I’ve written a couple times about the hiring and firing of conservative writer Kevin Williamson by the Atlantic. Williamson was hired by Jeffrey Goldberg in an effort to show that the Atlantic was open to a broader conversation that could include some conservative voices. He was fired a couple weeks later not over anything he wrote for the magazine but over a years-old tweet and comment on a podcast in which he said he would consider capital punishment (hanging) for women who get abortions.
Williamson has clarified both before and after his firing that he doesn’t actually believe in capital punishment for abortion. In fact, he has written several times since his firing that he is actually against the death penalty in general, so his statement was never meant to be sincere. He admitted recently it was “trollish and hostile” but that’s where it ends. He doesn’t want anyone hanged.
It turns out that the day after Jeffrey Goldberg fired Williamson, the Atlantic held a staff meeting at which Williamson’s brief tenure was a major topic of conversation. The meeting, run by Goldberg and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, was meant to be off the record, but someone leaked a copy to HuffPost which published a complete transcript yesterday. The transcript is interesting for a bunch of reasons but I’m going to focus on one theme: The value of having different people in the room. This is something that comes up when Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about the increasing diversity at the Atlantic:
I think one of the things that happened at this magazine now that I’ve championed, I’m happy to see just looking at this room. If we had done Atlantic University in 2008, 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12, ’13, it would not have looked like this. This publication is diversifying. And I wonder if that consensus that says of no party or clique then has to come up for question. What is debatable comes up for question because you bring different people in, and those people are not just brown-skinned or dark-skinned or women who would normally — you know, who are just the same as any other. Their identity — and I know this is bad in certain quarters, but I don’t think it is — that identity cannot be neatly separated from the job. So maybe the job changes a little bit…
I think the deal is that in the ’90s, when this room would not have looked like this room does, there were things that were considered out of bounds. I don’t think we would have published “The Case for Reparations” then. If you change the makeup of the room, other things probably would become inbounds, and some things then become out of bounds. And I think the problem is, some of those things — this is the huge, huge problem — some of those things that I would argue should be out of bounds, actually a large number of Americans actually believe. Things that would be out of bounds for us are not necessarily out of bounds for the broader country.
What I think he’s saying is that having more black people or more women in the room makes a difference. You can disagree with Coates on that point but it’s a pretty common defense of the need for diversity in hiring. But what’s really interesting is that as this “diversity” happens, conservatives like Kevin Williamson gradually become people who can be excluded from the room. That’s true even though Coates is fully aware a lot of people in the country share those views. And that leads to a discussion about abortion. Is abortion still something that can be debated, specifically can it be debated at the Atlantic?
Goldberg: Could we have a debate in The Atlantic on abortion rights? Can you have an anti-abortion person — in your mind, obviously?
Coates: I mean, you could.
Goldberg: No, I’m saying, as The Atlantic, is that out of bounds now? What’s out of bounds?
Coates: I mean, this is me talking, but I just don’t think Kevin was out of the mainstream in terms of those views. So if you do that, I don’t understand the logic of getting rid — he said it in a really rude …
Again, I just got to go through this one more time. In the platform of the Republican Party: death penalty. In the platform of the Republican Party: pro-life. The belief that abortion is murder is not a fringe view. Defense of capital punishment is not a fringe view. If somebody participates in baby killing, and you advocate for the death penalty for them, I don’t understand that as a particularly— it’s said in a kind of way that people don’t usually say it. But the logical inference of it, like, how does the logic exist out of some sort of mainstream consensus? I’m not seeing that. And so, if we have that debate, and then we have a bunch of people who are kind of talking around a very uncomfortable fact of the belief that Kevin raised, I guess I would be like, why don’t we just have Kevin do that? Kevin was honest, at least. Kevin spoke about the actual logical outcomes.
I just want to be clear, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s completely batshit crazy, but at least it’s consistent. He took it to its logical ends, which I think a lot of people are afraid to do. Now, there are some people, like Ross [Douthat] at the Times, who actually are anti-death penalty and, you know, pro-life, so the logic would not work [inaudible].
Coates assumes (wrongly it seems) that Williamson is pro-death penalty. So one problem with not having Williamson in the room is that he’s not there to actually represent his own views. He’s been ruled out over a misunderstanding of what his views are. The conversation then turns to the importance of “generosity” on issues like abortion. It’s one thing to have a debate but only if you keep in mind the need for generosity, which in practice sounds like just another way to say being pro-choice is the only reasonable position:
Coates: I mean, I don’t think it’s particularly generous to say that you or the state should have authority over a kind of labor that only 50 percent of most people — or slightly more in this country — actually do. I don’t think that’s generous. I don’t think that’s generous at all. I don’t think it’s generous to believe that some 16-year-old girl somewhere, you know, who — no, we’re not even going to do some 16-year-old girl. Let’s do this a lot more direct. My son — I love my son, I love him to death. And this is like the other part of Kevin’s story, which I heard and I understand and I get it. But my wife had gestational diabetes, swelled up like 80 pounds while she was pregnant with my son, [and she] almost died in our apartment when I was 24 years old. And the notion that she should not have control over a process that almost killed her, I don’t think is generous. I just don’t — the belief, not how Kevin said it. Now, I wish he would state that more politely. But no, I actually don’t think the belief is generous. And you know, again, that’s my belief. I’m not saying The Atlantic got to adopt it, but, no, I don’t think it’s generous at all.
Coates view of what the pro-life position is seems off-base. I’ve known many, many pro-life people over the years. Many of them would grant that abortion can be acceptable in a case where the mother could die if she continues the pregnancy. That’s the kind of situation Coates seems to be describing from his own life. Again, the pro-life consensus is not as stark as: Mom can’t consider her own life in a situation where it is at stake. Why doesn’t Ta-Nehisi Coates know that?
Here’s one possibility: There’s not a single pro-life person in the room. Kevin Williamson could have been that person who, at that point in the conversation, would have said, ‘I don’t think you’re getting this quite right,’ but he’d been fired the day before. He might also have argued that “generosity” could be extended to an unborn child as well as to his or her mother. That’s something else that didn’t seem to occur to anyone in the room.
I think Coates and Goldberg understand the value of having diversity in the newsroom, but they don’t seem to really have all that much diversity in the newsroom on issues that matter to about half the country. Maybe that’s a problem they shouldn’t brush aside so quickly.