Updated 4.5.18 4:23 p.m.
Shortly after the essay below was published, we learned that Williamson had been fired by the Atlantic. In an email to his staffers, Editor in Chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote:
Late yesterday afternoon, information came to our attention that has caused us to reconsider this relationship. Specifically, the subject of one of Kevin’s most controversial tweets was also a centerpiece of a podcast discussion in which Kevin explained his views on the subject of the death penalty and abortion. The language he used in this podcast — and in my conversations with him in recent days — made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views. The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it. Furthermore, the language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.
Let me now say that, despite my strong disagreements with Williamson, it is certainly not a good thing that he has been fired. Indeed, this is more confirmation of the Atlantic’s steep decline under Goldberg, and is in keeping with America’s alarming descent into sentimental intolerance.
I myself do not believe that a woman who has had an abortion deserves to be hanged, but I do understand that, by Williamson’s lights, the murder of an “unborn baby” merits the death penalty. Goldberg’s pseudo-moralistic talk about Williamson’s language obscures this. Nor is it clear that a person who advocates the death penalty is wrong by definition. Of course, however, being much affect and little mind, Goldberg would not consider Williamson’s position.
At the Huffington Post, Ashley Feinberg reports:
A company-wide event had been scheduled in which Atlantic editor Adrienne LaFrance was set to interview Williamson in front of staff, according to several Atlantic employees, but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute. Williamson’s firing was then announced just hours later.
There can be little doubt about what motivated the firing. When Goldberg speaks of “the values of the workplace,” he means the feelings of the women and the womanly men at The Atlantic. As the literary critic Harold Bloom wrote a little while back, “We are governed these days, in academic and journalistic circles alike, by feminist Puritanism, and no male writer can survive it.” The ever-touchy feminist women at the Atlantic pressured Goldberg, and being a weak man, he yielded. It is the usual story. No argument is needed: Indignation suffices, America having become a matriarchy. I would encourage readers to read my last column in Taki’s Magazine for a psychological explanation of why it has become so.
Again, while I have strong disagreements with Williamson, there is no doubt that he is a serious intellectual who has convictions. Goldberg — who purports to value “well-reasoned debate” — should have had the spine to engage Williamson’s conviction that abortion merits the death penalty. What irony there is in the fact that, for many, Goldberg will now seem “the better man.” Let those of us who value the truth say what he is: a coward.
Kevin Williamson, a longtime writer at National Review, has left that venerable liberal publication for more leftward pastures. Having gained a lot of weight and added a nifty hoop earring in recent years, the theater critic will now be a star himself: playing the part of a sad clown on Broadway, and when not thus engaged, writing for the new ideas section of the Atlantic.
Sources in the Big Apple give me to understand that he is also forming a power couple with Lena Dunham, so that, among other things, the two mighty pens can collaborate on a ballet adaptation of Girls. In a poignant testament to gender equality, Williamson has been seen scouring the thrift stores of Williamsburg for a good buy on a tutu, which, I understand, he is to don while dancing atop the burly shoulders of Lady Dunham.
Says Williamson himself: “Like St. Paul, who also benefited from the services of a good editor, I will be an apostle to the Gentiles. I am very much looking forward to raising a brand new kind of hell.” That is a just and modest comparison to the architect of Christianity, and the second sentence calls to mind certain passages from the memo which Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of the Atlantic, issued to his staff regarding Williamson:
I was… aware of Kevin’s judgmental, acerbic, polemical style, and when we started talking about writing possibilities at The Atlantic, I raised my concerns about the trollish qualities of some of his writing and tweeting. A couple of months ago, in one of our conversations, I mentioned some of his more controversial tweets, and in the course of that conversation, he himself came to the conclusion that Twitter was a bad place for him to be, and he spiked his account. I took this to be a positive development and a sign of growth.
I don’t think anyone should try to defend Kevin’s most horrible tweet [that women who have abortions should be hanged]. I expect that Kevin will explain this tweet himself when he gets here. He will also have the opportunity to explain other controversial aspects of his writing…. I would also prefer, all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting (third chances, too, on occasion), and I hope to continue this practice.
