Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: So, Kevin, thanks for coming on the show today.
Kevin Williamson: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Nico: Your book is largely about how mob-like behavior is increasingly dictating the scope of what can be expressed and – and even who can be employed here in America. So, I wanna start with some examples for our listeners. What does the mob look like in modern America?
Kevin: Well, it’s a combination of things and it’s slightly different in different situations. We have your familiar, kind of social media aggregation mob, usually on Twitter, but sometimes on Facebook and other forms of social media. And these are things that sometimes form spontaneously, that sometimes are the product of invention and designed by political groups and other groups that are dedicated to that purpose. We also have – and what I think is probably more significant to a lot of people – an internal version of that inside a lot of organizations.
You see this at media outlets and companies like Google and Twitter and Facebook and The New York Times; in which you’ve both got the external pressure of the social media campaign, but that’s really acting as a pretext or a supplement to internal pressure of people who are employees and staffers and executives who have particular political or social ends that they want to bend the organization toward. So, you have Dean Baquet, who’s the editor of The New York Times, mentioned this in a recent staff meeting, where he said, “There’s people on the outside and people on the inside who push the newspaper toward taking the more left wing, more partisan democratic view of things.”
And sometimes these are really, really, very focused, like you got one person who is targeted for thinking or saying something that is unpopular. Or sometimes it’s more of an organizational thing, like pressuring The New York Times to change a headline about President Trump, or something along those lines. So, it’s something that goes across the social and political spectrum, but tends mostly to be a phenomenon that happens within the relatively small subpopulation of educated, politically-engaged people who are very active on social media.
And because those people are socially influential because they tend to be the people who are most involved in politics, cultural institutions, educational institutions, and news media, these phenomena – some of them have a larger scope and impact than they actually do.
Nico: Well mob behavior’s kind of been present throughout American history, right? I mean whether –
Kevin: In history.
Nico: Yeah, whether it’s the Tea Party movement. It could the assassination of Elijah Lovejoy, the pro and anti-union street fights of the early 20th century, civil rights protesters, moral majority, the list goes on. How is this era of mob behavior different than past eras of mob behavior? And is it more concerning than past eras?
Kevin: Well, no. I don’t think so. There’s always a tendency to tell ourselves that we live in the most significant times – the most extreme times. And ironically, that helps to foment that kind of mob behavior. But compared to what, say, John Brown was doing in the 19th century, or what the Klan was doing in the 1930s, actual mobs – actually lynching people and doing that sort of thing – what we have right now is pretty mild by comparison.
What it reminds me of is a combination of two things. Right around the time of the Red Scare, there was a sort of related movement that is sometimes written about as the Lavender Menace, which was dedicated to the outing of gay men in professional positions – especially in government and universities and things like that. And that to me seems significant because it was a campaign that was based on discrediting people for something that was a purportedly disqualifying moral failing, and the use of employment as the main weapon of political coercion, which is something we’re seeing right now. The other thing it reminds me of, which is much less serious, I think, and in some ways humorous – is the panic in the 1980s over things like heavy metal music and rap music –
Kevin: – by people like Tipper Gore and the PMRC. And the idea that if these naughty things that are said or sang, or these naughty images are allowed to exist in public, that they will somehow cause these horrifying consequences of suicide, and they will make drug addicts out of people who weren’t drug addicts. And they will make Satanists out of people who were Methodists the day before. And that was an interesting era to me, because that was my youth and I was a fan of punk music and heavy metal music during that time and I remember the panic over it. And at the time, it seemed to me, just psychologically transparent, and in retrospect, even more so – which was that this happened when the country was really at the crest of the great wave of divorces that began in the 1960s and crested in the 1970s, 1980s. And suddenly, you had a lot of parents who were very concerned about the state of their children, state of their family. And it’s very difficult sometimes for people to admit their actual motivations for things, or what the actual problem is.
So, on the one hand, we got this thing where Twisted Sister and Ozzy Osbourne were destroying the youth of America – not that the fact that their parents and their families were defective. And on the other side, we got the much more serious, but related phenomenon, of the satanic sexual ritual abuse cases, in which people went to prison for a great long time for crimes that were never committed, based on evidence that was made up by children and therapists using now-discredited – and in fact then-discredited techniques – such as recovered memory and that sort of thing.
