PC Culture

The Sliming of Kevin Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson at the 2017 National Review Institute Ideas Summit
If left-leaning but not explicitly ideological publications cleanse their pages of conservative voices, the loss to American intellectual life will be immense.

It’s happening again. This time to a friend and former colleague.

Once again a prestige media publication — in this case, The Atlantic — has hired a conservative writer and suffered immediate, furious backlash. Once again, the publication’s leadership is explaining itself to its own staff. The New York Times’ Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss have faced their own internal and external wannabe firing squads. The Washington Post endured a mini-tempest when it hired Megan McArdle.

Now it’s Kevin Williamson’s turn. Kevin was our much-beloved and much-respected “roving correspondent.” He’s supremely talented and undeniably provocative. He’s also incredibly prolific. He’s written millions of words, granted countless media interviews, and sent thousands of tweets (at least when he was still on Twitter). So of course he’s now subject to the unbelievably tedious “gotcha” exercise of angry progressives combing through that body of work, yanking the most irritating examples from the whole, and attempting to define Kevin entirely through a few paragraphs, a sentence here or there, or an ill-considered tweet or two.

Here, for example, is Slate’s Jordan Weissmann demanding to know why The Atlantic would hire a “conservative troll” like Kevin. He points of course to tweets and sentences, yet time and again his examples of Williamson’s alleged “trolling” consist of opinions he doesn’t like. In The New Republic, Sarah Jones writes of the “conservative columnist conundrum” and performs the same tired routine. Look, here’s a paragraph of writing you won’t like. Look, here are some bad tweets. And this is “representative” of his writing because, well, he holds a lot of bad opinions — opinions about abortion, free speech, and pronouns. She concludes, speaking of Kevin and other conservatives:

This isn’t an intellectual exercise, not really. It’s equivalent to a middle school boy snapping a female classmate’s bra strap. In a perverse fashion, then, Williamson may be the perfect conservative columnist. His excesses are the excesses of a movement, and conservatives fawn over his attacks because they think he’s targeting the right people. Conservative media is in a shambles, and the fact that Williamson is being elevated shows that the extent of the damage hasn’t been fully appreciated by mainstream media organizations.

This would all be boring — barely worth noting — if it weren’t for the fact that the Kevin controversy has already reached the “memo stage.” The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote a memo to the magazine’s staff defending his hire.

It’s good that Goldberg defended Kevin. It’s a bad sign that he felt the need. And there was one ominous note even in Goldberg’s otherwise-excellent defense:

I would also prefer, all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting (third chances, too, on occasion), and I hope to continue this practice.

I doubt this is Goldberg’s intent, but it seems to read as if Kevin’s already been given his “second chance.” It reads as if Kevin might be on a bit thinner ice than perhaps some of his progressive colleagues.

Even as Kevin comes under fire it’s important to remember that The Atlantic’s currently most celebrated and influential writer is National Book Award winner and MacArthur genius grant recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates. And if you want to read provocative paragraphs, Coates is most certainly your man. This is what he said about the police and firefighters who sacrificed their lives in the desperate quest to save the men and women in the Twin Towers on September 11: “They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could — with no justification — shatter my body.”

The first responders of 9/11. Not human.

And this is what he wrote in response to calls for nonviolence in the midst of the recent Baltimore riots:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is “correct” or “wise,” any more than a forest fire can be “correct” or “wise.” Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.

I’d ask Ms. Jones — is it possible that progressives “fawn over his attacks” because “he’s targeting the right people”? We all have our blind spots. Besides, do you know which Atlantic writer consistently praises Kevin Williamson? Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Writers who wish to enjoy intellectual freedom will soon find that they’re only truly “free” when working with people of like mind.

The proper way to evaluate a writer is through a body of work. The proper response to essays, pieces, tweets, and paragraphs you don’t like is to push back. I’ve strongly criticized those very words from Coates. I’ve criticized many of his ideas, and when he’s made me think (and he often does), I’ve noted that as well. That’s what a marketplace of ideas is all about. “Your ideas are wrong” is a long, long way from “you shouldn’t work here.”

And that brings us to the heart of the problem. Writers like Weissmann and Jones would no doubt say that they don’t want to silence Williamson, they just don’t think he belongs at The Atlantic. It’s as if they see The Atlantic or the Times or the Post as being on “their” team — and it seems as if many staffers on those publications agree. You see it in the sneering response I saw yesterday on Twitter. “How many liberals has National Review hired?”

We’ve likely hired roughly as many liberals as Mother Jones or The Nation has hired conservatives. After all, we’re an explicitly and intentionally conservative journal. Our very purpose centers around the debate, discussion, and exploration of conservative ideas. If you’re equating National Review and The Atlantic, then you’re giving the game away.

If strongly left-leaning but not specifically ideologically-purposed entities such as the Times, the Post, or The Atlantic do as their critics seem to wish and cleanse their pages of conservative voices their critics deem unacceptable, then the loss to American intellectual life will be immense. Writers who wish to enjoy intellectual freedom will soon find that they’re only truly “free” when working with people of like mind — a condition that contributes immeasurably to cocooning, polarization, and intellectual stagnation.

Those conservative writers who wish to reach different audiences will find themselves writing like politicians — parsing every word with an eye to how a hostile audience might read it five or even ten years from now. Who wants to read such careful, calculating prose? Are the thoughts even genuine? Or are they more like a long-running résumé, written for the purpose of advancing future employment?

Decide now, progressives, do you want any serious intellectual media space where conservative and progressive ideas clash? If you do, then you just might have to endure life alongside immense talents like my friend Kevin Williamson. If Ta-Nehisi Coates can see the virtues of his work, then perhaps there’s room for you to open your minds. National Review’s loss is The Atlantic’s gain, but even more importantly, the marketplace of ideas benefits from his transition. Give tolerance a chance.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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