With news that Nike has chosen to side with a man over a woman, Colin Kaepernick’s role in the decision got me thinking about whether David French, the evangelical columnist at National Review, thinks this is troubling development for the classical liberalism he promotes and defends. Of course, nixing a new sneaker has next to nothing to do with the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. But since Nike seemed to think that featuring the American flag that Betsy Ross designed was offensive, and did so on the eve of the nation’s annual birthday celebrations, someone might think French might see this as in some way an attack on the historical moment that gave rise to the classical liberalism with which he identifies.
French’s dust up with Sorhab Ahmari had revolved around a drag-queen leading a reading hour for children in a Sacramento public library. Ahmari did not think French could summon up the belligerence to take on a series of programs that might plausibly raise questions in the minds of local parents about the judgment of public library officials. French later wrote a column in which he indicated that America is increasingly polarized but that extremes on each side don’t really know their foes but only imagine the worst thanks to social media. He has a poll to prove this. In other words, drag queens reading in public libraries is just another case of nutpicking — taking one bad example and thinking it represents the whole group. So maybe drag queen reading hours are a small slice of American life.
But what about Nike and what its decisions say about the political moment?
When Kaepernick first became a news headline with his kneel for the National Anthem before NFL games, French was critical — his editors even use the word, “cowardly” to describe the QB’s gesture (though French did not say so in the column:
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat down during the national anthem. He did so not because he was injured but because he was outraged. Our nation, you see, isn’t worth respecting so long as “there are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
To be honest, I don’t really care that much about Kaepernick’s protest. Why should anyone pay mind to what this quarterback thinks about criminal justice or the facts of any given police shooting? He’s indicting an entire nation based on his arbitrary, uninformed conclusions. The freedom our Constitution enshrines and our “Star Spangled Banner” celebrates means he can voice those conclusions. And we can give them all the consideration they deserve, which is to say: very little.
The problem is that Kaepernick does not sit alone. There exists a class of people who believe this country isn’t worth respecting — much less fighting for — so long as “injustice” endures. Their version of “patriotism” is a form of hatred. They claim to love the American idea, but they will continue to withhold that love until the idea becomes reality.
The men who truly built this country were not so double-minded. The men who built this country could love their nation even during darker times — and lay down their lives in its defense.
I’m not sure this would impress Mr. Ahmari.
Then when Nike signed Kaepernick, French wrote again but also did so in a way that showed little energy. He was mainly surprised that Nike profited from the political gesture:
If you followed the online debate the announcement touched off, you might ask: How can this be? Conservatives seemed furious. People cut up their socks and burned their shoes. Nike had openly flouted Michael Jordan’s famous (and probably apocryphal) warning that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” and it had lived to tell the tale.
Yet If you think carefully and systematically about America’s cultural and economic realities, you shouldn’t be surprised that Nike could survive and even thrive amid a political storm of its own creation.
While America is divided politically, religiously, and ideologically, only a small fraction of Democrats and Republicans pay close attention to political news cycles. And only an even smaller fraction of that small fraction cares enough about politics to actually adjust its buying decisions or sacrifice even a little bit to send a political message.
In fact, his take away was that conservatives should try to use corporate capitalism the way progressives were:
We shouldn’t read too much into that concluding paragraph, but it surely could be a green light to a kind of culture war and lack of civility that Ahmari recommends. Conservatives, French seems to say, need to play hard ball the way Nike and the left have been and until they do, the right can expect to continue to lose the “war.”
You know the old saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door”? In 2018, when you build a better mousetrap, you’ll get your chance to preach to the world. Corporate progressives know this very well. Conservatives need to learn it. If you’re going to use your corporate platform for political purposes, Jordans and iPhones can help you weather virtually any online storm.
The problem is that French’s tone in the piece gives every indication that you can’t count on him to lift a finger to help conservatives find a corporate sponsor.
The reason according to French himself is that he believes in the law, constitutional rights, and civility. That is what motivates him:
We live in a strange time when fighting for fundamental liberties while treating other human beings respectfully is seen as a sign of weakness. One can’t help but see the outlines of a case for Trump, the insulter-in-chief, in the disdain for basic decency. Is treating other people like garbage the way to a better America?
If a person despises me for defending life, filing lawsuits to protect the First Amendment, or deploying abroad to play my own very small part in battling vicious terrorists, then so be it. That’s what some on the Left have done. Some on the new right, however, seem to despise me for not mocking my opponents, not insulting them, and not treating them as less-than-human. It’s disheartening, but we should not be discouraged. We must vindicate our core values without violating our core values, and I don’t want any part in any “conservative” movement that holds otherwise.
Actually, we live at a time when celebrating the fight for fundamental liberties (which were when Betsy Ross was knitting imperfectly applied and secured) is offensive. French seems to think that he has to mock someone like Kaepernick or corporations like Nike to be acceptable to some conservatives. Actually, all he has do to is argue that some of the ideals and assumptions they have are at odds — even an indirect attack — on the classical liberalism that French loves. He does not oppose, offer a reasoned argument why they are wrong. He observes, recognizes the cognitive dissonance, and says conservatives need to do more or better.
The problem with David French-ism is two-fold. First, he relies on his experience in courts (defending civil liberties) and in war to prove his bona fides as a fighter:
Along the way — through lawsuits, deployments, and too many political and ideological fights to count — I’ve learned a few things. Or, more accurately, I’ve experienced the truth of scripture. Our battle is not against flesh and blood. Our mandate is not just to seek justice, but also to love mercy and walk humbly. We’re not just supposed to treat our enemies with respect, we’re supposed to love them. Against that standard, being “polite” is the absolute least I can do.
Well, that’s well and good but writing columns and articles for an organ of political opinion journalism is distinct from law and combat. Why not use the space the editors have given you to develop a political opinion?
The possible answer comes from the second problem with David French-ism, namely, the smooshing of politics, faith, and callings into an inspirational goo of Lockean biblical Americana:
My political opponents are my fellow citizens. When I wore the uniform of my country, I was willing to die for them. Why would I think I’m at war with them now? I disagree with the Left and much of the populist Right, vigorously. If and when any of my political opponents seek to undermine our fundamental freedoms, I’ll be there to pick a legal, political, and cultural fight with them. I won’t yield. I won’t stop. I won’t be weak. But I also won’t turn my back on the truths of scripture. I won’t stop seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly. There is no political “emergency” that justifies abandoning classical liberalism, and there will never be a temporal emergency that justifies rejecting the eternal truth.
What does the Bible have to do with this?
Even more, you mean the conditions of war are not a suspension (or periodic abandonment) of classical liberalism?
I contend that whenever French goes to church he abandons classical liberalism because he serves God rather than man. Also, whenever he fights in the military he abandons classical liberalism both in the command structure of the military and in the use of force that no citizens may use in a liberal society.
I’ll give French the courts and law. There he’s a classical liberal all the way down. But at the National Review his editors do not pay him to write legal briefs (though they may have more punch).