Yesterday Kevin Williamson’s extremely short time at The Atlantic came to an abrupt end. There’s been no shortage of angst about it amongst conservatives and, thus, no shortage of panicky responses from the right and “he deserved it,” pieces from the left. Without wanting to beat a dead horse too badly, here are three general observations on the story:
It’s helpful for conservatives to take these stories on a case-by-case basis.
One of the things that muddies the water about this conversation is that Williamson himself is not the ideal lab rat, as it were. His comments about abortion, which pro-lifers condemned back in 2014, are genuinely bad and out-of-step with the broader pro-life movement. The lede in his East St Louis feature is also really bad.
Many of the other stories involving mainstream outlets and conservative journalists are regrettably similar to Williamson. It is not unreasonable to be alarmed by Quinn Norton’s ties to a somewhat prominent white nationalist and her rough language on Twitter, for example.
Moreover, though there has been plenty of leftwing ire directed at Bari Weiss, Megan McArdle, David Brooks, and Bret Stephens, it is worth noting that all of them still have jobs at prominent national newspapers. Similarly, the libertarian writer Conor Friedersdorf still works at The Atlantic as does reformocon Reihan Salam. And, of course, there is Ross Douthat, arguably the most talented columnist of his generation, writing at the Times.
In other words, when you look at the individual trees, rather than the forest, the narrative of conservative exclusion that Rod Dreher and Ben Domenech want to tell is much more complicated than their pieces would suggest.
It is similarly helpful for liberals to look at these stories as part of a single narrative.
So far the consistent progressive take on this story has been some variation of the following: The problem with (conservative writer x) is their particular history or some particularly bad gaffe they’ve made in the past. However, as Seth Mandel noted on Twitter, it is simply not true that we only hear this objection occasionally and in particularly egregious cases. We, rather, hear it almost every time a conservative gets hired somewhere.
5. So when ppl are saying “hey what Kevin said was uniquely horrible!” conservatives are skeptical and respond “well there’s nothing unique about this reaction to the latest conservative hire.” We’re past where cons can look at this in a vacuum.
— Seth Mandel (@SethAMandel) March 28, 2018
Moreover, when you zoom out a little bit more and look at the more general social attitude building toward social conservatives, it is hard not to be worried. The widescale opposition to religious liberty laws—many of which mirror the provisions signed into law by Bill Clinton—is alarming.
And as Matt noted several years ago, the internal logic of the LGBT rights movement would seem to undercut the continued existence of social conservatives in places of social influence, as does the rhetoric used by many, including prominent columnists at major media outlets. The same approach to marriage traditionalists is also something you see more and more toward pro-lifers as well: We are, after all, only three years removed from a Democratic presidential nominee saying that religious beliefs which would, amongst other things, limit reproductive rights will “have to be changed.”
This, then, is the broader context in which conservatives are viewing the Williamson firing and it is what drives much of the concern on the right.
Third, we cannot escape the need for mercy.
Matt has said that the chief question of our age may well be “can there be mercy in the debate on same-sex marriage?” I think he’s right. And in the era of Trump the problem has only become sharper: On the one hand, the conservative position has been legally strengthened by the appointment of Justice Gorsuch. On the other, the degree of mistrust of social conservatives on the left has only deepened, largely for understandable reasons. Should the left gain any appreciable amount of political power, it seems unlikely that they will be merciful in their victory.
But I also wonder if that particular question is not merely a sub-question underneath a broader one: Can there be affection in a polarized America?
The question to the left is how merciful they will be in their handling of religious conservatives in the era of Obergefell. But there is a similar question on the right concerning their own ability to look with mercy on different groups.
One of the things that has often struck me about Williamson’s work is a high amount of scorn. I’m thinking here particularly of his pieces about the dysfunction in white working-class communities, but you also pick up on the same tone in parts of the East St Louis feature, including the much discussed lede.
In Williamson’s case, I think this disdain is related to real affection for many of the people in that place. Given his roots, he sees something of himself in them and he wants better for them.
However, much of the rhetoric on the right in recent years has been so laden with scorn that it is hard to know how much, if any, affection lies beneath it. A Republican presidential candidate dismissed half the county as irresponsible freeloaders and a prominent Republican member of congress suggested that poor people spend all their money on “booze and women.” And under Trump, the GOP has shown a degree of cruelty to immigrants that is disturbing, to say the least. So the call to mercy cuts both ways. And one of the problems facing conservatives is that the political institution most tied to our movement is increasingly a machine that knows virtually nothing about that virtue.
Increasingly, I am of the view that republican government, in the classical sense of that term, is possible only in a polis where the citizens are committed to trying to understand one another affectionately and believe in showing mercy to their ideological opponents. Short of that, it is hard to see a way out of the current mess. And that problem is of concern to far more people than just conservative journalists.
“In other words, when you look at the individual trees, rather than the forest, the narrative of conservative exclusion that Rod Dreher and Ben Domenech want to tell is much more complicated than their pieces would suggest.”
With all due respect, Jake, you are way off base. A handful of conservative journalists at a few high profile newspapers and magazines does not undermine Rod Dreher’s thesis.
Well, sure, the conservatives are outnumbered. That’s not really a question. Obviously it is true. My point is just that so far the journos that have attracted the most left-wing ire generally have something in their past that explains the response beyond just ‘being a conservative.’ It’d be one thing if this was happening to Douthat. It’s another when it is Williamson.
