Tuesday, Apr. 10, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, April 10, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
A tempest not only in a teapot: Firing of Kevin Williamson exposes dominant worldview of secular culture
So many events in our contemporary headlines are what the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, called "pseudo-events." They're not real events. So much of what consumes the media air in this country comes down to pseudo-events that pass all too quickly and even upon reflection, they were not all that important.
I don't think that's going to be the case with the tempest that's not only in a teapot but in a larger culture that arose last week after the firing of columnist, Kevin Williamson, by The Atlantic. Williamson was fired just a little more than two weeks after he had been hired and there is an enormous story here. As we're thinking about worldview analysis, we often have to think about the dominant world view in the secular media. That world view is not only predominantly secular but it is also increasingly hostile to Conservative thought and to Christianity.
Kevin Williamson, was for years, a columnist for a National Review magazine, that has been for decades now, the flagship periodical of the traditional conservative movement in this country. Founded by William F. Buckley Jr. and populated by a series of conservative luminaries, National Review has been a primary forum for Conservative thought. In the digital age, it has been joined by other major outlets and websites, but National Review has still had a certain venerable reputation.
Kevin Williamson was hired from the staff of National Review, where he was well-known for his very interesting prose and for the fact that he was often one who would take his argument to a conclusion that others might resist. But he was picked up by The Atlantic and the first thing to note is that from the moment that Kevin Williamson was added to the roster of columnists for The Atlantic, many people on the secular Left began to complain that The Atlantic was no place for any kind of conservative columnist, much less for someone like Kevin Williamson.
Controversy about the columnist appeared to reach a fever pitch early last week and then it got even hotter. On Thursday, the editor of The Atlantic announced that he was firing Kevin Williamson, almost before he had been able to contribute anything of substance to the magazine or to its website. Now, on footnote to this is that The Atlantic, just a matter of a few years ago, appeared to be headed like so many other literary and political magazines into the dustbin of history. But The Atlantic turned itself around, primarily, as a lively and credible online presence. It became one of the very first examples of online long-form journalism to turn a profit and also to gain a great deal of cultural interest.
Williamson's hiring had been the act of Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic's, Editor-in-Chief, but that same Editor-in-Chief fired Williamson last Thursday and did so in a statement and explanation to other employees of the magazine. Michael M. Grynbaum, writing for the New York Times, summarized the story this way, "The Atlantic magazine on terminated its relationship with Kevin D. Williamson, the Conservative writer whose hiring last month angered liberals and sparked an online debate about what views are considered acceptable in mainstream publications." But then the New York Times article goes on to offer this detail, "It was Mr. Williamson’s hard-line stance on abortion— namely, that it should be treated as premeditated homicide and punished accordingly, perhaps by hanging— that generated the initial controversy over his hiring. It was that same viewpoint," says the Times, "that led to his abrupt departure."
The controversy over this particular stance by Kevin Williamson was dated to 2014, when he articulated that viewpoint in a tweet. In defending the hiring of Williamson, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic Editor, had explained that Williamson's articulation of the view in a tweet was not representative of a sustained thought, but was rather, an immediate reflection. But that defense fell apart when a podcast from the same year, 2014 emerged, where Williamson made a far more extended argument. That was the very reason that Goldberg gave, last Thursday, for terminating Williamson from The Atlantic.
Christians looking at this controversy need to take a step back and recognize that there was immediate protest at the hiring of Kevin Williamson merely because he is pro-life. The controversy grew in intensity once his statements on the death penalty for abortion became known and then of course, he was terminated once that was known to be a rather sustained argument. Back when he was writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson was much admired for the quality of his prose and for the pungency of his arguments. It's not only on this issue but across a range of issues that Kevin Williamson had articulated a very creative and prosaic defense of conservative conviction.
But here's where we also need to recognize that on this particular issue, Kevin Williamson is way outside the boundaries of the mainstream pro-life movement in the United States of America. As of the end of last week, Kevin Williamson could not work for The Atlantic. But it's at least intellectually honest to point out that he could not work for a major pro-life organization in the United States either. Both the Left and the Right are trying to make as much as they can out of the firing to Williamson by The Atlantic.
