Did Jeffrey Goldberg cave to a virtual pitchfork-and-torch mob in cashiering Kevin Williamson after one column, for reasons that had nothing to do with his article at The Atlantic? Or did Goldberg make a correct-if-tardy decision that Williamson really doesn’t fit within the magazine’s oeuvre? Much of the split between these two perspectives falls rather neatly into the same existing ideological bunkers that Goldberg said he wanted to transcend with Williamson’s hiring, but not all of it. CNN’s S.E. Cupp argues that conservatives should refrain from defending Williamson, as the position that got him fired is far from the conservative mainstream position:
That phenomenon has long plagued conservatives who’ve had to make a choice: work within the right-wing media bubble, or cross over to the mainstream to have your ideas watered down.
But that’s not what happened in the case of Kevin Williamson.
Williamson got fired for his argument from a few years back that, since abortion is murder, the women who have an abortion should be executed by hanging. That’s an oversimplification of an argument Williamson made on more than one occasion, and which he later explained with some nuance at Hillsdale College:
I'm not sure if anyone actually cares what Kevin Williamson thinks, but he talked about the "hanging" controversy at Hillsdale in 2015. It's about 2 minutes, and you won't be surprised to learn he's not the monster the left wants him to be. https://t.co/J8NacuSFbW
— Noah Rothman (@NoahCRothman) April 6, 2018
The basic argument in its original form was that if you believe abortion is murder, and Kevin believes it is, then it should be treated as murder, although not in an ex post facto manner. For what it’s worth, I’m highly opposed to abortion but believe that prosecuting the women who receive them is a very bad idea; it amounts to adding despair on top of despair. In a future where abortions are illegal, we could pursue legal remedies for those doctors who provide them, but the better option then and now is to offer hope in place of despair to the mothers themselves. I’m also opposed to the death penalty, in this and in other applications outside of war.
We already have the pro-abortion side of the equation selling despair and desperation for the abortion industry. We don’t need to add to it. That said, though, Williamson’s core argument that abortion is murder and should be treated as such is hardly unknown in the pro-life movement. With that in mind, back to Cupp:
The real problem I have with the conservative outrage over his dismissal is that I don’t believe Kevin’s view is a particularly conservative one.
For one, respecting life requires consistency. Abortion is an horrific and abhorrent societal ill, but capital punishment, whereby the state is empowered to kill human beings, some of whom turn out to have been innocent, is not consistent with a pro-life perspective. For another, I don’t know any conservatives who believe women should be punished for having an abortion. …
Defending Williamson’s freedom of speech is inherently a conservative thing to do. But defending his actual prescription is not.
I have problems with both parts of this argument, the second of which I’ll address at the end. First off, this isn’t a First Amendment issue at all. Williamson has the right to free speech, not publication. He hasn’t lost his voice, only a paycheck — and undoubtedly only temporarily. The Atlantic didn’t owe him a job prior to his hiring, and technically everyone’s only one column away from being canned. (Don’t let my boss know I wrote that.) No one’s arguing that Goldberg didn’t have the right to fire Williamson, but whether he was right in doing so, which is certainly fair game in the sense of media criticism.
In my opinion, Goldberg did Williamson, his readers, and in the long run himself (see Addendum I) a disservice. The Atlantic positions itself as a wide-ranging forum “of no party or clique,” and the hiring of Williamson was explicitly designed to put those words into action. The Atlantic could very well decide to become of a party or clique, positioning itself on the Left just as National Review explicitly positions itself on the Right (as do the Weekly Standard and Hot Air, for that matter). As long as they did so honestly and explicitly, few would have a problem with it.
Instead, Goldberg sought out a provocative and talented writer on the Right who would offer an uncompromising point of view for his readers. Williamson certainly fits that bill. Not only has he often raised the ire of liberal-progressive readers, he’s done the same with those on the Right, too. His first column for Goldberg was a good case in point, in fact, earning a rebuke from former colleague Victor Davis Hanson, who presciently predicted that Goldberg would prove unreliable in his defense.
Furthermore, all of this was known and public when Williamson was hired. Nothing in Williamson’s brief work at The Atlantic formed the basis for his termination; instead, he got canned for work done elsewhere years ago that offended Goldberg and others at The Atlantic. Having enticed Williamson away from other commitments to come to the Atlantic, Goldberg owed him (at least in a moral sense) the opportunity to see whether he would add to “The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate,” as Goldberg cited in his memo to staff. If not, Goldberg could have fired Williamson at that point for failing to adhere to an editorial policy to which Williamson had agreed as a condition of employment, rather than applying that editorial policy to published comments several years ago on other platforms. After all, Goldberg would have been in position to enforce that standard as his editor! Why not wait for Williamson to violate the policy there first?
