Personally, I am glad that female staffers who have had abortions at the Atlantic will not have to sit next to a man who wants them dead. But philosophically, the recent firing of Kevin D. Williamson says more about liberals’ inability to face the truth about their own country than one man’s lack of empathy for women.
Amid uproar over the announcement that Williamson had been hired as the Atlantic’s new staff writer, editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in a memo that his publication should be a “big tent for ideas and argument” and “ideologically diverse...We have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side.” But then Goldberg was faced with that pesky 2014 podcast, dug up by Media Matters, that made it hard to dismiss his new employee’s ideology as just an “objectionable tweet.” Like those tweets, Williamson’s podcast argument took anti-abortion talking points out of theoretical debate-land and instead to their tangible, logical conclusion.
If the Atlantic really wanted a publication that looked America in the face, if they truly valued “ideological diversity,” Williamson was an excellent hire. In suggesting the death penalty for women who get abortions, he is more consistent and intellectually honest than pretty much every disingenuous “pro-life” writer who thinks abortion is murder but stops short of saying we should punish the women who have them.
Williamson is also unapologetic about what capital punishment really means: murder perpetrated by the state. On the podcast, he defended his preference for hanging as opposed to the more sterile lethal injection: “If the state is going to do violence, let’s make it violence,” he said. “Let’s not pretend like we’re doing something else.” His penchant for hanging comes off as crude, but it’s also in the spirit of the “pro-life” movement; public humiliation is an enduring subtext (or, in some cases, text) of anti-choice punditry. As feminist writer Jessica Valenti pointed out on Twitter, there’s a reason why this form of state-sanctioned punishment appears in The Handmaid’s Tale, the OG vision of what would happen if we took the religious right at their word.
It’s a classic case of “Be careful what you wish for”: Goldberg wanted ideological diversity, and he got it. Just not with the buttoned-up patina so often required of conservative writers employed by the mainstream press.
If there’s one good thing about the Trump era, it’s that it has exposed just how much both conservatives and liberals avoid acknowledging the real people hurt by right wing ideology. Williamson is often lumped in with neoconservative Never Trumpers, but his views on abortion echo the president’s infamous slip-up during the 2016 campaign. When Trump admitted that he thinks there has to be “some form of punishment” for women who terminate their pregnancies, he showed how unfamiliar he was with the anti-abortion movement’s usual double-speak. Williamson has a sophisticated vocabulary, but many of his views on race, women, and gender identity dovetail nicely with the views of Trump voters who no longer feel the need to cloak their ideas in politeness.
It’s a symbiotic relationship between “reasonable” conservatives and Trumpians, best summed up by former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, who recently admitted at a Minnesota diner that, though he supports nearly all of Trump’s policies, “I just didn’t approve of some of his comments and language and behavior.”
But this is by no means a new dynamic. Way before Bret Stephens and the post-Trump call for “ideological diversity,” there were a handful of mostly white, male conservative writers floating around the same few “non-partisan” publications, getting a pass from liberals simply because they’ve been careful not to sound like monsters. They earned their spots in these publications’ pages by talking at arm’s length about policy, refusing to engage with the human consequences of their ideas.
This happens particularly often when it comes to abortion. Michael Gerson, for example, a vehement Trump critic and a former George W. Bush speechwriter who’s been at the Washington Post since 2007, recently wrote a column unnoticed by feminists titled “Abortion rights go against the spirit of civil rights,” without using the word “woman” once. In February, David Brooks, the platonic ideal of a “respectful” conservative, suggested in the New York Times that progressives compromise on late-term abortions without so much as a nod to the often desperate circumstances many women are in when they have those abortions. In both cases these men skirted around the fact that they were willing to sacrifice women’s literal lives for a bird’s eye political calculus.
Following the Williamson debacle, the polite conservatives have been putting in overtime. The New York Times’ Ross Douthat made a feeble attempt to explain exactly how his anti-abortion views differed from Williamson’s; his rebuttal to the hanging proposition came in the form of a vaguely condescending but mostly meaningless sentence asserting that “pregnancy is unique in ways that mitigate culpability.” Even self-professed “moderate” David French, who in his National Review column defending Williamson says he’d only prosecute “the abortionist (and not the mother),” fails to explain why a woman—who he believes is guilty of “poisoning, crushing, or dismembering a living child”—shouldn’t face criminal charges for abortion, too.
A similar dynamic exists with libertarian or fiscally conservative writers, who pass as moderates provided they avoid discussing the human costs, and implied racism and classism, of the GOP’s economic philosophy. New York magazine’s Andrew Sullivan, a prime example of a lofty, palatable, right-of-center writer who famously made the conservative argument for gay marriage in the Atlantic’s pages, blogged about government overreach and budget-balancing and tax cuts for years at that magazine while seldom confronting the toll those policies take on the most vulnerable Americans. He also has a long history of tacitly defending eugenics. He still has a job.
The unspoken agreement, it seems, is that conservatives can coexist with progressives—as long as they don’t actually say what they mean.
In Goldberg’s memo explaining Williamson’s firing, he lamented that “the language used in the podcast was callous and violent,” contrary to “respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace.” But what it really boils down to is that Goldberg was skeeved out. He thought he was getting someone living in a pre-Trump world who was terrified of “gaffes” and practiced in softening the blow of conservatism. Williamson’s execution imagery was indeed gruesome, but the truth is that the end results of most standard conservative ideas are pretty fucking misanthropic, heartless, and violent.
If you oppose universal healthcare, like “respectful” conservative Olympia Snowe, that means you’re okay with more people dying. If you want to make deep cuts to entitlement programs, like “well-reasoned” Republican Paul Ryan, you’re okay with poor people’s lives getting worse. If you’re supportive of militarizing our borders, you’re supportive of the stray immigrant getting shot while trying to cross. If you’re cool with 18-year-olds being able to buy AR-15s, you’re cool with more gun deaths. If you don’t want to teach kids that LGBTQ people deserve equal rights, that means more of them will suffer abuse and harassment.
And if you want the law to classify abortion as premeditated murder, you have to be comfortable with more women dying—both at the hands of unsafe abortion methods, and at the hands of the state.
So if Goldberg’s aim is to avoid violent viewpoints in his magazine, if that goes against “the values of his workplace” (which don’t appear to be “liberalism” so much as “civility”) then he can’t use unflinching rightwing voices to achieve ideological diversity. At least not in America, a nation that was founded on and still runs on violence. It’s a fact that liberal publications seem consistently unwilling to face, now as much as when the same publications were once seduced by an “articulate,” “dapper” white nationalist from a movement called “the alt-right,” without thinking too much about how one would actually create that white ethno-state.
No matter how well-mannered or evasive, bigotry results in violence. Just like “moderate” stances on criminal “abortionists” like David French’s, when truly considered, are consistent with the actions of terrorists like Scott Roeder, who murdered Dr. George Tiller in 2009. If these “big tent” editors really want to represent Trump’s America, they should be prepared to hire people like Kevin Williamson who write what they mean, unlike oblique columnists who don’t, because they know it would gross out not only the liberals who hire them, but most decent humans.