Not being on Twitter, I managed to miss the moment in 2014 when Kevin D. Williamson — possibly the shortest-tenured staff writer in the history of The Atlantic Monthly — called for the execution of the estimated one in four American women who will have an abortion in their lifetimes.
Instead, Williamson first came to my attention because of another group he thought deserved to die: the members of the white working class who were powering Donald Trump's rise:
If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn't Beijing. It wasn't even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn't immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn't any of that.
Nothing happened to them. There wasn't some awful disaster. There wasn't a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. Even the economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice — of poor white America. . . .
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. [National Review]
Of course, Williamson wasn't actually calling for people who live in these communities to be executed. Rather, he was calling for an end to compassion for their plight. Left to their own devices, they would have no choice but to change or die — and we could observe either outcome with detachment.
But Williamson also didn't exactly call for the execution of a huge percentage of American women either. What he called for — in all sincerity — was changing the law to treat abortion like what the overwhelming preponderance of anti-abortion rhetoric calls it: murder.
Presumably, making abortion punishable by death would lead very quickly to a precipitous drop in the abortion rate. If it didn't, it's frankly hard to picture Williamson promoting a gestapo-like organization to root out and exterminate secret abortionists and their clients, because he is also on record as attacking the police for being just another inherently incompetent and oppressive arm of government, only worse because they have guns. His cheerful conviction that if our government collapsed from the weight of its own incompetence that would be an unalloyed good thing rests comfortably beside his breeziness about setting up the gallows because he is not so much bloodthirsty as possessed of a deeply misanthropic sangfroid.
Williamson, in other words, is a provocateur — a particularly smart and witty one, but still, a provocateur rather than a thinker. He's not a hack — I'm convinced he says what he actually thinks — but what he thinks is primarily a reaction to the imbecility he sees around him, and more often intended to provoke his readers to doubt their own beliefs than to advance any real agenda of his own. His particular stock in trade is not misogyny or racism but a generalized contempt for the vast majority of humanity.
Is that what The Atlantic wanted for its heralded ideas section, the primary venue for which it hired Williamson? It's hard to say, because it's hard to say what the section was to be for. The Atlantic is not in the business of advancing a particular ideological agenda, as National Review or The Nation are. So if they hire a columnist to advance her "ideas," it's presumably either because they find those ideas exceptionally surprising and compelling, and/or because they are trying to get a good cross-section of the ideational landscape, and the writer in question does a good job of covering her turf.
Williamson is too odd a duck to have performed the latter function reliably. But what's distinctly interesting about Williamson is not so much his ideas but his intellectual persona. And yet, it's precisely that persona — the fact that he says things like that if abortion is murder we ought to prosecute it as such — that got him fired. It's hard not to draw the conclusion that The Atlantic's editors hired Williamson in the hopes that he'd provoke their readers to click and tweet, but no more — on the understanding, in other words, that nobody would actually take him seriously. What does that say about how seriously The Atlantic takes the idea of ideas?
Ultimately, Williamson's views on abortion might be less provocative to pro-abortion readers than to his own anti-abortion fellows. For pro-abortion readers, those views are just confirmation of what they already feared; they may be outraged, but they aren't going to be challenged. For opponents of abortion, on the other hand, they force the point: If abortion is murder, then all of us have friends and relations who are murderers. Are we sanguinely to contemplate their hanging while comfortably chatting with them over coffee in the break room? If not, is it because we lack the courage of our own convictions, or because our convictions are not what we appear to claim?
In fact, had he stayed at The Atlantic, it is likely Williamson himself who would have been provoked, either in print or in person, by some of those same break-room companions. It's a pity that's not the kind of exchange of ideas The Atlantic wanted. How he answered them might well have been far more enlightening to read than any provocations of his own.