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David French Can’t Resist Firing On Former Allies

David French wearing headphones
Image CreditMSNBC/YouTube

I would never bite the hand that once fed me, even if that hand has given me a few slaps to the face.

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In The New York Times Sunday morning, David French returns to his familiar theme: betrayal. An evangelical Presbyterian and an erstwhile staunch conservative, French made waves several years ago for his strong opposition to Donald Trump. When others on the right attacked him (and, inexcusably, his family), French was understandably rocked to the core. He began an ideological peregrination that landed him at the Times. He reliably cranks out columns explaining how the Christian right came to be infected with a Trumpian fever — and how he, along with a small faithful remnant, avoided the contagion.

French explains, often, why pro-life conservatives should prefer Joe Biden to Donald Trump. The average New York Times subscriber is not an anti-abortion evangelical, and indeed, probably has gone out of his or her way to avoid those sorts of benighted and backward people. David French, who has good reason to be angry at how he and his family were treated, settles scores on a weekly basis. His audience laps it up, hoping that French is a harbinger. Perhaps other “decent” evangelicals will grow so appalled at Trumpian vulgarity that they too will become reliable Democratic voters. One can only hope, Mildred!

I am very interested in how people speak of the movements and institutions they have left behind. Many years ago, The Telegraph called me “America’s most infamous ‘male feminist’.” I don’t know if the superlative was deserved, but I can’t think of an American man whose infamy in that particular arena outclassed my own. I cultivated a reputation as an ardent and impassioned voice for gender equity, and then I blew that world up. 

Though I behaved badly, it is possible to be simultaneously a sinner and sinned against. Many erstwhile allies and colleagues said some very nasty things about me, at least some of which were not deserved. Like David French, I got death threats. I was ejected, permanently and no doubt rightly, from the feminist world. 

Over the many years since, I have rebuilt a life and a career. It is no secret that I no longer believe all the things I once believed. I no longer hold the same convictions I once espoused in lectures and in places like Jezebel and The Atlantic. But here’s the thing: I also generally avoid going after my former colleagues and friends. I do not bite the hand that once fed me, even if that hand has given me a few slaps to the face.

When people change their politics, they tend to ascribe that change to one of two causes. The first is betrayal, which is what David French does in today’s essay and many others. They say something like “I didn’t leave evangelicalism; evangelicalism left me.” I know many former Democrats and former Republicans who offer the betrayal narrative. They were always a loyal member of the party, but then the party was co-opted by the radical left or the MAGA right. Their personal values didn’t change, but the values of the institution did.

The other explanation is one’s own awakening. You read a certain book, or hear a certain lecture, or watch a certain YouTube channel, and you gradually realize you no longer believe what you used to believe. You may still feel betrayed by your former church or political party, but that feeling of betrayal is because you believe they were lying to you all along — not that they were suddenly hijacked by an external force.

I like to ask people who change parties or politics or faiths if the primary catalyst was an external betrayal or an internal evolution. Of course, it can be both, but usually, one comes before the other. What I find particularly interesting is how they speak of those who remain in the group that they are now abandoning. Are they fools? Are they asleep? Are they pod people?

My great-uncle, Stanley Williams Moore, was a respected political philosopher. My grandfather’s younger brother, Stanley got his undergraduate and graduate degrees from Cal, and served as a major in the Army Air Force during World War Two. He later landed a tenured teaching position at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Uncle Stanley was a committed Communist. He joined the party in the 1930s when he was barely out of his teens. He stayed in the party during the war, and for years after. In 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, Uncle Stanley was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). He took the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer the commission’s questions. 

While Reed College today is a solidly lefty institution, it was not so in 1954. Though he had tenure and the rank of full professor, the trustees fired my great uncle for professional misconduct for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. Forty years later, in 1993, the college apologized and invited Stanley back to give a lecture. He had the good luck to live long enough to see the pendulum swing, and to see what was once denounced as subversion declared to be heroism. (I do not suspect that his great nephew, who also lost his tenured teaching job in a public scandal, will be quite so fortunate, and for good reason.)

Uncle Stanley had actually left the Communist Party 18 months before he was hauled before that Congressional committee. He left after learning of the “doctors’ plot,” a Soviet conspiracy theory peddled in the last years of Stalin’s rule. Many Jewish physicians were arrested and tortured. When the American Communist Party refused to break with Stalin after the damning revelations of cruelty and anti-Semitism, Uncle Stanley had had enough. He quit the party of which he’d been a member his entire adult life.

Here’s the point: despite having left the party, my uncle never named names, even though doing so might have allowed him to keep his position at Reed. He never criticized nor exposed his former colleagues. To do so would have been fundamentally at odds with his ethics and his upbringing. Indeed, when it was widely reported that he was an active member of the party at the time of his firing from Reed, Stanley did nothing to correct that misperception. He wouldn’t reveal the truth until 1978. In other words, he “took the fall” for a cause in which he no longer believed, because to turn on his onetime comrades was unthinkable.

My Uncle Stanley was a gentleman to his core, and he modeled for me many things — including how one should speak (or not speak) of one’s former allies.

An anecdote about my great uncle: ninety years ago this year, Stanley was finishing his sophomore year at Cal. He was still just 19, and like his older brother and many other relations, a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon — and already a Communist.

In May 1934, a series of violent strikes broke out along the waterfronts of every major West Coast port. The strikes would last three months, and there was frequent violence. More than a dozen were killed. One day, Uncle Stanley left campus to rally and organize with the dockworkers at the Port of Oakland. Expected at his mother’s for dinner, he left his comrades and headed to her home in leafy, wealthy Piedmont, a few miles away physically, and a million miles away culturally and socio-economically.

The sporadic riots had led Piedmont to establish roadblocks, manned by police and armed volunteers, intent on keeping “reds” (Communists) out of their safe little suburb. Young Stanley rolled up to the roadblock in his jalopy and his customary Brooks Brothers suit. When questioned, he threw the police a grin.

“My name is John Reed,” he said, naming America’s most famous Communist; “and I’m off to visit the Trotskys.”

The police, to whom those names meant nothing, looked at the charming and handsome fraternity man before them, and waved him through.

Stanley’s memory is a blessing, and his example of not condemning old friends and old associations is a much-needed reminder in this bitter and score-settling age.

This article was originally published at the author’s Substack.


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