Atlantic Cashiers Kevin Williamson, Its Reputation
Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg sent the following memo to his staff on Thursday:
Well. This is a clarifying moment. Let me start by saying that I agree entirely with this:
Kevin Williamson can be a total jackass. He has also written some of the sharpest, most insightful work I’ve read. Some folks are complicated that way.
— Will Saletan (@saletan) April 6, 2018
What got Williamson fired from The Atlantic is a past statement of his: that women who procure abortions should face the death penalty. I think this is an extreme position to hold, and I strongly disagree with it. In fact, Kevin is the only pro-lifer I know who believes this — and I didn’t know he believed it until it came out after his hiring was announced. Even so, as pro-choice Reason editor Katharine Mangu-Ward points out, the logic of Williamson’s belief is rooted in the conviction of 40 percent of Americans: that life begins at conception. If Kevin Williamson stated that opinion in a group of pro-lifers, he would get a lot of pushback, but it would not be considered so grotesque as to gather a mob with pitchforks and torches, and drive him off the cliff. In fact, it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to ask of pro-lifers: if you really believe that life begins at conception, why shouldn’t women who choose abortion face the same criminal penalty as murderers?
Pro-lifers who support the death penalty (I don’t) are accustomed to hearing that from liberals, and have answers for it. My point is that Williamson’s view is worth arguing over. He can be a bomb-thrower, for sure. I got into it with him publicly over his column saying that people who live in dead-end towns ought to get the hell out. Here was one of his responses to that. Excerpt:
As I have written before: A conception of “mercy” that includes only the “deserving” is not worthy of a Christian ethic, in that assisting only those who merit our assistance is merely forgoing to perform an injustice, which isn’t mercy at all. Authentic mercy is the cup that overflows. We can help a man while saying, “Yeah, you screwed up pretty badly, buddy.” In fact, we really do need to say that — that, too, is a necessary form of assistance.
Sentimentality about our backwards communities, and circumlocution regarding their problems, isn’t mercy at all, nor is it — I hate the word — “empathy.” It’s cowardice, a refusal to look at the thing squarely as it is and to do what it is necessary to do. When I think about my own upbringing, one of the thoughts that comes to me most often is: “Why didn’t someone say something?” Which is, I suppose, what the white me and the black me and the rich me and the poor me and the Europhobic me and the Swiss-loving me are trying, best as we can, to do.
The thing about Kevin, when he writes about white poverty: he’s writing from experience. He grew up very poor, in a highly dysfunctional environment. This is his story to tell, and I hope he will one day. Point is, he’s writing about something he knows first hand. I learned that about him after criticizing his lack of empathy. I came to realize that while he might be accused fairly of lacking empathy, I could be fairly accused of sentimentality. I did not grow up poor. Kevin did. I wasn’t there. Kevin was. I don’t have to agree with him to learn something from him.
That background informs what I think is still one of the most provocative and insightful pieces of magazine journalism I’ve ever read: his 2014 National Review essay on “The White Ghetto” of Appalachia. If you haven’t read it, please do. Here’s how it starts:
There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.
If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.
Driving through these hills and hollows, you aren’t in the Appalachia of Elmore Leonard’s Justifiedor squatting with Lyndon Johnson on Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, a scene famously photographed by Walter Bennett of Time, the image that launched the so-called War on Poverty. The music isn’t “Shady Grove,” it’s Kanye West. There is still coal mining — which, at $25 an hour or more, provides one of the more desirable occupations outside of government work — but the jobs are moving west, and Harlan County, like many coal-country communities, has lost nearly half of its population over the past 30 years.
There is here a strain of fervid and sometimes apocalyptic Christianity, and visions of the Rapture must have a certain appeal for people who already have been left behind. Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.
The writing is as beautiful as the realities he describes are harrowing. Having learned later about Kevin’s personal background, it became clear to me that this piece could only have been written by a man who had lived this reality, and would not let himself succumb to sentimentality about the human condition.
How many other writers at major national magazines grew up poor, white, and in a badly broken culture? Are there any? Not many writers, whatever their background, could write as beautifully and insightfully as Kevin Williamson does. If you know his work at all, you can easily see why Jeffrey Goldberg hired him at The Atlantic. It is hard to separate Kevin the fearless and brilliant writer from Kevin the guy who can be a jackass. You know who else was like this? Christopher Hitchens.
The Atlantic is not obligated to hire or to retain anyone. Firing Williamson because of that one blemish on his immense record is unjust — and it’s a serious stain on the magazine’s reputation.
If we are going to start refusing to hire writers for holding or having stated harsh opinions in the past, this is going to cost us plenty. Of course we’re not going to do that across the board. It’s only going to apply to writers who offend against left-liberal politics. Mind you — and this has to be repeated — most pro-lifers would find Williamson’s remark beyond the pale. But you do not see pro-lifers, or any other conservatives, coalescing to fire writers.
