This won’t be a long post, mostly because I had another one written, but couldn’t really stop thinking about this over the past several hours. Thus, here are a few thoughts about the debacle between Kevin Williamson and the Atlantic.
Here's a quick recap: Kevin Williamson wrote for the National Review, a conservative publication, for quite some time. He's a vocal critic of Trump, and also has some views on abortion (and maybe some other things) that some conservatives would consider outside the mainstream. The Atlantic hired him, and promptly fired him after one column because of these views. You can find more in-depth recaps here (NYT) and here (NRO).
First, I think it’s important to note that as a private corporation, the Atlantic is free to hire and fire anyone whom it so chooses. In a similar vein, the Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson should not be construed as a suppression of free speech. The Atlantic is not the government, so when they fire a conservative, they’re not suppressing conservative speech in a way that’s forbidden by the First Amendment.
Second, most of the criticisms out there regarding the Atlantic’s quick hiring and firing of Williamson are probably warranted. When an outlet hires a writer with a view to ideological diversity and then fires him because of that very ideological diversity, none should be surprised when mockery rains down upon Jeffrey Goldberg, either for capitulating to the vitriol of the digital mob or for failing to do such basic on-boarding research that Williamson’s comments on Twitter or on the National Review’s podcast somehow slipped past the proverbial goalie. This is the kicker of it all - Williamson’s comments weren’t on some home-cooked, Busch League podcast some guy in Missoula was running out of his mom’s garage, they were on the National Review’s podcast! How could that slip past Goldberg and Friends? So here, it seems clear that when folks say the editorial board at the Atlantic is shot through with either cowards or jesters, I’m inclined to at least give them a listen.
Third, the Atlantic prides itself on being a magazine of ideas. Granted, at present it seems to be much more a magazine of a certain kind of ideas, but it is a magazine of ideas nonetheless. However, it’s harder and harder to buy that identification when folks from other ideological persuasions are pushed out with quite a bit of expediency. Someone might object that they’re not pushing out a certain set of ideas, but rather a certain expositor of those ideas. That’s a fair enough point, I suppose, but if the editors of the Atlantic were looking for a conservative voice, they were not limited only to Williamson.
This is an important conversation for us to have, I think, because it’s now easier and easier for folks to curate the information they take in. You can follow who you want on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, seeing and reading only viewpoints which agree with your own. You read the Post, Times, and Mother Jones, or you can read the Journal and the National Review. If you fall on either side of that fence, you might never see a viewpoint which is different than your own unless you go out of your way to find it. I guess that’s why this Atlantic-Williamson issue is so disappointing. When Williamson first went to the Atlantic, I remember thinking, “Good on them, for diversifying their viewpoints a little more. This will likely move public discourse forward an inch or two.” But alas, once again, polarized America has gotten the best of yet another outlet. I should note that I’m under no impression that the same thing wouldn’t happen if the National Review hired Jeffrey Toobin, but I do think testimonies from left-leaning ideological folks like Dave Rubin, who constantly speak about how tolerant conservative campus groups are over against the intolerance of left-leaning campus groups in their experience, are telling at least a small piece of an important story. I guess, ultimately, it seems that it’s now more important than ever to look for views different than your own, because the echo chamber is only growing as days go by.
*I should note here that obviously, I do not agree with Williamson on everything, or close to it. However, I do think this dynamic is an interesting study in the state of ideological diversity in America today.