So, we have a related thing now with this kind of magical thinking that makes direct connections between things like, if you are insufficiently supportive of, say, the agenda of trans rights organizations, then this constitutes an act of violence because trans people, for instance, have higher rates of suicide; they suffer from violent crime at higher rates, higher rates of addiction, things like that. So, it’s your speech isn’t speech, your speech is something that is causing these unhappy and undesirable social consequences. Of course, it’s pure superstition, and it’s made to repress, and it speaks to cultural rivalries and anxieties in much the same way as the Ozzy Osbourne scare of the 1980s did.
Nico: Well what should we be encouraging people to do then? Because it’s easy to, I guess, identify the problem. We don’t want people getting fired for believing or expressing their innermost thoughts. But, for limited government folk, libertarian-leaning folk, people who care about freedom, often we talk about how social sanction is kind of the release valve that we have when you don’t have the less desirable government sanctioned policing behavior.
So, the question is, can we do without both, or is there a certain level of social sanction that’s appropriate in a free society? And if so, how do you educate people about what that social sanction should be and the excesses of going too far? Because it’s one thing to say that there’s a problem – it’s another thing entirely to tell people, or educate people or discuss with people the proper ways to behave. Is it just as simple as, don’t try and get people fired from their jobs for believing something?
Kevin: Yeah, well some of this – I mean, the problem with all this is you can never really develop a hard and fast rule. You always have to end up relying on prudence, and wisdom, and a sense of proportionality, and all the rest of it. So, social sanction often is a very, very useful and desirable thing. I think most of us are glad there was a such a thing as a Montgomery Bus Boycott. And this was an important chapter in the evolution of civil rights in America. I think a lot of us are glad that Mohandas Gandhi did his salt protest, and other things like that.
The fact that Charles Merry’s been invited to deliver a lecture at Oberlin is not the same thing as millions of Americans living disenfranchised and unable to travel or own property or work because of their race. These just are not related things. They are not proportional things. The fact that Milo Yiannopoulis might write a book somewhere is not apartheid. We need a sense of proportion about those things, and a sense of what is sensible.
So, do we want to live in a country in which, if your congressman is Joaquin Castro, and you simply make a donation to the political party that he is not in – to its presidential candidate – that your local congressman is going to try and ruin you, your business, your family, financially, economically, things like that. I don’t think that’s a healthy place to be.
But of course that means we have to rely on the wisdom and restraint and prudence of men such as Joaquin Castro, which of course, you cannot, because they are fools and self-interested, and they know that people are easily scared and easily misled and easily buffaloed into doing whatever it is you want them to do, which is why they become politicians in the first place.
There are also things that we need to think about. There were these kids – well, not kids – they were adults, but young men – who were at that horrible thing in Charlottesville, carrying torches and chanting, and all that stuff. And they have horrible political ideas – they’re neo-Nazis – but some of them were fired from jobs at fast food restaurants, and things like that. Do we really want Mojo Burrito to be the world’s police of what is acceptable political speech and isn’t? And especially, we’re talking about people on their own time. We’re not talking about someone who had done something at work. We’re talking about people expressing opinions and political views – even horrible ones – on their own time in their capacity as private citizens.
So, is there such a thing as private life? And it’s very strange to me that progressives have taken the lead in this. They’ve always positioned themselves and presented themselves as the alternative to corporate power, and the people who are there to keep a check on business interests. And now apparently the human resources departments of the Fortune 500 and Google and Facebook are to be the arbiters of what acceptable political speech is and isn’t. And I don’t think that’s a very healthy place for society to be.
Nico: Yeah, kinda two points based on what you just said – it gets down to essentially what your definition of what is good is, because presumably the people who were engaged in this mob-like behavior that you identify think that they’re on the side of the good and the just and the righteous. And they would argue that, for example, whether it’s keeping you on at The Atlantic, or getting rid of Milo Yiannopoulis’ book, serves some sort of social justice end that is desirable. And in that sense, you could delineate mob-like behavior from community organizing, or maybe you can. Is community organizing a type of mob-like behavior, and you only call it a mob when you don’t like the ends of the organizing?
So that’s one thought that’s kinda hard to wrap your head around. The other is, some of the community organizing that you identified there – whether it’s Mohandas Gandhi or the bus boycotts – seem to be framed in this idea of common identity politics. My boss, Greg Lukianoff, and his co-author Jonathan Haidt, kinda talk about the civil rights era as one in which civil rights leaders were saying that, “You are my brothers and sisters, and we wanna brought in within the fold of all that America has to offer,” rather than how they frame it.
