This has now become the standard conservative line on the Kevin Williamson affair, care of Bret Stephens of The New York Times. The “you” refers to Kevin Williamson.
The case against you, as best as I can tell, rests on three charges. You think abortion is murder and tweeted — appallingly in my view — that doctors and women should perhaps be hanged for it. You believe “sex is a biological reality” and that gender should not be a choice. And you once boorishly described an African-American boy in East St. Louis, Ill., “raising his palms to his clavicles, elbows akimbo, in the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” …
Weighed against these charges are hundreds of thousands of words of smart, stylish and often hilarious commentary, criticism and reportage. …
Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something? Not according to your critics. We live in the age of guilt by pull-quote, abetted by a combination of lazy journalism, gullible readership, missing context, and technologies that make our every ill-considered utterance instantly accessible and utterly indelible. I jumped at your abortion comment, but for heaven’s sake, it was a tweet. When you write a whole book on the need to execute the tens of millions of American women who’ve had abortions, then I’ll worry.
We also live in an age — another one — of excommunication. This is ugly because its spirit is illiberal, and odd, because its consequences are negligible. Should The Atlantic foolishly succumb to pressure to rescind your job offer, you’ll still be widely read, presumably at National Review. If you’re really the barbarian your critics claim, you’re already through the gates.
The Atlantic did eventually rescind Williamson’s job offer, so I guess the barbarian has been ejected from the gates. Question in passing: if the consequences of the current spirit of excommunication are “negligible,” why the fuss?
Stephens’s argument amounts to a handwaving sort of discursive consequentialism, which seems to go as follows:
- Williamson committed discursive transgression(s), X.
- But his writings have attractive features, and have produced beneficial consequences, Y.
- Y outweighs X, in part because there’s just quantitatively more of Y than there is of X.
- Given (3), there are more Y-type consequences to be expected in Williamson’s glorious future at The Atlantic than X-type ones.
- So our verdict on Williamson should be sufficiently positive to permit him to keep his job at The Atlantic.
Reading conservatives on Williamson, you’d think that discourse was best evaluated by a kind of journalistic version of Bentham’s hedonic calculus: how bad a writer could someone be if reading him makes you feel good? How bad could he be if he consistently makes you feel really good? Never mind that you could, by that expedient, make an argument for just about anything, from pushpin to poetry, or for that matter, from Wordsworth to Julius Streicher. I sometimes wonder whether, despite their fulminations against “relativism,” that’s precisely the point.
Three questions arise about arguments of the preceding sort.
- Is discursive consequentialism the right way of thinking about issues of this sort?
- If so, how exactly are the calculations to be made? How do we assign the relevant weights to pages written and smartness-stylishness-hilariousness of writing, versus moral rebarbativeness and stupidity of writing, discounted by the forum in which it appears (e.g., National Review versus Twitter)?
- Once made, what would consistency require in the way of applying discursive consequentialism across the board?
Fundamental as they are, set aside the first and second questions above, and focus on the third.
Imagine that instead of hiring Kevin Williamson the smart-stylish-hilarious conservative polemicist, The Atlantic had hired Kevin Williamson*, a smart-stylish-hilarious anti-Zionist/anti-Israeli polemicist, suspected with some (though not conclusive) reason, of being an anti-Semite. Think of him, I suppose, as a smarter, more stylish, and funnier Gilad Atzmon, widely regarded as beyond the pale in most discursively respectable settings in Israel and the United States. In setting up this thought-experiment, I don’t mean to imply that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. I’m just asking the reader to imagine a case in which they seem to–and might very well–overlap.
Now imagine that the case against Williamson* rested on three (or so) charges:
- Williamson* regards it as murder for the Israeli army to shoot at the Gaza protesters, particularly the unarmed journalists among them.
- He suggests that those members of the IDF who shot at the Gaza protesters be hanged, along with all of their commanders, up to and including Israel’s Defense Minister and Prime Minister. Indeed, Williamson* ambiguously invokes the fate of Mussolini in the same tweet, suggesting that Benjamin Netanyahu et al deserve to be hanged from the lightposts of Jerusalem. Being a mere tweet, the reader can’t quite be sure what he’s trying to say. But it sure sounds like that. Or something like that. So hard to tell! Twitter can be so ambiguous.
- Asked to clarify, Williamson* goes on to insist that he means what he says–whatever that amounts to–adding for good measure that he regards the murderousness of Israeli soldiers, commanders, politicians, and polity as inherent in the Zionist project, indeed probably intrinsic to Judaism itself. Thing is, we read this account of his “considered views” second-hand, from one of his critics, so that what he actually said remains fogbound.
