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50 Shades of Kevin Williamson

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Everybody, sort of.

Last week, I defended former National Review writer Kevin Williamson when his hiring as a columnist for the Atlantic was followed by a rage-fest over a September 2014 Twitter exchange in which he suggested that women who have abortions should be executed by hanging. (Like many others, I argued that these comments were bad trolling, not his actual view.)

By the start of this week, Williamson seemed to have weathered the storm, making his Atlantic debut on Monday. I praised the magazine for standing its ground in my Newsday column, which usually runs on Tuesdays but this week was pushed back to Thursday — no doubt by whim of the irony gods, because on that very day Williamson got sacked.

Williamson’s undoing was a podcast, dug up and unveiled by Media Matters for America, in which Williamson (according to the MMFA post) “both defended and again promoted” his belief that death by hanging is a suitable punishment for abortion. It dropped on Wednesday night, so the sacking wasn’t exactly a surprise. In an email to staff, Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg explained the decision by pointing to evidence that Williamson’s “hanging” comment was not just “an intemperate tweet” but an expression of “carefully considered views,” as well as to Williamson’s “callous and violent” language in the podcast.

There are (naturally) a lot of takes on this — including one right here in these pages.

I think nearly all of them are wrong in one way or another. My own view, as a pro-choice libertarian centrist, is…conflicted.

My friend and Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward thinks that the Williamson firing shows the Atlantic and other liberal publications “cannot stomach real, mainstream conservatism as it actually exists in 21st century America.” I don’t think that’s true. Mangu-Ward points to polls showing that close to half of all Americans consider themselves pro-life on abortion. But in those same polls, only about one in five think abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. And even among those hardcore pro-lifers, I would wager that only a tiny fraction support any kind of penalties for women who have abortions, let alone standard penalties for murder. (Even when abortion in America was illegal, women were never prosecuted for having abortions.)

Whether Williamson actually believes this is another matter, and I’ll get to that in a bit. But to say that his firing means all pro-life conservatives are being banished outside the “Overton window” of acceptable opinion in the mainstream media (as Ben Shapiro suggests in this Twitter thread) is a stretch.

Of course, many leftists would like for it to be true. An earlier Media Matters post on Williamson pointed to his support for a ban on abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy as evidence of his extremism. It also offered this example of his “extreme, anti-abortion commentary”: “Smoke weed, snort cocaine, watch porn, but don’t kill a living human organism, for any reason, ever.” It’s pretty clear that MMFA regards any pro-life opinion as extremist.

But those opinions were not what got Williamson fired.

Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg, another writer I greatly respect, says that while editors should have absolute control over what can or cannot appear in the pages of their magazine, it is wrong to punish a writer for an opinion he or she has expressed elsewhere (i.e., for thoughtcrime). For instance, he says, “There are writers at National Review who are pro-choice, but they aren’t fired for it. They just don’t typically make that case in our pages.”

But does this apply to all opinions? Would National Review be just fine with having a regular contributor whose personal blog promoted Holocaust denial or the merits of sex with young children? I’m guessing the answer is no. And in fact, on at least two occasions a few years ago, National Review did part ways with two contributors over their outside opinions. In April 2012, NR columnist John Derbyshire was let go over a racist piece he wrote for Taki’s magazine. Shortly afterwards, the magazine discontinued its relationship with occasional NR blogger Robert Weissberg after learning that he had given a talk on the future of white nationalism at a conference of the alt-right magazine American Renaissance.

Most of us, even the most zealous free-speech warriors, agree that some opinions should be beyond the pale (not illegal, but unacceptable in decent society). I think “Women who have abortions should be hanged” qualifies.

Does Williamson advocate that? Many people, including smart commentators such as Ken “Popehat” White, believe he does. On Twitter, Popehat referred to Williamson’s “crazy-ass mass-execution ideas.”

On the other hand, Williamson defenders such as Michael Brendan Dougherty point to a video of a March 2015 talk at Hillsdale College where Williamson explicitly disavows this opinion (starting at about 26:54).

After mentioning that a young woman who interviewed him for the Hillsdale campus newspaper asked him if he had really argued that all women who have abortions should be hanged, Williamson cites the attribution of this view to him as an example of “intellectual dishonesty.” He says, “I am generally against capital punishment, I am generally against abortion, I am always against ex-post-facto punishment and always against lynching, I think.”

So what does Williamson actually believe, and what does he say on that 2014 podcast beyond the cherry-picked quotes presented by MMFA?

Here’s Jessica Valenti’s take:

But if you listen to the full podcast, that’s actually not what Williamson is doing. The closest is him saying, at 13:40, “So yeah, I’d be totally up for treating [abortion] like any other crime, up to and including hanging.” He also makes it very clear that this is entirely theoretical. A little earlier, at 13:00, he says that while he would be fine with the criminal code treating abortion like a regular homicide right away, “it’s going to be 150 years before this happens,” and adds that in all likelihood “we’ll arrive at a technical solution before we arrive at a moral one,” because “contraception will be so universal and so effective, probably within a few years, probably within a decade, that the problem will essentially go away.” (By the way, given that Williamson clearly thinks this would be a good development, it sure doesn’t sound like he’s a misogynist eager to punish women for their sexuality. And Twitter posters who snark about his presumed unwillingness to punish misbehaving men should see what he’s written about Harvey Weinstein and other sexual predators.)