Today’s – I don’t know, we can call it mob-like behavior, community organizing – where it’s framed around this idea of common enemy. You are the enemy and therefore you must be purged from the society. And I think about this man named Daryl Davis, who – is a black man, lives right in Washington DC, right outside in Maryland – who befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan – you may have heard about this – as a way to try and get them to give up their robes. And he doesn’t get them to give up their robes by calling them names and trying to get them fired from their jobs or otherwise ostracizing them from society. He tries to get off their robes by demonstrating through his force of personality that their ideas are wrong. And he’s been remarkably successful on that, but he’s also taken flak from other organizers – whether it’s Black Lives Matter or other groups – for that approach, because it is fundamentally a common identity approach.
So, you’re seeing a sort of difference in activism between the older generation and then the newer generation. And where that began – I don’t know, and I mean, do you know?
Kevin: Well, a couple of things that I will say about that. I think a lot of this activism is different in fundamental ways from say, the activism of the civil rights era, or the Indian Independence movement, or other things like that that we’ve mentioned, in that a lot of it isn’t really about politics, exactly. It’s not about people who are seeking particular policy goals and particular outcomes. It’s a sort of, public group therapy session, in which people engage in this ancient ritual of hating someone together.
So, you’re right that it’s more about common enemies than common identity. There are new sources of anxiety in life in the 20th century or 21st century, rather, for people. People change employers more often than they used to. There’s less stability in that sense. Americans move less often for work than they used to, but people at the top end of the educational and income spectrum move a lot – more than they used to, and they sort of set the tone, I think, for a lot of culture.
People get married later in life. They have children later in life. So, a lot of the things that they – they go to church less – so a lot of the things that used to give people a sense of relationship and belonging, cohesion, status, and the rest of it, have either been diminished or in many cases, taken away from people entirely by certain social changes that are beyond their control. When people feel that these status hierarchies and social relationships have been upended, and that everything is up for re-negotiation in terms of their social status, they get very, very anxious about this.
And we’ve seen this in other periods in the past, and often the outcome – there are social trends like religious fanaticism, or nationalism, things like that. In our time, we’re seeing it partly – at least among a certain slice of the American population – in the substitution of this particularly silly, shallow form of partisan identity politics for everything else that used to give people a sense of meaning. So, people now organize themselves and define themselves based not on who they are, but on who they hate. If you look at – you did a coalition that currently is the left, broadly speaking, or a coalition that is the right, broadly speaking, they’re both now based on hatred. On those people.
There are a lot of people who are on the right who disagree with each other, basically about all sorts of important fundamental policy questions like capitalism, trade, individual rights, the rules of law, those sorts of things. People on the left are the same way. There are people on the left who think of themselves as capitalists, people on the left who think of themselves as socialists. What papers over all this and gives them a sense of solidarity and cohesion is, “Well those bastards over there – at least we’re not them.”
And that normal team sports aspect of politics has now been elevated to the point that it excludes almost everything else.
Nico: And that’s because you see other institutions in society, that would have otherwise bound people together, diminishing. When I think about that, I think, “Well okay, what were some of these past institutions?” You mentioned some of them, whether it’s religion, or the bowling league, or even your country. Nationalism can be another one, patriotism – a kind of coming together around American values. But those can also manifest themselves in undesirable ways.
Kevin: Of course.
Nico: All you have to do is look at the Inquisition to see what religion can do or look at some – or the McCarthy era – to see what politics can do. And it’s funny that you say that some of this behavior comes from – I guess, just in short, a sense of loneliness – but it’s also coupled with the inability to de-individuate when you become a part of a group. I’ve talked about this on this show before, about how I was at one point – I’m not a protest guy – but there was at one point that I became a part of a protest. It was a large protest.
And I was really amped up about what I protesting. And I get surrounded by all the other protesters – hundreds in this case – and I start chanting and doing insane things that I would’ve never done, where I not in a part of that group. Had I thought about it by myself in my bedroom later that night, I would’ve been, “What’re you doing?” And that’s actually what happened, and I kind of told myself ever since that I’ll never become a part of a protest before, because I never wanna get carried away in that way again – lose my sense of individuality. So, it’s that – but it was also very powerful, and gave me a sense of being a part of something. So, there was that loneliness that made me become a part of – a protest is in a certain sense a mob-like behavior, it doesn’t always have to be bad – but become a part of the mob. But also, the way the mob acts on the individual can have some consequences that maybe aren’t desirable to the individual in other circumstances, or from a different perspective.
