Of One Party and Clique
The Atlantic is a prominent old magazine, founded in 1857, and while it has drifted left over the years—like all long-established institutions—it has continued to hire a few writers from the right. This is in keeping with its original motto: "Of no party or clique."
It looks like they need to update that. A few weeks ago, The Atlantic hired one of the better, more interesting writers from National Review, Kevin Williamson. Now they have fired him after his first column—not because of anything he wrote in that column, which is actually pretty good—but because of something he said repeatedly before he was hired, which The Atlantic could have and probably did know about.
Specifically, he was fired for his opposition to abortion and for supporting the use of the death penalty to enforce a ban on abortion—a position any serious opponent of abortion has to at least grapple with. After all, if you think abortion is murder, then wouldn't you treat it as such? This can hardly be a shock or surprise to anyone who has followed the debate on this issue.
The Atlantic's editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, put out in a weasely statement that says, "This is not about Kevin’s views on abortion," while making clear that it was totally about abortion.
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.
In other words, they knew Williamson was against abortion, but they expected him to pretend he didn't really mean it. The Huffington Post article that published Goldberg's memo has an admirably exact headline: "Atlantic Fires Kevin Williamson After Suddenly Realizing He Believes the Things He Says." The rest of the article, by the way, approves of the firing because the author doesn't believe people who oppose abortion should ever be published. We'll return to that in a moment.
Meanwhile, the idea that they don't disapprove of what he said but of the way he said it also rings false, considering that The Atlantic has published inflammatory comments by its writers on the left without raising any objections. So this is one set of rules for people with approved political loyalties and another set of rules for dissidents.
In other news, The Atlantic recently received a Media Excellence Award from Planned Parenthood. So I guess they do represent a political faction, after all. As for the clique, that was provided by social media and by the young Millennial writers on the left who have been pushing a far more fanatical and intolerant attitude toward dissenting views. They have now been told, in effect, that the culture's most prestigious intellectual institutions will dance to their tune.
The Atlantic certainly has the right to be a publication on the left, by the left, and for the left. But that's not what they claim to be, and that's precisely what they were trying not to be when they hired Willamson. I have heard through the media grapevine—and I am just barely connected to that grapevine, so if I've heard it, I'm sure it's common knowledge—that Goldberg was considering Williamson for at least a year. My sense is that some of the old-fashioned “liberals” are still trying to be open-minded and engage in a broad intellectual discussion. They thought they had the courage to do this, but once they came under real pressure, they can't bring themselves to stand up to the rising new generation of PC enforcers.
You know who they remind me of? They're like the university administrators who had to deal with the student riots of the 1960s. When student mobs, egged on by radicals, took over their offices and shut down the universities, they knew it was their job to restore order and to protect the students who were there to learn and to grapple with serious ideas. But they were too steeped in sympathy for the outlook of the radicals. They disapproved of their tactics but not of their collectivist ideals. So one by one, the university administrators caved.
That's why this is such an ominous development. It's not about the specific views for which Williamson was fired. Longtime readers will know that I certainly don't agree with him. (On the other hand, as he has written about eloquently, Williamson was an adopted child born to a teen mother, who passed his first trimester just before the Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion—so I can see how this issue is metaphysical for him.) But if I'm not likely to be targeted by the left for my views on abortion, I am certain I would be targeted for something else.
Remember when the left went after the New York Times for hiring center-right columnist Bret Stephens? That was because of his heresy on global warming. They may still purge him yet. There is a "woke civil war" going on right now at the New York Times in which (mostly) younger staffers, those nurtured in the ideologically intolerant monocultures of the universities, are rebelling against the very existence of right-of-center viewpoints on the newspaper's editorial page.
This is really a struggle to shape our attitude toward dissenting ideological views. It is an attempt to remake our cultural institutions to be more comfortable for a new generation or writers and readers coming out of the universities, who are accustomed to being able to dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as a bigot—which is, of course, its own form of narrow-mindedness.
We have always had big cultural institutions in which the contending intellectual forces in this country are allowed to meet. Often this has been on unequal terms, with voices on the right competing for a much smaller number of spots reserved for the "token conservative." But now even that space is being eliminated.
This won't make ideas on the right disappear or deprive them of an audience or adherents. It will only increase the extent to which those with different ideologies live in their own impenetrable bubbles and become unaccustomed and unable to use reason and persuasion in confronting those on the other side. It works to increase the narrow, unintellectual tribalism of our era.