Debates are about making points, yes, but they’re also about comportment. The exchange between Sohrab Ahmari and David French, which took place at the Catholic University of America last Thursday, centered on just this point. It was a debate about debates—namely, “How do we best engage with our opponents on the Left?”
As it happens, we had ringside seats to watch these two men duke it out about the role of Christians, conservatives, and the state. I must admit, I was completely unprepared. I was expecting wholly different men than those who went to the ropes.
A significant division between Ahmari and French is the question of civility. Ahmari doesn’t think it’s all that important; French believes it’s central. But you wouldn’t have guessed it from where I was sitting—five feet from Mr. French, from where I could see every furrow of his brow. And that’s what this column is about: how each of them measured up to their stated views on civility.
With apologies to Mr. Ahmari, I expected him to be, well, a bit pompous. That was my expectation given his remarkable achievements at such a young age. After all, he published his memoirs just last year. What comes across in the book is a guy who was always among the smartest in the room and certainly the most precocious. So, I expected a bit of arrogance. (Okay, maybe a bit more than a bit.) As for Mr. French, I expected a man of humility, civility, even winsomeness.
Boy, was I wrong.
I met Ahmari briefly before the event and was pleasantly surprised to find a soft-spoken, humble, even sweet man. This came across in the debate, where he was relentlessly gentle. On the other hand, it was genuinely shocking to find French a hectoring bully who resorted a few times to vulgar language. I wasn’t prepared for him to be so unlikeable.
As I said, my wife and I sat in the front row only a few feet from French. He was angry when he arrived, and he stayed angry throughout. He went on the offensive and never came off. It’s clear that he has taken Ahmari’s criticism quite personally. In fairness, Ahmari lumped his opponents on the Right together under the eponym “David French-ism”—what he and others see as a kind of gentleman’s surrender to the dominant anti-Christian culture.
I watched the debate a second time online, and one of the simplest and most revealing things I noticed was Ahmari consistently treating French not as an enemy or an opponent, but rather as a friend. He regularly called him “David.” French never used Ahmari’s name, not even once. Ahmari complimented French’s many contributions to the Culture Wars; French said not a single complementary thing about Ahmari. Does this mean anything? I think it does. It was abundantly clear that French holds Ahmari in dripping contempt—a far cry from the civility and decency French insists upon.
In May, just after the Ahmari-French dust-up on Twitter, French penned an article in National Review relating a lesson he learned from one of his mentors. After a bitter loss in a Kentucky court case, said mentor called the opposing team and congratulated them on their victory. French reflects that, “in the midst of our apparent loss, Mr. Scott took the time to acknowledge our opponent’s work, their sacrifice, and their triumph.” French says his mentor “never forgot the humanity and dignity of our opponents, even when the stakes were so high.” French then goes on to argue for politeness, respect, and dignity. “We treated other human beings with dignity and respect.”
Why didn’t that David French show up to debate Ahmari? Why didn’t he treat Ahmari with dignity and respect?
French sneered at Ahmari from the very beginning. He interrupted his opponent over and over. French talked over Ahmari when he tried to answer French’s blistering questions. Nearly shouting, French demanded, “Name one thing you would do (to stop Drag Queen Story Hour). Name one thing!” At one point, you can actually see French making faces and rolling his eyes. It appeared that he was mocking his opponent for his fans in the audience as he turned to them for approval.
French referred to one argument as “crap,” another as “bullcrap.” He referred to something Ahmari said as “stupid.” Yet another time, he vulgarly joked, “What did you do in the great cultural conflict of 2018? ‘I was an asshole on Twitter’.”
On the other hand, Ahmari was the model of civility and decency. Under sustained verbal assault, he never even raised his voice. He spoke softly, even hesitatingly. He pulled no faces, nor did he mock his opponent. He behaved throughout the debate as the model of a Christian gentleman.
Ahmari’s opponents can point to only one clinker for seeming to (in French’s words) “denigrate” French’s military service. The truth is much different, and it points to another odd French tic: he has a propensity to go on and on about his own awesome accomplishments, including his military service.
Toward the end of the debate, Ahmari was arguing how it was Trump who fought ferociously for Brett Kavanagh when the radical feminists were out for his blood. He postulated that a President Jeb Bush might not have been willing to suffer the negative op-eds in The Washington Post. Ahmari then suggested that a President French might also have caved. (Bear in mind that for many weeks in 2016, French considered going third party against Trump.
French responded, “Oh, that’s total bullcrap.” Shaking a finger at Ahmari, French shouted, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you what. You talk to me about courage? When you’ve walked with your boots on Iraqi sand in the middle of the surge. How dare you? How dare you?”
What does one have to do with the other? Clearly, French had to use his military service as a cudgel at some point during the exchange. It was a matter of when, not if.
Regrettably, Ahmari then made an error. You can see he was ribbing French by pointing out he was an Army lawyer, not Seal Team Six. French could have had fun with that. He could have been self-deprecating. But he decided to bludgeon Ahmari with it. And thus began yet another Frenchian soliloquy about how wonderful he is.
French was not finished. He shouted that Ahmari had “denigrated” his military service, which is simply not true. Ahmari actually praised French’s service at the top of the debate. But then, and this is the heart of the matter, French said, is the thing that is dis-gusting”—French drew out the first syllable lovingly—“about what you did to me. What’s disgusting about what you did to me is you opened me up to attacks alleging [audio garbled].”
Ahmari responded: “Come on, David, we all have Twitter trolls. I write stuff, and I get attacked.” For French, such attacks are always personal and always the fault of his critics. And this is the heart of French’s enmity toward Ahmari. Ahmari criticized French, and this drew other critics, including the nutjobs that we all face on social media. For this, French carried an angry grudge for months—since March, to be exact—and that night was payback.
There is a rematch at Notre Dame this Friday. Here’s hoping Ahmari brushes up on the law, and David French calms down.