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If you’re a regular listener to the Commentary Podcast, you probably came to know Sohrab Ahmari in his capacity as a contributor to that enterprise. Sohrab’s immigration to America from Iran and subsequent conversion to Catholicism have also produced a much-discussed memoir – From Fire by Water – and another outgrowth; the curious creation of an entirely new branch of conservatism, which he calls “David French-ism.” Setting aside for a moment that nascent political movements love to identify heretics and then place them on trial in order to better indulge the narcissism of small differences (this gets the juices of the true believers flowing), what is this thing and why should we care?
The definition he gives of this philosophy is that it essentially consists of a “polite, (David French-ian) third way around the cultural civil war.” That’s it. The notion of “liberalism” itself is called into question as liberalism is inherently agnostic about ends, and cares considerably more about the means by which cultural and political questions are sorted out. This is clearly seen by Ahmari and those at First Things as some type of bug, not a feature. David has done a better job of defending himself from this spurious straw-man than I likely can, but I’m more interested in the other side… in what French-ism’s flip side “Ahmari-ism” consists of.
What is its goal? Again, Ahmari: “[T]o 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.”
What is it that Sohrab really wants out of politics? An Everlasting Gobstopper, obviously. (Record Scratch…) Whaaat? Follow me for just a moment while we go on a wee side journey.
The fundamental unreality of the whole situation baffled me until I began to contemplate this contretemps from a different perspective – that of a morality play. In this play, Sohrab takes on the role of Charlie Bucket, from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which the titular hero is a poverty-stricken yet well-meaning urchin living in a Dickensian hellscape. Eating candy seems to be the primary obsession of this wasted and evil society; indeed, the consumption of Wonka treats provides the only meaningful release from the suffering induced by the grinding poverty afflicting the Bucket family, and Charlie in particular. The Wonka Company itself essentially forms the confines of the public square around which everybody gathers in the Wonka-verse.
In the story, other vices which bedevil the world are also put on display such as avarice, sloth, and gluttony. Note how cleverly this ties into the crises of morality which supposedly inflict America? Obesity, opioids, pornography, and divorce… Tell us, Sohrab:
How do we promote the good of the family against the deracinating forces arrayed against it, some of them arising out of the free market (pornography) and others from the logic of maximal autonomy (no-fault divorce)? “We should reverse cultural messages that for too long have denigrated the fundamental place of marriage in public life.” Oh, OK. How do we combat the destruction wrought by drugs (licit and illicit), by automation and globalization and other forces of the kind?
Hm. This sounds very similar to the Dahl’s-eye view of society that Ahmari holds up as being the natural outcome of the “Liberal” order: a culture which appeals primarily to the basest instincts and leaves people in a Bucket-like spiritual penury, constantly looking to inhale the next treat and forget the searing pain of their miserable existence.
The ill-considered conflation Ahmari engages in is to equate “Liberty” with “License.” This linguistic sleight of hand intentionally divorces liberty from its necessary counterpart: responsibility.
But as you know, the story moves on. In the midst of this hedonism and debauchery, a great light appears on the horizon: Wonka himself is offering Golden Tickets contained within his sweets representing an opportunity to tour the facility where the candy is made. For the Buckets, the ticket means salvation; to be raised from the slough of despond into a kind of secular heaven.
For those with less pure motives, the ticket turns out to be poison. As Charlie and the assembled crew of heathens are ushered through Wonka’s factory, they are picked off one by one by the various temptations contained therein… not because Wonka is a sadist, mind you, but by their own intemperance. (I will leave you, gentle reader, to decipher the meaning of that particular allegory.)
Be that as it may, Ahmari advances the argument that the indulgence made possible by liberal values (the temptations of the factory) will ultimately get you sucked up a chocolate pipe, dropped down the trash chute (you’re a rotten egg, Veruca!) or generally waylaid because those same liberal values “failed to retard, much less reverse, the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, communal solidarity, and much else.” But what are those permanent truths? Who gets to decide them and more importantly: who gets to enforce them? Ahmari is coy about this part, but if you read between the lines, the plot becomes clear.
The MacGuffin of the 1971 adaption of the book Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is that Everlasting Gobstopper I mentioned above. Getting that Gobstopper is the point of the Moral Journey that Ahmari thinks “David French-ism” isn’t up to handling.
His goal it seems is nothing short of gaining control of the factory to start churning out those Gobstoppers. What if you don’t like Gobstoppers? It is known that the Gobstopper is the ultimate truth of the candy universe, and all who deny it are wrong at least, and fools or evil at worst.
What do you think “a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good” means? Gobstoppers for all whether you like hard candy or not.
But there’s a little hitch at the end of the tale we all need to know:
Do you see what happened there? It seems in the end that even Charlie Bucket is more of a French-ite than an Ahmari-ite.
Not to get our pop culture metaphors hopelessly tangled, but if we’ve learned nothing else this year perhaps it is that we ought to be skeptical of placing those in power who would ruthlessly enforce their own judgment over what ultimate good consists of?
Remember: “They don’t get to choose.” Enjoy your Gobstoppers.