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On David French, a response to my responses
So, last week was fun. Context: At Young Fogey, my Patheos spot, I wrote a blog that had been a long time coming about the frustrating arc of erstwhile National Review pundit David French. It was part personal essay, part political time capsule, part release of pent-up frustration over the decline of a conservative writer I used to admire. Still, I did my best to give French his due and recognize what factors might have set him on his current trajectory.
When I launched the blog into the wild, the response was overwhelmingly positive, with many people thanking me for precisely expressing their own long-held feelings. That was day one. Naturally, by day two, less favorable responses began to roll in. Some complaints specifically focused on French’s recent essay on racial justice and corporate guilt, which was the piece that had moved me to finally air my frustrations with French in one place. A day or two later, French wrote a follow-up to that piece where he accused his critics of bad faith at worst and carelessness at best. (I was not included in this roundup, presumably because I hadn’t made it convenient for him by calling him “loathsome,” “despicable,” or “odious.”)
Some people have asked me what I think about that follow-up piece. I do, in fact, have thoughts, but I also want to address some other areas of complaint with my blog. The most comprehensive “complaints bundle” came in the form of a Twitter thread by Arc Digital editor Berny Belvedere. Fair warning: Because my original blog was rather sprawling, my responses likewise ranged over a variety of topics. With that in mind, I will try (and probably fail) to give this Stack some semblance of organization with sub-headers. Thanks for your patience.
First, some housekeeping: I slightly know Berny Belvedere. He’s edited my work in the past, he’s always been professional and complimentary, and we’ve never had issues. In a followup tweet to the above-linked thread, he said he still believes I’m “sharp and capable,” so I’ll take the compliment in good faith. However, Berny has developed a flair for, shall we say, strongly-worded tweet threads. So, I wasn’t overly shocked to see something of mine had triggered one. Though I admit, I was a bit surprised at some of his language, given our history. (Both my old Arc Digi pieces are archived on Medium—a review of Douglas Murray’s Madness of Crowds and a piece on COVID’s economic tradeoffs that was ahead of its time at the time and later earned a nod in The Atlantic from Conor Friedersdorf.) In any case, the point is I’m not here to get personal with Berny. I declined to go point by point through his thread at the time (it was a slightly busy day for me on Twitter). But now that we’ve all had a few days to cool off, I’ll take his complaints one by one.
Berny sets this up by saying that he found my frustrated tone of loss in the piece “impossibly obnoxious” and that I am, in fact, “unwittingly documenting my own descent.” He then begins by highlighting a paragraph where I say that even though I intensely disliked Donald Trump, I didn’t think he was a racist, and I thought he had sometimes been read uncharitably. I included his infamous post-Charlottesville speech in this category.
Now, I don’t write or talk much about this, because to be frank I find it quite tedious, as I’ve found the general discourse around Trump quite tedious. I’m proud of my success in writing and thinking about almost everything else besides Trump in the past few years. But, since we’re revisiting Charlottesville etc., I’ll just flesh out my opinion here: Yes, I still maintain that Trump was at worst committing the sin of carelessness in that speech. He appears to have been trying to make a separation between the Saturday rally’s KKK LARPers and people from “the previous night” who he understood were more broadly anti-iconoclastic. In fact, he hadn’t studied the weekend’s schedule closely enough to see it was basically KKK LARPers all the way down. In other words, Trump was being bumbling and careless. In other news, the sky was blue.
For anyone who’s keen to revisit the details two years on, I’ll link this pretty disingenuous Bulwark summary by Robert Tracinski, which refreshes some facts of the rally in one place but still insists Trump must have been artfully crafting his speech so as to knowingly label Friday’s tiki-torch-bearing anti-Semites “very fine people.” Forgive me if I struggle to take this seriously, just as I struggle to take seriously anyone who seriously believes Trump was giving the Proud Boys a coded signal to “stand by” in his fumbled general debate Q & A. If that’s enough to make me a retrospective Trump apologist in some people’s eyes, oh well.
