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Sohrab Ahmari, First Things, and the High Church of Victimology

June 3, 2019
Sohrab Ahmari, First Things, and the High Church of Victimology

Sohrab Ahmari began his assault on “David French-ism” with a reference to a First Things manifesto that had, in turn, concluded on a suggestive note. “[W]e respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism and foreclose honest debate.”

Who exactly is “foreclosing honest debate” is unclear. It is the president, after all, who reflexively accuses his critics of “treason” while railing against the press as “the enemy of the people.” But the locution of the First Things manifesto speaks to a foundational, and unbecoming, principle of intellectual Trumpism: the politics of victimhood.

Its basic tenets are these: Conservatives are besieged in a hostile world whose nastiness precludes niceties such as David French’s manners. Ahmari thus advocates fighting straight through “the cultural civil war.” Politics for him is about “war and enmity.” Christians have been “coercively squeezed out of the public square,” and “the overall balance of forces has tilted inexorably away from us.”

This is precisely the sort of siege mentality—guarding the sacralized status of victim and the political entitlements, including an exemption from customary norms as unsuited to warfare, it confers—that the right used to mock in the identity politics of the left.

The Trumpist right has apparently discovered that victimology works. Or perhaps just that it feels good. In either case, it achieves for the victimized right in politics precisely that of which Ahmari and others accuse the culture: liberation from ordinary norms.

One of the stigmata of victimhood is feeling most passionately besieged when one is most tangibly ascendant. The social status of victim is not something to be surrendered lightly. Identity politics appeared only as civil rights in America were being more comprehensively affirmed than at any point in our nation’s history. Conservative victimhood is rising as Trumpism commands an impressive array of heights: the White House, majorities in the U.S. Senate and on the Supreme Court, most governorships and an even greater proportion of state legislatures.

If this is a siege, Troy is well fortified against wooden horses.

Why cling to victim status, with its halo of helplessness? Precisely because it releases one from norms of civility, which bind by tradition and habituation rather than by reflex. It authorizes the expression of our baser instincts while soothing losses incurred in the realm of representative self-government.

Another hallmark of this style of politics is railing against amorphous oppressors. In the Trumpist case, it is the culture and its corporate backers, who bully communities into accepting, for example, changing sexual norms. To be sure, the bullying culture, especially in bien pensant college towns and the Philistine Acela corridor and the Gomorrahs on the coasts—places from which, not incidentally, the besieged tend to write—is real, even if the apparatus of the state is no small weapon of defense. Moreover, culture arguably matters more than politics, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted. But the latter, as he also wrote, is a formidable means of shaping the former.

The larger problem with going home in search of monsters to destroy is that it is an AUMF for domestic politics: a license for perpetual warfare because the enemy can always be said to be lurking, somewhere.

This embrace of victimhood, and the liberation from ordinary norms it licenses, is unoriginal. Edmund Burke, on whom Trump conservatives have turned with the same versatility with which they rejected other principles the moment their hero descended the gilded escalator, noticed it in the Jacobins of Revolutionary France.

On October 6, a Jacobin mob attacked Versailles and raided Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber. She fled a step ahead of her bodyguard, who was murdered. Members of Louis XVI’s guard were decapitated, their heads paraded on spikes. The royal family was then marched in humiliation to the Tuileries in Paris, where they were confined.

These were rigorous measures, but who could oppose them when the survival of high ideals espoused by a victimized people was at stake?

Burke could. An essential observation of his Reflections on the Revolution in France is that an unmoored attachment to abstractions rather than concrete circumstances licenses incivility and worse. Burke wrote:

Excuse me, therefore, if I have dwelt too long on the atrocious spectacle of the sixth of October 1789, or have given too much scope to the reflections which have arisen in my mind on occasion of the most important of all revolutions, which may be dated from that day, I mean a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions.

These “sentiments” and “manners” were once considered conservative values of their own accord. But they also serve the instrumental purpose of making civil society at all possible. Of course, civil society and civil war are opposites, so those who seek to perpetuate the latter have an interest in rejecting the former.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, was willing to let the Jacobin victims of Bourbon oppression—who were, after all, victims—off the hook. Writing in 1793, he allowed that Jacobins had committed a murder or two of people who Jefferson suggested would, anyhow, have been charitable about being martyrs to the Jacobin cause. He shrugged. “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest,” Jefferson wrote, “and was ever such a prize won with so little innocent blood?”

“So little.”

But, omelets and broken eggs and all. In the eyes of the new culture warriors, we are all Jeffersonians now. There is, after all, a war on. The prize is the culture, which is why Ahmari rallies the conservative troops “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.” To be sure, heads are not on spikes. But the warriors would apparently not mind putting some reputations there.

It is possible to be concerned, even acutely concerned, about the culture without declaring war. This talk of politics as warfare between friends and enemies is more Carl Schmitt than Michael Oakeshott, who warned of the risks of “telocratic” as opposed to “nomocratic” politics. Orientation toward a substantive end, Oakeshott wrote, is virtuous in private endeavors but dangerous for politics. “And it is not insignificant,” Oakeshott noted, “that the rhetoric of telocratic belief is always liberally sprinkled with military analogy.”

In the hands of the victims of both left and right, for example, cultural debate becomes cultural warfare. One need not oppose common goods—or the Highest Good—to see that Ahmari’s battle is for an abstraction that he apparently prefers to actual victories.

Because it is for these tangible victories that French has spent years fighting. These victories may be discrete, but they are real, concrete measures of advances in the cultural conflict about which Ahmari is so vehement.

Because actual, discrete victories (and losses) entail concrete goals, the morality of tactics—such as, for example, the violation of constitutional norms, if not the outright rejection of the idea that they matter at all—can be measured against them.

Ultimately, prudence governs the concrete while abstractions lend themselves to the extreme—at which point lesser objectives, not to mention individuals, are often sacrificed. By this logic, civility and decency, once substantive principles of conservatism, become “secondary values.”

There is a final problem with viewing “the culture war” as an abstract good rather than a discrete series of issues: When concrete objectives are attained or lost, the war—and, with it, the spiritual rush of the crusade—eventually ends.

By contrast, it is difficult to see what goals or individuals could not—indeed, should not—be sacrificed to a politics that seeks “the Highest Good.” That sort of war could go on, literally, forever.

If you are a victim, then war is your lifeblood. Conversely, if you want to motivate foot soldiers for a war, their supposed victimhood is a helpful cry. What seems lost on Ahmari is that the identity-politico complex on the left sees sees the world this way, too. Or maybe that’s not lost on him at all.

It is possible, of course, that both sides are losing the same war. But then, it’s also possible that both have an interest in sustaining it.

Greg Weiner

Greg Weiner is a political scientist at Assumption College, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author most recently of Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence.