The Kevin Williamson Two-Minute Hate
The Atlantic’s new hire raises hard questions of ideology and tolerance
The media world, increasingly consumed with chronicling its own doings, has been in a mini-rage about The Atlantic hiring National Review’s Kevin Williamson as one of its new “Ideas” columnists. While Williamson has been accused of “virulent racism” (mostly over a 2014 piece in which he describes a young black boy as making the “primate gesture of territorial challenge”), the most intense anger has been directed at his statement in a Twitter exchange, also in 2014, that women who have abortions should be executed for murder along with any participating personnel.
Many progressives are appalled that The Atlantic would give a platform to someone they consider an extremist, misogynistic bigot straight out of The Handmaid’s Tale. Amanda Marcotte was one of several who suggested that Williamson’s comments smack of nothing less than advocacy of mass murder.
For the record: I am pro-choice. I agree that Kevin Williamson’s tweets about executing women who have abortions were pretty appalling. I also think he’s an excellent addition to The Atlantic’s line-up of contributors, and to drop him would be a very bad move both because of his quality as a writer — he’s one of the finest — and because it would encourage the outrage mobs. I have many disagreements with Williamson. Sometimes, I dislike the things he writes; sometimes, I find them incredibly compelling and illuminating. I think there are times when he can come across as mean-spirited and self-righteous. I don’t believe he’s a bigot.
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About those “hang women who have abortions” tweets: I’m reasonably certain this was not a statement of Williamson’s actual views, especially since he has expressed qualms about the death penalty in general. Williamson is no Milo Yiannopoulos, but he can be a provocateur. Assuming that he was trolling, it was definitely not one of his best moments, but it’s hardly the worst thing an “edgy” mainstream journalist has ever said on Twitter; witness, for instance, this from Mother Jones editorial director Ben Dreyfuss, posted in the heat of an argument with a right-winger:
If Williamson had meant it, it would be an absurd position, on many levels. Firstly, even when abortion was illegal in America, it was never treated as homicide. Secondly, even homicide is very rarely punished by death. Thirdly, such a law would be unenforceable short of going full police state. It’s no accident that all mainstream pro-life groups oppose any punishment for women who have abortions, preferring to treat them not as criminals but as victims of greedy abortionists and/or wicked men (a denial of female agency that I find weirdly reminiscent of much modern feminist rhetoric — but that’s a topic for another time).
Even taking Williamson’s tweets at face value, he certainly wasn’t offering a “plan” or suggesting mass executions (presumably, abortions would plummet if the procedure was treated as homicide), let alone advocating the murder of all women who have had abortions; the very anti-Williamson Jessica Valenti acknowledged that he also said he wasn’t talking about making the death penalty retroactive. (Williamson’s Twitter account is gone, at least for now. He apparently deleted it in February as a sacrifice for Lent, not last Thursday as Mediate reported; but it seems he has missed the window for restoring it, so perhaps he decided it was best to let it stay dead because of the controversy.) But taking those tweets at face value would almost certainly be a mistake. This is offensive trolling, not genocidal planning.
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Is Williamson a misogynist? I very much doubt it. I think he’s a harsh judge of people whose behavior he considers morally deficient, regardless of sex or race; some of the harshest things he has written have been about the Donald Trump-loving, struggling white working class — or, as he prefers to call it, white underclass — whose members blame their plight on nefarious external forces. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” Williamson wrote in an infamous column in March 2016. ( It should be noted that when Williamson writes so scathingly about the “white underclass,” he’s writing about his own kind, as it were: He himself grew up in such a community and in such a family.)
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Williamson’s unsparing moral judgments can be jarring. But they are also a part of what makes him such a ferocious and brilliant social critic. (And just to make it clear: I am not referring to the “hanging for abortion” tweets, which I regard as regrettable trolling.) Among other things, he has written some of the best analysis of Trumpism and of right-wing populism in general.
Does Williamson often deserve criticism? Sure. He can engage in needlessly inflammatory rhetoric, like when he wrote a piece on Bernie Sanders calling the Vermont Senator, who is Jewish, a champion of “national socialism.” He can be tendentious; last year, I criticized him in a column for The Hill for repeating two dubious claims from the conservative media about Democratic politicians praising violent campus protests, both based on out-of-context quotes. But if we’re going to excommunicate people from respectable media for such sins, few will be left standing: Certainly not Marcotte or Valenti, or other Williamson detractors.
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It is also worth noting that some of the attacks on Williamson have focused not on his bizarre comments about executions, but on standard pro-life/anti-abortion views. Thus, a post on the Media Matters blog titled “Kevin Williamson is dreadful, and The Atlantic should feel bad for hiring him” listed such examples of “extreme, anti-abortion commentary” as support for a 20-week abortion ban and this line from a recent article on the March for Life: “Smoke weed, snort cocaine, watch porn, but don’t kill a living human organism, for any reason, ever.” Shocking!
Abortion is (to state the obvious) a hugely divisive issue in which people cannot agree on the basic question of whether (and when) the living organism in the womb should be regarded as a human person. Pro-choicers are appalled by Kevin Williamson; pro-lifers are just as sincerely appalled by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, who recently penned a column (and a follow-up) defending the choice to abort after a prenatal Down’s Syndrome diagnosis. It’s not easy to respect the other side’s opinions across such a divide. My own views are much closer to Marcus’ than to Williamson’s. But all differences aside, I admire them both as political commentators. That their views sometimes offend a segment of the public and provoke outrage is not a cause for either of them to be declared “beyond the pale.”
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In the age of Trumpian populism on one side and identity-obsessed progressivism on the other, one of our tasks is to work together to rebuild a viable civic culture. That means learning to deal with drastic differences of opinion. I don’t think Williamson’s tweets were particularly conducive to cross-ideological dialogue; but neither is demonizing him over a few bad tweets that hardly represent the totality of his work.
Update: This tweet from Damon Linker provides additional evidence that Williamson’s tweets about executing women who have abortions were not intended seriously and that, in fact, he was not happy about them being taken as an expression of his actual views:
I will say that I don’t entirely understand why Williamson is not commenting on this issue now. He should.
On the other hand, this column by Sarah Jones in The New Republic provides additional evidence for my point that Williamson’s progressive detractors want a vast range of mainstream centrist or right-of-center opinions relegated to pariah status: Jones believes Williamson’s denial of a “rape culture” in America is an extreme opinion.
If Williamson is declared “beyond the pale” today, The Atlantic’s Emily Yoffe might join him there tomorrow.
(The paragraphs dealing with Williamson’s tweets have been revised to clarify that, in view of his expressed general ambivalence about the death penalty, it is fairly certain he does not actually favor executing women who have abortions.)