The awkward effort to integrate more conservative voices into mainstream media outlets continues. The outcry over the New York Times's hiring of columnist Bret Stephens has largely passed, but the outcry over the Atlantic's recent hiring of former National Review writer Kevin Williamson has now achieved the left's desired result: Williamson was let go Thursday by the Atlantic, a few days after he was hired.
The Fix's Callum Borchers has a worthwhile summary of the situation, including the conservative backlash over Williamson's firing. And reasonable people can disagree about whether Williamson's comments suggesting capital punishment for women who obtain abortions should be acceptable in modern political discourse.
But just how outside the mainstream were they? I would argue they were a pretty logical extension of what tens of millions of Americans believe — and that they were pretty consistent with the ethos of the antiabortion movement. If anything, Williamson's crime seems to be taking his publicly expressed beliefs to their rational conclusion in a way others don't, while adding a little extra provocation that he probably regrets.
Here's what Williamson has said:
- In 2014, he was asked on Twitter whether “the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.” He responded in a since-deleted tweet about appropriate punishments: “I have hanging … in mind.”
- In a newly discovered discussion on a National Review podcast, Williamson reiterated that position. “I would totally go with treating it like any other crime, up to and including hanging,” he said, adding: “I’m kind of squishy about capital punishment in general, but I've got a soft spot for hanging, as a form of capital punishment.”
That podcast and Williamson's explanation of it seem to have sealed his fate. The Atlantic's chief editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, said in a statement Thursday that he felt misled by Williamson. “The language he used in this podcast — and in my conversations with him in recent days — made it clear that the original tweet did, in fact, represent his carefully considered views," Goldberg said. "The tweet was not merely an impulsive, decontextualized, heat-of-the-moment post, as Kevin had explained it.” It's also undoubtedly true that saying “hanging” rather than some other form of punishment pushed the envelope — though I doubt Williams would still be employed if he had chosen a more modern version of capital punishment.
Still, the fact that Williamson's argument was seen as objectionable in the first place is probably difficult for lots of Americans to understand. The idea that abortion is murder has been a popular viewpoint in the United States. It forms the foundation on which the antiabortion movement is based. If you don't believe abortion is taking a life, after all, why else would you want the procedure prohibited?
While there isn't good recent data, polling in the 1990s and early 2000s showed between 43 percent and 57 percent of Americans thought abortion was akin to murder, according to Gallup. A 1996 University of Virginia poll found that 38 percent — about 4 in 10 Americans — viewed it as murder and said it was just as bad as killing someone who had already been born. As for punishments, a 2000 Los Angeles Times poll showed 3 in 10 Americans felt women who obtained abortions should be punished.
Yet while much of the country argues that abortion is tantamount to murder, there is little mainstream debate about it being punished as such. Even hugely socially conservative, antiabortion politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum have said there should be no punishments for women.
And even President Trump, who has built an entire political brand by eschewing political correctness, got tripped up on this issue and backed down. When MSNBC's Chris Matthews asked him during the 2016 campaign whether women who obtain illegal abortions should be punished, Trump initially said, “The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.” He soon recanted.
If anything, though, Trump's stumble into this reinforces how logical a conclusion that was. Trump, whose abortion views have changed vastly in a politically convenient direction, seemed to be giving the answer that made sense for the antiabortion politician he had decided he now was.
And it's easy to see what his thought process was. Women who seek abortions are, after all, proactively seeking out procedures that lots and lots of people regard as ending human life. If abortion is murder, isn't that at the very least being an accomplice to murder? If you stop short of that, it sort of undermines your entire argument that abortion and murder are the same thing.
People can and will disagree about whether that position is okay. But Williamson's argument was an outgrowth — however provocatively worded — of something that as much as half the country has come to believe.