Kevin: For a lot of people, divesting themselves of their individualism is a kind of liberation. And I write about this quite a bit in the book. You see this both in Erich Fromm, who is a Marxist Freudian social critic, writing about the end of the Middle Ages, and the emergence of the earliest forms of capitalism. But you also see it in – oh, what else did I have in mind there? Erich Fromm, and who else is there?
Nico: Well, churches do this as well.
Kevin: Well, I’m thinking of Michael Oakeshott as well, who wrote about people who experience individualism as a burden rather than an opportunity. And in both cases, you see – I think the end of the Middle Ages obviously is a much more radical social change than where we are now at the beginning of what we call globalization – but when the old peasants – serf/lord relationships got upset and were put up for renegotiation, people were better off in material terms. Life is getting materially better for people, but they were really upset by it, because they were experiencing new kinds of anxiety.
And I think that’s what’s happening to us right now with what we call globalization, is that people are experiencing new kinds of anxiety. So, in the end of the Middle Ages, it manifested itself in the beginning of what became nationalism, and also the Protestant Reformation, and some kinds of religious fanaticism that were – that leapt into being at that time. And we’re seeing it less in the religious front right now, but we do see some of that and more on the political front, whether it’s the newfound love of – what they’re now calling nationalism again on the right, or socialism on the left.
Nico: So, I wanna ask you about this phrase that you use in your book called ochlocracy, which is essentially government by mob rule. And I wanted to ask, how is this distinguishable from democracy? Because ochlocracy and democracy – neither of which require for their definition to be valid, the protection of individual rights – so what – I mean does democracy have the imprimatur of like official government enshrined in constitution, and ochlocracy is a little bit more amorphous? Or are they more or less the same thing?
Kevin: Well they end up being very similar things. I think democracy is something that operates more under the color of the rule of law, whereas ochlocracy is something that combines the rule of law through institutions, either of government or companies, private actors, and things like that, with either the threat of extrajudicial violence, or other kinds of non-official forms of coercion. So, the way that ochlocracy typically works, and the reason I use that word instead of just mob rule, is that I want to distinguish it from lynch mobs and things like that, and riots, which are a phenomena of their own.
Ochlocracy, going back to the Greek and Roman examples of it – it was something that on their minds very much too – usually consists of the mob leaning on government, or leaning on some other valid institution to do the mob’s bidding for it. So, this is, “We want Barabbas.” This is, “The government must do this or else there’ll be riots.” And in a sense, we’ve written that into our jurisprudence. This is my argument with Oliver Wendell Holmes and the ‘can’t shout fire in a crowded theater thing’, which is one of the dumbest and most useless clichés in American public life.
Nico: Yeah, of course.
Kevin: And people forget that this was a concoction that came up with an argument for saying, “Yes, we can jail the leader of the Socialist Party for protesting World War I – for protesting conscription – because then if we don’t, then there will be civil unrest.” So, it’s essentially making a constitutional principle out of the hecklers’ veto. The problem with that, is that we’re in a position right now where we’ve got probably the best First Amendment jurisprudence we’ve had in the history of our country. The First Amendment is in very good shape, legally, as far as the courts are concerned.
But it’s also a question of culture, and culture ultimately will inform how the law is interpreted and whether it’s honored. So even though we’re in a situation right now where we’ve got very, very good legal protection, people are not really more free to speak in many ways than they were, say, in the 1970s or 1980s or 1990s.
Nico: It strikes me that there’s two other, maybe, minor differences between ochlocracy and democracy. I mean, democracy is often – although not necessarily – needs to be understood as a majority: you know, 50.0001. It doesn’t seem like that is a requirement for ochlocracy – a mob can be a minority.
Kevin: Yeah, and they often are, because, all you have to be is the loudest voice. And if everyone else is being quiet, and they’re at home watching The Bachelor, or looking at internet pornography, or whatever it is people do with their days, then the relatively small group of people who care a lot about politics can dominate the conversation. And of course, that’s the way it happens, and the way it has happened for a long time. You don’t become an op-ed writer at The New York Times, or in my case, a reporter and columnist for National Review, by accident.
