At the National Review, David French responds to a criticism by Milo that he doesn’t have the guts for the fight.
Maintaining an even temperament and avoiding overstatement and invective can improve our political discourse. America’s two great ideological tribes are in the midst of a similar conflict. It’s the battle over civility, and all too often reason, compassion, and grace are on the losing side. On the left, aggressive social-justice activists scorn engagement and dialogue as “respectability politics” and instead favor the shout-down, the boycott, and the online shame campaign.
I often find myself disagreeing with French, even though I admire his intellect, and I do so again right out of the box. What’s an “even temperament”? Who decides? The answer is somewhat obvious. We all use the words with which we’re comfortable, that apply our own sensibilities. But different people have different comfort levels.
Calling it a “battle of civility” is about applying your sensibilities to other people than yourself. The tone police. The civility police. Call it what you will, it’s just another way of saying other people who don’t share your level of refinement are being uncivil. Sniff. So why is someone as smart, and civil, as French rationalizing the propriety of tone policing?
On the right, online pugilists mock more mainstream or “establishment” conservatives as unwilling to do what it takes to win. They mock conservatives who refuse to make Trump-style attacks and decry Trump-style rhetoric as obsessed with “muh principles.” In the face of a ferocious Left, we just don’t have what it takes — or, as Milo Yiannopoulos said earlier this week in a long piece calling me “the most reliably frustrating person in conservative media,” we’re more prepared to “lose gracefully” than to “be seen as lacking in manners.”
He got smacked by Milo as a traitor to the tribe. He let Milo goad him into responding on Milo’s terms rather than his own, which is a shame since, right or wrong, the one thing that French has proven himself to be is a person of principle. Sometimes, principles demand that you concede that the other team has a point. A person of intellectual integrity can’t keep arguing when it becomes clear that he’s run out of reasons, that he’s reached the point of illogic or that his team’s refusal to stop digging just puts them deeper into a hole.
Milo may not have any shame, but French does. And that’s an admirable thing.
But calling it a battle of civility, where “reason, compassion, and grace are on the losing side,” is unfortunately simplistic for a person who usually offers much deeper thoughts. What do you do when your reason butts head with the other team’s feelz, and they won’t adhere to your standard of civility? Does every sad tale demand compassion? Graciousness is a wonderful thing, provided it’s recognized as such and appreciated. What about when it’s seen as weakness, as Milo accuses French?
Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review, had an amazing ability to appear gracious as he leveled the most biting of criticism, snark extraordinaire. If one could keep up with his jabs and ripostes, which often took a good deal of processing to appreciate, one would realize just how vicious they were while wrapped in soothing rhetoric. He was an artist.
Milo thinks French is a quitter, willing to surrender the good fight rather than appear impolite? So what? It’s not as if sating Milo’s sensibilities should be the bar French is obliged to meet. Just because Milo will shamelessly keep fighting when he’s on the losing end of reason doesn’t mean his fellow tribesman has to do the same.
No one on either team is constrained to meet the expectations or demands of the lowest common denominator. Maybe the answer to Milo is that he needs to up his game so as not to disgrace himself by rolling in the mud rather than refuse to concede when he’s hit batshit crazy level?
I respect that David French writes as a person of principle, and that his writing reflects his even temperament. But that’s him, and not even French gets to be the civility police for others. Rather than be stung by Milo’s criticism and goaded into rationalizing his manners, his reply should have been “bite me.” But that would have been impolite, even if it would have been acceptable according to my sensibilities, and that’s not David French.