Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Liel Leibovitz on the Ahmari/French Debate Over Conservatism

A big story on Twitter right now is Steven Crowder getting demonetized by YouTube, after a homosexual dude known as @GayWonk got his feelings hurt and mounted an all-out jihad against Crowder, claiming "homophobia," "racism," and who knows what else?

The Other McCain blogged on this a couple of days ago: "Totalitarian @GayWonk Is Attempting to Silence Conservative @SCrowder."

Meanwhile, I'm very interested in the debate Sohrab Ahmari kicked off with his blistering essay at First Things. I blogged about it here: "Our Existential Struggle."

I'm on Sohrab's side, but boy is this debate getting testy.

I'll have more, no doubt, but definitely read this piece from Liel Leibovich, at the Tablet, "Why Jews Should Pay Attention to the Recent Debate Rocking American Conservatism":

You don’t have to be conservative, or particularly religious, to spot a few deep-seated problems with the arguments advanced by French, Stephens, and the rest of the Never Trump cadre. Three fallacies in particular stand out.

The first has to do with the self-branding of the Never Trumpers as champions of civility. From tax cuts to crushing ISIS, from supporting Israel to appointing staunchly ideological justices to the Supreme Court, there’s very little about the 45th president’s policies that ought to make any principled conservative run for the hills. What, then, separates one camp of conservatives, one that supports the president, from another, which vows it never will? Stephens himself attempted an answer in a 2017 column. “Character does count,” he wrote, “and virtue does matter, and Trump’s shortcomings prove it daily.”

To put it briefly, the Never Trump argument is that they should be greatly approved of, while Donald Trump should rightly be scorned, because—while they agree with Trump on most things, politically—they are devoted to virtue, while Trump is uniquely despicable. The proofs of Trump’s singular loathsomeness are many, but if you strip him of all the vices he shares with others who had recently held positions of power—a deeply problematic attitude towards women (see under: Clinton, William Jefferson), shady business dealings (see under: Clinton, Hillary Rodham), a problematic attitude towards the free press (see under: Obama, Barack)—you remain with one ur-narrative, the terrifying folk tale that casts Trump as a nefarious troll dispatched by his paymasters in the Kremlin to set American democracy ablaze.

Now that this story has been thoroughly investigated and discredited, it seems fair to ask: Is championing a loony and deeply corrosive conspiracy theory proof of anyone’s superior virtue? The fact that these accusations were false implies that the Never Trumpers who made them early and often were among the political pyromaniacs, and are therefore deserving of the very obloquy that they heaped on Trump. And what about people like Carter Page, a blameless ex-Navy officer who was defamed as an agent of a shadowy, ever-expanding conspiracy headquartered in Moscow?

Conspiracy-mongering doesn’t seem like much of a public virtue. Certainly, the Never Trumpers should have known better than to join in the massive publicity campaign around a “dossier” supposedly compiled by a former British intelligence officer rehashing third-hand hearsay and paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. You can still find many faults with Donald Trump’s behavior in and out of office, including some cardinal enough perhaps to merit impeachment, without buying in to some moronic ghost story about an orange-hued traitor who seized the highest office in the land with the help of Vladimir Putin’s social media goons. All that should go without saying, especially for people who ostensibly devote their lives to elevating and enriching the tone of our public discourse.

It is therefore particularly strange to find that David French lent his considerable conservative credibility to the Russiagate lunacy. Here he is, for example, mocking those calling Russiagate a hoax by accusing them of being complicit with Trump receiving oppositional research from a foreign power—which, ironically, is precisely what the Clinton campaign had in fact done, in compiling the “dossier” in the first place. And here he is cheering for the now highly contested BuzzFeed story alleging that Trump instructed his lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress, an allegation that is contradicted by the Mueller report itself. And here he is dismissing the suggestion, by then backed by mounting evidence, that Russiagate may be a hoax or itself some kind of conspiracy.

It is true that French took care to sound unfailingly fair, a lone voice for reason in a political reality inflamed by lunatics left and right. The thing he was being reasonable about, however, was an FBI investigation that emerged out of a blatant politically motivated forgery. Now, it’s perfectly plausible that French was carrying on his arguments in good faith, even when overwhelming evidence to the contrary was always there for a slightly more curious or skeptical journalist to discover. What’s disturbing, from the public virtue standpoint, is that French has yet to admit his own failings, which are compounded by his less-than-courageous misrepresentations of what he actually wrote: In his reply to Ahmari, he strongly denied he had promoted the collusion story, a point of view that’s difficult to defend when your byline appears on stories like “There Is Now Evidence That Senior Trump Officials Attempted to Collude with Russia.”