You don’t just casually fall into it. It’s a self-selecting group of people. Political organizations are by definition led by people who care a lot about politics, which means people who care about power in most cases. And it is relatively easy, in a free society, to see your institutions dominated by relatively small groups of people.
This is what I get into a little bit in the early part of the book with Karl Loewenstein and the idea of illiberal democracy – which is something that’s much more common in Western Europe than it is in the United States – or militant democracy, as it’s sometimes known. And this is the idea that a government of liberal, democratic societies has a responsibility to sometimes behave in illiberal and undemocratic ways in order to protect the larger, liberal democratic order.
So, this is the theory under which Germany and Austria prohibit certain kinds of political parties, they criminalized possession to certain books. There are certain kinds of speech that will get you actually thrown in prison there that we wouldn’t normally countenance that sort of thing in the United States. But we’re starting to adopt – I think, in some ways – a more European version of what a speech culture looks like and what the proper role for the state in policing speech is. And that’s certainly the case on the left, and on some parts of the right as well.
And what Loewenstein was worried about though – and he was right about this – is that illiberal and anti-democratic and totalitarian movements and factions, even if they’re small, can exploit the natural weaknesses in liberal societies and democratic societies. They can exploit their openness and their tolerance for their own ends. One of – I don’t remember if it was actually Hitler who said this or someone writing about Hitler, I mentioned it in the book, but now I’m drawing a blank on it – that one of the great strengths of the totalitarian movements of the 20th century, is that they forced their opponents to imitate them. And I think there’s something to that.
Nico: Well, it brings up some of the ideas from the middle part of the 20th century from the Frankfurt School – thinking here about Herbert Marcuse and his repressive tolerance – the idea that in order to preserve an open society, a liberal order – he doesn’t use the word open society – but to preserve the liberal order of tolerant society, you’d need to repress certain political ideas; he more or less calls for outright censorship –
Kevin: Yeah, he does.
Nico: – government censorship of certain speakers in order to preserve this, and this is something that those of us who do First Amendment work, do free speech work if we’re talking about the culture at large, have been fighting against since then.
But it seems to have – you look at the debates between David French who used to work here at FIRE and Sohrab Ahmari, and that’s more or less what Sohrab is calling for, is this sort of – he’s calling for it almost in a theocratic sense, forgiven his religious background, but the targeting of certain perspectives and the use of government force to eliminate those perspectives, whether it’s a drag queen story time or anything else, in order to preserve the sort of order that he thinks is necessary for a prosperous society.
Kevin: Yeah. Well the good thing about Sohrab, of course, is that he used to be a Communist and then he was a Libertarian. Now he’s an ultramontane Catholic, so whatever he ends up being next week will be their problem.
Nico: Well, next week, I think he’s actually debating David here in DC. I’m gonna try and try and catch that.
Kevin: Yeah, David and I – I just had coffee with David not 20 minutes ago so it’s a very small world. But yeah, I think that – well, there’s a lot of drift in the political world and there’s a lot of self-promotion, and a lot of careerism, and that sort of thing. And I think that a lot of what this so-called new nationalism is, is just people who want to have a career in political media who haven’t managed to have one previously, finding a new avenue to advance themselves. And so, we have a new version of conservatism, in which the great enemy of our time is not the welfare state, or communism, or Islamic fundamentalism, but David French, and the ghost of Paul Ryan, and that sort of thing.
And it’s a way of looking at the world that is really very difficult for me to take seriously, and to think of with anything other than contempt.
Nico: I would be remiss in the last 10 to 15 minutes that I have you, to not ask about The Atlantic situation. I don’t know that we –
Nico: I know you hate talking about it, that’s what you say in your book.
Kevin: Oh, I don’t mind that much. Yeah, it’s part of the story.
Kevin: Funny thing about the book is that I started writing it in 2015, and nobody wanted it until I got fired by The Atlantic a few years later. My phone rang, and I started getting offers for the book, which –
Nico: The Streisand effect in practice.
Kevin: Well, you know, something I often point out about these situations is that – well, two things that need to be understood. One is that this culture of aggressive conformism in intellectual and political homogeneity is much less of a problem for someone like me, who’s professionally in the controversy business – or David French or Bret Stephens, or someone like that – than it is for people who are not in politics and media.
