Last week, The Atlantic hired Kevin Williamson, a conservative famous for his flamboyant bigotry, a flair most famously exhibited when he wrote that women who have abortions should be hanged along with their nurses and doctors.
Online outrage was immediate, drawing attention to his other greatest hits: transgender women commit genital mutilation and are “effigies” of women; rape accusers should be publicly named; the poor are lazy and their communities should be abandoned; and a comically fabulated account of meeting a black child he compared to a primate and described as "three fifths" of a Snoop Dog. The Atlantic itself described him as "gratuitously nasty" way back in the mists of 2016.
"These are not views one would typically associate with the Atlantic," wrote Jordan Weissman at Slate. Sarah Jones, at The New Republic, wrote that it marks the mainstreaming of the reactionary right.
What I noticed, though, was the general assumption that The Atlantic's current brass simply didn't know about the things he'd written. Williamson deleted his Twitter account, after all, as if to hide his past from his new editors. (Compare to the New York Times, which recently hired a columnist only to fire her hours later over tweets it claimed it had never seen.)
But I had a hunch: I thought (and said as much) that Williamson was hired explicitly because of what he had written about women, black kids and the poor. To well-off center-leaning liberals, Williamson is the perfect post-Trump conservative: superficially literary, ostentatiously nasty, profoundly disgusted by the weak, yet (and this is super-duper important) opposed to the current president.
Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg explained today why he hired Williamson. Nailed it! Not only was Goldberg and The Atlantic aware of Williamson's writing, they love it: "I recognized the power, contrariness, wit, and smart construction of many of his pieces. I also found him to be ideologically interesting". Moreover, Goldberg was party to Williamson deleting his Twitter account, to ease his transition from the reactionary right to columnist at a liberal-ish magazine.
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.
Goldberg's rationale also makes clear something else, though: they (rather sanctimoniously) think that Williamson has "grown" beyond his National Review persona, and that his willingless to do so is part of why they hired him.
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.
Emphasis mine. This is the most revealing thing in all this. Goldberg implies that the things Williamson wrote were a kind of ideological clothing, flourishes that say nothing sincere about the man. His attitude will change as easily as a pair of socks--at least when the right foot is put forward under their masthead.
In other words, they simply don't take what Williamson has said seriously.
A conservative (I can't remember who--if you know, tell me) recently wrote something very insightful about (I think) liberals. Liberals, he wrote, tend to think conservatives and Christians don't really believe what they say. They assume it's all posture and imposture in pursuit of politics. They constantly call conservatives "trolls". As I recall, the author proposed that this is a projection, a tell, revealing the feckless, floating indifference to morality at the left-end of America's political mainstream.
Goldberg's explanation for hiring Williamson seems the perfect illustration of this.
Frankly, I'm with the unnamed conservative of my memory (or perhaps imagination). Williamson's beliefs are not a pair of rhetorical socks. I accept that the things Williamson has said are the things that Williamson believes. I suspect that his enmity toward women and minorities runs cold and deep. Goldberg should think seriously about such people who read and work at The Atlantic, left to quietly wonder where Williamson keeps his rope.