The National Review.

Why Would the Atlantic Hire Kevin Williamson?

In a memo to staff, editor Jeffrey Goldberg cites an affinity for “second chances” and ideological diversity in hiring the conservative troll. Both justifications ring hollow.

Jeffrey Goldberg knows that he hired a troll. But he thinks readers should give him a second chance.

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The Atlantic editor in chief issued a memo to the magazine’s staff this week, explaining his decision to hire conservative writer Kevin Williamson as a columnist for the magazine’s new ideas section. In addition to making the thought leader’s now-familiar case for ideological diversity, Goldberg wrote that he likes to “give people second chances and the opportunity to change.” This is an odd justification for a terrible and high-profile hire at one of the country’s most venerable political magazines.

A longtime correspondent for the National Review, Williamson is, at his best, a right-wing provocateur who writes enjoyable, if slightly retro, prose. At his worst, he’s a verbose and hateful troll. Describing a 2014 visit to the impoverished city of East St. Louis, Illinois, Williamson compared a black child to a “primate” and a “three-fifths-scale Snoop Dogg” before likening his own trip through Illinois to Marlow’s journey up the Congo River in Heart of Darkness, all within the space of a single paragraph. (He later denied, unconvincingly, that the three-fifths reference was a slavery joke.) In a column that same year about Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, Williamson compared trans people to voodoo doll worshippers. “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman,” he wrote. He accused Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew, of leading a “nationalist-socialist movement” in a too-cute-by-half bid for rage clicks. And perhaps most notoriously, he once opined on Twitter that women who had abortions should be hanged. “I believe abortion should be treated like any other premeditated homicide,” he later clarified, in case anybody doubted his sincerity. “I’m torn on capital punishment generally; but treating abortion as homicide means what it means.”

These are not views one would typically associate with the Atlantic, which has a long, unique history in American intellectual life that’s partly bound up with the advancement of civil rights—it was founded by abolitionists, published Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” and helped make Ta-Nehisi Coates a leading American voice on race. In February, the Atlantic released a special issue marking the 50th anniversary of MLK Jr.’s assassination. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Atlantic for two years and probably imbibed some institutional Kool-Aid.) All of this makes Williamson, with his frequent sneer, dearth of empathy, and dicey treatment of race, a bit of a weird fit for the publication. He reacted to Black Lives Matter with an O’Reilly-esque rant about “race-hustling professionals” and black-on-black crime that I have a hard time picturing sharing space with a TNC essay.

So why did the Atlantic hire him? Goldberg and Ideas editor Yoni Appelbaum did not respond to my request for an interview, but it appears Williamson despises Donald Trump, and Never Trump conservatives have a lot of cachet these days among left-leaning media outlets that want to show a commitment to publishing a range of views. The New York Times op-ed section, not incidentally led by former Atlantic editor James Bennet, gave Bret Stephens a lifeboat away from the ever-more Trumpy Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post recently brought on Megan McArdle. The Atlantic, already home to former George W. Bush speechwriter and Trump antagonist David Frum, recently hired reform-conservative Reihan Salam away from Slate. All of these people consider themselves conservative. None of them like Donald Trump.

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In the memo Goldberg sent to his staff (the full memo, which a spokeswoman said had been lightly edited to remove internal “housecleaning” material, is pasted below), he makes it clear that he was deeply familiar with Williamson’s work, warts and all—“I have probably read a few hundred thousand of his words”—and considered him an intellectually engaging stylist, albeit one whose writing and tweeting could be “trollish.” According to Goldberg, after one of their chats, Williamson decided that “Twitter was a bad place for him to be” and deleted his account. “I took this to be a positive development and a sign of growth,” Goldberg writes.

From there, Goldberg suggests that despite some of Williamson’s past missteps, he deserves an opportunity to redeem himself.

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. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting (third chances, too, on occasion), and I hope to continue this practice.

This is not exactly the way you typically hope to introduce a prominent new writer to his colleagues—sure, he can be a troll, but let’s give him a chance to do better—and also not generally why you hire someone. But Goldberg does eventually move on to his affirmative case for hiring Williamson:

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The larger question is this: What am I trying to accomplish by having Kevin write for us? The first answer is this: He’s an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don’t yet cover comprehensively. I happen to think that conservatives made ideologically homeless by the rise of Trump are some of the most interesting people in America, and I want to read them whenever I can.

As our staff knows, because I go on about this ad nauseam, I take very seriously the idea that The Atlantic should be a big tent for ideas and argument. It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job is to make sure that we are ideologically diverse. Diversity in all its forms makes us better journalists; it also opens us up to new audiences. I would love to have an Ideas section filled with libertarians, socialists, anarcho-pacifists and theocons, in addition to mainstream liberals and conservatives, all arguing with each other.

There is a lot to admire here, in the abstract. Second chances are good. Monocultures are bad. Socialists and theocons often make for fun reading. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that things could work out the way Goldberg hopes; Williamson once managed to carry on a respectful dialogue about reparations with Coates, who wrote at the time, “I’ve always been an admirer of Williamson’s writing, if not his ideas.” Perhaps we’ll see more of him in that mode.

But it feels like a stretch. Williamson isn’t a novice who made some early career mistakes, after all. He’s a 45-year-old professional with firm, carefully thought-out beliefs he writes for publication. We’re not just talking about a mulligan after a few bad tweets, as Goldberg seems to imply.

