National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke is befuddled. In a brief blog post published Thursday, he asks, “How? How did we reach the point at which drag queens in schools became a topic that is routinely debated in domestic American politics? How did drag queens get into schools in the first place? Why does anyone think it’s acceptable—let alone crucial—to keep them there?”
You might say something snapped in Cooke. His realization comes more than three years after NR went full tilt in defense of the liberal vision of autonomy and viewpoint neutrality that first legitimated Drag Queen Story Hour and now threatens to bring it to public schools.
The immediate cause of Cooke’s vexation was Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s call on Wednesday for “a drag queen in every school.” Nessel later claimed she was speaking in jest, but she is far from the only Democratic official to speak out recently in favor of having drag queens perform before children, including in public schools.
California state Sen. Scott Wiener this month mused about “offering Drag Queen 101 as part of the K-12 curriculum,” adding: “Attending Drag Queen Story Time will satisfy the requirement.” Responding to criticism of drag events for children in New York schools, a city Department of Education spokesman countered, “This is life-saving and -affirming work.” Defending school drag programs’ $200,000 budget, the DOE stated, “We believe our schools play a critical role in helping young people learn about and respect people who may be different from them.” And so on.
Thus, what began as a seemingly marginal program in public libraries, DQSH, has now embedded itself in some urban school districts and looks poised to expand its footprint. This, of course, was the argument at the heart of my critique of Cooke’s then-fellow NR writer David French that appeared in First Things in May 2019. It was the essay that, as Ross Douthat put it at the time, became a “full-employment bill for conservative pundits.” It also led to two heated public debates, and permanently altered both my and French’s public receptions, on the right and left.
Much commentary, including dozens of books and scholarly articles, has focused on my battle cry: “The only way is through—that is to say, to fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.” With its admittedly unstable mix of Thomist piety and Iranian militancy, it’s likely to find its way into my obits, right alongside my retort to French’s Army-blowhard act at one of our in-person debates, “Weren’t you just a JAG?” (he does seem to have stopped mentioning it since then).
But the main argument had to do with the nature of liberal claims about private autonomy.
Gender ideologues and sexual revolutionaries, I contended, take the “logic of maximal autonomy,” shared by classical liberals like French, “to its logical terminus.” To fully substantiate autonomy claims about gender and sexuality, it isn’t enough to secure the private right to do X. Rather, society must positively approve of X:
Individual experiments in living—say, taking your kids to a drag reading hour at the public library—cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community. Autonomy-maximizing liberalism is normative, in its own twisted way. Thus, it represents the interiorization, and fulfillment, of French’s worldview.
The more that conservative liberals like French insist on autonomy, the more they strengthen the bullies’ position. This far with autonomy, they insist, but no farther. But why should the other side stop? Why shouldn’t this new, aggressive vision of maximal autonomy not overtake the old?
This line of thinking more or less answers Cooke’s questions, posed three years after the “French-ism” brouhaha. It’s an argument about the historical operation of liberal ideology. As Carl Schmitt pointed out long ago, liberalism always begins by asserting a private right to deviate from the “public cult” (we might generalize to say, the public norm). But it never stops there. Gradually, the private deviation comes to swallow the public, so that the deviation becomes the norm, the norm deviant.
In 2019, when I published “Against David French-ism,” we were at the private-right stage of liberal ideology with respect to drag queens reading (and twerking) for kids. At that stage, National Review doubled down on libertarian bromides about viewpoint neutrality and free speech, while pooh-poohing concerns about the rise of DQSH.
In his initial response to my broadside, French championed liberal neutrality as the guardian of both Christian groups and drag queens. At one of our in-person debates, French declared: “I do not recognize Drag Queen Story Hour as a cultural crisis of great import in the United States of America. We have a nation of 320 million people, [. . . some] people are doing bad things here and there.” Later, speaking to The New Yorker for a sort of diptych profile of us, he went further: “the fact that a person can get a room in a library and hold a Drag Queen Story Hour and get people to come? That’s one of the blessings of liberty.”
National Review circled the wagons. Rich Lowry, Jonah Goldberg, Kevin Williamson, and many others rushed to his defense. Classical liberalism remained unquestionable, even as events continued to reveal its culturally acidic tendencies. “The United States,” declared J.J. McCullough in National Review, “is organized as a religiously neutral republic,” and no account of the good life can be enshrined in its institutions. This, even as race-and-gender ideologues were doing just that, if he and his colleagues would but look around them.
Cooke himself was no exception. “Critics of the liberal order,” he wrote, believe “the system is unjust because it merely pretends at neutrality and toleration while in fact smuggling in its own values and imposing them on the public square.” But rest assured, “the classically liberal order places only one condition on participants, and that is they agree not to try to abolish it or to permanently take it over. Beyond that, it doesn’t much care how it is used.”
And here we are. By mid-2022, the DQSH private-right stage has given way to the normativize-and-enforce stage, prompting Cooke to rage, “Why?” The culturally conservative classical liberal constantly finds himself in this pathetic position: But I already granted you this private right to deviate—why are you now forcing it down my throat in public?
Why, indeed. One almost feels sorry for them.