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The Right Doesn’t Need More Courage, We Need Better Training And Bigger Sticks


The ongoing argument of how and whether conservatives should stand up for their beliefs in a hostile environment includes some recent interesting flareups, including here in The Federalist. The most interesting, to me, is the exchange between National Review’s David French and the Paradox Project’s pseudonymous Matt Shapiro (full disclosure: he’s written for The Federalist).

French worked as an attorney doing important civil rights work with the Alliance Defending Freedom, and Shapiro was in graduate school at a university that was one party in a case where French served as lead counsel. They experienced different parts of the same elephant.

In National Review, French decried what he called “conservative timidity”: “The battle for freedom has been fought and won. Your speech may be free, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Truly confronting illiberal political correctness requires personal courage. Without it, the battle for the First Amendment will have been fought in vain.”

Except, of course, it’s not that easy. As Shapiro noted: “Outrage mobs will not stop because outrage mobs work. We need to either change the culture or change the law so that they no longer work. That takes a lot more than courage.” Shapiro knows, and can vividly describe, what it’s like to stand up when you’re isolated.

The strongest point in Shapiro’s essay comes when he notes that he has, in fact, made a commitment that there is a line violating his religious beliefs, a line he will not cross: “But you’re ridiculous if you think I’m telling you what that line is. The moment an activist discovers my line, they will use that information to go to my employer and demand that they find a way to force me to cross that line. And I won’t cross it. And I’ll lose my job.”

And courage can’t prevent that. French certainly can’t prevent that: after all, he went to bat for Kevin Williamson’s job at the Atlantic. How’d courage work out for Williamson?

We Don’t Need Courage, We Need a Bigger Stick

French described Shapiro’s statement as “a response worth reading,” but didn’t agree with the conclusion, maintaining, “It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. And the battle won’t be won without both/and. Two decades of litigation have blazed a trail, but sometimes folks have to just walk down that trail. If you don’t want to, I understand. It’s hard. But it’s still a failure if you don’t.”

In other words, “There may be a hockey-masked slasher down that trail, but you need to go down it by yourself anyway.” But as anybody who has ever seen a horror movie knows, fewer camp counselors would meet grisly deaths if they just figured out how to walk down trails together.

French knows this, because if you walked up to him and said, “What do we need the Alliance Defending Freedom for, anyway? People can just file lawsuits on their own, right? Why don’t they stand up and hire lawyers for themselves instead of going to the Alliance Defending Freedom? Are they cowards?” French would laugh in your face.

That’s because French is a smart, competent advocate. He knows his field, knows how expensive and long and complicated lawsuits are, and knows that plaintiffs need experienced help to know their rights, strategies, and options. But as Michael Crichton famously remarked, when we leave our area of expertise, we tend to forget to apply applicable knowledge to different situations.

Crichton observed that journalists were absolutely terrible at covering his profession, yet when he turned the page in the newspaper he still assumed for some reason they would be competent at covering foreign affairs. Similarly, French knows perfectly well that organizing is hard, that putting people together is a skill, and that not everybody has the skills they need in a given situation. When the matter at hand isn’t a civil rights lawsuit, he forgets how hard organizing is.

But nothing happens invisibly or without cost. And telling people they’re cowards isn’t the way to get them to pay that cost. In his excellent book “Hegemony How-To,” the lefty organizer Jonathan Smucker points out that people who are reluctant to do something don’t just need to be told it’s morally important. They need to be convinced the thing you’re asking them to do will work. That it will matter. If they don’t buy that, they won’t do it.

The reason conservatives in hostile settings are reluctant to stand up is that they don’t know how to do it in a way that will produce effect. What’s noteworthy is that French doesn’t even consider that maybe people need some help figuring out how to effectively stand up. Giving them the idea that they should do so, he thinks, should be sufficient.

Ideas Don’t Win Themselves

And you can’t just blame this on French. It’s part of a wider conservative blind spot. Conservatives believe in the potency of ideas. But ideas alone aren’t what carry the day. Knowing that germs cause disease is a powerful idea, but that doesn’t tell you how to sterilize an operating room. Lefties know that the idea of unions may be potent, but what actually gets you unions is teaching people how to organize a shop floor.

Lefties who wanted unions didn’t just secure the legal right to form a union, and then stop. They taught people who want unions how to make unions. Conservatives don’t do that for our own people, to our shame. We tend to think if people don’t do something for themselves, they must be either cowards or lazy.

Well, sometimes people are cowards, and sometimes people are lazy, but sometimes it’s just that they don’t know what to do. Lefties are better at providing onramps to this stuff. Conservatives blithely say things like French’s line that “there are platoons of lawyers willing and eager to take a swing at your antagonists,” and assume you know who they are, how to reach them, and under what circumstances you can call on them. Lefties planning a protest give you a workshop on your rights, provide free legal observers from a multitude of organizations, then read off a legal defense phone number and tell you to write on your arm.

From ‘We Should’ to ‘How To’

Leftists have a far deeper and varied pool of organizing experience and vocabulary to draw from than we do. The leftist organizer and activist Jane McAlevey identifies three ways to press for change: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing.

