Editor’s Note: S.E. Cupp is a CNN political commentator and the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered,” covering contemporary issues on HLN. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
It’s nice to see so many of my conservative colleagues rush to the defense of one of our own, who was recently fired by a liberal magazine.
But, while I appreciate the solidarity, their outrage is misplaced.
Let me begin by saying I respect the hell out of Kevin D. Williamson, who was recently hired – and fired two weeks later – by The Atlantic. He is one of the smartest and most talented writers I’ve ever met, and I have long been in awe of his considerable gifts. Even when I disagree with him, I am always grateful that he has challenged my orthodoxy.
That said, The Atlantic was well within their purview to let him go over the issue of his stated view that women who undergo abortions should “be hanged,” and the magazine wasn’t merely “caving” to Twitter pressure in doing so.
The defensiveness of my friends and fellow conservatives is wholly understandable.
Liberal media often feigns a tolerance for conservative thinkers – hiring one is often their proof of ideological diversity – only to eschew them for merely writing or talking like actual conservatives. It’s a gnawing problem when you consider that Keith Olbermann, one of media’s most noteworthy misogynists, keeps getting hired by reputable outfits like Conde Nast and ESPN, despite his utterly indefensible and violent outbursts about conservative women.
There is also a thing in political media, wherein a liberal outlet hires a token conservative to represent all of conservatism, but really doesn’t want that conservative to be muscular in his or her beliefs. It’s a kind of conservatism that feels microwaved, warmed over and anodyne, the kind of conservatism that is safe for the left to ingest in bite-sized morsels.
Of course, that’s hardly a service to readers or viewers, who will come to believe through this person – a Bret Stephens at The New York Times or a Jennifer Rubin at the Washington Post, for example – that they are all of conservatism, or at least what they want conservatism to be. When, really, a reliable conservative would never pen an essay calling for repeal of the Second Amendment, as Stephens has done in The Times. Twice. But it satisfies the Times’ left-leaning editorial board and readers who tell themselves, “Now this is our kind of conservative.” (Yes – the kind that sounds like a liberal.)
That phenomenon has long plagued conservatives who’ve had to make a choice: work within the right-wing media bubble, or cross over to the mainstream to have your ideas watered down.
But that’s not what happened in the case of Kevin Williamson.
The Atlantic, in seeking to hire a conservative thinker, could not have found a more robust or provocative one than Williamson. Staunch and principled, he has never moderated his positions for the sake of his audience, whether that was on MSNBC or on Twitter. If The Atlantic had been looking to hire a squish disguised as a right-winger, Williamson was the wrong choice.
So, it’s implausible that Williamson’s avowedly pro-life position is the reason he was fired, as some conservatives are suggesting. A cursory Google search of his name would quickly reveal that fact.
As editor Jeffrey Goldberg said in his memo to staff explaining Williamson’s firing: “We obviously understood that Kevin himself is pro-life when we hired him to write for us.”
But his particular view that women who have abortions should be subjected to “violent” forms of capital punishment like hanging – lethal injection was “too antiseptic,” he said in a podcast – was apparently a bridge too far for The Atlantic.
“The language used in the podcast was callous and violent. This runs contrary to The Atlantic’s tradition of respectful, well-reasoned debate, and to the values of our workplace,” wrote Goldberg.
While I wish more publications had the courage to publish the most extreme – and even offensive – viewpoints, The Atlantic, like every other media outlet, has an audience to cater to and respect. They made what they thought was the best business decision for their readers.
The real problem I have with the conservative outrage over his dismissal is that I don’t believe Kevin’s view is a particularly conservative one.
For one, respecting life requires consistency. Abortion is an horrific and abhorrent societal ill, but capital punishment, whereby the state is empowered to kill human beings, some of whom turn out to have been innocent, is not consistent with a pro-life perspective. For another, I don’t know any conservatives who believe women should be punished for having an abortion.
In fact, that’s a lesson Donald Trump learned on the campaign trail, when he said to Chris Matthews at a town hall that “there has to be some form of punishment” for women who have illegal abortions. He later recanted, offering the more widely accepted conservative view that “If abortion were disallowed, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman. The woman is a victim in this case, as is the life in her womb.”
Defending Williamson’s freedom of speech is inherently a conservative thing to do. But defending his actual prescription is not.
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As conservatives, we are right to be frustrated that we are often used by liberal outlets to either be tokens or exotic animals to gawk at. We are right to be disappointed that there isn’t more bravery among these outlets to represent actual conservatism, and not a desalinated version that’s easier to drink. And we are right to be angry that liberals often find far more forgiveness for expressing their extreme views than we do.
But as conservatives, we should also be careful not to knee-jerkingly defend everything a noted conservative says just because he says it. I’m confident Kevin Williamson will be published by more courageous outlets for years to come, and I’m grateful for that. But the decision The Atlantic made was fair.