After a week or so of mostly women questioning The Atlantic’s hiring of Kevin Williamson, a conservative columnist who has advocated for hanging women who have had abortions, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg announced Williamson is no longer in his employ.
Goldberg had justified hiring Williamson on the grounds that he’s a talented writer, and his assertion that women who have abortions should be hanged was an errant tweet, not to be taken seriously. But Media Matters dug up a 2014 podcast for the National Review in which Williamson talked at length about how much he likes this idea. “I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I’ve got a soft spot for hanging as a form of capital punishment.”
Williamson’s writing on women makes one wonder if he’s ever actually spoken to one. He once asserted that “the ladies” (his words) should all vote for Mitt Romney because “the ladies do tend to flock to successful executives and entrepreneurs.” In the same piece, he declared that Romney “in another time and place would have the option of maintaining” a harem, seeming to lament that this isn’t something Americans “do.”
Women, in Williamson’s world, have two settings: sexy yet “maddening” playthings or “sexually repugnant” untamed whores. From a 2008 essay for the National Review:
Every female police officer knows there is something maddeningly sexy about a woman enforcing rules, and something sexually repugnant about a woman without any rules at all… Miss Manners is sexy for the same reason that librarians and teachers and nurses can be sexy: she is an authority — it’s fun to play with authority.”
In 2008, Hillary Clinton assembling political power was “getting in touch with her inner dominatrix (which does not seem to have been much of a reach for her.)”On Sandra Fluke, a respected lawyer who was labeled a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush Limbaugh after she advocated that the insurance policies should cover contraception, he wrote, “whatever Sandra Fluke is up to, you can be sure she’s looking for somebody else to pay for it.” Just like a prostitute, get it?
This kind of mealy-mouthed writing is Williamson’s bread-and-butter. He called Lena Dunham “distinctly unappealing,” but no doubt would claim that descriptor had nothing to do with her appearance. He referred to a 9-year-old black child as a “primate” and a “three-fifth-scale Snoop Dogg,” later denying that the reference had anything to do with slavery and the period in U.S. history in which black people were considered three-fifths of a person. Sure, Kevin.
Goldberg took issue with the “callous and violent” language Williamson used in the podcast, saying it “runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate.” This is a weird form of respectability politics.
Typically, respectability politics is foisted on marginalized communities — black people are told to “walk a little straighter and write a little neater and speak a little clearer” so that white people might be more accepting of them. But it’s also used as a cover for indulging toxic ideology. As the writer Tess Mendola pointed out on Twitter, “Horrible ideas have a long history of advancement through ‘respectful debate’ among folks whose bodies those ideas do not affect.”
Remember Williamson likening a 9-year-old black boy to a primate? Pseudosciences like phrenology were used to politely assert the inferiority of black people. For decades if not centuries, polite people made polite justifications of slavery, of racism, of the inferiority of women.
Circulating these ideas in the media has a history of harmful consequences. Before World War II, denigrating and hyperbolic news was disseminated about Jewish people with the goal of conditioning the larger population to see them as less than human. Before the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Hutus referred to Tutsis systematically as “cockroaches” in a similar effort to dehumanize, making people more amenable to future violence against people they were conditioned to view as less than human.
Advocating for people who have or perform abortions to be murdered is an extremist position, even if abortion itself is a politically controversial matter. Doctors have been murdered because rhetoric that advocates doing so was given mainstream airtime. It’s not unbelievable that someone might be emboldened by Williamson’s words to actually murder a woman who has had an abortion. It follows, logically, that people given to extreme actions are susceptible to extreme rhetoric.
The demographics that Williamson chooses to denigrate are vulnerable ones. His comments about abortion and black people have been paramount in complaints against him, but he has also written, in relation to a black transgender woman, that identifying as transgender is a “delusional tendency.” Trans women, and particularly trans women of color, are murdered at alarming rates, when the raw number is considered as a ratio of their overall population.
Despite all of this, liberals and conservatives alike continue to insist that Williamson is a talented writer, just like convicted Stanford rapist Brock Turner was a “talented swimmer.” Even Ta-Nehisi Coates praised his craft in 2014. Setting aside the question of whether such talent should or does trump all else, a look at Williamson’s work doesn’t really support that assertion.
