The Sohrab Ahmari vs. David French debate is about strategy–and so far, French is winning

By Jonathon Van Maren

Last night, the much-awaited debate between Sohrab Ahmari of the New York Post and David French of the National Review finally took place at the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., moderated by Ross Douthat of the New York Times. For those who haven’t been following the civil war within conservatism (which was touched off by a Twitter feud between the two writers), Sohrab Ahmari and a number of likeminded conservatives who hang their hats at First Things, among other places, are accusing the classical liberal faction of conservatism of failing to respond to the cultural challenges we face in the 21st century.

French has responded by pointing out that the American Constitution guarantees the First Amendment for everyone, and that as such, banning repugnant events such as Drag Queen Storytime—which Ahmari consistently cites as symptomatic of both cultural decline and conservatism’s collective failure to adequately respond—is both impossible and unwise. The same protections that guarantee the right of the LGBT crowd to parade their perversities in the public square, says French, are needed by Christians to protect their rights. If we target those protections to spike Drag Queen Storytime, in other words, we will be blowing up the dyke around our own churches.

I wish French were wrong, but nothing in last night’s debate convinced me that Ahmari and the illiberals have any compelling evidence that he is (at least, from a strategic perspective). Ahmari failed to explain what it is, exactly, that conservatives can do about events like Drag Queen Storytime, despite the fact that they are genuinely repellant displays of sexuality to children in public libraries. When pressed on this, Ahmari suggested a senate hearing in which “Senators Cruz, Hawley, and Cotton make the head of the modern library association…sweat” in order to send “a cultural message that we’re up against this, we’re going to fight this, because it’s obscene.” He also suggested passing “local ordinances,” which French pointed out would also have to be constitutional. I’m not happy about the fact that the current law considers something like Drag Queen Storytime to be covered by the First Amendment, but that is the way it is–and conservative judges generally take a very expansive view of what constitutes freedom of speech.

I’m all for Ahmari’s suggestion that we hold senate hearings in order to send a cultural message, but I also fail to see how this will actually put a stop to it. French made the point that the presence of obscenity in society is the price we pay for freedom, and he may be right (although again, I wish he wasn’t). More importantly, as cultural tides begin to change directions and statistics indicate to us that the upcoming generation of Americans is profoundly unchristian, we are going to need those legal protections. As I noted earlier this month, Donald Trump is a reprieve from the march of progressivism, not a course change. It seems strategically unwise to start punching holes in the judicial firewall around religious liberty in order to ban an event, no matter how obscene.

Perhaps my view is somewhat fatalistic, but I believe that there are public spaces that will become so poisoned that Christians will simply have to avoid them. The streets belong to the collective citizenry, for example, but I still avoid large sections of our major cities when Pride Month is in full swing, because I do not wish to see guys in bondage gear and nude middle-aged men, among other things. Increasingly, it will be necessary to have our own institutions to replace those that have been successfully colonized by the progressives. Again, I wish there was a better solution to all this, but I do not see one that does do more harm than good considering Christianity’s plummeting influence.

Here and there, we may have the opportunity to pursue creative responses. In Leander, Texas, for example, the city council has voted to stop renting out space at their local library to any public organizations at all, eliminating the ability of LGBT activists to host Drag Queen Storytime, which was scheduled to take place. Residents of the small town had responded to the idea with angry protests, and rather than pass an ordinance that would get struck down in the courts, the council decided to simply eliminate the ability of any group to use the public space. Perhaps other towns and cities might want to consider Leander’s “this is why we can’t have nice things” strategy: If the citizenry cannot agree on what the public space is used for, then nobody gets to use it. Enforced neutrality can work in more ways than one.

Throughout the debate, Sohrab Ahmari consistently brought up the fact that America’s Founders believed their Constitution was only fit for a moral and religious people, which is undoubtedly true. It is sobering to consider that the Founders would probably not think much of the Republic’s chances of survival (and one very encouraging point of agreement between Ahmari and French was that the First Amendment does not and should not apply to pornography, which seems like a fantastic place to start.) But without constitutional protections, what do we have left? Already the LGBT activists and progressives have indicated their desire and their willingness to exercise raw power and “punish” Christians for their beliefs. What if they did not even have the Constitution holding them back?

If Sohrab Ahmari and the illiberal conservatives have some compelling strategies to put forward, I’m all ears. As those of you who regularly read my columns know, I am not philosophically opposed to banning things. In the meantime, however, it appears that David French’s classical liberalism is the defensive strategy we’re stuck with.


Watch the debate below, and let me know what your take on this ongoing discussion is in the comments–I’d love to hear them!

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