For people who are, you know, manager of Starbucks in Philadelphia and wondering if they’re gonna lose their job for trying to enforce a company policy. Or someone who’s a programmer at Google, who’s worried he’s gonna get fired for having the wrong political views, or that the IRS is going to leak his contribution to the National Organization for Marriage, or something like that. Those are the people that really have to worry about this more than the rest of us do, I think.
And that being the case, the situation in places like The Atlantic, for me was – these things often are never – are not about what they seem to be about. No one at The Atlantic was surprised by my views about anything, or any of the things I’ve said and written over the years – they know. They’re journalists. They look at this stuff before they hire you. They’re familiar with who you are.
Nico: And you had actually warned them that they were gonna come after you.
Kevin: Oh yeah, I told them this’ll will start five minutes after you announce that you’ve hired me, if it even takes that long, and here’s what they’ll say. And yeah, this – we all knew about this going forward. And so, for someone like me who got fired by The Atlantic, I write a column about it in The Wall Street Journal. Life goes on. It’s a very, very different thing for other people.
But what people don’t understand – because we focus so much on the personalities involved in this, whether it’s me or the campaign against Bret Stephens, or the campaign against Sarah Jeong, or the campaign against Bari Weiss, or someone like that – is that it’s not about us. It’s about the institution. No cares about getting some nobody fired from Google. They care about the fact that they can make Google do what they want it to do. No one cares about getting me fired from The Atlantic. There’s no real political juice in that – if anything, you just made me better known and helped me sell more books.
But if you can say, “Look, we can make The Atlantic do what we want it to. We can make The New York Times write a headline the way we want it to. We can make ABC cancel a show. We can make CNN do this, or we can make HBO do that,” that’s real power. And that’s power worth having, because these institutions matter. And of course, the only way any of this is ever going to get sorted out properly, is if these institutions begin standing up for themselves and taking their own independence seriously.
I do credit The New York Times on this. Even though they’ve occasionally allowed themselves to be bullied around a little bit, they didn’t fire Bret Stephens, they didn’t fire Bari Weiss, they didn’t fire Sarah Jeong. They more or less decided that we’ll hire who we wanna hire, and if you don’t like it, well, there are a lot of newspapers for you to read, but we’re The New York Times and we’re gonna manage our own newspaper.”
Kevin: So, they’re not jumping when people say to jump. And unfortunately, The Atlantic didn’t have sufficient institutional reserve and resolve and self-respect to do that in my particular case, but, you know, people make mistakes.
Nico: Well there seems to be a sort of leadership vacuum, and I don’t why CEOs and other leaders haven’t recognized that when you take a strong stand for a certain value, it seems to work as a bulwark against some of these campaigns against you. I see this of course in the campus context, when Camille Paglia – there was a call for her to be fired at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, because of something she said on Spiked about the #MeToo movement.
The president of the university, without delay, issued a university-wide email saying, “No, we don’t fire academics for being academics, essentially.”
Kevin: Yeah, that was kind of funny. I lived in Philadelphia for a long time. And of course, in any normal, decent, self-respecting society, Camille Paglia wouldn’t be at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She’d be at Harvard or Princeton or Yale, but none of those institutions are led by people who have intellectual self-respect that this obscure textiles college in Philadelphia does.
Nico: Yeah, well you saw at Yale with the Nicholas and Erika Christakis case, a very tepid response from the Yale leadership that let that controversy drag out longer than it otherwise should have. But you see it at University of Chicago, where they’ve staked out a strong leadership position in favor of free speech and academic freedom, and they’ve been insulated from a lot of the conflagrations that you see elsewhere on campus. And this isn’t to say that a university – a private university at least, not bound by the First Amendment – can’t stake out a social justice mission if it wants, it just needs to be honest about what its identity is, so there isn’t a mismatch of expectations.
And that’s kind of – leads into my next question, which is, what is the role of a writer from your perspective? And that might seem like a lame question, but if I’m an employer –
Kevin: No, not at all.
Nico: – if I’m The Atlantic, and one of the ways you ensure an employee is doing a good job is to clearly define that job for the employee – and the employee of course agrees to that job description – I have to put together job descriptions for all of my employees, go over them with the employees – so that there’s no mismatched expectation. Now of course there are different kinds of writers: there are straight news writers, there are people who write car manuals for a living. But for editorial writers like yourself, what does it mean to be doing your job?
