Congrats, Jeff Goldberg. You Just Martyred Kevin Williamson. (From Politico)

Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg climbed out on a limb last month to add conservative fire-breather and Never Trumper Kevin D. Williamson of National Review to join his growing staff. On Thursday, Goldberg retreated to a safe place near the trunk and proceeded to saw off the branch, casting Williamson down to the ignominy of unemployment.

The sacking of the barely hired Williamson brought joy to everybody to the writer’s left, which is to say the better part of the universe. Media Matters for America earned an assist in his firing by drawing pointers to his inflammatory back pages, which helped stir up opposition to him. The organization danced on his pink slip when Goldberg let him go, as did NARAL, Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti, Politico Magazine contributing editor Virginia Heffernan, Paste’s Jason Rhode, the American Prospect’s Adele M. Stan and many others.

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I, however, did not dance. I’ve long admired Williamson’s writing, if not his ideas, for the way he’s internalized Michael Kinsley’s warning that if you’re afraid to go too far, you won’t go far enough. Williamson almost always goes too far, taking his arguments to thought frontiers where there are no roads, no mobile phone service and sometimes barely enough air to breathe. For examples of the Williamson oeuvre, see these National Review pieces arguing against reparations, decrying the mainstreaming of transgender rights, critiquing the “white working class” and dismissing the idea of “white supremacy.”

Since the rise of Donald Trump, Williamson has emerged as maybe the most eloquent and forceful internal critic of that part of the white working class that went for Trump. He’s a blue-collar Texan who regularly lets his fellow blue-collar white people have it for their moral failures, for their embrace of a strongman, for letting the “American values” they purport to stand for decay into a swamp of self-pity and conspiracy-mongering. He has become the center-left’s favorite righty firebrand, and it’s not hard to see why Goldberg wanted him aboard. But once you get beyond the anti-Trumpism, he also holds a lot of social positions the center-left loathes, and he’s ferociously good at articulating them. He’s the kind of writer comfortable liberals ignore at their peril.

Every Williamson article contains strong meat, which has led his detractors to dismiss him as a troll. But that’s not who he is. He’s really more of an ogre who loves to take arguments to the breaking point in hopes of shocking readers with his cold, unbound logic. Where other writers might serve 7 percent alcohol in their brew, Williamson likes to up his percentage to 20. Where other writers might stop at mean, Williamson keeps going all the way to cruel.

I never read Williamson in hopes of seeking agreement. And on that score, he has almost never failed me. He’s not interested in building consensus or in gentle persuasion. He reduces all the grays to their black-and-white components. He pushes boundaries and doesn’t stop until he’s gone too far. In a 2014 piece about transgender actress Laverne Cox, for example, he dropped bombs when a sling-shot would have sufficed: “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman. Sex is a biological reality, and it is not subordinate to subjective impressions, no matter how intense those impressions are, how sincerely they are held, or how painful they make facing the biological facts of life. No hormone injection or surgical mutilation is sufficient to change that.”

Williamson’s fearlessness, originality and sense of intellectual adventure obviously appealed to Goldberg, who shares much of the man’s spirit if not his conservative politics. Indeed, in an internal email, Goldberg described Williamson as “an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don’t yet cover comprehensively,” adding that “the Atlantic should be a big tent for ideas and argument.” (Disclosure: Goldberg is a friend; I’ve never met Williamson.)

That Goldberg invested in a feral conservative like Williamson spoke well for the Atlantic. The last thing the magazine needed was another house-broken righty like David Frum who would speak nicely to its largely liberal and centrist readers. But as it turned out, Goldberg’s tent wasn’t big enough to accommodate somebody of Williamson’s swagger. The writer’s proximate undoing was a tweet and then the discovery of a podcast in which he proposed hanging as the proper punishment for women who have abortions—a perfect example of a writer going too far. In the internal email announcing the departure, Goldberg justified the dismissal by writing that Williamson’s “callous and violent” comments run “contrary to the Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace,” and hinting that Williamson may have misrepresented the offending tweet as a momentary lapse rather than a deeply held belief.

Without relitigating Williamson’s abortion views—which I don’t share—let’s agree that if he hadn’t been sent packing for his less–than-modern views on abortion, his critics would have griped about something else in his archives to engineer his removal. Let’s be real here: Kevin Williamson wasn’t sent packing for expressing strong language on abortion but for being Kevin Williamson. The very things that made him so appealing to Goldberg were destined to lead to his exit.

The loser here isn’t Williamson. Like other excellent writers who’ve gotten the ax, he’ll find a new job soon enough—and now he’s become the right’s latest free-speech martyr. The real losers are Atlantic writers and Atlantic readers—writers because they’ll become faint-hearted about their work (who wants to be the next Williamson?) and readers because the magazine will be less eager to challenge them.

Jeffrey Goldberg deserves our praise for having gone as far as he did to hire Williamson. Alas, he didn’t go far enough to keep him, and his rapid embrace and rejection make the Atlantic a lesser place.

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Send your cruel, original thought to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts subscribe to the London Review of Books. My Twitter feed favors the New York Review of Books. My RSS feed shoplifts National Review.

Jack Shafer is Politico’s senior media writer.

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April 6, 2018 at 12:49PM