Several weeks ago, acerbic conservative writer Kevin Williamson was fired from the job he'd just accepted at The Atlantic, a prestigious mainstream publication. The supposed iniquity for which he was dismissed was a years-old exploration of potential policy consequences related to his views on the criminalization of abortion -- an outcome he supports. The braying jackals who applied heavy pressure on The Atlantic's editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, to kick Williamson to the curb homed in on the columnist's ostensible stance that women who obtain abortions should be hanged. This is a gross distortion, for reasons we'll get to shortly. Some of his critics also circulated a fabricated racist quote, falsely attributing it to Williamson. After a period of silence, Williamson finally weighed in on this contretemps in a Wall Street Journal op/ed entitled, "When the Twitter Mob Came For Me." The piece is devastating and unsparing, as is typical of Williamson's work. He begins by clarifying what he meant with his tweets and comments about abortion and capital punishment. Unsurprisingly, the views ascribed to him by dishonest or ignorant partisans was not accurate or fair:
I had responded to a familiar pro-abortion argument: that pro-lifers should not be taken seriously in our claim that abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life unless we are ready to punish women who get abortions with long prison sentences. It’s a silly argument, so I responded with these words: “I have hanging more in mind.” Trollish and hostile? I’ll cop to that, though as the subsequent conversation online and on the podcast indicated—to say nothing of the few million words of my published writing available to the reading public—I am generally opposed to capital punishment. I was making a point about the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate, not a public-policy recommendation. Such provocations can sometimes clarify the terms of a debate, but in this case, I obscured the more meaningful questions about abortion and sparked the sort of hysteria I’d meant to point out and mock.
Let’s not equivocate: Abortion isn’t littering or securities fraud or driving 57 in a 55-mph zone. If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it. For all the chatter today about diversity of viewpoint and the need for open discourse, there aren’t very many people on the pro-choice side, in my experience, who are ready to talk candidly about the reality of abortion...It is easy to misrepresent and exaggerate views that are controversial to begin with...Whatever you think of my views on this issue, I’d suggest that they’re more interesting than hearing someone repeat the same shopworn talking points on capital punishment for the thousandth time. The editors of the Atlantic thought so, too, until the mob started doing their thinking for them.
How could his scalp-collecting detractors have taken Williamson down over such a profound misunderstanding of his actual views? Rather easily, as it turns out. The mob was so eager to impose its ideologically-driven will that its pitchforks-wielding participants -- including many members of the press -- failed to pick up the phone or dash off a simple email to, you know, ask him about the controversial comments. This is a telling indictment:
On March 22, the Atlantic announced that it had hired me and three others as contributors to its new section “for ideas, opinions and commentary.” In no time, the abortion-rights group Naral was organizing protests against me, demanding that I not be permitted to publish in the Atlantic. Activists claimed, dishonestly, that I wanted to see every fourth woman in the country lynched (it is estimated that 1 in 4 American women will have an abortion by the age of 45). Opinion pieces denouncing me appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and other publications. The remarkable fact about all this commentary on my supposedly horrifying views on abortion is that not a single writer from any of those famous publications took the time to ask me about the controversy. (The sole exception was a reporter from Vox.) Did I think I was being portrayed accurately? Why did I make that outrageous statement? Did I really want to set up gallows, despite my long-stated reservations about capital punishment? Those are questions that might have occurred to people in the business of asking questions...Instead of interviewing the subject of their pieces, they scanned my thousands of articles and found the tidbits that seemed most likely to provoke. I was half-amused by progressive activists’ claims to have “uncovered” things that were, after all, published.
Embarrassing. Another cutting passage described Goldberg's response to Williamson's highlighting of a glaring double standard at play. In my commentary defending Williamson after he was axed -- which I viewed as an act of hypocritical cowardice -- I raised a point about the writings of The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates: "How can Ta-Nehisi Coates maintain his perch at The Atlantic? Coates has written in extremely de-humanizing terms about 9/11 first responders, and has effectively justified rioting by attacking calls for nonviolence. These viewpoints could very easily be construed as hitting the unacceptable trifecta of "callous," "inhumane" and "violent"... Yet Coates enjoys the wide latitude to expound upon his extremism at The Atlantic without fear of sanction (as he should), while Williamson does not. Why?" In his WSJ essay, Williamson raises a very similar point, but does so in the context of explicitly defending Coates. He goes on to cite another example that he put to Goldberg, eliciting a revealing reply:
The Atlantic has often welcomed controversial writers. The magazine’s best-known contributor today is Ta-Nehisi Coatfes, arguably the nation’s foremost writer on race. He came in for criticism after writing, in his book “Between the World and Me,” that the first responders on 9/11 were “not human” to him, that he had come to regard such uniformed figures as menaces. I don’t share his view, but if that’s what he thought at the time, then I’m glad he wrote it. He could have pretended to have had thoughts and feelings other than the ones he did—but the truth is usually more interesting, and it is always more useful. The late Christopher Hitchens was another frequent contributor to the Atlantic. He was routinely denounced by people on the left for his harshly critical views of Islam. He complained of the war in Afghanistan that “the death toll is not nearly high enough,” described the Jewish scriptures as “evil and mad” and directed shameful vitriol at Mother Teresa. Hitchens routinely and gleefully gave occasion for offense—and he was one of the invaluable essayists of our time. “Yes,” Mr. Goldberg said when I reminded him of this precedent. “But Hitchens was in the family. You are not.” And that, of course, is what this whole episode was really about.