Williamson’s detractors assume that his comments on the podcast confirm his “hanging” tweets (made a few days earlier) were serious opinion, not trolling. But it makes much more sense to see his comments on the podcast are a defense of his trolling. The title of the podcast episode is “Everybody Hates Kevin…Again,” and it’s all about his Twitter controversies that week, including the one over abortion and executions.

My view is still much the same as before. I still think that in the original Twitter exchange, Williamson reacted to an implied accusation of hypocrisy (you say you believe abortion is murder, but I bet you don’t support life without parole for the woman) with a confrontational, sarcastic response (I see your life without parole and raise you a hanging), and then doubled and tripled down. On the podcast, it’s clear that he relishes the provocation (and amplifies it with the discussion of his “soft spot for hanging” as a method of execution).

And this is where I have mixed feelings. Because on the one hand, I get that, as Jack Schafer says in Politico, Williamson’s willingness to confront, provoke, and go where others will not is part of what makes him an interesting and appealing thinker. On the other hand, provocation for its own sake is the road that leads to Milo Yiannopoulos. No, of course Williamson is no Milo. But when you discuss at least theoretically hanging people for an act in which millions of Americans have been personally involved (the women themselves, their supportive male partners, the medical practitioners) and use it as a subject for intellectual exercise and provocative sarcasm, don’t be surprised when it comes back to bite you.

I accept Williamson’s explanation of his beliefs in the Hillsdale talk. However, there is something about his comments that irks me. When he complains about the misunderstanding of his views and cites it as an example of the degradation of public discourse, he takes no responsibility at all for his role in this misunderstanding; he blames it entirely on the left-wing site Little Green Footballs, which he says “cooked up” the controversy in a blog post about his tweets.

Lastly, not to kick Williamson when he’s down, but as much as I admire a lot of his writing (both for the quality of his prose and for his insights), he’s not exactly a stranger to misrepresenting people’s views.

Last June, after the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia by a Republican-hating Bernie Sanders fan, Williamson wrote that the incident was the latest in an ominous trend: “The American Left has embraced political violence.”

Some of his examples were solid: The riots at the University of California-Berkeley that shut down a Milo event, the violent disruption of Charles Murray’s talk at Middlebury College in Vermont, and articles in the left-wing press condoning or even praising this violence. But Williamson also claimed that “progressives including mainstream Democrats” were also endorsing such tactics “as an instrument of liberationist politics.”

To make his case, he erroneously imputed to Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) the statement that the anti-Yiannopoulos riots at Berkeley were “a beautiful sight.” In fact, the video of Demings’ remarks makes it fairly clear she was talking about an earlier, peaceful Berkeley protest against Donald Trump’s executive order barring entry to the United States to people from several predominantly Muslim countries. I assume Williamson got his misinformation from conservative media outlets that had circulated it, but at the very least he was being sloppy.

Williamson also mentioned Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who “complained that the Trump administration’s insistence that Berkeley protect the safety and civil rights of its students and visitors was an attempt to ‘bully our university into silence.’” But he left out a rather salient fact: While Lee did criticize Trump’s threat to cut off funding to UC-Berkeley, her statement also condemned the “unacceptable acts of violence” as “counterproductive and dangerous.”

I don’t think these are mortal sins. I’m sure Williamson’s detractors are guilty of far worse. But this makes me reluctant to see Williamson as an entirely innocent victim in this matter.

This doesn’t change the fact that many of Williamson’s leftist critics really think not only conservatives but anyone who dissents from progressive dogma should be no-platformed in the mainstream media. (Some of them, such as Brooklyn-based freelance writer David Klion, are charmingly candid about this.)

Lastly: I think one entirely valid point made by Jonah Goldberg, David French, and other Williamson supporters, is that there is a huge double standard in the mainstream media for outrageous views from the left vs. the right.

As French points out, Ta-Nehisi Coates, like Williamson a brilliant writer who sometimes says terrible things, has excused riots and written about his lack of sympathy for the police and firefighters who died on September 11, 2001. Anti-Williamson crusader and mediocre Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti makes no secret of her desire to end the presumption of innocence for men accused of sexual misconduct (we must, she has written, “believe victims en masse”). Yet Valenti’s career was undamaged even when she stood by the already-discredited Jackie, the heroine of Rolling Stone’s 2014 fraternity-rape story, and blamed misogyny for the efforts to expose the hoax (implicitly slurring all the journalists who were doing their job by investigating the story). Nor is anyone blacklisting former Gawker writer Adam Weinstein, who once wrote an article with the self-explanatory title “Arrest climate-change deniers.”

As long as such double standards persist, I can’t quite blame conservatives for circling the wagons.

I don’t believe that Williamson’s firing reveals the Atlantic’s “Of no party or clique” slogan to be a sham. I hope it is still committed to being a politically eclectic magazine, a sad rarity these days. (I’m still nostalgic for the old Salon and the old New Republic.) I think conservatives should dial down the frenzy. I also think the Atlantic should make a meaningful effort to add a genuine socially conservative voice to its line-up — someone like David French or Mona Charen.

And yes, for all my criticisms of Williamson, I will continue to read and enjoy his articles.