First they came for Milo and so said nothing because I was not a troll…
Jake, A fair point.
I don’t see how protecting our borders is “cruelty to immigrants.” WTF are you talking about? You sound like Jake Tapper.
They deported a man who has been in the country for thirty years, who came as a child, and who has been trying to figure out a path to citizenship for decades with the full knowledge of local immigration officials. If *that* is the guy you’re deporting, then there’s something more going on than just “protecting our borders.”
The law is a blunt instrument. You assume that the fact that government being a crude tool means that it’s crudeness is the actual intention rather than part of the fact that life and the human condition is painfully profoundly flawed. Guess what, if you only want law, public policy and government that will be perfectly implemented and that will give each and every individual exactly what they deserve we will have literally no laws at all. The law is a crude instrument. We should make work as well as we can but I expect that any border enforcement regime at all will create sad effects like the one you point to. What are the provisions of the law that you think should be altered to alter this guy’s situation AND what are your changes other effects? Is he worth another wave of 15 million illegal immigrants who will have the same fact pattern 30 years from now? Maybe as part of searching for affection you should recall that real affection is clear eyed and creates demands of others. It isn’t unconditional. Don’t question people’s motives unless you can do something like offer an immigration proposal that is politically viable that addresses people’s calid concerns. Pointing to a guy who’s parents smuggled him into the country and implying that his problems are due to racism is not helpful or in line with your stated ideals.
You seem a bit utopian in your views of politics and government.
You don’t look wide enough to really see how big the forest truly is. It is also ahistoric. It isn’t a random thing that we are where we are. The ideas of the left unfold causing a breakdown in trust and a brutal all against all each and every time they are implemented all over the world. Wasn’t it 1/3 of East Germans who were informants for the government? Who exactly promotes and created institutional support for group identity. And then you act as if the destruction of any universal ethic to bind us all together is some sort of wierd storm of nature. It comes from the same set of ideas that allow for the firing of Williamson and the ghettoization of any other ideas than the left’s. Williamson is harsh and cutting and cruel. He is often wrong. None of that means that it isn’t in our interests to allow voices that are harsh and cutting and cruel to be heard. It is part of the human experience and the world itself. You are blind to how tyranny can be created by pathological empathy. Mercy AND justice. Love AND Truth. You are open to people of bad faith using love and mercy to deny attempts at justice and truth.
Bottom line is Goldberg, The Atlantic and their apologists are destroying a culture of free expression that will lead to a horror show way way way way worse than Williamson’s prose. You have expressed no limiting principle that will stop the logic of your argument anywhere decent. All the horrors of the left are being invited into our society. When a la Venezuela we do things like make doctors lie on death certificates because the truth that a child died of starvation would hurt feelings/narratives/the utopia that is coming you won’t realize that your misdiagnoses of what is happening and why contributed.
I found the firing of Williamson quite disappointing. The hiring reflected Goldberg’s vision of the Atlantic as a high-caliber-writing, intellectually diverse place where you could make a range of arguments in print provided you were a strong writer and supported your arguments. I appreciated Gerson’s article on Evangelical’s and Trump, and Caitlin Flanagan has some great, conservative-viewpoint articles too. The hiring was expanding this tent to more libertarian ideas that Williamson was bringing and he is such an incisive, different writer. The Atlantic could use that change-up.
At the same time, I understand the backlash. Williamson went out of his way to be offensive and his comments were harsh. But racism and vitriol towards LGBT community is different from having extreme views on abortion. Racism/violence toward LGBT is not up for debate in the mainstream, but abortion’s moral status is up for debate, so an extreme viewpoint on it shouldn’t get you fired. And this is what all media/Goldberg response against Williamson failed to distinguish. Instead, everyone freaked out and put the heat on Goldberg. It’s quite upsetting and reflects a degree of close-mindness. I’m kind of surprised people from the other side can’t recognize his skills as a writer and the unique view point he would bring to the table, within the parameters of the Atlantic it would sharpen the discussion .
This is a great write-up. I appreciate all three of your points and your framing. However, I have a gripe about your particular criticism of Williamson’s prolife comment. While on policy I agree with you rather than him, I think your broader bias against capital punishment causes you to see it as a greater breach than it is. I’m not a “consistent life ethic” guy, so I’m not shocked at someone advocating capital punishment for murder. Though we disagree with him, I strongly think his position ought to be given space for expression. The left’s shock and outrage over his comment was little more than shock and outrage over someone affirming the personhood of the unborn.
There’s one other aspect that isn’t addressed often enough: the phenomenon of Williamson’s advocates frequently touting his brilliance. This was happening more often in the aftermath of his Atlantic hiring, and less so now that he’s gone from there, but it still keeps coming up. The notion is that people who oppose his hiring need to get past their problems with him, because his talents as a writer are so great that he is indispensable. We are asked not only to tolerate him, but to celebrate him.
This makes me ask: why? If the only evidence of Williamson’s supposed brilliance is that people talk about his brilliance, it’s nothing but an Informed Attribute (to borrow a TV Tropes phrase). To those who aren’t in the Williamson fanbase, we need to be given more than just the word of his strongest advocates that he’s work reading.
(As to what I personally consider his writing to be, I’ll give my thoughts. It’s agitprop that happens to be technically and grammatically decent. Full stop.)