The Atlantic’s Gigantic Stumble

(Brookings Institution)

Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic

OK, I’ll admit it—I had hardly paid any mind to Kevin D. Williamson before The Atlantic elevated him to the realm of intellectual legitimacy, a move that has kicked up a lot of dust in the journalism world for hiring him away from the right-wing National Review to be part of its Next Big Thing. I’ve been distracted. My outrage has been focused on the fact that a self-described pussy-grabber occupies the Oval Office—a man who has advanced lies about black people and demonized people from Latin America, a man whose presidential campaign benefited from intervention in our elections by a foreign power that aims to weaken us. So I haven’t spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of the sewer that right-wing media has become. But a Twitter thread from the feminist author Jessica Valenti caught my attention.

The thing for which Williamson is most famous is his (since deleted) tweet advocating the execution by hanging of every woman who has an abortion. Valenti notes that this would encompass approximately 25 percent of U.S. women.

Williamson’s second-most famous comment is in his contemptuous depiction of a nine-year-old African American boy, which is basically a litany of racist stereotypes strung together, complete with a description of the boy making a gesture Williamson describes as “the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.”

And that’s not all. As The New Republic’s Sarah Jones reminds us, Williamson has also called for the public naming of people who allege they’ve been raped.

So what would possess The Atlantic to hire, in the age of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, such a repugnant pundit? “Intellectual diversity,” silly! You see, apparently Williamson is very smart. He is capable of constructing a stylish sentence. (Gary Legum, writing at Wonkette in 2014, described Williamson as “the current occupant of NR’s William F. Buckley Chair for High-Falutin’ Sneering Brahmin Fancy Talk.”)
And for all of his Trump-style hatred, Williamson hates Donald J. Trump! Contrarianism is so very chic. Elites love #NeverTrumpers.

Never mind that Williamson’s rhetoric is the kind that amounts to a high-falutin’ call to violence. I here insert a public-service reminder that there’s a long history of violence against abortion providers (for whom Williamson advocated the same judgment as he would mete out to women who have abortions), and that more than half of homicides of women are related to intimate-partner violence (sometimes by men who object to their partner’s abortion). The license too many men feel to abuse and harass women is why we have a #MeToo movement.

Let’s add to this equation the story of Stephon Clark, the unarmed young black man who was shot in his backyard by police last week, a particular form of execution that happens with alarming frequency. The dehumanization of black people in language such as that used by Williamson plays a part in why police respond this way. This is why there is a Black Lives Matter movement.

When a so-called thought-leader magazine fails to take heed of the real deaths and abuse that gave birth to these movements, or to accept that standards of allowable bigotry in journalism for “smart people” are evolving to a better place, that is some kind of leading from behind. Because it is still leading—clearing the underbrush of polite society to make way for a trailblazer in the perpetuation of the power structure as it has always been, one with white men on top, and everybody else below, assigned to various castes broken out by race, skin color, gender, and sexual orientation. The under-castes are always kept in check through threats of violence, whether explicit or through incitement.

In the wake of the uproar over Williamson’s hiring, Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg felt compelled to justify it in a memo to his staff, first reported by Jordan Weissmann in Slate. From Goldberg’s memo:

I don’t think that taking a person’s worst tweets, or assertions, in isolation is the best journalistic practice. I have read most, or much, of what he has written; some of his critics have not done the same. I would also prefer, all things being equal, to give people second chances and the opportunity to change.

This makes no sense. What kind of “second chance” is Goldberg granting Williamson? Was he about to be fired from National Review for his “worst tweet”? No, he’s being given a big-ass first chance to be mainstreamed into the flow labeled “legitimate intellectual thought” for being some kind of contortionist contrarian. But really, he’s being rewarded for his worst tweet.

In fairness, The Atlantic deserves kudos of its other recent hires: Annie Lowrey, Alex Wagner, and Ibram X. Kendi. It is also important to note that these are writers who were already writing for mainstream publications, so they’re not being given a hand up from some ideological swamp. They also have not, to my knowledge, ever advocated for the execution of 25 percent of the nation’s women, or used language that implied a comparison of a black child’s posture to that of a monkey’s.

No, the only conceivable category of human considered deserving of such a pass as that given to Williamson by Goldberg is that of the white male. Think that’s over the top? Look at who gets the big chances. A few white women, true. But how many bylines of women of color do you see as columnists at the big newspapers and thought-leader magazines? Why? It’s not as if there’s any shortage, for instance, of brilliant black women writers with opinions. Oh, well, she may have displayed some intemperance on Twitter. Too bad for her.

(It’s not for nothing that both the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements were founded by African American women.)

I’m thinking of writing a piece advocating the execution by firing squad of men who sire unwanted children in states where abortion has become unavailable.


Do I get a second chance?

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