What happens to the effort to broaden the fare at The Atlantic now, or for that matter, anywhere else? Writers who would make worthy candidates for those positions will have to think twice before giving up paying gigs in conservative media, especially at The Atlantic. Few will risk their economic future at a platform where pitchfork-and-torch mobs gets veto power on staffing decisions; even if they did, they would undoubtedly temper their viewpoints to protect themselves. That’s precisely how we end up with the “conservative” representation in mainstream media that Cupp laments in this piece (also see Addendum II):
There is also a thing in political media, wherein a liberal outlet hires a token conservative to represent all of conservatism, but really doesn’t want that conservative to be muscular in his or her beliefs. It’s a kind of conservatism that feels microwaved, warmed over and anodyne, the kind of conservatism that is safe for the left to ingest in bite-sized morsels.
Of course, that’s hardly a service to readers or viewers, who will come to believe through this person — a Bret Stephens at The New York Times or a Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, for example — that they are all of conservatism, or at least what they want conservatism to be. When, really, a reliable conservative would never pen an essay calling for repeal of the Second Amendment, as Stephens has done in The Times. Twice. But it satisfies the Times’ left-leaning editorial board and readers who tell themselves, “Now this is our kind of conservative.” (Yes — the kind that sounds like a liberal.)
This is one reason that conservatives (and others so inclined) don’t have to defend Williamson’s “actual prescription” to criticize what happened to Williamson. I explicitly disagree with Williamson’s argument here, but that’s not to say that I think Williamson should have gotten fired for it years later by a different publication. This wasn’t about one intemperate opinion in the past, or whether it was correct or incorrect. It’s about a process that was in the short term grossly unfair to Williamson, who had already been muzzled on social media by Goldberg in a manner that wasn’t the case with other Atlantic writers, then dumped almost the moment he launched his column for nothing he did there. More importantly in the long term, it’s about the epistemic closure that publications with claims to broad-mindedness employ in order to narrow public discourse.
S.E.Cupp is an outstanding conservative voice on policy and culture, but she’s wrong here. Be sure to read Guy Benson’s rebuttal to his friend Kirsten Powers, who also has suggested that one needs to agree with Williamson’s position from several years ago to defend him. For someone who wrote a book about epistemic closure and the Left’s silencing of opposing viewpoints, it seems almost surreal that Guy had to write his column at all.
Addendum I: Goldberg did himself another disservice in this episode. He conducted a blockbuster interview with Prince Mohammed bin Salman that will get overshadowed by this controversy, which is a real shame. Goldberg did a fantastic job in getting the new Saudi leader to demonstrate openness to Jews and especially Israel in the face of a shared enemy in Iran.
Addendum II: I’d just add that some of the writers to whom S.E. refers here (implicitly and explicitly) are worth reading. Stephens is a good example of that; I disagree with him more than occasionally (especially on the 2nd Amendment), but he’s still worth reading and rebutting when necessary. We don’t have to agree with every position a writer holds in order to defend their employment at a particular platform. Nor should one disagreement provoke demands for firing, or plaudits for caving to the demands of an aggrieved mob.
Addendum III: One more point deserves to be addressed. Some of those defending the actions of The Atlantic note, correctly, that National Review has terminated contributors for extremist rhetoric. However, they fired people for the work they were doing as employees, either on the platform itself or in parallel to it. They didn’t fire people for work done years prior to their employment. No one’s arguing that employers don’t have the right to fire people in at-will employment or for violating terms of contractual employment, but that it’s customary to fire them after they violate rules and/or rhetorical boundaries at the current place of employment.
Update: Be sure to read Jack Shafer’s entire analysis at Politico, but this point is especially insightful:
Without relitigating Williamson’s abortion views—which I don’t share—let’s agree that if he hadn’t been sent packing for his less–than-modern views on abortion, his critics would have griped about something else in his archives to engineer his removal. Let’s be real here: Kevin Williamson wasn’t sent packing for expressing strong language on abortion but for being Kevin Williamson. The very things that made him so appealing to Goldberg were destined to lead to his exit.
The loser here isn’t Williamson. Like other excellent writers who’ve gotten the ax, he’ll find a new job soon enough—and now he’s become the right’s latest free-speech martyr. The real losers are Atlantic writers and Atlantic readers—writers because they’ll become faint-hearted about their work (who wants to be the next Williamson?) and readers because the magazine will be less eager to challenge them.
Jeffrey Goldberg deserves our praise for having gone as far as he did to hire Williamson. Alas, he didn’t go far enough to keep him, and his rapid embrace and rejection make the Atlantic a lesser place.
Update, 4/7/18: I inadvertently left off the link to Jack Shafer’s article, which I have added now.