Recently, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus came out in favor of eugenic abortion regarding Down Syndrome babies. It shocked the conscience of a lot of conservatives, who said so. But did a mob form to demand that the Post fire Ruth Marcus? Of course not — and had there been, there’s no way I would have joined it.
Look, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written some appalling things, in my judgment, such as his saying that 9/11 firefighters weren’t human to him. (Warren Henry at The Federalist found an example of Coates speculating about embracing French Revolution-style terror as a means of social progress — something at least as offensive as Williamson’s abortion view.) Coates has also written beautiful, insightful essays, pieces that have challenged my thinking and stoked my empathy. He is a star writer at The Atlantic, and he deserves to be, even when I find his work infuriating. I think exactly the same thing about Andrew Sullivan and his work. I have been hugely offended by some of the things he has said, but been hugely inspired by many more things he has said.
This is life. You want writers who never offend? Then you’ll probably get writers who never take risks or challenge the status quo. If H.L. Mencken flew in today, they’d send him a pink slip anyway.
Anyway, this is not really about Kevin Williamson and his views on abortion. Here’s what it’s about:
Kevin Williamson’s firing is a reminder that there are two Americas and one side will stop at nothing to silence the other. This is not about a bad tweet or a bad view. It is about the left wanting a monopoly on the public square so none can be exposed to competing ideas.
— Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) April 5, 2018
By bullying Jeffrey Goldberg into firing Williamson, the Left took an important scalp. Important, because it reveals that you can be a conservative writer with loads of talent, and you can even be #NeverTrump, and harshly critical of the alt-right … but none of it will do you any good if the leftist mob scours your work and finds even a single thing that offends it. And nobody in authority will have your back.
Here’s another important thing: Kevin Williamson could have taken any far-right Ayn Randian position on economics that he wanted to, and he would have been fine at The Atlantic. Nobody on the Left wanted him fired because of his harsh views of the white working class. He could have advocated for any war, and he wouldn’t have faced this revolt. Had he violated liberal taboos on race, he would have been on thin ice, but he might have survived. Abortion is what got him fired. I suspect if he had similarly offended against LGBT politics, he would have been history.
It’s worth considering Williamson’s firing along with the liberal Lutheran seminary’s driving out of its new president, because of mainstream conservative views she held on homosexuality 20 years ago, but long ago recanted. It wasn’t enough that she no longer believed those things. What damned her was that she ever believed them at all.
So, a clarifying moment. I was having lunch with a friend this week, and we were talking about liberal intolerance in academia (he’s an academic). We spoke about journalism, and I told him that I don’t expect that I will ever be able to work in mainstream journalism again — not because I have changed, but because newsrooms have become more intolerant of dissent. The things I’ve written about LGBT and religious liberty make me anathema in today’s climate. I can live with that. I’m doing fine (thank you, TAC supporters). But I can’t in good conscience encourage conservatives to pursue careers in the mainstream media, because the professional standards are constantly shifting. You’d have to be a total idiot to be on the Right and accept a job at The Atlantic now. It has been demonstrated that the mob has the power to force the editorial leadership of the magazine to fire conservative writers when they deem something he wrote in the past to be a defilement. And not just at The Atlantic. If you don’t think that other national magazines aren’t paying attention to this, you don’t know how the media work.
If I were an editor at The Atlantic or any other national magazine, I would be much more reluctant to commission pieces from conservatives. In the not too distant past, The Atlantic reached out to me on more than one occasion to invite me to be a regular contributor. The Atlantic is one of my favorite magazines, and I was honored by the request. I didn’t do it because I don’t have the time, but I appreciated their editorial openness to making their website more ideologically diverse. Now, though, if I were an Atlantic editor, I would hesitate to reach out to people like me. You never know what the leftist mob might say about that, and what the potential professional cost might be.
The Williamson firing is a sign of things to come. In The Benedict Option, I wrote:
The workplace is getting tougher for orthodox believers as America’s commitment to religious liberty weakens. Progressives sneer at claims of anti-Christian discrimination or persecution. Don’t you believe them. Most of the experts I talked to on this topic spoke openly only after I promised to withhold their identities. They’re frightened that their words today might cost them their careers tomorrow.
They’re not paranoid. While Christians may not be persecuted for their faith per se, they are already being targeted when they stand for what their faith entails, especially in matters of sexuality. As the LGBT agenda advances, broad interpretations of antidiscrimination laws are going to push traditional Christians increasingly out of the marketplace, and the corporate world will become hostile toward Christian bigots, considering them a danger to the working environment.
Note that the experts I talked to for that sensitive topic refused to speak with their names attached — even though most of them are tenured professors. That’s how frightening the current situation is. Kevin Williamson is a Roman Catholic, but I have never thought of him as primarily defined by his religious commitments (and in any case, Catholicism does not require one to favor the death penalty for anybody). Still, if you think ordinary conservative Christians are safe from the ideological fervor taking over workplaces, you’re dreaming. This is where the “unsafe spaces” ideology is taking us.