Williamson is also a questionable choice to cover the forgotten corners of America that presumably backed Trump—given that he loathes them as much as he loathes the president. “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” he wrote in one especially controversial piece. Above all else, Williamson is something fairly rare in U.S. media: an explicit, unrepentant elitist. As he tells it, his rough and financially deprived childhood in Texas taught him that the struggling American “underclass” is largely responsible for its own bad luck. Today, he worships high culture (he’s a former theater critic who once grabbed a woman’s cellphone and hurled it away when she wouldn’t stop talking during the performance) and rich, talented men. Williamson spent a whole column urging Mitt Romney to flaunt his wealth “like a boss” during his presidential run, suggesting that from “an evolutionary point of view” the Republican “should get 100 percent of the female vote” because of his pure, alpha-male magnetism. “We don’t do harems here, of course, but Romney is exactly the kind of guy who in another time and place would have the option of maintaining one,” Williamson added, tongue hopefully planted somewhere near his cheek. He views Trump—not incorrectly, or uniquely—as an ignorant, vulgar poseur who caters to the worst tendencies of white identity politics.

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Which is why Goldberg’s appeal to intellectual diversity also rings a bit hollow. After all, the Atlantic doesn’t seem to be making any effort to hire pro-Trump writers, who would represent the views of approximately 40 percent of the American population. (You could say the same about Bennet’s opinion page at the Times.) That’s a justifiable choice—just try reading the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page these days—but it suggests that Goldberg has some intellectual red lines he isn’t willing to cross in the name of diversity, one of which happens to cordon off the entire contemporary Republican Party. Other editors might pick different red lines—like transphobia, or history of racial insensitivity—that would rule a writer like Williamson out. Goldberg is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in large part because he’s a conservative who opposes Trump, which makes him “interesting.”

In a lot of ways, that encapsulates the frustrations some liberals have with the elite media’s fascination with Never Trumpers. While they may have minimal pull in their own party, many are essential reads who are good at challenging progressive cultural and policy ideas. (I don’t agree with him on much, but Ross Douthat might be the most talented columnist on the Times staff right now.) But at points, the label can also seem like a giant ideological washing machine that lets fairly abhorrent writers and thinkers launder their careers, provides them an unearned sheen of legitimacy, and just gives them a bigger audience to troll. In announcing his decision to leave the National Review, Williamson did not express any regret for his past musings, or excitement to cover new ground for the Atlantic, or relief to be given this Goldberg-blessed shot at redemption. Instead, he described his decision to leave as grabbing an opportunity to really piss people off. “I will be an apostle to the Gentiles,” he wrote. “I am very much looking forward to raising a brand new kind of hell.”

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Editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg’s memo to staff:

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I first came to know Kevin’s work several years ago; he’s incredibly prolific, and, over time, I have probably read a few hundred thousand of his words. I have disagreed with him more than I have agreed with him (an irrelevant metric when you’re the editor; not when you’re a reader), but I recognized the power, contrariness, wit, and smart construction of many of his pieces. I also found him to be ideologically interesting: anti-abortion, pro-gun rights, anti-death penalty (his anti-death penalty writing, of course, shaped my understanding of his most objectionable tweet). I was struck, as many people are, by the quality of his prose. I was also struck by the fact that many people I admire on the Left have expressed admiration for his writing on issues of race and class. Over the past couple of years, I’ve also read carefully his critical coverage of Donald Trump and the people who voted for him.

I was also aware of Kevin’s judgmental, acerbic, polemical style, and when we started talking about writing possibilities at The Atlantic, I raised my concerns about the trollish qualities of some of his writing and tweeting. A couple of months ago, in one of our conversations, I mentioned some of his more controversial tweets, and in the course of that conversation, he himself came to the conclusion that Twitter was a bad place for him to be, and he spiked his account. I took this to be a positive development and a sign of growth.

I don’t think anyone should try to defend Kevin’s most horrible tweet. I expect that Kevin will explain this tweet himself when he gets here. He will also have the opportunity to explain other controversial aspects of his writing. But 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. I’ve done this before in reference to extreme tweeting (third chances, too, on occasion), and I hope to continue this practice.

The larger question is this: What am I trying to accomplish by having Kevin write for us? The first answer is this: He’s an excellent reporter who covers parts of the country, and aspects of American life, that we don’t yet cover comprehensively. I happen to think that conservatives made ideologically homeless by the rise of Trump are some of the most interesting people in America, and I want to read them whenever I can.

As our staff knows, because I go on about this ad nauseam, I take very seriously the idea that The Atlantic should be a big tent for ideas and argument. It is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity. It is also my job is to make sure that we are ideologically diverse. Diversity in all its forms makes us better journalists; it also opens us up to new audiences. I would love to have an Ideas section filled with libertarians, socialists, anarcho-pacifists and theocons, in addition to mainstream liberals and conservatives, all arguing with each other. If we are going to host debates, we have to host people who actually disagree with, and sometimes offend, the other side. Kevin will help this cause.

Let me close with a statement of the obvious: Anyone who joins The Atlantic agrees to submit his or her writing to our skilled editors. Everyone here is compelled to follow our standards.