Sohrab Ahmari Is a Joke

The emptiness of conservative nationalism


Not too long ago, Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of the New York Post op-ed page, wrote a jeremiad against National Review's David French, succinctly titled "Against David French-ism." At its core, it was an argument not only that French was too nice but that he embodied a habit among conservatives, and in particular among social conservatives, of shrinking from important cultural fights. 

What looked on the surface like a personal spat between two opinion journalists was in fact a larger debate about the future of the political right. Ahmari was arguing for a conservatism that wasn't nice or civil as a matter of practice. He wanted a conservative politics that would wage cultural war on its enemies—and win. 

Last night, Ahmari took the fight directly to his enemy, debating French in person for the first time in an event at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., moderated by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. As debates go, it was profoundly lopsided.

French, a lawyer and former president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, repeatedly challenged Ahmari to explain what concrete actions he proposed to defend religious liberty and culture. In doing so, French demonstrated over and over again that Ahmari's arguments are hollow, that his thinking is shallow, that he is an utter lightweight on virtually all the matters of policy substance he claimed to care about. To put it in the kind of blunt and less-than-civil terms that the Post editor might use, the evening proved that Sohrab Ahmari is a joke. 

Much of the debate centered on "drag queen story hour," an event held at a California public library that was, by Ahmari's telling, the inciting incident for his attack against French. Ahmari was offended by this event's existence, and for whatever reason he decided that French, and French's style of political argument, were to blame.

Ahmari brought up the California event early in the evening, calling it and others like it a "cultural crisis and a moral emergency." Drag queen story hour, he warned, was a "global movement," since the group that hosts it has 35 chapters. "It is," he said, "a threat." 

This eventually prompted French to ask the obvious question: What would Ahmari do to combat this supposed crisis? "What public power would you use?" he asked. "And how would it be constitutional?"

Ahmari's answer—and I promise I am not making this up—was that he would hold a congressional hearing "on what's happening in our libraries," in which sympathetic conservative senators such as Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton would "make the head of the Modern Library Association or whatever sweat." 

There has always been something frustratingly vague about Ahmari's vision. In his original essay attacking French, he longed for a conservatism that would "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good." It was never clear what, precisely, he felt the common good or the Highest Good were, or who would be in charge of defining them. But now, at long last, we have some clarity about what it means to fight the culture war in this manner: It means convening a formal event at which public officials are mean to the head of the Modern Library Association. Which is to say: It means political theater designed to entertain and satisfy Sohrab Ahmari.

Later, Ahmari suggested that local ordinances could be passed to prohibit culturally offensive displays like drag queen story hour, or that obscenity laws could be enforced more strictly. French, an actual lawyer, patiently explained that even the oldest and strictest interpretations of obscenity laws would not bar drag queens from the library; even back then, courts would not have seen dressing in drag as obscene. More importantly, local ordinances would violate the Constitution, which protects viewpoint-neutral access to public facilities such as schools and libraries. Those protections, French noted, have benefited conservative Christians immensely, ensuring that they cannot be denied access to public spaces because of their religious beliefs. But the same protections also prohibit public officials from turning away drag queens. You can't have one without the other. 

"I'm going to fight for the rights of others that I would like to exercise for myself," French said, "because I also know that my rights are fragile." It's not possible to create a system that only delivers results that Ahmari likes. Sometimes, French said, "people you disagree with are going to have to go to court and win." What matters is the fairness and integrity of the system as a whole, not one's irritation with a particular outcome.  

Ahmari stumbled in response, arguing that there are "cultural battles that can't be fought" in the courtroom. These issues were bigger than the courts, he said. This was something of a retreat, if not an outright reversal, from the position he took in his essay, in which he nonsensically complained that French—who has sued countless universities to protect individual religious and speech rights—was too resistant to using government power to achieve his desired ends. Instead, he claimed at the time, French was overly enamored of "cultural change" as the solution. 

So which is the correct way forward? Culture? Or law? As on so many things, Ahmari couldn't seem to decide. 

I suspect he isn't really concerned about either. What Ahmari really wants is theater, the satisfaction of watching a friendly senator dress down an unfriendly liberal. 

Similarly, Ahmari wants to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, a position an editorial in his paper recently endorsed, not because he believes it would be effective—the piece admits that such bans are arbitrary and that the previous one had "limited impact"—but because his agenda consists almost entirely of empty, symbolic action. 

He likewise defended Missouri Sen. Hawley's absurd plan to regulate social media functionality, not because it offered good, practical ideas—"it's not as if I agree with every provision," he said—but on the grounds that "at least [Hawley's] willing to say, here's a problem, and the state may have a role." At one point he offered, largely unprompted, "I am willing to ban things. Let me put it that way." The Highest Good, I guess.

This is not a practical agenda. It is a flimsy expression of irritation. Ahmari is upset about things that are happening in the culture, and he wants them to go away—or at least to be castigated publicly by someone in a position of power. He doesn't really have a plan to make anyone's life better. He just wants the brief satisfaction of a lively political show. 

To be clear, my critique of Ahmari is not a defense of all of French's ideas. The National Review writer is, to put it mildly, no libertarian. I believe he is wrong about many things, such as whether the First Amendment does—or should—protect pornography. (French made clear in the debate that he believes it shouldn't, although he recognized that cultural demand presented challenges to his view.) But he has also done much to concretely defend individual liberty for both religious and secular people, especially on college campuses. And he understands, correctly, that the foundation of individual freedom is the protection of individual rights, even—especially—when they benefit people and actions you personally dislike.

French is sometimes wrong. But unlike Ahmari, he is arguing thoughtfully and in good faith. He knew what he was talking about, the precise details and history of the law, and the ramifications that alterations might have, in the way that a lawyer with years of on-the-ground experience knows. Ahmari knew what he felt, knew that he was upset, and didn't know much more. 

So when I say that Ahmari is a joke, I don't do so solely as a cheap jab. I'm saying he is so thoroughly ignorant of or careless about the particulars of legal and policy substance that he should not be regarded as merely wrong. I'm saying he should not be regarded at all. 

Ahmari has nothing productive to offer, nothing useful to add to the debate about conservatism and nationalism and the best way to protect the rights and liberties of Americans. He is a person without a plan beyond behaving rudely to garner attention. He has substituted shallow snideness and pointless personal attacks against a decent man in place of a thoroughly considered political program, because, in the end, his political program consists of little more than sneers and shallow assertions of moral righteousness. Incivility is not the process by which he means to achieve some larger political victory but an end unto itself. Ahmari-ism is not an agenda, or an ideology, or a political program. It is, at heart, being a jerk for its own sake. 

Ahmari will probably have to be satisfied with that, because his attack has backfired. He lost last night's debate, and lost badly, in a fight that he started. In doing so, he proved not only that David French can fight—but that French-ism can win.