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David French's Cancel Culture
There’s a common New Right belief that movement conservatism is “controlled opposition” that exists primarily to gatekeep and police the right bounds of acceptable political beliefs in America. That is, conservatives are allowed to exist because they purge people that the left really disapproves of.
This is an overly cynical view in my opinion, but movement conservatives sometimes do their best to make you believe it’s true.
A good example is an article in the Dispatch by Alec Dent called “The New Right Finds a Home at the Intersection of Populism and Elitism.” It’s nominally about how young conservatives, who purportedly reject elitism, instead secretly enjoy Georgetown cocktail parties themselves. But the most important element of the article is how the author and the Dispatch attempt to destroy the nascent career of the young New Right journalist Nate Hochman.
According to LinkedIn, Hochman graduated from the Colorado College in 2021. He was named an ISI Fellow at National Review, a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow, and a Publius Fellow at the Claremont Institute. He was the author of a recent 4,200 word major feature in the Sunday Opinion section of the New York Times called “What Comes After the Religious Right?” that some of you may have read. That’s a great get for anybody, but especially for someone so young.
The Dispatch acquired a surreptitious recording of a Twitter spaces session - an audio chat room, basically - Hochman participated in. They did not disclose who recorded it, but an opposition research analyst at a left wing organization had been shopping one around online. This space was about whether Nick Fuentes had a place in the New Right.
Nick Fuentes, for those who don’t know, is a very charismatic Gen Z dissident right figure who has an online talk show and annual conference called “America First.” Although Wikipedia is not a reliable source these days, his page there will give you a sense of him. Controversial doesn’t begin to describe him. Fuentes himself joined the space, presumably under a pseudonymous account since he’s been banned from every major social media platform, and Hochman debated him. Although he rejected Fuentes as a legitimate political figure, he did make some laudatory comments about what Fuentes had accomplished.
Dent and the Dispatch then took this recording to the sponsors of his fellowships, at least one of which, the Fund for American Studies, which runs the Robert Novak Fellowship program, fired him.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusion as to the substance of Hochman’s statements. What I want to point out is how the Dispatch used the exact same playbook against Hochman that leftist activist reporters use at major publications: dig up a controversial social media post, take it to employers to get someone fired, then write an article taking a victory lap. This is the very cancel culture script being run by the Dispatch against Hochman.
Interestingly, the author of the piece had previously argued against doing this when it came to someone using the N-word.
What’s particularly notable is David French’s endorsement of this piece. We should be clear that no writer employed by or contributing to a site should be assumed to agree with everything that is published there, or held responsible for what other people write at it. But in this case, French himself tweeted out an endorsement of the article:
French focuses on the elitism angle of the piece. If he disagrees with the cancel culture aspect, a clarification on this would be appreciated and I would be delighted to publish a correction. But note that he says that “this is incredibly good stuff” and that the part about elitism is only “especially” good. French seems to be comfortable with the cancellation of Hochman. I note French specifically since he is highly influential among my largely Christian audience.
In other contexts, French has been a strong opponent of cancel culture. He famously told the New Yorker that drag queen story hours were “one of the blessings of liberty.” This goes beyond mere legal rights to use public spaces in libraries. He’s also discussed the cultural aspects. As he wrote for the Liberty Fund a year ago:
I’ve long argued that America’s free speech culture is slipping away. Activists on campus (and elsewhere) often view dissenting speech as not just “harmful” or “dehumanizing” but actually violent. And so the dynamic is clear. One doesn’t have to persuade the government to censor your opponent, when you can muster a crowd to intimidate them, humiliate them, or perhaps even destroy their livelihood.
As it put it later in the same piece, “We cannot, ultimately, preserve the law of free speech without preserving the culture of free speech.”
Yet here he endorses his colleague and home publication disemploying of a young twentysomething conservative commentator.
Similar to the old quip that “Now that we’ve established what you are, we’re simply negotiating over the price,” now that we’ve established that the Dispatch, Alec Dent, and David French support cancel culture, the question is what transgressions merit cancellation.
Now that we see these people approve of cancellation in some cases, then we can rightly view their defense of other people and movements like drag queen story hour in a different light. It’s not just that they support free speech in the abstract or as a general principle, and thus other people’s right to say or do things with which they disagree. Rather, at some level they actually approve of those words and actions, or at least view them as legitimate in the way that they don’t think Hochman’s words were legitimate.
In my view, an absolutist view of free speech isn’t necessary. Everybody has bounds as to what they think is legitimate or illegitimate. The question is what your boundaries are.
I’ll give you a heuristic for understanding how conservatives tend to operate here. They almost invariably support cancellation only for things that the left has already put out of bounds. They might push back against some of the things that the left says are unacceptable, but if they support cancelling someone, you can be pretty sure it’s over something the left would also want to cancel him over. What they will virtually never do is say that something of which the left does approve is unacceptable, cancellable, or outside the bounds of legitimate discourse. This is the root of the view that conservatism is controlled opposition.
So we see that for conservatives, they love to cancel people over racism. (However, this is almost always directed against internal factional enemies they were already looking to vanquish, as we see with Dent cancelling Hochman but defending someone else from consequences for saying the N-word).
But will you see them doing the same to someone who believes in abortion in month nine? There are all manner of people in the “conservative” world who have extreme socially liberal views. Would Dent and French ever advocate or support seeing those people have fellowships revoked or lose their jobs at conservative institutions? Or are they more likely to be palling around with them, appearing on panels with them, or even praising them?
From now on, anytime you see the Dispatch crowd or French defend people against cancellation or talk about the culture of free speech, remember what they did here. And be sure to note that they are not actually defending free speech in the abstract, but at some level actually support and endorse the activities they are defending, believing they are substantively legitimate.
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Featured image credit: Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0