The Sacramento public library featured a drag-queen story hour, in which men dressed as women read stories to children. It seems bizarre and agenda-driven, given that a stated goal was to provide kids with "glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models." I've seen drag queens and glamorous isn't the first thing that jumps to mind.
But who really cares? I avoided the library that day and shrugged it off as something that takes place in a big, diverse, largely free and slightly crazy society. No one was forced to attend. Few people around here were upset. But this local event sparked an intense national debate that highlighted the "battle for the future of conservatism," as the New Yorker put it.
The New York Post's op-ed editor, Sohrab Ahmari, learned about the story-telling queens and penned a screed against David French, a writer for the conservative National Review. French has nothing to do with the story hour or drag queens, but epitomizes an older Christian ethic that Ahmari, a young Catholic convert, apparently finds as objectionable as men with names such as Claire Voyance, Adda Miration and Allison Wonder.
In Ahmari's view, social conservatives need "to 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." French, he notes, is too civil and "believes that the institutions of a technocratic market society are neutral zones that should, in theory, accommodate both traditional Christianity and the libertine ways and paganized ideology of the other side."
Ahmari is a Trump supporter, which is ironic given that the president is known for his libertine ways – and the president's worldview seems more pagan (i.e., its celebration of power) than Christian. Most significantly, Ahmari embraces an emergent brand of conservatism that's hostile to markets and individualism. French believes that defending the constitutional order is the best means to defend the rights of everyone, including Christians.
The fracas filled the pages of right-leaning publications and even some liberal ones. Recently, the two faced off at Catholic University of America, where a columnist for the venerable New York Times moderated the figurative fisticuffs before a packed crowd.
Drag queens and religious absolutists might not be your cup of tea, but this debate should get your attention for an eye-popping reason: Many conservatives now believe the country is facing such a dire cultural threat that the nation should essentially jettison some long-standing constitutional restraints and protections.
They want an empowered government to intervene on behalf of their religious values. They might not be theocrats, but they are too close for this libertarian's comfort. They're amazingly naïve. What happens to them in a world with few government limits if they can't grab its levers of power? One need only think about California … and shudder.
Ahmari picked the wrong target, and not just because French was a far more skilled debater. French is a conservative warrior, who has fought numerous legal battles to protect the right of Christians to participate in the public square. He's not a squish by any definition. "I'm going to fight for the rights of others that I would like to exercise for myself because I also know that my rights are fragile," he said.
The problems with Ahmari's view are legion, but French made hay with Ahmari's lack of specificity. What public policies would he embrace to deal with the "threat" posed by drag queens in libraries? Ahmari offered only lame answers – pass local ordinances and hold congressional hearings.
Local ordinances won't pass in places such as Sacramento, where these reading hours are culturally acceptable. Congress has little business in local library matters and could only posture. In Ahmari's world, who gets to decide the public good? One need only look at the endless differences among religious denominations and sects to realize the kind of grudge matches that would ensue if government abandoned its pretense of neutrality.
The government, which abuses its power daily, cannot force people to be moral. An acquaintance, from fundamentalist Iran, told me about the common house parties there, where the burkas come off, booze flows – and where the apartment doormen give a heads up when the religious police are on patrol.
"What this is really about is cultural imperialism, taking America as it is and replacing it with something it's never been," opined The American Conservative's Matt Purple. Sure, the Left is all about cultural imperialism, as it seeks to force its values on us all. But the antidote is protecting everyone's liberties and winning people's hearts and minds by persuasion, not force.
I understand the frustrations of religious conservatives, who have watched the culture head off in disturbing directions. But putting up with some drag-queen storytelling seems like a small price to pay to live in a relatively free society.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.