Perhaps the preceding leaves you unmoved. It seems a bit over-the-top, maybe, but hardly anti-Semitic. I mean, Jeremy Corbyn or Norman Finkelstein might have said as much, but who would accuse them of anti-Semitism, much less initiate a campaign against them to deny them employment or ruin their careers?
If you see no problem with Williamson’s*statements as so far described, feel free to throw in whatever will float your boat or get your goat as far as outrageous anti-Semitism is concerned: e.g., some ambiguous Williamson* tweets about the “biological nature of the Jew” (bolstered by a few studies that show the high correlation between Tay Sachs disease and Ashkenazi Jewry); maybe a dubiously ambiguous tweet or two about the greed and hooked noses of the Jew; and finally some subtle (but really “smart” and “stylish”) Holocaust denial of the David Irving variety. Whatever you ascribe to Williamson*, just make sure that it’s really subtle, vague, and ambiguous, and all intended in a kind of trolly, I’m-just-joshing, can’t-you-just-taste-the-irony vein. Indeed, make sure it’s so ambiguous that you can make fun of anyone stupid enough to take it literally.
Then throw in a lot of anguished anti-Zionists, many of them personal friends of Williamson*, anxious to tell us how appalling they find his stuff–but, who, having crossed that pro forma “t,” then wax rhapsodic on how damn smart it is and how smart he is, sowing bits of salutary doubt as to whether Williamson* really meant what he said about hanging anyone.
While you’re at it, throw some more in. One of them might produce all-out-idiotic, strawman-heavy trash of this sort, making no discernible point, but successfully poisoning the well against anyone who might wonder whether Williamson* was an appropriate choice for The Atlantic. Some might make random, half-assed accusations of this kind. Some might perceive in Williamson’s “firing” a vertiginous descent into the horrors of a totalitarian state. And others will, paradoxically, praise Williamson’s* writings to the skies while making excuses for the fact that when he tweets, he sounds like a real fucking idiot.
Wouldn’t consistency require a discursive consequentialist of the Bret Stephens variety to weigh the rebarbative nature of Williamson’s* anti-IDF, anti-Israel, anti-Zionist, and anti-Jewish claims above against “the thousands of words of smart, stylish, and hilarious commentary” that Williamson* the Journo-Genius had written? And if we discovered that he’d written a lot of “smart, stylish, and hilarious” commentary on other topics, wouldn’t we have to discount Williamson’s* recommendation about hanging the Israeli soldiers and their commanders (and the Defense Minister and Prime Minister), about the evils of Zionism and possibly of Judaism, shrug our shoulders, and move on in anticipation of the smart-stylish-hilarious commentary that we expected him to write once installed at The Atlantic?
That conclusion ought to be a no-brainer for Stephens et al. It is, to borrow a phrase, not an absurd but an entirely straightforward implication of their view. I’m just eager to hear them say it out loud. Because isn’t epater les bourgeois what this whole controversy is about?
The deeper philosophical issue here is whether there are moral transgressions, discursive or otherwise, that can’t be reckoned up in an ad hoc “calculation” of the kind Stephens envisions. Could there be bad actions whose consequences are simply incommensurable with the good consequences of good actions, so that it makes no sense to weigh the one against the other and conclude that the total gains of the good count for more than the total losses of the bad?
It’s a question. I don’t claim to have a conclusive answer. What is disheartening is not that the question comes up so often. Nor is it that it mostly remains unresolved. What’s disheartening is how much stupid, deliberately insulting shit is written in order to evade it.
Equally disheartening is the sense of moral priorities involved, and the moral myopia that abets it. In a world where people like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Stephen Salaita, Juan Cole, Nadia Abu al Haj, and Rashid Khalidi have essentially been blacklisted for their pro-Palestinian views for decades*–in a milieu where we complacently watch the Israelis pick off unarmed civilians one by one, then more or less fall asleep doing so–our public intellectuals are fixated on the fact that one right-wing asshole just “fired” another. The one asshole made his name as a guard in an Israeli prison camp, and now spends his days writing anti-Arab dispatches from the pleasant environs of the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem. The other asshole, having been “fired” from one prestigious outlet, has no dearth of job opportunities waiting for him elsewhere.
In other words, as far as American intellectuals are concerned, the journalist “fired” from The Atlantic is all-important. Meanwhile, the journalist literally fired at and killed at the Gaza border is a bore. And people wonder why we’re hated.
Hang it all! Or do I mean, hang them all? Not that I’d seriously suggest hanging anyone. No need to get all strung up by a bit of gallows humor.
*For basics of the Salaita case, see this. On the others, see John Mearsheimer, “Israel and Academic Freedom,” and Noam Chomsky, “Academic Freedom and the Subservience to Power,” in Akeel Bilgrami and Jonathan R. Cole ed., Who’s Afraid of Academic Freedom?