Last week, Catholic University hosted a showdown, of sorts, between David French and Sohrab Ahmari. Their dispute started when Ahmari posted this piece on First Things, declaring jihad against Frenchism, which he described as a passive-aggressive approach to the culture war with the Left. It got a lot of attention in conservative circles, mostly because they were happy that anyone was talking about them at all. Here is the video of the show down and here is a summary from American Conservative.
The event itself was typical of the pseudo-academic culture you see around conservative politics at this level. There is the superficial collegiality and the carrying on like this is a meeting of two intellectual giants. An essential element of this culture is the displaying of credentials, as well as the recognition of those credentials. That’s why the opening was like dogs sniffing each other’s butts at the park. Ahmari brought a gift to signal his submissiveness to French, who he considers a superior.
This is, of course, why French agreed to the thing in the first place. He was certainly told that Ahmari is a light weight, who could land a few punches, but was incapable of delivering any hard blows. Ahmari appears to be a guy, who has sampled dissident writing, but is not well versed in the arguments against Buckley conservatism. As a result he was left to flail around while French was able to safely keep the conversation to theoretical topics, rather than the failings of Buckley conservatism.
That is, of course, a game the Buckleyites learned from libertarians. When the conversation is about practical issues, like fighting the Left over cultural turf, they shift the focus to theory. When confronted on theory, they take a deep dive into the weeds of some narrow policy topic. That’s what French was doing with Ahmari. He kept shifting the topics to legalism and constitutional theory, in order to avoid talking about the fact that conservatism has been a colossal, multi-generational failure.
That’s what was a bit disappointing about Ahmari’s performance. A better equipped debater, a dissident for example, would have turned French’s arguments back on him with relative ease. His claim that the Founders wanted a neutral public space, for example, is laughable nonsense. The Founders were white Christians, who assumed they were founding a white Christian country. More important, they were practical men who understood what was required to maintain their people.
Think about it. These were men who revolted against the prevailing order, against centuries of tradition, in order to impose their way of life on their lands. Not only were they willing to overthrow centuries of tradition, they were willing to kill their countrymen in order to found their nation. They were also quite explicit in their motives. They founded a nation for their people and their posterity. By the definitions of today, definitions David French supports, the Founders were white nationalists.
Of course, the neutral public space argument is a justification for not fighting the Left over cultural turf. By claiming a principled claim in support of an open and neutral public space, it rules out doing anything that could actually win the fight. After all, defending the public square from complete domination by the Left, means pushing them out of some portion of it. That would violate the sacred principles of principled conservatives, so they not only refuse to do it, they prevent others from doing it.
Something that never gets mentioned by dissidents is that this line of reasoning contradicts basic Christian teaching. To cede the public space on principle is to agree, in advance, to not proselytize. To preach and proselytize means staking out space in the public square, regardless of the consequences. The very founding of the Christian faith was on the bones of those, who martyred themselves to spread the word of Jesus Christ in the face of violent opposition.
That of course, raises the question as to just how sincere David French is in his religious conviction. He waves his Christian faith around almost as much as he waves around his military service, yet he is not willing to risk much for it. The Gospels are pretty clear on this point. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Jesus instructed the rich to give away their riches and follow him. Surely, salvation is worth some principles.
This is where dissident Christians can find a niche in dissident politics. There is a long tradition of Christians preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of fierce opposition from authority. To be a dissident is to reject the authority of the prevailing orthodoxy. To be a dissident Christian is to know the source of all authority. The way forward to a society built around natural association is also the path to a society where Christians can proselytize and lead their fellow man to salvation.
This is what the backers of Frenchism fear. A militant, optimistic and aggressive Christianity would be wildly attractive to disaffected white youth. Imagine young guys in camo flash mobbing public events, while reading Scripture. Imagine them employing the protest tactics of the Left, but in favor of faith. That’s why millions are poured into Christian groups to advocate the surrender model. Their leaders get very rich while leading their flocks away from the public space.
None of this is new material, which is why David French has become the clown nose of Buckley conservatism. It’s not about ideology or theology with this guy. David Frenchism is about celebrating the choices of David French. From his adoption of an African to his JAG service, it’s always about his public acts of piety. That’s what jumps out from the video of that event. Watching him in action, the line from Emerson comes to mind. “The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”
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