Bret Stephens feels the need to give his stupid opinion on the Kevin Williamson issue (“The Outrage Over Kevin Williamson,” New York Times, 3/31/2018):
You had the right to remain silent. Now every word you’ve ever uttered, and every one you ever will, can and will be held against you.
Bret, Bret, Bret. Okay, so, Williamson is a writer. A writer for magazines. The articles for which are consumed by the public. One might say, then, that Williamson is a public figure. And—now hear me out on this, Bret—the things he writes can therefore be criticized. Because they’re public statements. No one snuck into his house, stole his diary, and uploaded the part where he fantasized about hanging women who receive abortions. He admitted that to all of us on his own accord.
Sorry, first, that you have to endure having your character assailed and assassinated by people who rarely if ever read you and likely never met you. Sorry also that your hiring as a writer for The Atlantic has set off another censorious furor in media circles when surely there are more important subjects on this earth.
1) I was never aware that a prerequisite for character assassination was that one had to be overly familiar with the person’s work or, even stranger, meet the person who wrote it. My understanding was that, if you’re a writer and you write something, people are going to read, and those people might object to what you say. No one is taking Williamson out of context or drawing out implicit statements to explicit ends. Williamson has been very clear about what he says. 2) I know Bret Stephens hates people who read and have opinions on the things they read, but it’s not difficult to see why readers across the internet are pointing out why Williamson is a bad hire. It’s not “censorship.” Williamson has had and will continue to have plenty of platforms from which he can spew whatever crappy thought comes into his head.
The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.”
“Look, I think the things you wrote are horrific, but where do people get off on judging you for the ideas you have and choose to make public?”
Oh, another thing: As a NeverTrumper, you’re guilty of being insufficiently representative of contemporary conservatism. Had you been a Trumper, doubtless you would have been dismissed as a moron unworthy of the pages of The Atlantic.
I’m not aware of anyone saying Williamson is “insufficiently representative of contemporary conservatism.” As outlined above in the views he’s espoused, he’s a perfect model of conservatism. And yes, if he were a “Trumper,” he’d be a moron. That’s not hard to understand.
Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. How many of the people now demanding your firing read your unforgettable description of Steve Mnuchin’s “Scrooge McDuck-style sphincter-clenching,” or of Anthony Scaramucci’s “batty and profane interview in which he reimagined Steve Bannon as a kind of autoerotic yogi”?
To be clear, Stephens believes Williamson has written “hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage,” and the best examples he can come up with are a couple jokes about Steve Mnuchin and Anthony Scaramucci. This is Williamson’s great contribution to the public conversation; not some nuanced case for conservatism in these times but “Scrooge McDuck-style sphincter-clenching.” How is it that Williamson was overlooked all this time!
Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.
What Stephens means here is that what you say only matters if it comes in a form Stephens thinks can be judged. In this instance, Williamson’s tweets about abortion don’t count because they’re tweets. And that’s the argument. I’m sure Stephens and Williamson don’t believe that stating tens of millions of American women should be killed in any way contributes to an already-existing atmosphere in which people feel emboldened to bomb abortion clinics or kill doctors in part because of opinions that are telegraphed and reinforced in right-wing media.
Stephens is not alone in defending Williamson. The entirety of Very Serious Conservatives© has leapt to his defense. Curiously, though, none of them have the gumption to say that they think Williamson’s ideas are correct, or that they’re invaluable contributions to the national discourse on those respective subjects, or that they’re simply not bad. But the question I have for Stephens and the rest is simple: Are there any conservative writers you believe to be on par or better than Williamson who haven’t publicly espoused such objectively repugnant views? Why defend Williamson so vigorously if his greatest contribution to public discourse (according to Stephens, anyway) is a joke about Anthony Scaramucci?
Should The Atlantic foolishly succumb to pressure to rescind your job offer, you’ll still be widely read, presumably at National Review.
The Atlantic is not going to reconsider hiring Williamson, the same way The New York Times is not going to reconsider hiring Bret Stephens (or The Washington Post hiring Megan McArdle). There’s simply nothing to support this. And even if they did, I don’t think it would be a bad move or one that threatened the first amendment. It wouldn’t be a whole lot different if Fox decided to dump Laura Ingraham because her tweet (yes, Bret, her tweet) about David Hogg caused dozens of her advertisers to flee. These ain’t charities, Bret, much as I’d like them to be, so if The Atlantic thought hiring Williamson might be a financial liability because of his unpopular opinions, that would be a pretty legitimate reason (at least in your pro-fee market eyes) to toss him.
That doesn’t mean there ought to be limitless tolerance for every shade of opinion: There are cranks and haters both left and right, and wise editors should not give them a platform. But your critics show bad faith when they treat an angry tweet or a flippant turn of phrase as proof of moral incorrigibility. Let he who is without a bad tweet, a crap sentence or even a deplorable opinion cast the first stone.
I’m not aware of any conservatives who have ever drawn a reasonable line on what should and shouldn’t be acceptable in the national discourse. I’m also not sure why critics such as myself have no leg to stand on if we’ve ever sent a bad tweet. I’m sure I have, but I’m also sure I’ve never seriously advocated murdering tens of millions of people. I’ve got one on Kevin there. I’m also not writing for a national magazine; if I were, I’d probably be more careful about what I tweet, because what I tweet would have a lot more weight than if I were just some schlub with 37 followers.
Conservative thought on issues such as this is clear: Conservatives should not be criticized for the things they say and write. To criticize those ideas is to be censorious. Their idea of free speech is not only being able to say whatever they want but not being criticized for the things they say. If they are criticized, then their right to free speech is being persecuted. Whenever something they’ve said is repeated back to them, it is never honest; the bit is always taken out of context or not recognized for its obvious humor. To criticize a conservative for what he’s written is to silence him, even if he writes for a national magazine, goes on television, and speaks at conferences.
Perhaps one way conservatives could better communicate their ideas is to write about them more often in the national publications to which they have access instead of discussing, publicly, in those national publications, how they’re being censored. But I think they’d rather just write about how they’re being censored and publishing them in well-known publications available worldwide. That’ll show ’em.