Sohrab Ahmari’s brand-new book The Unbroken Thread: Discovering the Wisdom of Custom in An Age of Turmoil is so frustrating I do not know where to start. This may appear to be an extreme invective, but in reality, it is a confession. My previous attempts to examine this book have resulted in bit more than hours and hours of aggravation and discarded drafts. Such disappointment stems in part from the sympathy I have for Ahmari’s general goal and a desire to do his work justice despite my previous criticism of his views. At its the majority of standard level, Ahmari’s book seeks to ask twelve major life concerns and address them by drawing upon the examples of twelve figures from history to show the “unbroken thread” that connects us to the past. As a staunch protector of custom myself, this basic goal attract me and I had actually hoped that regardless of our distinctions we would be able to establish some commonalities.
Sadly, it was not to be. While Ahmari’s book does have some merit, in the end, I am afraid that it falls far except its potential and is obstructed by his inability to resist shoehorning in conclusions that are radical leaps from the case he has made by drawing upon history.
To begin with, Ahmari does the reader a service by triggering him to think about lots of things on a deeper level than one is likely to do offered the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. It is not a surprise to see C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas appear, and it is unforeseen to see extreme feminist Andrea Dworkin stand for the chapter that asks, “Is Sex a Personal Matter?” Every concern Ahmari asks is worthy of thought and most of the thinkers he brings into play deserve more research study.
Ahmari does an excellent task of relaying the stories of his subjects and prompting the reader to consider the nature of God, or how we ought to treat our family, or even the good elements of death. Nevertheless, where he falls far short remains in his application of these stories to the world today. At lot of times Ahmari’s analysis totals up to little more than an advanced version of college freshmen relaxing cigarette smoking pot and grumbling that “something needs to be done!” This failure is, sadly, foregone conclusion when it pertains to Ahmari’s tendency to do little more than grumble (a tendency for which he was commonly buffooned after his disappointing performance in a debate against David French).
At the end of the majority of chapters, Ahmari just can’t withstand tossing in potshots at “liberalism” and sweeping claims that he has actually done little to support though they are deserving of a good deal of analysis in their own right. To his credit, he generally prevents his most obscene polemics, for which he is well known, but his toned-down rhetoric does refrain from doing much to hide the fact he plainly has a program and it is not well supported.
Take for instance when he asks, “Why Would God Want You to Take a Day Off?” In this case, he brings into play the Holocaust survivor Rabbi Abraham Joshua Herschel to highlight the importance of a day of real rest, specifically amid the hustle and bustle of modern life. And to provide credit where it is due, Ahmari does a great task of passing on Herschel’s story.
However, having actually set out the case for a day off over more than 10 pages, Ahmari utilizes less than a page to pack in an entire host of concerns that get no analysis at all. Why has our culture gotten so bad at taking a day of rest? Free markets! The absence of blue laws restricting commerce on Sundays is why we have “huge divorce rates, abysmally low rates of household development, alienation, and drug abuse, harried lives, and misse [d] human connections,” he declares, with nary a peep more expedition of what is certainly a complex subject filled with interconnected domino effect relations.
However any readers who have actually followed Ahmari given that his (in)famous essay “Against David French-ism” in First Thingswill not be amazed at his absence of subtlety. When I wrote an essay at the American Conservative arguing that blue laws will not fill the benches in American churches again, Ahmari’s defense totaled up to essentially implicating me of dealing with American employees like peasants.
How would blue laws be implemented in a pluralistic country where the 3 biggest religious beliefs have three different holy days in the week? Ahmari does not deign to tell us, just grumbles about the evils of “maximal market liberty.”
A more technical review can be leveled versus concern six, which asks, “Does God Need Politics?” Beyond being framed in what I would consider an inaccurate way, Ahmari’s analysis of the life of St. Augustine and his teaching of the 2 cities (the incredible and the earthly, or the city of God and the city of man) leaves much to be desired. One significant mistake is that Ahmari puzzles the nature of the two cities, and appears to think that actual physical cities or political entities, such as Rome, can be thought about an “earthly city.” This is an inaccurate association. As political theorist James L. Wiser mentions in his book Political Viewpoint: A History of the Search for Order,” [I] t is clear that no such recognition is meant” and additionally that “inasmuch as one’s true citizenship is determined exclusively by the disposition of one’s soul, any historic or institutional affiliation is of a distinctly secondary value.” Wiser goes on to argue that “the result of the Augustinian teaching was to loosen the individual’s ties to his or her political neighborhood.”
One might make the case that Augustine was responsible for a few of the seeds of Western individualism that Ahmari so loathes. Nevertheless, the paradox does not stop there. Ahmari’s stance on the prohibiting of pornography and other vices is obvious, and he utilizes an Augustianian position on the nature of true justice to support this view. Yet, as Ryan McMaken has pointed out, both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas argued that prostitution should not be prohibited by the civil federal government. Is this inconsistency dealt with? Do not depend on it.
The confusing elements of this chapter continue. I couldn’t help however hear an increasing chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background when Ahmari stated that “God doesn’t need anything from us. However the God of the Bible seeks to transfigure whatever about us, including our cities.” No doubt the Protestant “evangelical pietists” (historically the sworn opponents of Catholics like Ahmari), who would later end up being the progressive Christians, would concur with this declaration. Their desire to produce God’s kingdom in the world is what has actually caused the anti-Christian progressive headache we have today.
It remains in this chapter that Ahmari also makes some of his most confused attacks on liberalism. We are told that liberalism “declared to totally sever politics from the shared quest for ‘the greatest products of human life'” and that “for conservatives or ‘classical’ liberals, the common good is frequently viewed as a synonym for statist injustice.” Ahmari also seems to think he has actually made a slam dunk by declaring that liberal societies declare to be devoid of coercion but really aren’t.
Mises would not find these arguments to be persuasive, to say the least. He would definitely contest the concept that liberal societies declare to be without coercion. After all, in Liberalism, he argues that “without the application of obsession and coercion versus the opponents of society, there might not be any life in society.”
Likewise, while Mises might utilize different terminology, one may make the case that the totality of his political writings is taken in with advancing the common good. For Mises this typical good is to be discovered in developing the social conditions that permit the peaceful coexistence of people who hold different views of the highest great. Bring into play the past, one can quickly see the damage and death that has been wrought by those who have actually looked for to “enforce our order and our orthodoxy,” to utilize Ahmari’s own words. It is unclear how speeding up round two of the Thirty Years’ War would be conducive to the typical good.
Ahmari’s vulgar liberal bashing is even more regrettable because he ignores thinkers and ideas that are applicable to his arguments. I can not assist however think of the work of David Walsh at the Catholic University of America, a Catholic liberal who is no complete stranger to the common good. When Ahmari laments “inequality’s propensity to degrade the souls of the ‘haves,'” one right away thinks of Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, by the midcentury classical liberal Helmut Schoeck. When he grumbles that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin are not under the control of nation-states and therefore prevent the application of “financial equity,” the work of Mises Institute Senior Citizen Fellow Guido Hülsmann and his book The Ethics of Money Production instantly jump to mind.
A book that truly engaged with such liberal thinkers from Ahmari’s point of view would indeed be a book well worth reading. The lack of such engagement is to the hinderance both of the reader and Ahmari’s credibility as a thinker to be taken seriously. His treatment of somebody like Andrea Dworkin shows that he is capable of thoughtful engagement; we can just hope he exhibits more of it in his future work. In the meantime, however, readers might find Ahmari’s concerns to be believed provoking, but will most likely be disappointed by the quality of his responses.