Finally, Ben Shapiro, in a Twitter thread, identifies the broader political meaning of the Williamson firing. He says, in part:
But counting on the virtue of people you’ve just deemed unacceptable not to band together against you is both stupid and unrealistic over time. (8/)
Which means the Left is doing something unethical here, and deeply dishonest – and something that is likely to foster polarization that results in the mainstreaming of truly gross opinions. (9/)
This is how you get a reactionary movement willing to countenance alt-right evil: you tell people they’re part of the alt-right when they’re not, and treat them as such no matter how much of a lie that is. (10/)
What just happened to Kevin Williamson leads conservatives to side with anyone the Left casts out, good or bad, merely as a form of protection. That shouldn’t happen. But it does. And the Left causes it with this bulls***
This is true and important to say — not that it will do any good. Bret Stephens said something similar last week in the NYT, in the form of an open letter to Williamson. Excerpt:
The real question, then, isn’t what kinds of arguments are “acceptable.” It’s what kinds are, or ought to be, acceptable to liberals. In The Huffington Post, one writer proposes that the answer is none. This is the liberalism of the 9- year-old sticking fingers in his ears and saying: nah-nah-nah-nah-nah. Anyone still wondering how Donald Trump became president need look no further.
The wiser test of acceptability is whether an argument is thoughtful, thought-provoking and offered in good faith. That holds true even if the views aren’t politically representative. Last I checked, you and I were hired as columnists, not party ideologues or demographic segments.
It also holds true whether or not a given opinion is offensive. Offensive to tens of millions of intelligent and morally sincere Americans is the idea that abortion ought to be legal at all, much less in the second or third trimester. If those Americans can make their peace with pro-choice writers like me, the least liberals can do is not make war on pro-life writers like you.
That doesn’t mean there ought to be limitless tolerance for every shade of opinion: There are cranks and haters both left and right, and wise editors should not give them a platform. But your critics show bad faith when they treat an angry tweet or a flippant turn of phrase as proof of moral incorrigibility. Let he who is without a bad tweet, a crap sentence or even a deplorable opinion cast the first stone.
Worse, they foreclose the possibility of learning something useful from someone smart. Learning does not require agreement. There’s a reason this section of the newspaper is labeled “Opinion,” not “Affirmation,” “Reinforcement,” or “Emotional Crutch.” Liberals used to know that. What happened?
Bret Stephens better watch his back. Joe Pompeo’s new Vanity Fair piece about the generational “woke civil war” inside The New York Times is chilling reading. Excerpts:
But, as at many newsrooms and media offices, and in the culture at large, this is a moment of generational conflict not seen since the 1960s. “I’ve been feeling a lot lately like the newsroom is split into roughly the old-guard category, and the young and ‘woke’ category, and it’s easy to feel that the former group doesn’t take into account how much the future of the paper is predicated on the talent contained in the latter one,” a Times employee in that latter group told me a couple months ago. “I know a lot of others at the paper with similar positions to mine, especially women and people of color, who feel that senior staff isn’t receptive to their concerns.”
Old-fashioned liberals vs. identity politics liberals. This reminds me of something a conservative academic told me once: that he was a minority in his department, but he felt safe as long as the old-guard liberals were in charge. But they were retiring, and the younger liberals were hardline ideologues. He wasn’t looking forward to the future. More from Pompeo:
… or feeling comfortable with [executive editor Dean] Baquet making an appearance at the same Financial Times conference as Steve Bannon last month. “The woke set was grossed out,” an insider told me. (Addressing the matter in an e-mail to the Web site Splinter, Baquet said, quite reasonably, “It sort of feels sort of ‘unjournalistic,’ if that is a word, to refuse to participate in a forum because Bannon or someone else will be in the same event.”)
Sort of unjournalistic?! What is wrong with the woke set? Dean Baquet was just doing his job. More about how cracked these wokesters are:
“We make all these assumptions that people understand the difference between the Opinion section and the newsroom,” said an under-30 Times employee from the new guard. A Times reporter could conceivably get into hot water for tweeting something that seems to endorse gun control or Black Lives Matter, and yet “Opinion writers,” this employee said, “get to represent the Times in a way that isn’t right.”
“A way that isn’t right”? What’s not right about it? Opinion writers are supposed to give their opinions!
Eventually the wokesters will be the establishment at The New York Times, and everywhere else. See, readers, this is why all the campus craziness I keep talking about here is not just Dreherbait. These norms shape the way those rising in the ranks at institutions see the world, and, in turn, shape the world.
Again: Kevin Williamson’s fate is a bellwether. This is not going to end well, if it ends at all.
(Readers, today is Good Friday for Orthodox Christians. I will not be posting here, and won’t approve comments till evening. Please be patient.)