My thought always – I’m a big fan of Christopher Hitchens – has been to provoke, to provoke thought. Different sort of thought – not necessarily preaching to the choir –
Kevin: One of the most interesting things about The Atlantic episode is that I was not hired there to write right wing commentary. I was hired there to be a reporter. I was hired there to write what the editor referred to as essentially Moynihan report for white people. I spent a lot of time writing about poverty and addiction in rural, mostly southern, and largely white communities. And that, I think, is probably the most useful work that I’ve done over time, and that’s really what The Atlantic wanted me there to do.
So, it was funny when I was hired in that the subsequent debate over it – a lot of people framed it as though I were a candidate for political office. And they’d say, “Well, we don’t understand why you would hire Williamson in the first place. It’s not like there’s some Kevin Williamson school of conservatism. He doesn’t have a constituency that he speaks for.” And I thought to myself, “Well thank God for that.” I never wanted one, I’m not running for office.
But a lot of writers, particularly in politics, and particularly other kinds of media figures – cable news and such – present themselves that way. They want to be a sort of Tribune of the Plebs and to be leaders of a political movement or political faction. So, to take an extreme example, you’ve got people like Sean Hannity, who are essentially conducting a supplementary presidential campaign, and frame themselves that way. You know, “We’re gonna lead you to electoral victory. We are the party. We are the apparatus. We’re the campaign. We’re going to stop the Democrats.”
And that’s not what I do. I’m not that kind of a political writer, and certainly not a political leader. People often ask me about my relationship with the Republican Party. Conservatives ask me this all the time: “What are you doing to make sure that Republicans get elected?” And I have to explain to them, I’m not even a member of the Republican Party, much less a campaign advisor. And, I don’t do anything to try to get Republicans elected – that’s not my job. So I see my job as being someone who is a reporter and a social critic who tries to find out interesting things that are going on in the world, and learn about them and explain them to people in a way that is useful in a self-governing, liberal society full of people who may be curious about aspects of life that they don’t have direct personal experience of.
I don’t see myself as an advocate for a party or an ideology or philosophy, even though I’ve got beliefs, and they’re there to be seen in my work, and I don’t make any secret of them obviously. That’s not really, I think, where I create value. But we are increasingly treating journalists as though they were political candidates, including subjecting them to a kind of form of opposition research – of saying, “Well look, this guy, when he was in college, he dated this girl and they had a bad breakup. And that was 30 years ago, but we think it’s still really, very relevant.” And, “This guy got a drunk driving conviction, and this happened to this,” and it’s very different from how we used to treat writers.
I was talking about this one night on The Bill Maher show, where – Norman Mailer stabbed his wife in public, and just about killed her – and of course this was adjudicated the way these things should be adjudicated, which is in court. Although, arguably, he didn’t get enough of a sentence for it. But, would we be better off if people had shunned him after 1960, and none of his writing had been published? And there’d be no Executioner’s Song – there’d been none of these things that we appreciate about his literary career.
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were just horrible racists and anti-Semites, and Ezra Pound actually worked for a fascist government in Italy during the war. Would we better off if their books weren’t there, if their poems weren’t there? I don’t think so. Would we better off if we burned all the Picasso paintings? Because he was really rotten toward women. I don’t think that would make the world better off.
Now not to compare myself or Milo Yiannopoulis or anyone else to any of these figures, but if you want to take a moralistic view toward these things and say, “Well, if you commit a certain kind of transgression, whether it’s criminal, or simply a violation of certain rules of etiquette – like our increasingly baroque pronoun rules and those sorts of things – then you are to be excommunicated and your work must be suppressed,” I think we’re gonna leave ourselves with a very bland, vanilla, uninteresting and uninspiring culture.
Nico: Well we see a little bit of that on campus. You might recall a couple of years ago, there was the debates surrounding a lot of the disinvitations of commencement speakers at campus.
Nico: Now campus commencement speeches are typically bland and boring, but every now and then, a university will invite someone interesting to come. But they just don’t do that anymore, because most interesting people are people who have provoked, or had life experiences that are sometimes controversial. But inviting those people is really just not worth it anymore, because it distracts –
Kevin: Think about all the sort of cultural figures who just simply couldn’t have a career today. Mel Brooks could not make any of his movies today. Iggy Pop could not be a public figure if he weren’t already one. Aerosmith certainly couldn’t be –
Nico: It makes you wonder about ‘60s and ‘70s, our celebrity icons were people who transgressed.
