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.