Williamson, who describes himself as an "unassimilated conservative from Lubbock, Texas," is not part of the clique. And his detractors were intent on keeping it that way. A great deal of digital ink has been spilled in reaction to this incident, with perhaps the best analysis coming from Williamson's longtime National Review colleague, Jonah Goldberg (no relation to Jeffrey): "Editors or owners should have absolute authority to control what appears in the pages of their magazines. How they exercise that authority, i.e., how much orthodoxy they want to impose or how much free-for-all they want to encourage, is a prudential question (and one I often have strong opinions about). What editors should not have any control over is what their writers are allowed to think...Goldberg rightly believed Kevin’s voice would enrich and enliven the pages of The Atlantic (which, by the way, I still think is an excellent magazine, for now). The Woke Mob thought otherwise from the get-go, as they always do in these circumstances. Indeed, before we talk about the specifics of Kevin’s situation, it must be pointed out that whenever a conservative or libertarian is hired outside the conservative ghetto, the response is like that of Dutch Dominicans watching Napoleon’s forces convert their church into a horse barn. The excuses for why this or that writer is unacceptably extreme vary with the writer. But the reaction is always the same, if not in degree then in form." The whole piece, like Williamson's, is worth reading. I'd also like to reply to this sarcastic (and not terribly clever) argument:
It Is Too Bad I Have Been Silenced https://t.co/Fyl26sxuhq— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) April 21, 2018
I regret to say: I have been silenced. I expressed an opinion, and people criticized that opinion. And since that day, my voice has never been heard again. I am entombed where none can hear my jangling bells, for doing nothing more than walking down the street, saying that women who get abortions ought to be hanged. The mob has borne me aloft (metaphorically, of course) with their torches and — in their infantile gulosity — devoured everything I worked to build. My voice is trapped in a seashell in the grip of a NARAL-affiliated sea-witch, and I swim haplessly through the world, bipedal but voiceless. No. Voiceless is not the word I want. Sponsorless. Except for my ability to type and publish this now, the world has excommunicated me and barred me from public spheres, where I cannot exist in safety. I am like a mime (I once saw a mime on the streets of Chicago; I think this image speaks for itself). My life is (metaphorically!) over. These very words are invisible to you. Simply for having the temerity to breathe (this opinion in the pages of an august publication) I have had my liberty stripped from me and I am now confined, for life, to the pages of the Wall Street Journal, at best. This is injustice...Every day I have to exist in this so-called free country of America, I fear that I may pay the ultimate price: not having column space in EVERY publication.
Some variant of this point is often trotted out whenever conservatives sound the alarm over right-leaning public figures getting silenced. It's not really silencing, we're told, because the targets haven't been banished from all platforms, and are still able to make their voices heard elsewhere. This is a lazy and silly argument, especially because the woman advancing it...hasn't been fired for controversial views she's espoused. As Jonah said in the passage I quoted above, nobody is arguing that anyone is entitled to every platform he or she desires. But once someone has been offered a platform, preventing that person from using it is a form of 'End of Discussion' silencing. For instance, if a college commencement speaker is uninvited or shouted down, that act of censorship isn't negated by the fact that he or she might be permitted to speak at another school. Somebody getting fired for holding certain opinions at one publication doesn't lose its significance simply because he or she can find employment at some other publication.
I doubt Ms. Petri would accept such sophistic head-patting if she got canned by the Post due to a furious campaign from her ideological opponents just because she ended up landing at Bustle, or some other place. But she'd still have a byline somewhere, you see, so under her argument, no injustice would have taken place. It's nonsense. The direct harm would still stand, as would the broader, chilling message. Then again, Petri published this sneering "satire" knowing that she's likely in no danger of ever meeting Williamson's fate. She's "in the family," to invoke Goldberg's standard; Williamson not. I'll leave you with this trenchant observation about the true power dynamics of 'marginalization' in modern America, via Williamson. Prior to his sacking, he attended a panel discussion in Austin, Texas, sponsored by his erstwhile employer:
The Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.