National Review

NRPLUS Conference Call with Kevin Williamson and Rich Lowry

(NRO Illustration: Elijah Smith)

Yesterday evening, NR editor Rich Lowry hosted NR roving correspondent Kevin Williamson on the tenth NRPLUS conference call (and the first prime-time call). The pair discussed Kevin’s book, The Smallest Minority, out July 23; his firing from The Atlantic; and the 2020 elections. They also took questions from users, who were submitting via the call interface, the Facebook page, and email.

Rich and Kevin began by discussing Kevin’s book, which is about the social-media mob and how it effects discourse, culture, and democracy itself. Specifically, Rich invited Kevin to describe “the mob.” Kevin explained it as the taking of the normal team-sport aspect of politics and elevating it to the place where nothing is left, to a place where there is only “red” and “blue.” It defeats self-respect, intellectual honesty, and everything that goes along with it. Kevin said he began writing this book a year before he went to The Atlantic, and while nobody wanted the book then, he received messages and calls from book agents hoping that he would write about his experience.

When he first began the book, he explained, he was thinking more about the Justine Sacco incident. Sacco was a well-employed, white woman who, moments before boarding a plane on an exotic vacation to Africa, tweeted a joke about how her whiteness would protect her from contracting AIDS while in Africa. While on board the plane, and without connectivity to Twitter, her tweet went viral and resulted in her firing, news she learned when the plane landed. Kevin saw this situation as a key example of the mob’s motives and ignorance. Sacco’s relative privilege made her a target by those less fortunate. Her joke was actually meant to criticize those who associate AIDS with Africa, but the mob didn’t care. “What they saw is someone they didn’t like for various reasons: An attractive, blonde woman in a high-powered job going on a fun vacation,” Kevin said. “They took her lunch money because they could.” The mob wasn’t interested in helping to defeat perceptions about AIDS and Africa, or to help with the actual crisis.

The mob, Kevin explained, is fueled by the strange habit we have today of treating journalists, writers, academics, and other cultural personalities as if they’re candidates for office. We do oppo research on them, and we comb through their lives. Kevin said that he feels sorry for the Media Matters employee assigned to him – she has to read all of his stories, watch all of his news hits, and scroll through all of his past social-media posts. “Even I don’t want to read everything I write,” Kevin said. It’s become a question of whether someone can go out and crush, humiliate, hurt financially someone else, without caring whether it does their cause, side, or issues any good. It’s bad enough when it happens to those in the business of being controversial or stimulating. But now it’s happening to managers at Starbucks. So, Kevin said, one of the things he focuses on in the book is the dichotomy between discourse designed to discuss ideas and that designed to keep people from speaking and make people afraid to speak.

Kevin and Rich discussed Kevin’s book and mob politics for a few more minutes, then turned to Kevin’s firing from The Atlantic. After three days of employment back in April, Kevin was fired from the magazine due to a comment he made about abortion on a podcast several years earlier. While the social-media outrage was raging, however, Kevin revealed that it was a different protest that convinced the magazine’s editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, to fire him. “It was entirely an internal staff matter,” Kevin said. “A small number of mostly junior staff members, mostly women, who just in essence were threatening to go on strike if I were not fired.” Despite what happened, Kevin regards Jeffrey as a good guy who made a bad decision in this case. Kevin said that in his opinion, Jeffrey made it for a bad reason. He’s a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man who’s been in journalism a long time. His politics, while liberal and democratic, are certainly to the right of where The Atlantic is, and he gets a lot of grief for being pro-Israel, for supporting strong US policy. Kevin said that Jeffrey told him that he feels that it’s difficult for someone with his demographics to be secure in a position such as his.

Next, Kevin and Rich turned to questions from users, and at the end, discussed Kevin’s writing and current life in Texas. The call audio is posted above. Thank you to those who attended, and we look forward to you joining us on the next call, in August.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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