It must be said that, whatever else you may think of him, conservative writer Kevin Williamson has never been afraid of offending anyone. Whether it was saying that the poor, working class communities in Appalachia that supported Donald Trump in 2016 “deserve to die,” or saying that women who had abortions ought to face all the same legal consequences as murderers, Williamson will voice his opinion.
The difference is, the second view was enough to have him ousted from The Atlantic, only two weeks after being hired away from the conservative magazine National Review.
Complaints to The Atlantic began after a tweet of his with this view from 2014 was uncovered. The editor-at-large, Jeffrey Goldberg, responded with a statement that he felt it would be untoward to fire an employee over a tweet.
Goldberg said he did not want to judge people for their, “worst tweets or assertions, in isolations,” according to the New York Times.
Only a few days later, was it found that Williamson had further explained his position in episode 71 of a podcast “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.” When it was clear that said position was not just a wayward tweet, he was fired.
It is unclear to me, having listened to the podcast myself in its entirety, if Williamson meant such a punishment going forward, or if he also wanted it applied retrospectively. The former would be much more defensible than the latter, which would require going back and charging people, post facto, with the most serious of crimes for something that was not a crime when it happened. I am not sure how any person who called themselves dedicated to the rule of law could defend that position.
But Williamson is more than capable of defending his own positions He is, if nothing else, an extremely talented writer.
Various questions arrive from this affair.
The first being, how did this happen?
Williamson’s views were public knowledge before any of this went down. The podcast referenced has been publicly available for years. The answer is that Williamson was a very strong critic of President Trump, and continues to be so. When reading his attacks on Trump, it can be very easy to forget that he holds other convictions.
Thus, it can be very easy to be caught off guard by one of his opinions. They don’t fit very well into the partisan categories we tend to expect.
But is discussion of controversial and unusual ideas not the point of public debate? It depends.
This brings us to the second question.
If Williamson’s views are outside of what should be considered in public discourse, where is that line?
Regardless of if he wants murder charges for abortions to be applied post facto or not, it should be clear that Williamson holds a view that would be considered on the fringe of what is considered normal.
But is he the only one?
The Atlantic employs plenty of people who fit into that category. Feminist writer and journalist Jessica Valenti, for example, wants no restrictions on abortion at all, ever. By opinion polls, this position is just as radical as anything Williamson as said. But Valenti, by contrast, enjoys columns in The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian, among others.
This is the problem; radical views from one end of the spectrum are promoted in the largest national newspapers, whereas radical views from the other are relegated to openly partisan opinion journals.
Nobody, not even someone as vociferously anti-Trump as Williamson, to the right of Bari Weiss or Bret Stephens need apply.
Shouldn’t we be concerned with that?
Well for one, such an omission would be paramount to admitting that national newspapers are in fact partisan outlets. One thing we can be certain of is that the minority, but still not negligible, group of people who agree with Williamson are probably a lot less likely to read those newspapers now than before.
And even if you can brute force an opinion out of polite society, you don’t kill it.
You just cause all of the people to have it to go underground. It makes it even harder to change their mind.