t have been welfare reform in the 1990s without Losing Ground.
The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, Murray’s 1994 collaboration with Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, was more controversial. The book maintained that differences in genes contribute to differences in IQ, which in turn play a significant role in the life outcomes of individuals. Most controversially, Herrnstein and Murray argued that various ethnic groups have distinct differences in inherited intelligence. (Economist James J. Heckman reviewed The Bell Curve for Reason back in 1995: .)
Murray has written more than 20 books, including What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, and he’s currently the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute .
Reason’s Ronald Bailey sat down with Murray in March for a wide-ranging discussion of how his earlier work informs Coming Apart, why he remains libertarian in his outlook, and whether younger Americans face an relentlessly negative future.
Approximately 35 minutes.
Written and produced by Jim Epstein.
When asked about the whistleblower complaint on Sept. 22, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he didn’t know anything about the call. Yet reports yesterday showed Pompeo listened in on the July 25th call. Aired on 10/01/19.
Another day, another mass shooting. We grieve for Odessa, Tex., and we grieve for America.
The aftermath of every mass shooting follows a now-routine pattern: Feverish coverage will be followed by politicians and pundits engaging in a predictable conversation about gun-safety legislation. All of which we know by now. Of course, we need universal background checks; we need to close all loopholes; we need to outlaw bump stocks; and we need to outlaw assault weapons and the bullets needed to shoot them. But politicians trotting out various forms of I-will-do-this-or-that neither gets to the heart of the matter nor breaks the logjam that has made this horrific and uniquely American problem so intractable.
It is not just our gun policy but our politics that fails to free us of this insanity. Until we override the nefarious influence of money on our politics, it will not be possible to break the National Rifle Association’s chokehold on our society. It is not the will nor safety of the people but the profits of gun manufacturers that is given primacy in our gun policies. Legislation that establishes public funding for federal campaigns should be the battle cry of our generation.
But even then, Americans will have to look deeper for the causal layers of our epidemic of violence. We will have to look beyond politics. We will have to look at ourselves.
As individuals, Americans are not a violent people, but it is undeniable that we’re a violent culture. Regular mass shootings are not societally normal. And until we face this, the situation will not fundamentally improve.
Most politicians stick to a discussion of symptoms only. Politics should be the conduit for our most expanded conversation about societal issues, not the most superficial one. Conventional politics does not lend itself to a discussion of the deeper issues that plague us. Yet go deeper we must.
America does not just have a gun crisis; it has a cultural crisis. America will not stop experiencing the effects of gun violence until we’re ready to face the many ways that our culture is riddled with violence.
- Our environmental policies are violent toward the Earth.
- Our criminal justice system is violent toward people of color.
- Our economic system is violent toward the poor.
- Our entertainment media is violent toward women.
- Our video games are violent in their effect on the minds of children.
- Our military is violent in ways and places where it doesn’t have to be.
- Our media is violent in its knee-jerk shaming and blaming for the sake of a better click rate.
- Our hearts are violent as we abandon each other constantly, breeding desperation and insanity. And
- our government is indirectly and directly violent in the countless ways it uses its power to help those who do not need help and to withhold support from those who do.
The darker truth that Americans must face now is this: Our society is not just steeped in violence; we are hooked on violence. And in area after area, there are those who make billions of dollars on deepening the hook. Until we see that, we will just have more violence. Our minds must awaken so we can see all this. Our hearts must awaken so we can change all this. And our politics must change so we can discuss all this.
Though gun-safety legislation should be fervently pursued, a political establishment so steeped in the ways of brute force is hardly equipped to be the purveyor of a solution to the problem of violence in this country. With a nearly $740 billion military budget but only $40 billion proposed for the State Department budget, our outsize commitment to brute force and ever-withering commitment to soul force is obvious. With the Air Force seeking 100 stealth B-21 Raiders, each with a price tag of $550 million and each equipped to carry both nuclear and conventional weapons, while 12.5 million children in the United States live in food-insecure homes — the idea of politicians who allow this to happen being the ones who are going to save us from the epidemic of violence in America is almost laughable.
We will not break free of dysfunctional realities until we are willing to embrace more functional ones. I propose a U.S. Department of Peace
- to coordinate and harness the powers of conflict resolution;
- restorative justice;
- violence prevention;
- trauma-informed education;
- mindfulness in the schools;
- child and family wrap-around services;
- social and emotional learning; and
- a world-class peace academy to train and to deploy thousands of peace-builders, plus
- national conferences and a presidential task force for peace creation.
We will make every effort to promote a culture of peace both at home and abroad. We will address the root causes, not just the symptoms of violence in America. And in time, we will transform our culture from one of conflict to one of peace.
Nothing is going to fundamentally change until enough of us are willing to take a stand for fundamental change. And no change could be more fundamental than for the United States to transform from a culture of violence to a culture of peace. From the frequency of attack to the frequency of forgiveness. From a land of fear to a land of love.
