Kevin Williamson. Sam Harris. Bret Weinstein. Bari Weiss. Dave Rubin. Jason Riley. Heather Mac Donald. Jordan Peterson. Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Welcome to the coalition of unpersons.
The people above don’t have much in common. They disagree on matters large and small. Ali is a militant atheist; Williamson is a religious Christian. Peterson focuses on the metaphysical import of myths; Harris focuses on verifiable science. Rubin is a gay Jew; Riley is black. Mac Donald is a supporter of stronger policing; Weinstein was a supporter of Occupy Wall Street.
But there is one thing that everyone on this list has in common: We’ve all been unpersoned by the Left. And that Left is creeping quietly into the mainstream.
The latest to join our coterie is Kevin Williamson. He was hired by Jeffrey Goldberg, editor of The Atlantic and flack for President Obama’s Iran agenda, to join their opinion section. Most on the right signaled their surprise and pleasure at the announcement — Williamson is one of the best writers living, and his blend of libertarianism and conservatism may be iconoclastic, but it also represents a significant strain of thought on the right side of the aisle. Williamson is known for never pulling his punches, whether he’s discussing Trump (“Witless Ape Rides Escalator,” he headlined after Trump announced for the presidency) or dying Rust Belt communities (“Help Them Move”) or, famously, abortion.
It was his views on the last matter that did him in at The Atlantic: Although Goldberg knew that Williamson had expressed support for the notion that in death-penalty states, certain cases of abortion might be punishable by death going forward, Goldberg hired him anyway. As well he should have. Virtually all columnists who are interesting have some views that stray from the beaten track, and Goldberg had every right as editor to refuse to print views he found unacceptable.
But after the Twitter mob got hold of Williamson, Goldberg backed down and fired him preemptively. As Jonah Goldberg describes it, Jeffrey Goldberg punished Williamson for thought crime: “Kevin Williamson’s views on abortion put him outside the mainstream. And he was fired from The Atlantic merely for refusing to recant them.”
So, why should anyone outside the intelligentsia care?
Because the Left has used the same label for Williamson and the white supremacist Richard Spencer, some conservatives may begin taking a second look at the toxic views of Spencer in the mistaken belief that anything the Left rejects is worth a second look.
Because this is a symptom of a broader leftist attempt to shrink the Overton window. “Overton window” is a term coined by Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, meaning the range of acceptable public discourse. Typically, those of us in the political world accept that the Overton window extends beyond positions with which we agree. Take, for example, the thought of Louis Farrakhan, or Richard Spencer, or Ta-Nehisi Coates. All of their views are certainly covered by the First Amendment, but only some of them fall within the Overton window — those that advance rational, useful debate. Thus, I believe that Ta-Nehisi Coates is an overrated thinker who promotes a toxic politics, but there’s little doubt that his views fall within the range of acceptable discourse. The views of Louis Farrakhan about Jews and of Richard Spencer about blacks do not.
But the Left has boiled beliefs down to two categories: those with which they agree, and those that are outside the Overton window. The range of acceptable discourse extends from the identity politics of Coates to the socialist politics of Bernie Sanders. Anything outside that range — in any respect — immediately falls foul of the social-justice class.
This creates a serious problem for the country. That’s because people whose views are excluded from the Left’s new Overton window are cast into outer darkness with people whose views are truly execrable. And the new outcasts are presented with a three-pronged choice: Either embrace the politics of the Left, fight both those who label you a deplorable human being and those who are actually deplorable, or side with those who are deplorable against those who would cast you out. Many conservatives may explicitly make alliances of convenience with toxic people in order to fight the Left — which, after all, has already called mainstream conservatives toxic. It’s even more complicated than that: Because the Left has used the same label for Williamson and the white supremacist Richard Spencer, some conservatives may begin taking a second look at the toxic views of Spencer in the mistaken belief that anything the Left rejects is worth a second look.
Mislabeling matters. And labeling Williamson an unperson alongside people whose views are truly deleterious to the public debate merely extends the Left’s censorious regime. It drives people into the arms of those whom they would otherwise scorn. The backlash will come. And when it does, it will be strong and large and ugly.