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What I Learned from Hanging With My Haters
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What I Learned from Hanging With My Haters

There’s a giant difference between exchanging tweets and having a talk. We talked.

On Wednesday night the strangest thing happened. I’d just finished dinner and had time on my hands. Normally I spend Wednesday evenings on Zoom with a group of guys I served with in Iraq. We launched a Dungeons and Dragons campaign months ago, and we have a great time slaying evil orcs, looting hapless gnomes, and catching up on life. But our Dungeon Master is still in the military, so serving the country sometimes takes precedence over guiding our merry band of adventurers through the forests and caves of Phandalin. 

I was cleaning the kitchen when a friend shot me a direct message and told me that I was the subject of a Clubhouse conversation called “David French: Based or Cringe.” For readers who aren’t Very Online, let me translate. Clubhouse is a new social media app that allows you to host live conversations online—think of it as a cross between a conference call and a panel discussion. As for the title of conversation, “cringe” is pretty self-explanatory, but “based” is a term that I’d call vaguely complementary. I wasn’t all that familiar with it, so I looked it up on Urban Dictionary. Here’s the top definition:

The quality of having an opinion without regard for what other people think, often a controversial opinion but not always. Upon expressing such an opinion it is customary for others to acknowledge the person as being based.

It’s not every day that you know someone is carrying on a live, public discussion about you, so I thought, I think I’ll join. And join I did.

From the moment I popped into the “room,” a few things were immediately clear. First, there was no real question about the group’s feelings about me. I was definitely “cringe.” In fact, when I first joined I came in during the middle of an epic rant about my failings as a person and a thinker. 

(For readers who don’t know, there is an online subculture that really, really hates me. It’s composed of an odd mix of “new right” postliberal social conservatives and dedicated Trumpist trolls.)

Second, the room was overwhelmingly young. A number of students were listening and participating, and many of the public voices who joined and participated were substantially younger than I am.

Third, they were definitely not expecting me to join. The surprise was palpable. But the instant they saw me come into the room, they were eager for a scrap. I told them that if they were going to talk about me, they should leave the straw men behind and have a conversation with the real person. And so I hung out with them for three solid hours, taking all their questions. 

Some folks hurled insults, some folks yelled their arguments, and some folks engaged thoughtfully. Overall, I honestly had a great time. While the online world is full of speech, it’s not often full of dialogue. There’s a giant difference between exchanging tweets and having a talk. We talked. 

It’s impossible to concisely summarize three hours of debate and discussion, but the conversation was dominated by two topics: abortion and Big Tech. Yet it quickly became apparent to me that there were much deeper issues in play, and it’s worth raising those issues as an explanation for the remarkable anger and intensity I heard, especially from some of the younger participants in the discussion. 

If I had to summarize their argument, it would go something like this: America is in a cultural death spiral. Not only did traditional conservatism and classical liberalism do nothing to stop America’s decline, their emphasis on individual liberty is also partly responsible for the decline. In other words, conservatives like me are the problem. Thus, to save America we have to take the gloves off, abandon decorum, and exert maximum political power to redirect American culture.

If this sounds familiar to you, it’s the same basic argument of the “Against David-Frenchism” piece from 2019. 

In many ways, the argument against me is also inextricable from the “Flight 93” argument for Trump. In many ways, we’ve been having the same argument for almost six solid years. “These are desperate times, and desperate times call for desperate measures.” 

My response was to question the premise. Yes, the pandemic has affected us all, but these times are not desperate. Yes, there are negative cultural developments, and we have real problems, but we have also enjoyed considerable improvement in key metrics of cultural health. I’ve written about many of them before. Divorce rates are lower, abortion rates (and ratios) are substantially lower, the percentage of kids living in married, intact families is inching up.

In fact, if you were going to craft a narrative of cultural decline, you’d have had a much better argument a generation ago. Divorce, abortion, and violent crime had skyrocketed. Each were at rates far, far above the present reality and directly impacted the lives of tens of millions of American—far, far more than are impacted by any changes, for example, to youth sports as a result of transgender activism. 

Moreover, Americans enjoy far greater free speech and religious liberty rights than they enjoyed a generation ago. When I started my litigation career, campus speech codes were the norm, religious liberty was in constitutional retreat, and the first wave of political correctness had shut down campus debate. 

If you think things have never been worse on campus, I’d urge you to read The Shadow University, by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate, the founders of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It was published in 1999, and it’s positively harrowing to read of the injustices committed behind closed doors, before social media and the explosion of concern for campus censorship in conservative America brought them to light.

And while illiberal intolerance on the left and the right is imperiling our free speech culture, it’s a plain and simple fact that individual Americans (including conservative Americans) have far greater ability to speak freely and publicly to more people on more platforms than in any time in all of human history. 

Again, none of this means we don’t have problems. Even while violent crime has gone down, suicide has gone up (and violent crime appears to have ticked up in 2020). Deaths of despair have plagued American communities. And the fight to preserve liberty continues in every American generation. Free speech and religious liberty always have their enemies. Heck, the political generation that ratified the Bill of Rights also passed the Alien and Sedition Acts

But I don’t necessarily blame the (mostly young) people I debated Wednesday night for lacking this historical perspective. Why? Because the vast conservative infotainment complex relentlessly stokes the narrative of cultural threat. It relentlessly warns of imminent cultural demise. In fact, a feeling of pervasive cultural threat might be the last unifying element of the right. Without it, what binds together its disparate factions? 

That feeling of pervasive threat also depends on a perception of past failure. “What did conservatism conserve?” is a popular question on the new right. It’s been a popular question since the rise of Trump. The answer, it turns out, is that conservatism conserved quite a bit. In fact, many of conservatism’s triumphs have been of world-historical importance. The link above takes you to a piece I wrote in 2019 that walks readers through conservative achievements in life, liberty, prosperity, and national security.

In short, our nation (and our world) have been substantially improved by a conservative movement that is now much-despised, even by one-time allies. And while it should adapt with changing times (as all movements should), it is not and has never been an instrument of American decline.

While I enjoyed the conversation (yes, even the yelling parts), I left with a touch of sadness. The right-wing media and intellectual superstructure is cultivating a sense of despair and rage in a subset of right-wing youth. Catastrophic thinking dominates. Hopelessness seems pervasive. Seizing political power is seen as the prime path out of the darkness, and the quest for power thus dominates the mind. 

I don’t know if I changed a single mind Wednesday night. Perhaps they all still think I’m cringe. But perhaps I planted a seed of hope and introduced a tiny dash of perspective. All is not lost. Decency is not the path to defeat. And there is still a robust American social compact, rooted in a Bill of Rights that when defended well provides liberty and dignity for us all.

One more thing …

In yesterday’s Advisory Opinions podcast, Sarah and I discussed my Clubhouse debate, a crucial Supreme Court victory for the First Amendment, and lamented the constitutional maladies of HR 1, the Democratic Party’s ambitious election reform legislation.

One last thing …

These are words I never thought I’d type—there is a one-take drone video of a bowling alley that you absolutely have to watch. No, really. It’s astonishing:

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.