You will be unsurprised to learn that Conor “Forget it College Sophomores, Trigger Warnings and Safe Spaces Are For Well-Compensated Pundits” Friedersdorf has a column arguing that the firing of Kevin Williamson is a threat to civil discourse in America itself. (You think I’m kidding, but really: “forcing people toward fringes, even in those rare cases where they earnestly want to more closely engage the mainstream, threatens civil society.”) Now, this kind of argument is never going to end well, because the idea that there’s some kind of principle of free speech that entitles anybody to any particular position or forum is transparently wrong, and attempts to apply it will always be incoherent and imply absurd results. And it’s worth noting as well that Williamson had a staff job and who knows whatever emoluments from the Republican Pundit Industrial Complex — we’re not talking about his ability to earn a living or have a public platform. but whether he’s the best use of very scarce space at an elite publication.
But even given the degree of difficulty, it’s remarkable how tendentious the framing is. Friedersdorf, more than once, dishonestly characterizes the nature of the criticism of Williamson:
Immediately, critics began poring over Williamson’s substantial archive of published writing and public statements. Among the most controversial was an exchange on Twitter about abortion and the death penalty. Williamson declared that “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.” Pushed to clarify, Williamson added, “I have hanging more in mind.” Later, he expounded, “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means.”
Word of Williamson’s hiring was greeted by some as if by mercenary opposition researchers determined to isolate the most outlying and offensive thoughts that he ever uttered, no matter how marginal to his years of journalistic work; to gleefully amplify them, sometimes in highly distorting ways, in a manner designed to stoke maximum upset and revulsion; and to frame them as if they said everything one needed to know about his character. To render him toxic was their purpose.
The strong implication here is that Williamson is an anodyne conservative pundit, and a group of liberals scoured the archives to find obscure, completely unrepresentative, isolated fragments of Williamson’s thought. This is all complete horseshit. Not only his call for mass executions of American women but his race-baiting foray to East St. Louis and insulting generalizations about the white working class and his ludicrously hacky tongue-bath of Scott Pruitt (which should also dispel the idea that his differences from Trump are ideological rather than purely aesthetic) received plenty of contemporaneous attention and represent his primary job — provoking reactions from liberals — very well. The fiction that Williamson is being “dragged” solely for one tweet that is a complete outlier from his work is very telling — that Friedersdorf won’t actually specifically defend Williamson’s body of work but simply asks us to take Bret Stephens’s word for it speaks for itself.
And, of course, Stephens’s “just one tweet” defense of the abortion execution tweet has failed, since it was not in fact just one tweet. How to get around that? Well:
In that formulation, Williamson transgressed partly because he held a verboten viewpoint; partly because of inconsistent explanations about that viewpoint; partly because he used callous or violent language; partly due to a failure of respectful debate; and partly due to violating unnamed workplace values. Significantly, such behavior needn’t characterize one’s work at The Atlantic to bear on one’s place there. Merely having engaged in those behaviors—or any one of them?—on a bygone podcast, or a since deleted tweet, is conceivably actionable.
OK, so we’ve now reached the point where a professional opinion writer cannot be judged on views he has repeatedly expressed in various fora and never repudiated. Leaving aside the similarly offensive stuff he’s written in heavily promoted cover stories, views he expressed at length in 2014 are just youthful indiscretions now? It doesn’t count if you don’t write at least three books about it? At what point does saying uncivil things stop being a necessary contribution to civil discourse?
And now, the terrible slippery slope argument:
I would tolerate a pro-choice colleague who went on a podcast, followed deep convictions to a logical but extreme conclusion, and found themselves declaring in conversation that even in the third trimester, even when there is no risk to the mother’s health, abortion ought to be legal, even if the doctor performing it used a procedure accurately described as follows…
Since Friedersdorf goes on to describe D&X abortions, I guess it’s over to you, Justice Stevens:
Although much ink is spilled today describing the gruesome nature of late-term abortion procedures, that rhetoric does not provide me a reason to believe that the procedure Nebraska here claims it seeks to ban is more brutal, more gruesome, or less respectful of “potential life” than the equally gruesome procedure Nebraska claims it still allows. Justice Ginsburg and Judge Posner have, I believe, correctly diagnosed the underlying reason for the enactment of this legislation–a reason that also explains much of the Court’s rhetoric directed at an objective that extends well beyond the narrow issue that this case presents. The rhetoric is almost, but not quite, loud enough to obscure the quiet fact that during the past 27 years, the central holding of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), has been endorsed by all but 4 of the 17 Justices who have addressed the issue. That holding–that the word “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment includes a woman’s right to make this difficult and extremely personal decision–makes it impossible for me to understand how a State has any legitimate interest in requiring a doctor to follow any procedure other than the one that he or she reasonably believes will best protect the woman in her exercise of this constitutional liberty. But one need not even approach this view today to conclude that Nebraska’s law must fall. For the notion that either of these two equally gruesome procedures performed at this late stage of gestation is more akin to infanticide than the other, or that the State furthers any legitimate interest by banning one but not the other, is simply irrational. See U.S. Const., Amdt. 14.
It says a great deal about how skewed to the right Friedersdorf’s conception of the range of opinion elite publications should offer that the most radical left-wing counterpart he can come up with to contrast with calls to treat abortion as first degree murder if not a capital offense is an abortion procedure that such wild-eyed Trotskyites as John Paul Stevens and Richard Posner view not merely as bad policy but unconstitutionally arbitrary. Even in expressing allegedly nonideological tolerance Friedersdorf can’t help but express fealty to long-discredited right-wing talking points.
Which brings us to the other key question: why is this a one-way ratchet?
It’s instructive to look at the diverse views highlighted on the WSJ op-ed page. pic.twitter.com/xEjchwbVdu
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) April 8, 2018
The Wall Street Journal is one of the nation’s largest circulation newspapers. It also has a completely one-note opinion page. If Friedersdorf’s free speech crusades have ever called for it to be diversified in the name of civility, I can’t find a record of it. As far as I can tell, his position is that it’s OK for elite publications to have monolithically conservative op-ed pages, but if a liberal publication features only 2 or 3 of the nation’s tiny handful of anti-Trump Republicans this viewpoint is being brutally suppressed.
It’s not. The Atlantic is free to conclude that it wants more diversity than the Wall Street Journal, and it also made a sound decision that this isn’t the kind of diversity that they’re looking for.