Kevin Williamson had a strong appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher last Friday night, the episode that instantly became notorious when Maher said, of David Koch, “F*** him . . . I’m glad he’s dead and I hope the end was painful.”
Kevin, promoting his new book The Smallest Minority: Independent Thinking in an Age of Mob Politics, a consideration of social-media outrage that was written in part as a response to the mob politics that got him fired from The Atlantic after three days on the job, was probably not expecting a warm reception from the L.A. crowd, but if a crowd can be said to give off the vibe of, “Hmm, maybe we should think about that,” I’d say that was the response. I would have been happy to see him pull a Hitchens and extend his middle digits to Maher’s audience but instead he was able to score some points.
Kevin made a case against majoritarianism that caught Maher off guard: “Like me, you don’t trust big masses of people because they tend to be stupid and easy to scare. All of the best things about our Constitution are the anti-democratic stuff like the Bill of Rights, which is America’s great big list of stuff you idiots don’t get to vote on. If we had put slavery up to a vote in 1860, it’d have won, it’d have won 70 to 30. If we put free speech up to a vote today it’d probably lose.”
Maher derided the idea that free speech equals money, and Kevin calmly shot him down. “I actually don’t think so. . . . That’s like saying, well you have freedom of the press but if you want to have a press, it’s $100 million, well you can’t do that because that’s big money in journalism.” Maher and the crowd seemed a bit stunned by the cogency of that, and Maher moved on to “tribal politics and political correctness.”
Kevin noted, “We’ve taken the normal sort of team sports aspects of politics and we’ve elevated that to the exclusion of everything else.” It’s an era of “this weird social-media ritual of hating people together in public. So it’s, you know, we’re the good guys they’re the bad guys, here are all the awful things about them, here are the great things about us.”
Maher is an unabashed statist, but at least he vigorously opposes cancellation culture and outrage archeology. When he asked Kevin why he deleted his Twitter account, Kevin said, “I quit Twitter because it wasn’t really a very good use of time.”
“You know, I’m a writer and like a lot of writers I tend to procrastinate so when I’m supposed to be doing real work it’s tempting to go on Twitter and say, ‘Well, who’s being stupid today?’ Let me go find them.’” This leads to “smacking around some undergraduate from Lehigh College.” Not productive. “I mean, I’m expensive, you know, you don’t want to pay me to spend my time doing that.”
This was an especially trenchant point: the “devious underlying structure of social media is that we’re all naturally insecure about our status. And so they’ve taken this question of status and they’ve put a number on it. You know, you’ve got this many friends, you’ve got this many followers you’ve got this many likes. And so people go to it for a quick little dopamine hit to make them feel better it’s not really about politics. It’s about saying please pay attention to me.” Twitter makes journalism worse because “journalists have recast themselves as a species of pol . . . you’re someone who’s there to represent a constituency and try to win elections.” Kevin wants no part of this.
Maher brought up abortion, which Kevin strongly opposes and Maher strongly supports, but didn’t linger too long on the subject. Later a panel of guests discussed the recent comeback by Mark Halperin, who lost various jobs after multiple women accused him of sexual misbehavior in the workplace. The concept of “redemption court” came up. “You know what we have that’s better than redemption court?” Kevin asked. “Court.” When Norman Mailer stabbed his wife at a party, the crime was handled through the courts (he received three years’ probation) and then he continued on with his work.