You can’t claim to understand Israeli culture without mastering the powerful and multifaceted word ‘nu.’
Nu, so how much ink can you spill already on the many nuances of the Yiddish word “nu”? Answer: Just a little more, en route to explaining the meanings of this versatile little gem.
Spoken once, one of the word’s primary functions is as a prompt. It serves as both a nudge (“Nu, are you coming?”) and as a query that relieves the speaker of the Jewish burden of actually responding. “Nu”requires little adornment, but it does demand precise inflection to get across the intended meaning. (If someone tells you, “I went on a date last night,” and you answer “Nu?” you’re probably digging for more information, as in “Do tell” or “And?” But if your tone of resignation is just right, you might be asking “So what?” or sarcastically, “So what’s new about that?”) For those familiar with this popular Yiddishism, which has become an integral part of spoken Hebrew, these nuances are nothing “nu.”
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
Connor Betts, the alleged Dayton shooter, had left-wing political views, believed in socialism, supported Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, and regularly inveighed on Twitter against various personages on the right (including, it turns out, me). This has some conservatives fuming that liberal media is conveniently ignoring the progressive ideology of one shooter while obsessing over the far-right ideology of another — Patrick Crusius, who posted an anti-immigrant manifesto shortly before police say he murdered 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso.
Sorry, but the comparison doesn’t wash. It’s idiotic.
The Dayton victims did not fit any political or ethnic profile: They were black and white, male and female, an immigrant from Eritrea and Betts’s own sister. Crusius’s victims, overwhelmingly Hispanic, did: They were the objects of his expressly stated political rage.
What happened in Ohio was a mass shooting in the mold of the Las Vegas massacre: victims at random, motives unknown. What happened in Texas was racist terrorism in the mold of Oslo, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Christchurch and Poway.
The former attack vaguely implicates the “dark psychic force” that Marianne Williamson spoke of in last week’s Democratic debates. The latter directly implicates the immigrant-bashing xenophobic right led by Donald Trump.This needs to be said not because it isn’t obvious, but because too many conservatives have tried to deny the obvious
The president cannot be absolved of responsibility for inciting the hatreds that led to El Paso.
. It’s not about ideology, they say: It’s a mental-health issue. But that’s precisely the kind of evasive reasoning many of those conservatives mockedin 2016, when the mental state and sexual orientation of Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen was raised by some media voices to suggest that his attack had not really been an act of Islamist terrorism.
Alternatively, conservatives have cited the decline of civil society, the effects of the de-institutionalization of the mentally ill, the paucity of prayer and the ubiquity of violent video games — in sum, the breakdown of “the culture” — as explanations for mass shootings. This is the right-wing equivalent of the left’s idea that poverty and climate change are at the root of terrorism: causes so general that they explain everything, hence nothing. Why not also blame Friedrich Nietzsche and the death of God?
Get real: The right’s attempt to downplay the specifically ideological context of the El Paso massacre is a transparently self-serving attempt to absolve the president of moral responsibility for his demagogic rhetoric. This, too, shouldn’t wash. The president is guilty, in a broad sense, of a form of incitement.
No, Trump did not specifically incite anyone to violence, as characters like Yasir Arafat once did. (“To Jerusalem we march, martyrs by the millions!”) He will not, as Palestinian leaders still do, offer financial rewards to the families of terrorists. His scripted condemnation on Monday of white supremacy was, at least, a condemnation.
But incitement takes many forms. In June 2018, Trump tweeted the following: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13. They can’t win on their terrible policies, so they view them as potential voters!”
The tweet (noted by my colleague Frank Bruni in a recent column) is significant precisely because it is almost forgotten. It does not even rank in a top 10 list of Trumpian outrages. And yet it’s all there:
- The imputation of bad faith to his political opponents.
- The conspiracy theory about “potential voters.”
- The sneaking conflation of illegal immigrants with violent gang members.
And the language of infestation. In the early 1990s, Hutu propagandists in Rwanda spoke of the Tutsi as “cockroaches.” The word served as a preamble to the 1994 genocide in which over half a million people died. In today’s America, the dissemination of the idea, via the bully pulpit of the presidency, that we are not merely being strained or challenged by illegal immigrants, but invaded and infested, predicated the slaughter in El Paso.
It’s worth noting that the Walmart massacre is, as far as I know, the first large scale anti-Hispanic terrorist attack in the United States in living memory. On current trend, it will surely not be the last or the worst. The language of infestation inevitably suggests the “solution” of extermination. As for the cliché that sensible people are supposed to take Trump seriously but not literally, it looks like Patrick Crusius didn’t get that memo.
The main task for Democrats over the next 15 months won’t be to convince America that they need yet another health care re-invention, or that the economy is a mess, or that the system is rigged, or that the right response to Trump’s immigration demagoguery is an open border. It’s that the president is
- a disgrace to his office,
- an insult to our dignity,
- a threat to our Union, and
- a danger to our safety.