Advocacy means professionals fighting on behalf of nonprofessionals. Examples would be the Alliance Defending Freedom, Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the NAACP. Mobilizing consists of professional organizers leading nonprofessionals; this is the model used by Saul Alinsky and the Women’s March.

Organizing—real organizing—consists of deep work to identify, empower, and train a community’s natural leaders. If we’re talking unions, for example, a “natural leader” is the person others look to on the shop floor, whether that person has supervisory authority or not. Organizing is the hallmark of the old CIO, and the lefties are currently trying to do it now with the resurgent Democratic Socialists of America. (The DSA is recommending its people to take McAlevey’s upcoming webinar, funded by the German nonprofit Rosa Luxemberg Foundation; folks concerned about foreign interference in American electoral politics might be interested in that.)

Conservatives don’t do mobilizing, and we certainly don’t do organizing. We basically have three modes: evangelism (telling people what they should believe), electioneering (convincing them to pull the lever), and advocacy. None of these really empower people to fight for themselves. Advocates can swoop in heroically, like knights in armor, but they can’t do everything, they can’t be everywhere at once, and when they depart the field they still leave behind their protectees as an untrained rabble.

Self-Government Starts from the Bottom Up

It’s important to have conservative organizations that fight for people’s legal rights. But that’s not enough. When the legal fight is won, you have to make sure the public knows what the rights they’ve secured are, and what to do if they’re infringed upon. The ACLU, for example, provides illegal immigrants information in multiple languages about what their rights are, how to interact with law enforcement, and where to turn for help. The same Web page provides a 108-page PDF toolkit for responding to ICE workplace raids.

The Alliance for Defending Freedom provides information on your rights, too. But they don’t just give it to you. They make you fill out a form first. (You can freely download their PDF brochure.) The barrier to entry is small, but means many people can’t find their advice.

It’s important to have conservative organizations that fight for people’s legal rights. But that’s not enough.

And while my lefty friends are constantly recommending ACLU guides to people worried about their rights, I’ve never seen a single conservative — even David French! — say “Okay, first thing is you need to get the guidelines of the Alliance for Defending Freedom.” Or of any other conservative advocacy group, for that matter.

The best of ADF’s guides are those for protecting a ministry and for protecting a pregnancy resource center. Both are loaded with helpful checklists, details, and even some boilerplate text to help lay the groundwork for defense against inevitable secular opposition.

Their manual for sidewalk counselors protesting abortion clinics lays out clearly what counselors can legally do, what they can’t legally do, and what to do if they’re arrested. Those for students, employers, and medical professionals have good amounts of solid content informing people of what they can do and can’t do under the law. The one for creative professionals is little more than a glossy brochure.

Their strength is in informing people what their rights are; their weakness is in providing guidance for when those rights are violated. In comparison to the ACLU’s 108-page toolkit, they’re lacking: they don’t tell people how to stand up effectively with anything other than ineffective griping or suing with ADF’s help. The real heart of the publications is guiding you to lay groundwork that will make it easier for the ADF to defend your faith-based organization when they represent you in a lawsuit. Which, again, doesn’t help people stand up for themselves.

Write an Op-Ed? Really?

For example, what does the ADF students’ rights manual say students should do if they discover their university has a speech code? “Take action. If a student finds that his or her university has a speech code (a third of public universities in the country do have one), a student can take steps to get it repealed. Possible steps include writing the administration or submitting an op-ed to the campus newspaper. A student can also hold an event on campus that brings awareness to the problem that campus speech codes pose in suppressing student speech. A student may also contact ADF for support and other ideas.”

Radical leftists like McAlevey teach people how to make friends. Guess who wins?

Write the administration. Submit an op-ed. Hold an event. Because conservatives on campus have had so much luck with those.

This is our real problem. Normal people building normal groups to support the normal desires of normal people is essential to community, let alone political organizing, and righties kind of suck at it because we assume it’ll naturally emerge. Well, no. The kind of communities that naturally emerge are usually pretty crappy communities.

No magical elves are going to build your community for you. If people are afraid, don’t tell them that they’re cowards. Teach them how to stand up.

What does helping people stand up for themselves look like? I keep telling people: you have to read the lefties. Conservatives like French tell people they’re cowards if they don’t stand up for their unpopular beliefs as isolated individuals in a hostile environment, but radical leftists like McAlevey teach people how to make friends. Guess who wins?

One thing I greatly admire about lefty groups is their action lists: enumerated recommendations of specific things to do. So here’s an action list for organizations defending conservatives’ rights:

— Make specific recommendations.

— Make those recommendations readily accessible. If they’re on your website, make sure they’re easy to find.

— Make sure people know your recommendations exist.

— Don’t just tell people how to help you do your job; tell them how to help themselves without you.

— Tell people what they can do to safeguard their rights before they call you in.

— Tie people in with local organizations where they live that support what you do.

Atomized, isolated conservatives don’t need to make a bold, defiant, futile stand. They need to make friends. Let’s teach our people how to do that.