On the Left, the argument comes down to this, "See, we told you so. There are no responsible conservative voices. See, we warned you that you must not hire a pro-life columnist for The Atlantic because this is what's going to happen. See, we told you all along that pro-lifers are extremists, who are trying to arrest women, throw them in jail and if they have had an abortion, even call for the death penalty. See, we told you so." On the other side, Conservatives, including some Conservative Christians are saying, "We told you so. We told you that The Atlantic wasn't really going to hire a Conservative writer. We told you that there wasn't real openness in America's secular culture to any defense of a pro-life position. We told you that this was just a ploy and that it wouldn't last." Now, you understand why both sides' trying to make the most of this controversy have every reason to believe that the firing or the hiring of Kevin Williamson made their point.
On the issue of abortion, Kevin Williamson is not only intellectually engaged, he's not only theologically engaged, he's very personally engaged. He himself was born to an unwed mother and he was raised by adoptive parents. He has often asked the question as to whether or not his mother might've had an abortion had it been available to her but it's also clear that as he says, he does not want to retroactively entrust that decision to her.
When Williamson was hired, a man of the Left, Conor Friedersdorf, of The Atlantic, defended him by saying, that his essays, "Are exquisitely written, and evince a deep concern for humanity that his critics miss. They don't understand the mode of some who grew up in dysfunction, hate what it does to people, and don't think being polite about it serves anyone." Even now, in a very forceful piece of his own, Conor Friedersdorf, protest the firing of Kevin Williamson.
It was also a sentiment in judgment shared by Conservative writers such as David French. He wrote, "I spent my entire adult life in an academic and media environment that put a premium on shocking the conservative conscience. Advocate for the most barbaric abortion practices? Fine. Celebrate an artist who dips a crucifix in urine? Good. Decry 9/11 first responders as 'not human' because of white supremacy? Intriguing. But the marketplace of ideas," wrote French, "isn't for the faint of heart, and good Conservatives learn to simultaneously defend the culture of free speech while also fighting hard to build a culture of virtue and respect." He concluded, "Look, I know it's easy for some to dismiss Kevin's termination as a mere inside-baseball media drama. But it's more than that. It's a declaration by one of America's most powerful media entities that it can't even coexist with a man like Kevin. If he wants to write, he should run along to his Conservative home. His new colleagues simply couldn't abide his presence."
Why threatening women who get an abortion with criminal action is not the way to limit abortion
While folks on both sides on the cultural divide are trying to make a great deal of this. We have to understand there really is a big story here. I said earlier that Kevin Williamson could not work for a mainstream pro-life organization in this country. Why did is say that? It is because he holds to a view that those organizations have long repudiated. The mainstream pro-life movement in this country represented by the most visible organizations and names has long argued for the criminalization of abortion but for criminal penalties not against the woman who might seek an abortion but against the medical practitioners and others who would profit by it.
The mainstream pro-life position in this country developed over many decades is that abortion is murder but that the murderer who want to be charged with homicide is either the one who profiteers of the one who practices the medical action that brings about the abortion. In any event, it is the murderer, not the woman seeking the abortion, who the mainstream pro-life movement has identified as the most significant moral agent. This is not to argue that women who have sought or who have obtained abortions are not morally responsible.
It is to say that's a different kind of responsibility than the one who actually brings about the murder. There has also been a two-fold pragmatic argument behind this. The first pragmatic aspect is the fact that if one wants to preserve life, one must deal responsibly and redemptively with a woman who might be under the pressure to consider an abortion. Threatening her with criminal action at a moment of vulnerability is pragmatically speaking, not the way to limit abortion or to convince a woman not to have an abortion. The second pragmatic consideration is this. The American people, even when abortion was criminalized, did not support criminal charges being brought against the woman who sought the abortion.
Almost immediately after the firing of Kevin Williamson, those in the pro-choice, the pro-abortion movement, immediately leapt to say, "See, this is where the pro-lifers have always been. This is what they really believe. That alone has caused injury to the pro-life movement." Anna North, writing for Vox, a liberal website ran article with the headline, "Plenty of conservatives really do believe women should be executed for having abortions." The problem for her argument is that she can't come up with any named Conservative other than Kevin Williamson, who holds to such a position.
