I have known David French for some time. I like him a lot, and admire his work and the way he has lived his life. But it was news to me that there is such a thing as David French-ism. It might have been news to David French, too. I suspect it was.
“Against him first! He’s a very dog to the commonalty.”
What does the recent weird little internecine right-wing pissing contest over “David French-ism” tell us?
For one thing, it tells us that being conservative, or of the Right, is no inoculation against the desire for novelty. The conservative project, with its permanent things and ancient truths and unalterable facts of life and whatnot, can be a little boring. Sometimes, more than a little boring. Conservatives have always been, and will always be, at a disadvantage against the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right in that conservatives believe that it very often is the case that there is nothing to be done, or not much to be done, that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt which on that basis.
American conservatives are stuck with the old and thankless job of defending the constitutional settlement from the Wilsonians, who despise it, and from the masses of the demos, who can be bought cheap — though not cheap enough, as our unfunded liabilities testify.
I hope readers will forgive me for my constant reference to T. S. Eliot’s proverb that there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes. Conservatism consists partly in a consciousness of things lost, but also in a consciousness of precious things not lost — or not yet lost, or not forever lost.
To be relieved from the boredom and the heaviness of that project, some elements of the Right from time to time throw themselves into novelties and excitements: blood-and-soil, throne-and-altar European conservatism, which has almost nothing to do with what we call conservatism in the United States other than, on occasion, a common enemy; populism and populist heretic-hunting; authoritarianism and illiberalism, which can be wonderfully exciting, especially when they indulge or invite the violation of longstanding liberal-democratic norms or manners; millenarian hysteria and its attendant sense of emergency, which confers a license for all sorts of boorish and vicious behavior (“that earnest and insistently polite quality of his . . . I find unsuitable to the depth of the present crisis,” Sohrab Ahmari writes of David French); new “movements” and factions, which open up opportunities for leadership and status within new organizations and groupings; etc.
Beyond the general attraction of novelty, this controversy involves a specific kind of novelty and source of excitement: the takfiri impulse. In Islam, the takfiri tendency emphasizes not the conversion of infidels but the denunciation of fellow Muslims as apostates. The takfiri pronounces upon the apostate what Christians would call “excommunication,” which leaves the apostate liable to social and religious sanction and exclusion. (Under the more radical interpretations of the doctrine, killing the apostates is a religious duty.) For the takfiri, there are allies and enemies, true believers and the wicked — and the worst kind of infidel is the apostate, who profanes the communion from within. Large and significant political movements have been built on that foundation.
The takfiri mode is very common to modern partisan politics. It provides the fundamental narrative structure of most conservative talk radio, which pits “the Real America” against . . . Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, William Kristol, David Frum, David French, whomever. The takfiri mode also is very effective for the up-and-coming, on-the-make cable-news commentator.
But its most effective theater is social media, in which it is a very effective tool for building an audience, generating a lot of likes and retweets and such. It is effective in social media in part because it helps relatively minor figures to advance themselves in a parasitic fashion through involving themselves in controversies (including one-sided controversies) with more prominent or more popular figures. (I cannot help but notice that David French’s personal Twitter following is three times the institutional following of First Things.)
The takfiri strategy — and it is a strategy — is in this sense a status game. (I have a book coming out that deals in part with social-media status games, and so the subject is on my mind.) The basic structure of social media makes insults valuable. If Peter insults Paul, then two things can happen: Paul can ignore the insult, which lowers his status and raises that of Peter by establishing that Peter is the sort of man whose insults must be endured while Paul is the sort who must sit there and take it; or Paul can respond to the insult, which lowers his status by forcing him to come down to the level of the insulter and raises Peter’s status by establishing that he is the sort of man whose insults and taunts, no matter how juvenile or trivial, must be responded to.
That dynamic is why you get very silly claims such as the one that David French is knuckling under to the pornographication of our culture by watching Game of Thrones and that the proper political response to such pornographication is the mad and unquestioning embrace of a man who in the course of his long and colorful career has been, among other things, a literal performer in pornographic films. The silliness and the shallowness of the underlying claim does not matter; what matters is that one is being talked about.
(William F. Buckley Jr. wrote regularly for Playboy, and my own work has appeared there, much to the regret of the current management — the pornographic economy having collapsed under the weight of ubiquity and the subsequent financial situation being what it is, pornographers aren’t quite as bold as they used to be. Talk about being a victim of your own success!)
The foregoing phenomena are both contributors to and results of the moronization of political language, which, as George Orwell and others have observed, must necessarily lead to the degradation of political thought. This is a golden age of “alpha male” posturing, an era of which Anthony Scaramucci is the minor personification and Donald Trump the major one. And so we have, e.g., Sohrab Ahmari producing manful martial prose about “defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils” — and offering as his natural counterpoint David French, a recipient of the Bronze Star who has spent much of his career literally making as federal case out of it when religious liberties have been violated.
It’s a funny old world.
I do not get to see David very often, because he lives in Tennessee and I live in Texas, but, oddly enough, we both hear a great deal about the importance of “Georgetown cocktail parties” to our worldviews. Sometimes, we hear this from people who live and work literally inside the Beltway, or else from culture warriors who live on the Upper East side and earn their keep in the employ of Manhattan-based global media conglomerates. I was once denounced as an exemplar of “establishment” thinking by Cleta Mitchell, who literally wrote the book on how to be a Washington lobbyist.
Like I said: It’s a funny old world.
And one of the funny things about it is that there are some conservatives who seem to believe, genuinely, that our great hindrance is the prominence of the David French ethos in our public life. We should be so lucky.