In the aftermath of the news that Amazon has delisted Ryan T. Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally, a number of people, never to miss an opportunity to enjoy the reactionary right’s favorite pastime, tried to dunk on David French:
This failed dunk is instructive.
There is a difference between:
1) understanding that the government can’t compel private organizations to host hate and lies (tweet 1), and …
2) criticizing how private corporations exercise their freedoms (tweet 2).
But she knows that. https://t.co/csOK5WyB4l
— David French (@DavidAFrench) February 22, 2021
So far as it goes, David is correct, of course: There’s no contradiction between his saying in the past that Amazon has the legal right to enforce the terms of a signed contract and that today Amazon is acting badly in delisting a book by a writer like Anderson. French is correct to argue that there is a difference between allowing a site that is actively instigating riots and physical violence against people, including elected officials, to host its content on your servers and selling a book that critiques transgender ideology. To quote the greatest of internet-age philosophers:
the wise man bowed his head solemnly and spoke: "theres actually zero difference between good & bad things. you imbecile. you fucking moron"
— wint (@dril) June 2, 2014
Here’s the problem for David though: On the right, he is flanked by a movement so besodden by the culture war that it looks at the events of 1/6 and either lies about them or ignores them—which informs their response to Amazon’s shut down of Parler. Parler was not doing anything unjustified, in their view, and so there was no wrong happening. Parler was (#actually) not a bad thing. Indeed, depending on how far down the paranoia hole one dives, one might even conclude that the rioters were justified because they were attempting to save American democracy. For the reactionaries, Amazon’s actions are purely about power—neither Parler nor Anderson are objectionable and for Amazon to suppress them is simply a bit of political maneuvering that is indifferent to any questions of truth or public safety.
On his left, meanwhile, French is flanked by a progressive movement increasingly inclined to view affirmation of traditional ideas about sex and gender as being in itself violent and oppressive. To promote ideas such as Anderson’s in the public square is, in their view, to render the public square hostile and unsafe to transgender individuals; it is to deny trans individuals the right to exist in public as their authentic selves. (Here I can’t help wondering if David has read Carl Trueman’s recent book and, if he has, what he makes of it.)
To put the point as concisely as possible: The ability to say “Parler was bad and should be shut down” and “Ryan Anderson’s books should be allowed to exist in the public square” presupposes the very liberalism that David wants to preserve. But both the reactionary right and the progressive left reject his claim. So that raises the problem of how to justify French’s liberalism.
There are ways of doing this, of course. You could make the move Eric Gregory makes in his book and argue that one necessary component of loving one’s neighbor is affording to them a high degree of individual liberty, including freedom of speech. It is true that being delisted on Amazon is not strictly speaking a denial of free speech rights. However, to be deplatformed by a company of that size with such a degree of control over the book market has a chilling effect on speech rights. Tacitly, it reinforces the lesson that forms of public speech that undermine or critique the sexual revolution, such as those practiced by Anderson, are inherently harmful. If that idea becomes entrenched enough, it is likely that it would translate into a more straightforward assault on free speech.
Gregory’s Augustinian liberalism would close off such a possibility because the curtailing of such explicitly defined individual rights is to deny people the goods that love tells us they ought to possess. But, of course, to make that argument one must appeal to a more specific vision of “love,” and a more specific vision of what an appropriate understanding of individual freedom is—both of which will require the invocation of Christian resources and thinking in some sense.
The issue is that there is a tacitly Christian underpinning to French’s liberalism. Certainly, it has a far more modest vision for government than that imagined by French’s integralist interlocutors. French is not seeking to explicitly hard code affirmation of Christianity into the operations of the government. Even so, the kind of mind and legal system that is able to distinguish between physical violence and a kind of spiritual violence against human identities does, increasingly, seem to be a Christian creation and must be sustained through the tacit Christianity of the members of the nation. At minimum, it seems to require a kind of quiet acquiescence to such a system on the part of the nation’s non-Christian members. The successor ideology seems to lack the ability, left to itself, to distinguish (for policy purposes) between the actions of Parler and the actions of Ryan T. Anderson.
Thus as modern ideas of the self become more entrenched, such an acquiescence, let alone an affirmation of a tacitly Christian but explicitly non-religious public space, has become untenable. What we are left with, then, is ascending ideologies that both refuse to make the distinction that justifies French’s distinguishing between Parler and Anderson. The problem, then, becomes one of formation and, one might say, discipleship. How do we form people able to live peaceable lives, able to respect the genuine individual goods imparted to us under liberalism (such as freedom of speech), and able to practice the wisdom and discernment necessary for life under the conditions of a mostly decentralized republic of the sort that the United States has traditionally been?
If we do not find an answer to those questions, the pulling apart will continue. Conservatives, catechized by narratives of paranoia and fear from their preferred media outlets, will react to both real and perceived threats as their catechists have taught them to react. Progressives, having been taught to venerate individual autonomy and self-determination above all else, will continue to tear up American civil society at its roots in the name of liberation, leaving us increasingly trapped in the mechanical workings of big business and big government, cut off from older forms of belonging and common life.