This is where we need to be careful and understand the basic hypocrisy that is being revealed here on the Left. No one stated that better than Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, who tweeted in response to Williamson's firing, "Thought experiment: Imagine that the Atlantic hires Peter Singer, but critics demand that he be fired for saying it's not, in principle, morally wrong, for parents to kill newborn infant children. Conservatives: Would you support his being fired? Liberals: Would you oppose it?" Now, the cogency and the power of Robert George's illustration here came immediately to my mind when I first heard of this controversy.
Peter Singer, is of all things, a professor bioethics at Princeton University. And yes, the Australian born, Peter Singer, was hired by Princeton, after it was well-known that he argues for the acceptability not only of abortion but of infanticide in the early weeks and months of a child's life. Here, you see the hypocrisy of the secular Left. It's on full display. There's much grandstanding about what it means, for good, for Princeton University to have Peter Singer, and advocate of infanticide and an endowed chair in one of America's respected universities but it is argued someone who holds to a position like Kevin Williamson, that is consistently pro-life, even if he is provocative, that it's unacceptable that Kevin Williamson should have a voice in a mainstream publication such as The Atlantic.
Here, we have to remember that the controversy and the uproar from the Left about hiring Kevin Williamson was generalized first about the fact that he is pro-life before they ever got to the controversy that led to his termination.
A controversy within a controversy: Who are the real abortion extremists?
But next, we turn to a controversy within the controversy and we turn from The Atlantic to the Washington Post and we turn from Kevin Williamson to Ruth Marcus, who since 2006 has been an influential columnist with the most important newspaper in the nation's capital. She basically says that when it comes to Kevin Williamson, "His abortion comments were shocking. But," she said, "at least, he's intellectually honest." In the article that was posted on April the 6th, Ruth Marcus doesn't exactly dance on Kevin Williamson's grave, but what she does attempt to do is to argue that what Kevin Williamson represents is an extremist form of thought.
But hold onto that for a moment, when you consider Ruth Marcus, herself, on the question of abortion. Just about a month ago, Ruth Marcus actually wrote a column that had this headline in the Washington Post, "I would've aborted a fetus with Down syndrome. Women need that right." This came after action in several states to limit or to prevent abortion for the cause of a Down syndrome diagnosis. Ruth Marcus wrote, "I have had two children; I was old enough, when I became pregnant, that it made sense to do the testing for Down syndrome. Back then, it was amniocentesis, performed after 15 weeks; now, chorionic villus sampling can provide a conclusive determination as early as nine weeks. I can say," wrote Ruth Marcus, "without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been, I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive. I would have grieved the loss and moved on."
The important issue for our recognition here is that this columnist for the Washington Post thinks that Kevin Williamson is an extremist but clearly, she believes that she is not. But in a column published just a month before this controversy, she went on to argue that if indeed, one of her two pregnancies had been identified as having a likelihood of Down syndrome, she would've aborted. To use the language that she wrote in her own words, "I can say without hesitation that, tragic as it would have felt," notice the feeling language there, "and ghastly as a second-trimester abortion would have been," just how ghastly is it? You're talking about the surgical destruction of a baby in the womb and then the removal of the remains. She went on to say, "I would have terminated those pregnancies had the testing come back positive." And then these chilling words, "I would have grieved the loss and moved on."
But Ruth Marcus didn't leave it there. She came back with an article just about a week later with a headline, "The silenced majority of women who would abort a fetus with Down syndrome." In the original article, she had made this very telling argument, "More than two-thirds of American women choose abortion in such circumstances. Isn't that the point," she asked or at least inherent in the point, "of pre-natal testing in the first place?" There you see, how the culture of death has won an almost complete victory. If you're counting the math, it's two-thirds of all pregnancies according to Ruth Marcus, in which this diagnosis may have appeared, two-thirds terminated. We believe the actual numbers are considerably higher than that. But notice how the culture of death wins on the assumption.
As Ruth Marcus points out, isn't it the very point of this pre-natal testing? To have the information in order to make a decision as to whether or not you're going to terminate this pregnancy, whether or not this baby is going to be allowed to live long enough to be born.