Meanwhile, some were asking why I was scrutinizing French so closely while seeming to let Trump off lightly. My reply was that I believe I’m consistent in saying both Trump and French have engaged in foolish, reckless rhetorical tactics. The difference is that French is a) a Christian with moral authority in the public square, and b) not an idiotic man-child. Ergo, my standards for French are going to be, suffice it to say, a mite higher.
Drag Queen Story Hour
Moving on, Berny took aim at a section in my piece about French and Sohrab Ahmari’s famous dispute over Drag Queen Story Hour. Like Ahmari, I was perturbed by French’s airy dismissal of people’s concerns, saying a library’s freedom to host these sorts of events on a first come first serve basis was one of the “blessings of liberty.” That much-quoted phrase comes from the New Yorker piece double profiling the debaters. In context, French said glibly, “There are going to be Drag Queen Story Hours. They’re going to happen.” This excellent First Things piece buried French’s shallowly dismissive pooh-poohing about conversations over “some sort of library event that like 20 people might go to” in hard data. Not only did it highlight the popularity of the events, it included exact quotes from queens openly advertising that they are “trying to groom the next generation,” asking their young audience “Who wants to be a drag queen?” Now, we can charitably assume French just didn’t do his homework, here, though that’s rather damning for someone who presented himself as the face of savvy, cutting-edge conservative punditry. The truth, I suggested, is that French in fact casts a libertarian eye over the whole phenomenon. But in that case, I wrote that it was entirely fair to ask where was his line in the sand for library-hosted children’s events, since he seemed so insistently unbothered by this one.
But Berny finds this absurd:
This was the one tweet I selected for a brief Twitter response, pointing out that many gay men would agree with me on the inappropriateness of mixing drag with kids’ entertainment. It seems to me they might be in a better position to render a verdict on the matter than Berny, but what do I know?
Game of Thrones
Next, Berny criticized a passage where I said I found it interesting that French was so distressed over Trump’s coarsening, corrupting cultural influence, yet he made an elaborate point out of his choice as a Christian to enjoy the show Game of Thrones.
Now, look, I realize lots of people watch Game of Thrones, including lots of Christians, presumably including Berny. But David wasn’t just watching it, he went out of his way to moralize obnoxiously about the fact that he was watching it, maundering on about how prudish Christians need to realize corruption isn’t “out there,” but rather comes “from within.” (He’s used similar language in post-Trump material, so reading that column in hindsight shows his current incarnation as a pundit didn’t spring from just nowhere.) Well, by that same token, there was nothing to worry about from the spreading influence of Trump’s locker-room talk, was there? Corruption comes “from within,” after all. I certainly had concerns about said locker-room talk at the time. But then, I also had concerns about Game of Thrones. So, I like to think I was pretty consistent on the whole “cultural corruption” front. That was my point. (Meanwhile, I confess the comments under this particular tweet gave me a rather guilty pleasure. One poor soul wondered aloud “what this person would do with Dante or Chaucer.” I gently informed him that I had, in fact, read Dante’s entire Divine Comedy over a single high school school year, in the misty way back when.)
Berny’s conclusion went back to my framing of my piece. When people semi-regularly ask me “What happened to David French?” I write that while the common answer is “Trump broke him,” I think that’s a bit simplistic. Which I go on to try to demonstrate in a long, nuanced analysis. That’s it. From there, somehow, Berny gets here:
As I’ve said above, it’s not true that I’m “fundamentally unbothered by the penetration of Trumpism into our political culture.” I thought I’d made it clear in my piece that his candidacy and subsequent presidency left me “saddened,” “jaded,” and even partly hoping he would lose so that we could draw the curtain over the whole sad reality show. (I hadn’t said in so many words in my first published draft that I didn’t vote for his re-election, as I had thought I was sufficiently clear already. I subsequently added this as a further guide for the perplexed.) So yes, it’s fair to say I was bothered. But also no, I didn’t believe Trump fantasized about having a legion of Nazis at his beck and call. Have I myself adopted “a posture of permanent revulsion” towards Trump? I mean, maybe, in the sense that in those moments when I bother to think of Trump one way or another, I think “Ewww,” then get on with my day? Maybe Berny just thinks about Trump more than I do. Idk.
