Superficially, the Sohrab Ahmari-David French debate, revived last week at Catholic University, served its purpose: It got the typical reactions one can expect from the establishment-libertarian-conservative edifice. Reason magazine called Ahmari a joke, while critiquing French for the single point he and Ahmari agreed on, that pornography is bad and not protected by the First Amendment.
Another snarky piece in The Bulwark compared Ahmari to a troll. Watching the debate, however, was disappointing, and not just because it ended on an unnecessary and sour note. The underlying question is fundamentally a debate that will shape Western, especially Anglo-American, conservatism. Watching online, what struck me was the basic inability of the two to avoid talking past each other.
This, for those who are unaware, is a continuation of a random tweet from Ahmari that turned to an op-ed, and counter rebuttal from David French, plus myriad opinion articles from other commentators (here’s a chronological reading list on the entire saga from Acton Institute). That led to a debate in person, moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, about the fundamental question vexing conservatism in the Western world: if it’s right, and how, to seize and channel institutional power for greater social good.
At the crux of it, there’s a theological discussion. Beyond that, it’s a question of whether we need a reactionary-conservative, institutional, top-down restructuring of society, as opposed to a more individualist, liberal-conservative, grassroots approach.
Consider Ahmari’s observation that society has moved beyond a neutral observation point and that it now requires a broader use of political power. The framers did not anticipate a 9-year-old kid strip dancing in drag in a bar with patrons throwing coins, or middle-aged men in dresses teaching 11-year-olds to twerk, or hundreds of thousands of bloggers plus activist media and academia pushing the normalization of pedophilia, among other things.
These are, indeed, abominations of the types one can see in Afghanistan, and no sane society should tolerate them. It is unlikely that anyone in the 18th century would have thought paganization and degeneracy to be a natural outcome of the society they were trying to create using the model of the Roman republic.
John Adams famously stated that the U.S. Constitution was made wholly for a moral and religious people and unsuitable for any other type, a view common for the majority of Westerners (and a silent, oppressed majority in the communist bloc), even though the slippery slope started in the 1960s, as recent scholarship suggests. Ahmari’s contention is that porn and drag kids and pedophilia and the slippery slope that conservatives warned about in the ’70s came about unimpeded, and it is time to “reverse the rot,” through institutional and governmental power if necessary. French argues that using governmental power to turn society just is unconstitutional and borderline theocratic.
The Ebbs and Flows of Power
Leaving the theological debate aside, this is, at the end of the day, a question of power. Admittedly, degeneracy has spread since the ’60s revolution and capture of institutions. But how can one battle it anyway? “Reaction” is by definition revolutionary, just in reverse — an overhaul to an earlier system.
Historically, it has happened several times. In the West, it happened in the counter-reformation period, as well as the 19th-century Age of Reaction, as a direct response to ultra-liberal and revolutionary movements. In recent years, former communist countries such as Poland and Hungary and even Russia have heavily adopted older 19th-century Christian identities and channeled governmental power to start pro-natalist and anti-secular policies.
Among non-Western countries, this push is even stronger. Turkey, Egypt, and Syria have seen constant turbulence between religious forces and social-secular power structures. It is a folly of history to imagine we are inexorably moving toward secularism. It has been reversed before, and it can be again. But the society in Anglo-American countries, and the Anglo-Protestant liberal traditions, are different than, say, those of more Orthodox and Catholic countries in Eastern and Central Europe. What is to be done?
An Intra-Conservative Debate
I asked around and got mixed replies, reflecting the internal debate within conservatism. “Ahmari is right that law reflects culture, and culture affects law,” said Gerald Russello, a lawyer and the editor of the conservative publication The University Bookman, “and the question for conservatives is whether they have a concrete, substantive vision of the common good that can compete with the woke progressivism of the left. French’s view is at best a holding action.”
“French is wrong that the Constitution requires some absolute neutral view,” Russello added, “and, in fact, prior to the 1960s, the reflection of community norms or substantive goods protected by the law would not have been surprising to most Americans.” Mark Bauerlein, editor of First Things magazine, agrees. “David French’s commentary on the Oberlin College penalty pinpoints exactly the problem. Conservatives have lost battle after battle in higher education for 50 years, and when we get the rare pushback against leftist tyranny, establishment conservatives hail it as a game-changer. They have been proven wrong again and again.”
On the other hand, Drew Griffin, the managing editor of Christian-realist Providence magazine, was not impressed. “Ahmari has fallen victim to an apocalyptic egotism which has as its main conceit that this is the worst of times, and as such, we are justified in taking whatever means necessary to pull society back from the brink. The irony is that he makes the argument freely from a hall in Catholic University to a crowd freely assembled in arguably the freest nation on earth.”
Griffin noted, “The American body politic is a competitive market for ideological consumers. Ahmari maintains that conservatives and Christians have largely lost to secularism in the marketplace of ideas, and that government had been the biased shopkeeper; Sohrab and others seem willing to burn the marketplace down rather than develop better ideas or a more compelling cultural product.”
So What Should We Do?
Ultimately, this is the quo vadis question where all debate fumbles. Despite all Ahmari’s good observations, he spoke in anecdotes. He failed to answer the single most important question: How, comrade? What actions should be taken, step by step, to ensure the state is more powerful to intervene in matters of public propriety, obscenity, and degeneracy? And how would you “reverse the rot” within the confines of constitutional and normative process?
What he hints at is a Reaction with a capital R, but any reaction would not be confined within the current norms. If he genuinely believes that is important, he should at least point out the policies. On the other hand, French also never answered properly and hid behind legalism on the questions of public perversion. The slippery slope argument is real, and the institutional push to normalize the transgender movement, pedophilia as a condition instead of a crime, and children in drag, is clear evidence of cultural rot.
The libertarian paradox is that toleration has no limits in this regard, as any wielding of power is viewed with skepticism. But if theology agrees that humans are indeed fallen, conservatism dictates they do need a firm hand from time to time. It might not be the gigantic state or government, but it sure can be strong local communities, churches, peer-pressure, pro-family programs, and laws with punitive deterrence. Who wields the power to transform if the individual fails and suffers, and the government is undesirable?
Without External Guidance, Deviance Ensues
The argument that this is simply an esoteric intra-theological debate is wrong. No religious or conservative person, regardless of his religion, or even most atheists, are comfortable with these last few years of increased public deviancy. Essentially all religions teach against it.
Some of the most stringent opponents of transgender and drag movements, in both Britain and the United States, are old-school feminists. For example, while the Church of England gets more and more liberal, parents fight for traditional gender norms and against forces of egalitarianism.
Nor is it confined geographically. One massive observable phenomenon across the Anglosphere is that as major churches of various denominations gave up on more martial and patriarchal evangelism and accepted a more reformist, socially progressive attitude, underground culture with ironic Deus Vult crusading memes has increased, and impressionable minds are mythologizing without any external guidance in uncharted corners of the internet.
The masculine martial spirit combined with zeal for a higher purpose and need for glory in life is a hidden but ever-present instinct, and it finds expression elsewhere if society does not positively direct it. There’s a massive uncharted demographic of millions of kids, mostly males, who need paternalistic guidance, something they lack in both broken families and indifferent society.
If this doesn’t keep sane conservatives awake at night with thoughts on how to channel it, I don’t know what might. It is something for both French and Ahmari, and every other conservative, to ponder.