Nico: They were the punk rockers, they were the metalheads, the guys with long – but it doesn’t – it seems like transgression is no longer cool? I mean, even if you listen to our music culturally, it’s Katy Perry talking about being a firework. It’s like this kind of weird –
Kevin: Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of – I’ve spent a lot of time talking to these – some of these Silicon Valley executives, and it’s interesting that their people – they don’t typically have very highly developed political ideas, but they’ve got social ties, and they’re West Coast California people, and they’re easy to bully for that reason. But what’s funny is they’ve always talked about disruption. Disruption is the thing they care the most about.
I once spoke at the Tribeca Film Festival at the Disruptor’s conference, which I believe was sponsored by Google. And Google – in their marketing, in their description of their business really likes this word disruptors – and they just put out a memo to their employees about, “Don’t talk about politics and don’t say things that might be controversial because these would be ‘disruptive.’” And so, the one thing that will actually of course get you fired from one of these disruption-loving companies is disruption.
And that’s partly because of the changing role of the corporation socially – it’s no longer just a source of income and making widgets, it’s a source of meaning for people. And we take our lives and our relationships with these institutions to be intertwined in ways that aren’t merely economic. Working for Apple or Google or Facebook means something other than, “I produce this code and I get this paycheck.”
Nico: Oh, that’s really interesting, because that gets to that sense of belonging – I mean, are we not just replacing our political identity with some of the previous identities we have? Whether they were religious or what, with – it’s also the corporate – we want to feel a part of a corporate mission. And that might actually speak to the recent survey result, where the majority of CEOs now say that maximizing shareholder profits is no longer the primary goal of corporations. It’s part of being an activist mission. So, they’re shaping the institutions in certain ways, perhaps.
Kevin: Yeah, I think the corporation and the employer is now one of the main theaters where social life is lived – and where life in general is lived. It’s no longer just, “I punch the clock, I turn a wrench, I get a check, I go home,” it’s a much more complex, and deep, and entangling relationship than it was even 20 years ago.
Nico: Yeah, you have to be even more careful about your social relationships in the workplace, lest you –
Kevin: Yeah. And it’s an enormous provider status – and not only status in the sense that I’m affiliated with something important, but also, it’s access to things that maybe you wouldn’t get to do or see or experience as a person who wasn’t affiliated with that. So, even as a journalist, you get to do things that people who aren’t journalists don’t get to do unless they are people who are rich and famous or celebrities or things like that. And I think that’s probably true of working for Silicon Valley companies, it’s true of working for certain Wall Street firms, it’s true of different kinds of corporate life.
And I think that is part of what gets people spiritually entangled in their employment in a way that they weren’t a generation or two ago.
Nico: Well, there’s a lot that we could continue to talk about here: the distinction between the art and the artist, the idea of redemption –
Nico: That seems to be lacking in a lot of these conversations. There’s – say what you want about Christianity, I am not religious, but there is this concept of that people can be redeemed – that’s a lot little bit lost.
Kevin: If I could just maybe say this in closing, one of the great ironies of this, is that this largely secular culture on the progressive side of the fence, has essentially reinvented the Catholic teaching of scandal. And if these things are allowed to stand, that is a social harm in and of itself. And that’s what we’re really talking about here, is that the left has developed a secular version of the old Catholic sin of scandal.
Nico: Yeah. Well, Kevin this has been fascinating. I guess, just in closing here, do you ever think you’ll get back on social media?
Kevin: I don’t see any reason to. I don’t enjoy –
Nico: Bret Stephens just got off, I guess.
Kevin: Oh, he’ll be back. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t find it useful. I don’t make any money from it, and I don’t sell any books that way. And, occasionally, you end up at 2:00 in the morning beating up some undergraduate at Lehigh University and telling him he needs to [inaudible] [00:43:55] I just don’t think that’s a very good investment of my time, typically. So, if I had it my way, I wouldn’t even do a lot of daily journalism. I would just write books and maybe three or four essays a year, but that is not the current economics of the media life.
Nico: No, it is not. It’s hard to disconnect. Well, Kevin, thanks again for coming on the show, and hope to talk to you again sometime soon.
Kevin: Thank you so much for your time, I appreciate it.