Exemplary forbearance and forgiveness, you might say, and yet anyone who has read Williamson may be puzzled by talk about “second chances and the opportunity to change,” because there is no evidence that the man himself believes he has ever written anything which merits such language. “Twitter was a bad place for him to be” is ambiguous; it might simply mean that Williamson considers Twitter to be a medium in which he is apt to be misunderstood. Of course, anyone who reads the Atlantic will be familiar with the wishful thinking with which it abounds, so that the “positive development and… sign of growth” Goldberg perceives seems only fitting.
While he certainly would have made a fine kindergarten teacher, Goldberg has all the critical intelligence of shower mold. Unlike the Twitter mob, Williamson makes arguments; an editor who equates “a judgmental, acerbic, polemical style” with 21st century “trollish qualities” thus seems a millennial hack, although Goldberg was born in 1965. Has he ever read Dryden, or Pope, or Swift? Mencken even? Christopher Hitchens? Long before the internet, and long before editors as a class became as inept as the professors who miseducated them, these men were writing in an unapologetically combative manner.
Under Goldberg’s editorship, the Atlantic published on August 7 of last year “A Googler’s Would-Be Manifesto Reveals Tech’s Rotten Core.” Written by contributing editor Ian Bogost, this may be the stupidest of all the stupid coverage of the James Damore controversy — a judgment that is saying a great deal. Paranoid and sentimental, the essay is marked by assertions like these:
The kind of computing systems that get made and used by people outside the industry, and with serious consequences, are a direct byproduct of the gross machismo of computing writ large. More women and minorities are needed in computing because the world would be better for their contributions — and because it might be much worse without them.
And by nothing in the way of coherent argument. For an analysis of Bogost’s bad eminence, see my essay for New English Review, “The Irony of the Diversity Idol: Damore Contra Bogost.”
On March 20, the Atlantic published an article by Ibram X. Kendi, its “first new ideas columnist.” Standard leftist resentment under the guise of righteousness, What’s the Difference between a Frat and a Gang? tells us that there is rather little difference, because, according to Kendi,
the fraternity may be as violent as the gang. Collegiate America may be as dangerous for women as urban America. If sexual violence is a violent crime, then the fraternity of today may be committing as many violent crimes as the gang of the 1990s that spooked fearful Americans into tough-on-crime policies. The fraternity may be as frequently violent as the “savage gang MS-13,” as President Donald Trump called it in his State of the Union Address in January to spook fearful Americans into tough immigration policies. But Americans stereotype the gang and fraternity differently and treat them differently and rationalize their violence differently and police them differently. What if Americans looked at them similarly? What if Americans treated them similarly? What if Americans treated their victims similarly?
It’s been ten years since the great journalist Heather Mac Donald published “The Campus Rape Myth,” but still ambitious canters à la Kendi ignore empirical arguments and go on making false equivalences like those above, for therein, they think, lies virtue, and lucre certainly.
Kendi drones on cluelessly, like Hillary Clinton undergoing psychoanalysis, his writing full of clumsy touches, which read like Ta-Nehisi Coates trying to write a prose-poem for an MFA class: “Leaves danced with the wind around our feet, wafting an eerie feeling in my 14-year-old black body. The grounds of the initiation beckoned: a high-rise chain link fence, enclosing two basketball courts.” And again: “Through the daylighted chain, I watched scowls and punches and stomps engulf the uninitiated teen — a stoppage, then an awkward transition into hugs, handshakes, and smiles. The striking contrast shot at my core of authenticity, the insincerity of the punch-hug, of the stomp-smile, murdering my thoughts of joining a crew.”
Kendi gives the reader a break from all these wrought-up verbs, only to offer the stalest academese: “America is stuck at the intersection of racism, sexism, and elitism as gangs and fraternities batter American bodies.” Again with the bodies, sadistic editor!