French and the other self-appointed guardians of civility, then, should do us all a favor and drop the civic virtue act. They’re not disinterested guardians of our public institutions; they are actors, working in an industry that rewards them for dressing up in Roman Republican drag and reciting Cicero for the yokels. This is why Bill Kristol, another of the Never Trumpers, could raise money for his vanity website, The Bulwark, and why he could expect his new creation be lauded on CNN as “a conservative site unafraid to take on Trump,” even as the site was staffed by leftist millennials and dutifully followed progressive propaganda lines. Like anyone whose living depends on keeping on the right side of a leftist industry, they understood that there’s only so much you can say if you care about cashing a paycheck—especially when the president and leader of your own party won’t take your phone calls.

The Never Trumpers, of course, aren’t the first Americans to hide cold careerism behind a wall of virtue-signaling. It’s why so many in the professional punditry went the way of Never Trump: More than anything else, the decision to align oneself with a movement that, ontologically, vows to reject the president a priori, no matter what he might say or do, regardless of your own supposed political beliefs, is a way of affirming one’s professional class loyalties, thus ensuring that your progeny will still be accepted and acceptable at Yale.

Which, really, wouldn’t be much of a problem if the Never Trumpers were all as genuinely committed to gentility as David French. Sadly, they’re not, and you needn’t go much further than Stephens’ column to understand why. Stephens and Ahmari are friendly. It was Stephens who helped Ahmari get his first job at The Wall Street Journal. And Stephens is thanked in Ahmari’s recent memoir, a candid, thoughtful, and deeply moving account of his journey to Catholicism. And Bret Stephens is a gentleman, in a way that Donald Trump surely is not. Yet it is possible to imagine Stephens as the wrong kind of gentleman when reading his column contra Ahmari: Sounding every bit like a bigoted member of a 19th-century gentleman’s club railing against the papists, Stephens casually and cruelly robs his former protégé of the intricacies of his faith-based argument for the pleasure of painting him as “an ardent convert” merrily rolling along on his way to a Handmaid’s Tale-like future for America.

To tell an Iranian immigrant that he doesn’t understand the way American liberalism works because he ended up on the side of faith rather than on the side of deracinated cosmopolitan universalism isn’t just an impoverished reading of America’s foundations or a blatantly condescending comment; it’s also indicative of a mindset that seeks to immediately equate any disagreement with some inherent and irreparable character flaw.

On the subject of dissenters, the Never Trumpers eternal and immovable contempt merely apes that of their newfound pals on the left, for whom the president is a Nazi, the Republicans are perennially in the throes of a War on Women, and anyone who doesn’t fully subscribe to the latest lunacies of the identity politics-driven college campus cult is a racist creep. You may believe such an approach to politics is effective, but to pretend it is somehow morally superior is dishonest at best and, at worst, nefarious—a sleazy attempt to portray anyone who disagrees with you as not quite clean enough to be admitted into the league of enlightened gentlemen.

So much for the cocktail party chatter. The larger problem here is that at no point do Stephens, French, et al. deliver a concrete explanation of how they propose conservatism go about opposing, to say nothing of reversing, the new social and moral order that the progressive left has been busily implementing in America for a decade or more. At best, they claim that there’s no real crisis after all.

Presumably, the Never Trumpers and their ilk were simply manipulating the rubes and making bank when they denounced tenured radicals and liberal judges and the like under Clinton and Obama. In reality, they are perfectly content to live in a culture in which universities reject scientifically sound peer-reviewed papers for fear of offending the transgender community; in which pro-Israel speakers are routinely shouted down on campuses, and people with unpopular views are physically attacked; in which large technology platforms actively censor speech; in which journalists giddily defend the doxxing of a private citizen who created and shared a video they didn’t like; in which faith and those who practice it in earnest are dismissed as benighted bigots; in which the whims of unelected bureaucrats trump the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Never Trump was therefore a misnomer; they were simply elitist progressives who did an awkward kind of dance before arriving at their predestined home in the Democratic Party.

Ahmari, not unlike the zealous left he opposes, has a very distinct idea of where he wants the country to go. He doesn’t want it to end up where objecting to lunatic theories, forged by crackpot academics and defying millennia of lived human experience, gets you called a bigot and fired from your job. He doesn’t want to try and engage in dialogue with people who believe that disagreeing with their opinions causes them some sort of harm and that speech must therefore be regulated by the government or large tech companies. He doesn’t want an America in which color of skin and religious affiliation and sexual preference trump or mute the content of your character. Looking at public schools and private universities, Hollywood and publishing, academia and social media, Ahmari sees the threat posed by progressive doctrine to established American norms and values as entirely real. That he wants to fight it doesn’t make him, as Stephens suggested, a Catholic mullah-in-waiting. It makes him a normal American...


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