The firing of Kevin Williamson from The Atlantic on the day he was set to give an opening Q&A in their offices was sadly unsurprising given the pattern of these types of hires. It is an incident that will be referred to largely as a “media story”, meaning that Williamson is not a figure so prominent nor The Atlantic a brand so ubiquitous as to graduate this to a national story, in the way that the situations of Brendan Eich at Mozilla or James Damore at Google became national cable news stories. But they really are the same story, a story about the times that we live in and the changing nature of America. They tell a story about what happens when a talented individual has deeply held beliefs those in his profession find unacceptable.
This story is a predictable continuation of the left’s ownership not just of media but indeed of all institutions. It is depressing. It is predictable. And it is where we are as a country now. It is not confined to the realm of ideas. Eich, Damore, Williamson and others are subject to blacklists and HR reports and firing in every arena of industry and culture. If you have wrongthink, you will not be allowed for long to make your living within any space the left has determined they own – first the academy, then the media, then corporate America, and now the public square. You will bake the cake, you will use the proper pronoun, and you will never say that what Planned Parenthood does is murder for hire, and should be punished as such under the law.
Imagine what the few lonely voices that inhabit a position at a prominent publication or network to the right of Hillary Clinton on social issues if their hiring was taking place right now. Imagine what Ross Douthat would be going through if the Times hired him today (recall he was at The Atlantic before that). Imagine how his deeply held theology would be interpreted by an audience that has no respect for it whatsoever, and view it more as anti-science mysticism than as belief rooted in thousands of years of human experience.
In the case of Williamson, even someone who literally wrote a book titled The Case Against Donald Trump was unacceptable for The Atlantic because wrongthink about what ought to be the legal ramifications for tearing an unborn child apart – ramifications that ANY pro-lifer of any seriousness has wrestled with in conversation. Serious ethical and legal ramifications for destroying the unborn or the infirm are debated in philosophy classes every day – Williamson’s mistake, as an adopted son born to an unwed teenage mother, was being too honest about his belief that what he sees as the daily murder of infants should, in a more just society, have severe legal consequences. Well, that’s not what we want around here.
Marcuse argued that, because of the radical repressiveness of Western society, a tolerance for all viewpoints actually contributed to social oppression. A pervasive network of assumptions and biases implicitly privileges the viewpoint of the powerful, so that seemingly “equal” presentations of opposite opinions actually end up benefiting the viewpoint of the powerful… Because of social programming, the inhabitants of a given society automatically favor certain values. The ideological playing field’s lack of levelness means that seemingly equal presentations of ideas are not really equal.
In the light of this situation, Marcuse made a rather cunning inversion (one that has been aped countless times since by cultural organs across the United States): The fact that society is so radically unequal means that we should be intolerant and repressive in the name of tolerance and liberty. He rejected what he termed “indiscriminate tolerance” — a tolerance that accepts all viewpoints — in favor of “liberating tolerance” or “discriminating tolerance.” Unlike many of his disciples, Marcuse was frank about what this intolerance would mean: “Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left.
That is what is required to make one’s living primarily from these institutions: you must bend the knee. Consider the major hires at the Washington Post, New York Times, and the networks since the 2016 election. The additions overwhelmingly haven’t been Trump fans – they have been different critics of the president and the administration from a slightly more rightward position. Kevin Williamson was consistent with this. The point is that the audience, for all their airs about diversity of viewpoints, really just wants their existing views re-expressed to them in different forms and by different voices. Get through the diversity veneer, and you’ll find the same rule: No wrongthink can be tolerated.
When contrarian voices are elevated to publications once viewed as places where contending ideas shared space, organized online backlash is now inevitable. It will come in the forms of constant professional shaming, of hashtag and email campaigns, and of attempts to undermine from within the people who’ve made the decision to venture slightly away from the established dominant editorial path. Digital life is threatening liberal institutions in a way they understand on some frantic level, but shudder to comprehend and ultimately are failing to combat.
When such a mob forms, it is important to understand you cannot escape them. You can only face them. It is a moment that demands courage in the face of the braying of Social Justice Warriors on the internet and within your own offices. But that is in short supply.
For those with views placing them on the right, the only way to win is not to play this game anymore. The only way to win is to build up our own platforms and institutions – our own Hillsdales, our own TV shows, our own Atlantics. And that’s why The Federalist exists.
The pressure surrounding the American public square is building. It is steadily destroying the standing of institution after institution and bringing a certain frantic tension to every aspect of life. It will, eventually, explode. What that explosion looks like, I cannot tell you. But I can tell you that if you think Trump was the explosion, you are wrong. You haven’t even seen it yet.