Among intellectuals, the game these days, ever more inclusive, is to make an ass of oneself, and at this Williamson has unquestionable bona fides. For Williamson, globalism is a “gloriously complex tale,” although, alas, “the fruits of globalism — everyday low prices at Walmart — turned out to be uninspiring to great masses of voters to whom those benefits are invisible for the same reason that water is invisible to fish.” Averse to President “Trump’s critique of current American economic policy, namely that international trade and immigration are dispossessing the white working class,” Williamson holds that “there is not, in fact, very much evidence for those claims.” “Immigration,” he thinks, “does put some downward pressure on wages, but it also puts downward pressure on prices. Native-born low-skilled workers’ money income may have stagnated, but their real income — what they can buy with the money they earn — has continued to improve modestly.”
And he goes on:
On the trade front, American manufacturing continues to expand and thrive — an absolute economic fact that is, perversely, unknown to the great majority of Americans, who believe precisely the opposite to be the case. Americans have false beliefs about manufacturing for a few reasons: One is that while our factories produce much more than in the past, they employ fewer people; another is that we tend to produce capital goods and import consumer goods — you won’t see much labeled “Made in the USA” at Walmart, but you’ll see it on everything from the aircraft flown by foreign airlines to the robotics in automobile factories overseas.
But who, it is necessary to ask, are the principal beneficiaries of the production of American “capital goods”? They are, of course, the persons who produce those goods; it is they who profit the most. And that is only fair. But though Williamson realizes that meeting the increased cost of medical care and health insurance is now a struggle for the great majority of Americans, he fails to see that the “downward pressure on prices,” however attributable to “immigration” (much of it illegal, to the cost of billions every year), is not sufficient to offset the increased cost of life’s other necessities. “By most measures,” says Lisa Smith,
the middle class is in decline. The U.S. Census Bureau’s report on income, poverty and health insurance coverage released in September 2009 reported that real median income fell by 3.6% between 2007 and 2008 to $50,303. The lowest quintiles experienced earnings declines, the third quintile was flat, and only the top quintile showed a slight gain. The top 5% enjoyed the largest gain. The official poverty rate came in at 13.2%, accounting for some 39.8 million people in 2008.
A study released by the Brookings Institut[ion] think tank in June 2006 highlighted the decline of middle class neighborhoods and the increase in upper-class real estate. According to the study, the share of middle-class neighborhoods in the 100 largest metropolitan areas declined from 58% in 1970 to 41% in 2000.
In their essay “Low-Skill Immigration: A Case for Restriction,” Amy Wax and co-author Jason Richwine note that
the vulnerable groups are the workers with whom newly arrived foreign workers most directly compete — namely, prior immigrants and natives with low levels of education. The NAS [National Academies of Sciences] lists nine different studies that find negative wage effects on those groups, with a typical result being that a 10 percent increase in immigration causes a 5 percent decrease in wages.
“Go back and read the novels of the 1980s or watch The Brady Bunch,” Williamson says with unintended comedy, “and ask yourself why well-to-do suburban families living in large, comfortable homes and holding down prestigious jobs were worried about the price of butter and meat, and then ask yourself when was the last time you heard someone complain that he couldn’t afford a stick of butter.” Although there were considerable economic changes in the U.S. from the period in which The Brady Bunch is set — the 1960s and 1970s — to the 1980s, it is still true that Williamson is referring to a time when there were fewer families who had two incomes, when it was more common (in part because adequate) to live a middle-class life on a single income, usually a man’s.
That is not possible for most Americans today, even though by their own accounts women were happier when most families didn’t need two incomes. What is more, owning a home, affording medical care and health insurance, paying for and maintaining a vehicle, paying for college, saving for retirement — all of these things, much more important than “butter and meat,” have become much more difficult, and globalization and immigration are the major reasons. People know this, just as they know that for a relatively brief period after World War II, an ordinary person, not born into wealth and without powerful social connections, was more likely to live “the American dream” than he is now, so long as he had a solid work ethic.
