Mainstream magazines in the Donald Trump era have been scrambling to hire more right-leaning columnists to demonstrate their commitment to diversity of thought. These efforts have borne fruit, though not exactly in the manner intended. Instead of showing the value of vibrant debate, they’ve demonstrated that conservative ideas aren’t worth debating.
The Atlantic’s recent personnel choices are a case in point. The magazine has just hired two new columnists, one on the left, one on the right. The left columnist, Ibram X. Kendi, is the author of Stamped from the Beginning. The monograph is a groundbreaking, painstaking history of the development of racist and anti-racist ideas in America that challenges comfortable notions of progress against bigotry. It won the National Book Award. The right columnist, Kevin D. Williamson, is a writer formerly at National Review who has referred to a nine-year-old black child as a ”primate.”
Most of the online discussion following The Atlantic’s hires has focused on Williamson, especially on a series of tweets in which he stated that women who have abortions should be hanged. Kendi has been largely forgotten — but the contrast between his work and Williamson’s is instructive. Kendi is a pioneering anti-racist, while Williamson regurgitates tired racist bilge. But beyond that, Kendi shows that it would be trivially easy for high profile, mainstream venues to find serious, important, respected, left scholars to write for them.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, Julia Serano, Safiya Umoja Noble, Laura Agustín — the left has an embarrassment of thinkers with unique perspectives and valuable knowledge who could enrich the public discourse. And the right has ... Kevin D. Williamson, a longtimer in the right-wing media bubble whose brilliant, provocative ideas include the suggestion that we should name rape accusers.
Would American intellectual life really lose out because we aren’t debating whether women who have abortions should be hanged?
It’s not just Williamson, either. Bret Stephens, The New York Times’ high profile conservative hire, kicked off his tenure with an embarrassing column spouting climate change denial. Later he penned a defense of Woody Allen which ignored substantial evidence that the actor had abused his then 7-year-old adoptive daughter. Stephens also compared Allen favorably to former Olympic gymnast national team doctor Larry Nassar, because Nassar abused more than 250 children, while Allen was accused only of abusing one.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post hired libertarian conservative writer Megan McArdle. McArdle seriously recommended in 2012 that we could reduce gun violence by training children to rush active shooters. “If we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly,” she insisted.
McArdle, Stephens, and Williamson have all been mercilessly mocked on social media. In response, conservatives have wailed that liberals are intolerant, and don’t want any conservatives to write in the mainstream. “If left-leaning but not explicitly ideological publications cleanse their pages of conservative voices, the loss to American intellectual life will be immense,” National Review fulminates.
But would it? Would American intellectual life really lose out because we aren’t debating whether women who have abortions should be hanged? What does Williamson’s cruel, bigoted refusal to use Laverne Cox’s proper pronouns add to “American intellectual life”? Our public discourse ― or for that matter life on earth ― is not enriched but imperiled by ignorant, ideological efforts to cast doubt on the consensus around climate change.
The issue is not left intolerance. The issue is that conservative intellectuals make bad, often nonsensical arguments, and spout opinions that are hateful and harmful on their face.
Nor is this a surprise, given the last several decades of American history. Anyone looking objectively at the GOP’s record in politics over the last 30-odd years would reasonably conclude that conservatism is a bankrupt and harmful ideology, built on bigotry and a fetishization of tax cuts for the rich. The previous Republican president, George W. Bush, presided over an unnecessary and catastrophic war, a horrifyingly incompetent hurricane relief effort, and a historic, devastating financial collapse. The current Republican president is an incompetent would-be authoritarian whose main accomplishments so far have involved empowering a fascist police force to harass and deport innocent people. The Republican Congress put forth incoherent health care plan after incoherent health care plan, before ramming through a similarly incoherent tax cut for the wealthy.
Conservatism in office has brought Americans war, financial disaster, misery, and rising fascism. Conservative pundits, meanwhile, write column after column propounding ill-informed, bigoted, and cruel solutions to problems that don’t exist, while denying the existence of real injustices and misery.
This is not some sort of coincidence. Conservative governance is a disaster because conservative thinking is bankrupt. Giving more space to conservative thinkers is not going to make our polity more diverse and vibrant. It’s going to fill our public sphere with prejudice and ignorance. Ibram X. Kendi challenges and enlightens. Kevin D. Williamson does neither of those things.
The left is constantly told that we’re shutting down debate and thereby threatening free speech. But no one is owed a platform at a mainstream publication. The record of conservative governance, and the record of conservative pundits, makes a strong case that conservative ideas have little to offer in response to our greatest problems now, if they ever did.
Yes, lots of people believe in conservatism, but lots of people believe in astrology, too. That doesn’t mean that mainstream publications should start running serious op-eds about what the arrangement of the stars says about the major political issues of our day. (Though admittedly astrology is a lot less harmful than conservatism.)
The rise of Trump should have led gatekeepers to question the legitimacy and the value of conservatism. Predictably, though, it has done the opposite. Power is always its own justification, and Trump’s narrow, fluke victory has convinced editors at The New York Times and The Atlantic that what America really wants and needs is more serious conservatism to challenge readers. But “serious conservatism” is an oxymoron, and readers are ill-served by garbage provocations, bigotry, and ignorance couched as “challenges.”
If conservatives have thinkers and scholars on the level of Ibram X. Kendi, bring them forward. In the meantime, Kevin D. Williamson, and all the other fourth-rate proponents of his failed ideology, should be shown the door. Our public sphere would be more vibrant, more thoughtful, more productive, and yes, more free, without them.
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.