Saturday, March 31, 2018

Something to Know 31 March

Although I'm a squishy-hearted liberal, I have a soft spot for dyspeptic reactionaries like H. L. Mencken and V. S. Naipaul, men — they're almost always men — who speak to a dark, misanthropic corner of my soul. Thus I occasionally read Kevin Williamson, a truly vicious but sometimes bracing writer, when he was at National Review.

Where his words resonated with me, it would make me aware of hidden currents of cruelty in my own thinking. I grew up in a conservative rust belt suburb and hated it, and I loathe populist sanctimony that treats my stultifying hometown as more authentically American than the vibrant city I escaped to. So I felt a guilty shudder of satisfaction reading Williamson's vituperative 2016 attack on the dysfunctional small towns that supported Donald Trump. ("If you want to live, get out of Garbutt.")

The way Williamson's contempt spoke to me made me think about how my fury over Trump's rise, and my devotion to cosmopolitanism, was curdling into the very elitism people like me are constantly accused of. The ability to prompt such uncomfortable self-recognition is a good quality in a polemicist. So I almost understand why The Atlantic magazine, seeking to add a provocative right-wing voice to its roster, recently hired Williamson.


That hiring has set off the latest uproar over which conservatives belong in the opinion sections of elite mainstream publications, including, of course, The New York Times. These controversies are, naturally, of particular interest to people who write for opinion sections, and so receive disproportionate media coverage. But there's a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they're about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it's not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.

The progressive objection to Williamson lies in the demeaning ways he's written about poor people, black people, women, and trans people. He described an African-American boy in East St. Louis sticking out his elbows in "the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge." Defiantly using male pronouns in a piece about the trans actress Laverne Cox, Williamson wrote, "Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman." Feminism, he wrote, is a "collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes." He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, "I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide."

In some ways I appreciate Williamson's honesty in admitting where his anti-abortion agenda leads. More abortion opponents should be willing to acknowledge that treating abortion as murder necessarily means treating women as murderers. All the same, I understand why many people are furious that the storied Atlantic magazine would give a perch to a man who traffics in crude stereotypes, and who thinks that the nearly one-quarter of American women who have had abortions deserve to die. "Too many men in power don't care," feminist Jessica Valenti wrote in despair. "To them, our lives and freedom are just abstract concepts — things to be debated rather than understood as a given."

The backlash against Williamson, in turn, has occasioned self-pity among some members of the conservative intelligentsia, who feel victimized by a concerted campaign to write them out of mainstream public life. In National Review, Williamson's friend and former colleague David French demanded, "Decide now, progressives, do you want any serious intellectual media space where conservative and progressive ideas clash?"

Personally, I do. But which conservative ideas?

In "Age of Fracture," an intellectual history of the late 20th century, the Princeton professor emeritus Daniel T. Rodgers described how the salience of ideas in American politics took on "new breadth and intensity in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Novel forms of intellectual production and dissemination — more politically oriented think tanks, new journals of scholarly debate and opinion, more argumentatively structured media — now began to move ideas more aggressively into circulation." Ideology was obviously not the only thing that drove politics — money and group interests were, as ever, important. But to understand national politics, you had to understand certain conservative ideas.

Trump put an end to that. The field of ideas has gone from being the ground on which politics are fought to a side in politics, which is why it's so difficult to find serious intellectual Trump defenders. Trump has resentments and interests, but not ideology; he governs more as a postmodern warlord than a traditional party leader. Few things signal the irrelevance of ideas to his presidency like the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton's relentless advocacy of regime change contradicts the isolationism Trump touted during the campaign. Trump called the Iraq war a "disaster"; Bolton is one of few who continue to defend it. Yet Bolton's appointment isn't discordant, because he and Trump are both belligerent bullies, and in this administration stylistic similarities matter more than policy details.


Inasmuch as there are ideas bound up with Trumpism, they are considered too disreputable for most mainstream publications. An opinion section that truly captured the currents of thought shaping our politics today might include Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mad Sandy Hook truther; the white nationalist Richard Spencer; and CliffsNotes fascist Steve Bannon.

Most supporters of liberal democracy, on the right as well as the left, realize that once we treat issues like religious freedom and the desirability of racial equality as matters for debate rather than as first principles, we are lost. But because there's now so little correlation between the political arena and the intellectual one, the question of which conservatives liberals ought to engage becomes subjective and arbitrary.

Williamson was hired at The Atlantic not just for being an energetic writer, but in the name of ideological diversity. "If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side," wrote Atlantic editor in chief Jeffrey Goldberg — no relation — in a memo to his staff. "Kevin will help this cause."

But Williamson, perhaps to his credit, doesn't really represent a "side." His ideas — with their combination of laissez-faire capitalism and harsh moralism — are fairly marginal. If they're going to be defended, they should be defended on their own terms, not as representing an important tendency in our civic life. But on their own terms, they are very hard to defend.

Editors can't escape the fact that, even when they want to broaden the conversation, their choices make a statement about where the parameters of acceptable argument lie. I'd have thought that supporting the execution or mass incarceration of women by the millions would put a writer, even one capable of enjoyably caustic prose, well outside those boundaries. I'd like to hear a serious argument about why it doesn't. Somehow, Williamson's champions don't seem to want to have that debate.

Patriotism is not a short and frenzied outburst of emotion but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.
- Adlai Stevenson

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