That is a virtue, Williamson rightly points out, which is now lacking in many. But about this Williamson goes too far. He uses the traditional conservative value of personal responsibility to explain away American decline, vulgarly simplifying the effects of things like NAFTA and mass immigration, to which most citizens are merely subject: certainly, we have very little control over them:
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy—which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster. There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. So the gypsum business in Garbutt ain’t what it used to be. There is more to life in the 21st century than wallboard and cheap sentimentality about how the Man closed the factories down.
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
Here Williamson is akin to the worst of believers, the cruel sort who, in response to an unlucky turn of fate, condemn “the sinners” themselves. What’s “morally indefensible” is a perspective from which people “deserve to die” because they are “negative assets,” as if the value of human life depended on wealth. For Williamson, the lack of middle-class jobs from Reading, Pennsylvania to Springfield, Missouri is not relevant with respect to why so many more white Americans — and Americans in general — are dying from dope than was the case, say, forty years ago. “The white American underclass” — and presumably, the black and Hispanic underclasses too — is “in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture,” and this alone explains why it is in such a bad way.
According to Wax and Richwine, “Too many low-skill Americans are poorly socialized to work and considered undesirable by American employers.” You will see that fundamentally Wax and Richwine are in agreement with Williamson. They have, however, the wisdom to write that “the current immigration status quo allows this [social evil] to be papered over. Changing the status quo will force this situation to be confronted and addressed. Society and workers themselves must face up to native workers’ perceived, and actual, inadequacies.” Furthermore:
Mass low-wage immigration is demoralizing because it amounts to a strategy of replacing and displacing less-skilled American citizens from the workforce with no thought to the broader economic, social, and psychological effects on the workers themselves, their communities, and society as a whole.
So Wax and Richwine advocate limited immigration. One rather doubts that Williamson would say of these accomplished scholars what he has written of the populist opposition to unchecked immigration, that it represents “prejudices against social relations with foreigners.” In any event, where Williamson is content to just dismiss the large proportion of America that is “coming apart,” Wax and Richwine care about the country “as a whole.”
Williamson could also learn a lot from that great man of the left Christopher Lasch, about whom the excellent Wilfred McClay has written cogently:
To him it is not a paradox, or even very surprising, that the growing integration of the world economy has been accompanied by such a high degree of political instability and disintegration in so many parts of the world. The denationalization of business, he argues, inevitably erodes the foundations of the nation-state itself, and gives rise to a transnational elite whose only loyalty is to itself.
Unlike Lasch, a profoundly moral mind, who would not have been surprised by the populist Donald Trump, Williamson has no sense of the elite’s failure to practice noblesse oblige. On the contrary, for Williamson a country is essentially a business, and if that should entail “denationalization,” and a corresponding loss for the common good, so much the better for globalism. Thus he writes in his first Atlantic article, “The Passing of the Libertarian Moment”:
Last week, my former National Review colleague Victor Davis Hanson [a populist and lifelong registered Democrat] published an essay calling for a stronger regulatory hand over high-tech companies, fondly recalling the “cultural revolution of muckraking and trust-busting” of the 19th century, and ending with a plea for “some sort of bipartisan national commission that might dispassionately and in disinterested fashion offer guidelines to legislators” about more tightly regulating these companies, perhaps on the public-utility model.
That from a magazine whose founders once dreamed of overturning the New Deal.
Since they are philosophically shallow, it never seems to occur to capitalist idolaters like Williamson that “free markets” are one value among many, and that, far from obviously trumping all other values, “free markets” need to be weighed against other values pragmatically: a maturity of thought which Hanson takes for granted. For Williamson, “free markets” are the summum bonum, and being a true believer, he is contemptuous toward dissent, even though, like everyone, he surely does not live as though absolute autonomy in the economic domain were his highest value.
Williamson’s sloppy thinking — motivated by sheer contempt for his fellows, and particularly strange in a man who comes from the working-class — will certainly be a good fit at the Atlantic, which, like the New Republic and indeed all of the big left-leaning magazines based in New York City, is a once-fine publication that is now hard to read without shaking your head in dismay.
Christopher DeGroot is a columnist at Taki’s Magazine and a contributing editor of New English Review. You can follow him at @CEGrotius.