The Corner

Politics & Policy

A Response to Kevin Williamson

Kevin D. Williamson at the 2017 National Review Institute Ideas Summit

In the past, I have often enjoyed Kevin Williamson’s essays. Even when I found them occasionally incoherent and cruel, I thought it hardly my business to object to a colleague’s writing. But I gather, under changed circumstances, such deference no longer applies, given that in Williamson’s very first column at The Atlantic he attacks both me, and in a backhanded way, his former employer National Review for publishing a recent article I wrote.

Last week, my former National Review colleague Victor Davis Hanson published an essay calling for a stronger regulatory hand over high-tech companies, fondly recalling the “cultural revolution of muckraking and trust-busting” of the 19th century, and ending with a plea for “some sort of bipartisan national commission that might dispassionately and in disinterested fashion offer guidelines to legislators” about more tightly regulating these companies, perhaps on the public-utility model.

That from a magazine whose founders once dreamed of overturning the New Deal.

Kevin, by intent, did not note that I had referenced the muckrakers — with the warning about “their sensationalism and often hard-left socialist agendas” — to reflect two themes: First, that Silicon Valley’s ethos, anti-free market monopolies and methodologies, exemptions from even minimal oversight, and global reach endanger rights of privacy and free expression (values I would think are treasured by libertarians); and second, I was emphasizing the progressive hypocrisy that has exempted Silicon Valley from habitual progressive antipathy to large corporations in general:

Democrats, the traditional trust-busters and hyper regulators, appreciate the progressive politics and West Coast culture of corporations such as Facebook and Amazon. Why would they regulate entities that are a cash cow for the Democratic party and that push progressive agendas insidiously through daily Internet use? The worst-kept secret of the modern age is that big corporations are mostly run by leftists and are far more politically correct than independent small-business owners who lack the clout to enact social change by fiat.

In light of what is revealed near daily about Silicon Valley, Facebook in particular, I do not think I was in error in worrying about either its agendas or methods, or the paradox of the tech sector thus far receiving a pass from the usual muckraking Left.

Kevin also apparently suggested that my article was some sort of heresy to National Review in general and in particular the magazine’s long-ago stance of wishing to repeal the New Deal (e.g., “That from a magazine whose founders once dreamed of overturning the New Deal.”). That I support retention of elements of the New Deal–like anti-trust regulation, the SEC, or Social Security I don’t think today would qualify as National Review apostasy. Certainly, the originators of National Review themselves later did not always agree with all their founding positions, especially in the case of civil-rights legislation.

No one is certain how William F. Buckley and his co-founders would react to the current reach and agenda of Silicon Valley, given WFB’s laudable credo both to live and let live and to worry about the surveillance state. Calibrating post mortem how any thinker would weigh in on a host of contemporary issues is also often perilous. Those who are upset with the recent populist and nationalist surge have occasionally cited as their guidance Buckley’s cleansing the John Birch Society from the conservative movement, a legitimate analogy if one thinks Trump’s views are analogous to those of the Birchers. But it is also just as legitimate to cite WFB’s own reservations about the pretenses of elitism (the famous Meet the Press quote: “I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”) or his political pragmatism (the much debated and variously interpreted “Buckley Rule”: “The wisest choice [of a candidate] would be the one who would win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.”).

In the 17 years I have written for National Review, it has always welcomed a spectrum of conservative views. In 2016, when I wrote that a vote for Trump was far preferable to sitting out the election, and that a Trump presidency would prove far more conservative than the alternative, many in the magazine disagreed or at least felt that Trump the flawed messenger was still not worth Trump’s embrace of a conservative message. Yet I cannot remember a single occasion in which the editors sought to censor a word of what was likely a minority view.

Certainly, Kevin has expressed himself freely both in print and in interviews in ways that many thought were antithetical to the values of many conservatives — whether his idea that failing communities of the white working class “deserved to die,” or that those having or facilitating abortions should face execution. I assume that the attitude of the editors of National Review was that in the many millions of words that Williamson has written and spoken, his sometime use of profanity or over the top sensationalism was atypical, although certainly controversial, as he has now discovered at The Atlantic in our age of selective pull quotes that are used to stigmatize a writer’s entire body of work.

Sadly, I think Kevin Williamson will soon find that National Review was far more tolerant of his controversial views than will be true at The Atlantic. As I noted in the essay in question concerning progressives’ situational regulation, so too the Left also embraces situational free speech. Indeed, well before Williamson had even written his inaugural column, Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor of The Atlantic, had defended his hiring of Williamson on grounds that he preferred “all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change,” and he further seemed delighted about Williamson’s promise to cease tweeting given that it would be interpreted as “a positive development and a sign of growth.”


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