That concludes my response to Berny. I now want to turn to the main topic of French’s catalyzing piece and subsequent “clarifying” follow-up.
French Doubles Down
“That glow you saw on the horizon was the flames of a thousand burning straw men.” French is obviously pleased with this analogy in the intro to his new piece. He wonders if people even read his first essay, much less read it in good faith. He expresses shock and outrage that anyone could possibly have read him as imposing intergenerational guilt for ancestral sin. Further, his actual proposals for how proper reparation might be made to the black community are “modest” — offering school vouchers, for example.
The bit that had primarily turned heads was French’s cavalier use of 2 Samuel 21, where King David allows the Gibeonite tribe to settle an old grudge against King Saul’s house by handing over seven of Saul’s sons to be mob-lynched. Just to be clear, I don’t believe French actually thinks mob black-on-white lynching should be on the table for serious consideration as a method of racial reparations. But our simple point was that in that case, why the hell even bring the passage up? Whatever is really going on with it, it is murky, inscrutable, and far, far removed from anything with any bearing on the current discourse about American race relations. Yet French blithely inserted the passage into said discourse, explicitly framing it as a corrective to the “flaw” in the conservative argument that “there is no intergenerational obligation to remedy historic injustice (‘I’m not responsible for my ancestors’ sins’).”
French’s new essay disavows a belief in intergenerational guilt, saying rather he adheres to a frame of transitive corporate responsibility. But he doubles down on the aptness of 2 Samuel 21 by saying that as the ruling authority of the entity (Israel) which had wronged the offended party (the Gibeonite tribe), King David had a responsibility to “address” the injustice. Of course, to recap, King David “addressed” it by summarily rounding up seven blood descendants of the individual guilty party (Saul) for gruesome mob execution. And, to repeat, French had initially set the illustration up as a challenge to the line “I’m not responsible for my ancestors’ sins.” Saul was not David’s ancestor. Saul was his sons’ ancestor. It was not David who paid for Saul’s sins. It was Saul’s sons. So, if French now wants to shift frames to a corporate vs. genetic model of “responsibility,” he’s free to do so, but we are likewise free to point out the slippage. Meanwhile, a Babylon Bee-style headline nearly writes itself: “Scholars Determine Execution Account in 2 Samuel 21 is Ancient Near Eastern Hyperbole for School Vouchers.”
But even if we slide along with French, his new analogies don’t really convince, either. He gives the example of institutions like Bob Jones University, which had segregationist policies as recently as the 80s, and compares them to an industrial plant who’s ongoingly polluted a community’s groundwater, with serious health effects. Just as an incoming CEO of the plant has a responsibility under the law to make restitution to the community, even though he individually doesn’t bear the guilt of the company’s negligence, so current leaders of formerly segregated institutions have a responsibility to do…well, what, exactly?
It’s not clear. As French himself says, “the answer to that question is hard. It’s complicated.” I agree. But in that case, French doesn’t really get to avail himself of an analogy to a situation with a clear guilty and offended entity, clear direct consequences of the guilty party’s actions, and a clear path of restitutive action. If the analogy doesn’t fit, put in the work to make a better one. But sloppy analogizing followed by spreading one’s hands with a “Well, it’s complicated” won’t do.
I’ll wrap up this over-long post with one more small Twitter exchange that I found unfortunately revealing. In my blog, I said that it seemed French was pre-supposing the philosophy of “DEI” (disparity equals injustice) when surveying the landscape of inequality and disparate impact among races. Without plunging into the weeds of the debate, I simply said that this philosophy was debatable. In response, one reader asserted that to say DEI is controversial is akin to saying there’s a legitimate controversy around selective abortion:
I find this tweet sadly indicative of the level at which this discourse is operating in our current moment. If reconciliation and mutual understanding is the purported end goal of the American conversation on race relations, then all I can say is some actors are doing their best to ensure said end goal is never reached.