Slate’s Jordan Weissmann highlighted a piece in which Williamson argued that poor communities in America “deserve to die.” In the piece, Williamson argues that the white working class hasn’t been victimized by outside forces, and boohoos the closing of factories and industries on which generations of rural families have been dependent for work. Reading this, I remembered talking to young people in Maine who grew up believing they would work in the mills that employed their parents, only to come of age as the mills shuttered and the job prospects for which they had prepared no longer existed.
The idea that these communities weren’t left behind is simply wrong. Over the past half-century, industry and technology sped ahead without a glance back at them. Money that came from those industrial and technological advances went into the pockets of a select few, instead of into a public education system that could have prepared these people for the jobs that would be available to them. Our fascination with an improbable minority of self-made geniuses blinded us to the ills befalling segments of our society, and now we’re aggrieved to learn that when segments of society are infected, that means the whole of society is infected.
Williamson’s advice to these people is to move. Where? To overcrowded cities with skyrocketing rents and tenuous employment opportunities? This isn’t a solution. Williamson’s original wording was correct: It’s a death sentence. Setting aside the question of whether Williamson’s writing is harmful or offensive, the question arises of whether it has any value. His aversion to nuance undermines that.
Williamson’s stated aversion to capital punishment is consistently paired with a belief that if we’re going to have state-sanctioned murder, it ought to be as brutal as possible — hence his love of hanging. Lethal injection is “antiseptic,” he says, though anyone who has witnessed an execution would likely tell you the way those injections work is horrific to observe. Sex reassignment surgery, to Williamson, is “brutal and lamentable” because it is “surgical mutilation basically for cosmetic purposes.”
He opposes exceptions for rape and incest in anti-abortion restrictions because “if we are going to protect unborn human lives, then we are going to protect them regardless of the circumstances of their conception.” This has been praised as being indicative of some level of ideological consistency, which is a bizarre way to measure intellect. How does an editor not interrogate a valuation of life that is hierarchical in this way? In Williamson’s world, an “unborn” life is more valuable than that of one that is not only born, but lived. What logic decrees that we humans become less valuable the longer we spend on this earth?
During the week or so of Williamson controversy, Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum posited a sort of defense of Williamson. “Nearly every conservative believes that abortion is murder,” Drum wrote. “Williamson was willing to take this publicly to its logical endpoint—that women who get abortions should be prosecuted for murder one—but that act of folly is the only difference between him and every other right-wing pundit.”
I couldn’t stop thinking about that assertion. Does every conservative want women who have abortions to die? The question was stuck in my brain. It seemed unreasonable, but then I wondered if I was being naive. I thought there must be conservatives who oppose abortion, who see it as murder, but don’t want to kill women who don’t carry their pregnancies to term. There must be conservatives who would push for advancements in contraception as a way to lessen the number of abortions, or who would want to see the state of healthcare in this country improve so that giving birth doesn’t put women at serious risk of death. There must be conservatives who understand that women fear stigma, fear the prospect of depression and other mental illness during and after pregnancy, fear an inability to cover the financial burdens of raising a child in a country with a poor public education and healthcare systems. There must be conservatives who are looking at the whole picture, not just the piece of it that they find abhorrent.
But the reaction of high-profile conservatives to Williamson’s firing belied that conviction. Erick Erickson tweeted, “Kevin Williamson’s firing is a reminder that there are two Americas and one side will stop at nothing to silence the other. This is not about a bad tweet or a bad view. It is about the left wanting on a monopoly on the public square so none can be exposed to competing ideas.” Noah Rothman, associate editor at Commentary tweeted, “I don’t think it is outside the remit for gatekeepers like the Atlantic to suppress certain ideas: eugenics, racial superiority, etc. But believing that abortion is violence and should be treated like that, while I disagree, is not an uncommon view. Is that beyond the arena of ideas?” Myriad other conservatives spoke of Williamson in the past tense, as though he himself had been murdered or imprisoned or exiled, rather than simply denied a job.
This is a common phenomenon among conservatives of late, as Moira Donegan noted on Twitter and as I’ve written before. Criticism, or one’s words or actions having consequences, is seen as an infringement on some fundamental right. But the right to free speech is not a right to speech free of consequences. It is not a right to say what you wish, unquestioned. That belief is a strange entitlement found among those who prefer the status quo, who are cozy with those who have long held power, and resent that power today is unusually dynamic, that people who have long been marginalized are increasingly changing the game. The power brokers feel that the goalposts are being moved on them. They can’t accept that the others have the ability to decline to play the game according to rules that have always favored those who are already ahead.