Sohrab Ahmari has written against what he calls “David French-ism,” which I’ll describe as the tendency of conservatives to attempt to maintain social peace through accommodation with cultural forces that don’t necessarily seek accommodation so much as replacement of America’s older social order with a wholly new order—and a new order with a wholly new set of moral goods. “Though culturally conservative,” Ahmari writes, “French is a political liberal, which means that individual autonomy is his lodestar.” And the problem with the logic of individual autonomy is that it ends with an unraveling of human relationships, duties, responsibilities, and rights in pursuit of an abstracted sort of liberty that believes its fulfillment will be found in the transgression of all limits, and the dissolution of what conservatives would recognize as social order.
Ahmari points out that the conservative project is doomed if it does not become more confrontational, and if it doesn’t shake off its perhaps excessive concern with abstract goods and its perhaps naive forfeiting of concrete social and political goods in the process of promoting those abstracted goods. Preaching the value of federalism, free speech, pluralism, or toleration doesn’t end up meaning much if you’re only preaching to the choir. At least, this is what I think Ahmari is pointing out. If you’re curious about this intra-conservative debate, first read Ahmari’s piece, then read David French’s response. And then read Michael Brendan Dougherty, and Rod Dreher.
There’s an aspect of Ahmari’s piece that is being widely misinterpreted; many are reading his piece as if he’s deriding conservatives for being “too nice,” when what he’s really doing is point out that calls for civility and niceness are not effective tactics for sustaining pluralism if your opponents no longer care about accommodation. Susannah Black highlights this:
“[Ahmari] wrote that ‘Civility and decency are secondary values. They regulate compliance with an established order and orthodoxy. We should seek to use these values to enforce our order and our orthodoxy, not pretend that they could ever be neutral. To recognize that enmity is real is its own kind of moral duty.’ This has been read by some as a call to do away with civility and decency. It is not. At least, it is not as I read it. It’s rather pointing out—at least, this is what I take—that if they are in service to an inverted moral order, an un-peace, then these things are not actually civility and decency. … True civility, true decency, are not neutral tactics of conversation which we can use to avoid confrontation. If you’re using something you call ‘civility’ that way, you are not civil. You are dodging. It is not the office of love of one’s enemy to ‘get along with’ him no matter what, to fail to tell him the truth. We must love our enemies—our hosti, as well as our inimici. But the way to do that is sometimes a face off. And there’s nothing noble about shirking.
As with most debates within conservatism, what’s unfolding is an attempt to resolve the question, “What are the things we’re seeking to conserve?”