Conservative firebrand Kevin Williamson was wronged by The Atlantic. He’s a known quantity, and they shouldn’t have hired him only to fire him days later. But let’s be clear: He did not lose that gig for his conservative views, as he claimed last week in a column for The Wall Street Journal. He was a poor fit for a mainstream magazine like The Atlantic because of his own rhetorical choices.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the provocative, bordering-on-obnoxious style Williamson has—that kind of writing can be fun!—and he has made an excellent career for himself in the conservative media. But by repeatedly stepping over the line of acceptable mainstream discourse, he’s effectively disqualified himself from a cushy sinecure at a mainstream publication. He has nobody to blame but himself.
Make no mistake: Conservatives are well represented in the mainstream press. Slate’s Osita Nwanevu tallied 18 of them on the opinion pages of The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and The New York Times alone. One of Williamson’s former colleagues at the National Review, Jonah Goldberg, wrote a shoddy, ahistoric book calling liberals fascists, but it didn’t disqualify him from becoming a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
What Williamson portrays as his big thought-crime was a series of comments—on Twitter and a conservative radio show—advocating hanging women who get an abortion. In his Wall Street Journal column, he wrote that asking anti-choicers to take the assertion that abortion is murder to a logical conclusion is “a silly argument.” So when the question came up, he says, rather than address it in a serious way, he responded that he had “hanging in mind.” But he continued to double down on it. Williamson freely acknowledges that this was “trollish and hostile,” but he won’t take any responsibility for the consequences of acting like a hostile troll. (Williamson also writes that people who accused him of wanting to lynch a quarter of adult American women are guilty of intellectual dishonesty, but as New York magazine’s Ed Kilgore discovered last week, he still refuses to say what kind of punishment should be meted out to women who have abortions if the procedure is criminalized. Williamson followed that up with a column in The Washington Post titled “The Punishment I Favor for Abortion,” in which he once again refused to answer that question.)
Let’s acknowledge that writers like Williamson do face a real challenge transitioning from the conservative media to the mainstream press. But that’s not the fault of liberal “Twitter mobs,” as Williamson and his defenders claim. The problem is that in the conservative ecosystem, writers are incentivized to cross that line. They’re hailed for courageously dissenting from liberal hegemony. They’re applauded for “triggering the libs,” and refusing to bow down to the “social-justice warriors.” Refusing to be bounded by political correctness is a savvy career move in that world. The problem is that a National Review reader’s definition of political correctness looks like common decency to a typical Atlantic subscriber. But when Williamson published a piece describing a 9-year-old black child as “a three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg” who displayed “the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge,” the choice of metaphors—the not-so-subtle reference to the constitutional formula of counting slaves as three-fifths of white citizens—was his and his alone.
In his column, Williamson deflects responsibility for this with semantics—human beings are primates, and he never actually said the kid was a monkey—and by falling back on the well-worn excuse that he didn’t really mean what he said. It’s your fault for taking his words seriously.
But the thing that eludes Williamson and his defenders is that we’re all playing by the same rules. For writers on the left, right, and center—especially those of us who work mostly online—“Twitter mobs” calling for our heads are a constant. It’s just part of the job. But they can only claim your head when you’ve given them solid ammunition to use against you.
Both The Washington Post and The New York Times feature writers, George Will and Bret Stephens, who dismiss the scientific consensus around climate. Williamson’s “Twitter mobs” have come after both of them, but they still have their jobs at mainstream publications because they’re more cautious with their prose than a writer like Williamson. You can claim that people who support legal abortion are “extremists” being “deceived by a cruel ideology that has licensed the killing of millions of innocents for almost 50 years,” as Ross Douthat did in The New York Times. You can write that George Zimmerman had reason to fear Trayvon Martin’s Skittles when he gunned down the black teenager because of “black-on-black crime,” as Richard Cohen—ostensibly a liberal—did in The Washington Post. But you can’t use primate metaphors or suggest that women who terminate a pregnancy should be hanged. Those are rhetorical choices, not ideological positions.
It is true, as David Roberts argued at Vox, that the kind of reactionary authoritarianism that’s become dominant in conservative outlets like Breitbart is largely absent from mainstream opinion pages, and that this better represents what true conservatism has become in the age of Trump than do the kind of conservatives writers who write for big mainstream platforms. In order to provide readers with true ideological diversity, he argues, mainstream outlets would “have to recruit Sean Hannity or Tomi Lahren or Mark Steyn—someone who thinks of liberals as godless traitors and accepts ludicrous conspiracy theories about Democratic staffer Seth Rich being assassinated or Hillary Clinton colluding with Russia to defeat Donald Trump or Democrats running a child-prostitution ring out of a pizza restaurant. They would have to recruit Ben Shapiro to run serial variations on “rap is crap” or “whites are the real victims of racism.” On the far-right, that may seem like ideological discrimination, but for the rest of us, it’s about enforcing minimal journalistic norms on mainstream opinion pages. It’s certainly true that there are limits to what’s considered acceptable opinion for mainstream publications, but that doesn’t apply only to the right; Osita Nwanevu tallied one self-identified socialist—Elizabeth Bruenig—writing alongside those 18 conservatives at WaPo, The Times, and The Atlantic.
I’ve written provocative pieces. I’ve pointed out that Republicans would kill people by repealing Obamacare, and I’ve argued that a massacre perpetrated by Micah Johnson, the veteran who ambushed a group of police in Dallas in 2016, took the “insurrectionist theory” of the Second Amendment popularized by the gun lobby to its logical conclusion. But I knew I was making provocative arguments and I navigated them with a degree of care. I didn’t suggest or imply that Republicans were consciously trying to kill people with their repeal bill or that the gun lobby directly inspired Johnson to kill those cops. I didn’t suggest prosecuting them for murder. These pieces pissed people off, but they didn’t offer any reason to get me fired. It may well be that Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg wouldn’t hire me because I enjoy throwing a sharp elbow on occasion, but if that’s the case, it wouldn’t mean I’m a victim.
And here’s the real hypocrisy of Williamson blaming the Twitter mob for getting him fired: He’s devoted lots of ink urging marginalized people to stop blaming others for their plight, and then blames everyone but himself for the rhetorical excesses that make him a bad fit for The Atlantic.
In 2016, Kevin Williamson stirred up the conservative Twitter mob by writing in the National Review that white working-class people living in hollowed-out Rust Belt communities have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. “Get off your asses and go find a job,” he wrote. “You’re a four-hour bus ride away from the gas fields of Pennsylvania.” The column raised some decent points—Williamson argued that Trump was depending on voters who scapegoat immigrants for their economic woes. He talked about the costs and benefits of international trade and argued that it represents a net positive for the country as a whole. It could have been a relatively uncontroversial piece, but his sneering attitude—he ultimately concluded that “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die”—pissed off many of his conservative co-tribalists. But the thing that really stands out after the Atlantic affair is how that argument contrasts with the whiny, woe-is-me attitude on display in his Wall Street Journal op-ed. For Williamson, taking personal responsibility is a virtue to be demanded of others, not something he’s inclined to grapple with himself.
Make no mistake: Kevin Williamson is no victim. He’ll be just fine. By firing him, The Atlantic made him a martyr on the altar of political correctness, elevated his already high profile in the conservative media, and punched his ticket on the conservative speaking circuit. It’s likely that he’ll get a big book deal for his troubles.
But because he chose not to be constrained by the norms of “elite” mainstream discourse—because he never passed up an opportunity to melt down some “liberal snowflakes”—he’s too controversial to keep a writing gig at The Atlantic. That’s not an assault on his freedom of expression, and he has nobody to blame for it but himself.