She makes the argument, that's exactly what this entire regime of testing is about. This is a new breakthrough in human life that allows us to avoid the imposition of giving birth to someone who is deficient. As Ruth Marcus said, "I would have grieved the loss and moved on."
The fundamental issue at stake here is to recognize that Ruth Marcus doesn't think she's an extremist but she's sure that Kevin Williamson is. But according to her worldview, a baby who is diagnosed as being marred by Down syndrome, should be aborted in the womb. She would've done so and moved on. But anyone who argues for abortion as the killing of an unborn human life, as a form of homicide, is an extremist who shouldn't have this kind of voice or who should at least be recognized as an extremist, who's arguments we can dismiss out of hand.
At the very least, in the aftermath of this controversy, we should understand the rules by which the game is played. The game is over for Kevin Williamson of The Atlantic and as a footnote, we need to recognize that The Atlantic, as any other publication, has every right, every legal right to determine who will and will not write for the magazine. They have every legal right to determine which ideas and worldviews have a place and will not have a place in the magazine.
But readers have every right and responsibility to understand just what decisions are made by The Atlantic and then to take those assumptions and policies very much into consideration. This where we need to turn to The Atlantic and say this, "If you believe that those specific arguments by Kevin Williamson are out of bounds, then it is the responsibility of The Atlantic to make the point and to establish that credibility by hiring intelligent and responsible pro-life Conservative voices who would not be an exception at the website and the magazine, but rather, an ongoing part of the conversation."
If Kevin Williamson is judged by The Atlantic to be out of bounds, at least last Thursday, but not out of bounds when they hired him just a matter of few weeks before, then where is their determination to make certain that the conversation at The Atlantic is as broad and inclusive as what they said when they hired him. But this is where we have to recognize that being merely pro-life, strongly and consistently pro-life, was too much for many in the secular Left the moment that the announcement was made that The Atlantic had hired him.
Liberal columnist argues that only one side—yes, his side—has actual ideas and real influence
But finally, I have to turn to yet another contribution to this mess. It was made by Paul Krugman, very Liberal columnist for the New York Times. He's been the winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics. He is, of course, well-versed in matters of Economics, writing from the Left and not only of the culture but of the economic world. But what's so important about this particular piece is its sheer predictability. Paul Krugman looks at the controversy over the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson at The Atlantic and he comes along with yet another argument. He says, "See, I told you all along. The problem is there aren't any responsible Conservatives." As Krugman argues to the generally, very Liberal readers of the New York Times, "The real problem here is that media organizations are looking for unicorns: serious, honest, conservative intellectuals with real influence. 40 or 50 years ago," Krugman says, "such people did exist. But now they don't."
Now, you have a man of the Left, who also has a very influential media platform and voice in society, who's saying to media outlets, "Just give up. Don't even look for credible intellectual Conservatives because they don't exist. They are as non-existent as unicorns." Just in case we missed his point, he concludes by writing, "The Left has genuine public intellectuals with actual ideas and at least some real influence. The Right does not. News organizations," wrote Krugman, "don't seem to have figured out how to deal with this reality, except by pretending that it doesn't exist. And that," says Krugman, "is why we keep having these debacles," speaking of the hiring and firing of Kevin Williamson.
Of course, that's an absolute recipe, if not a moral mandate for an entirely one-sided media, for a conversation that as it pertains to public intellectuals, would include only those who would pass Paul Krugman's muster. His own standard for acceptability into that conversation. As Krugman here announces, that means no Conservatives because the words Conservative and intellectual can't even really go together. He says there are not Conservative intellectuals these days with any real influence. Those people may have existed decades ago but they do not exist any longer.
It takes an amazing amount of arrogance, almost breathtaking to write that your side has genuine public intellectuals with actual ideas and the other side does not. The Left won't be satisfied until this is the realization of the mainstream media that Conservative intellectuals are merely unicorns.
But to the Liberal side, we simply have to say this, "Sticking a bucket over your head and yelling makes yourself sound loud. But at the end of the day, it's really just you and your bucket.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You could follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.