By What Right Do You Judge?

Recently, I overheard Laura Ingraham bewailing how the American left is now suppressing the public discussion of sensitive issues.  Laura's case in point is Kevin Williamson, a commentator whom Jeff Goldberg at the Atlantic sacked for an opinion that Williamson had posted on the internet in September 2014.  Back then, Williamson asserted that he would be tempted to hang women who choose to abort their unborn children.  Williamson's fate at the the Atlantic is supposedly proof positive that we're standing on the precipice, about to be pushed into a totalitarian society.  Although I too am concerned about our diminishing freedom, Laura's horror story seems small potatoes compared to other more alarming situations that she might have brought up, including situations I myself have been involved in.

The case of Williamson tells us little about our present cultural climate and lots about the mindset of Conservatism, Inc.  When it comes to defending its own, this establishment will pull out all stops.  Since I'm not of its denomination, I'll try to be more dispassionate.  Jeff Goldberg had a perfectly good right to fire an employee who took positions he found abhorrent, just as he had a right to hire Kevin Williamson for dumping on the white working class that supported Trump.  Neoconservative publications have the same right to publish Williamson when he mocks the singing of the National Anthem at NFL football games and continues to attack Trump as a clown.  What we're talking about is editorial staffs and donors extending or withdrawing support from controversialists who profit from being insulting.  (That seems to be Williamson's calling.)

Unfortunately, Conservatism, Inc. has long practiced the kind of censorship one might expect from the Communist Party.  As someone researching a monograph on this dismal subject, I continue to be appalled by the ease with which the movement's power-brokers have turned their onetime devotees into unpersons.  Whether it was William F. Buckley going after Jewish libertarians for their insufficient enthusiasm for battling communism internationally, the National Review editorial board savaging the John Birch Society for its failure to support the Vietnam War, or the more recent sacking and marginalizing of figures working for conservative magazines and foundations for bringing up I.Q. questions, Conservatism, Inc. has never hesitated to punish others for holding the wrong opinions.  In 1981, then-mainstream conservatives Irving Kristol and George Will poured oceans of slime on literary scholar and Southern conservative M.E. Bradford, who had the inside track on the job of NEH director.  This was done to make sure the position went to William Bennett, who was a liberal Democrat but also a confidant of the Kristol family.  The main evidence brought against Bradford was a footnote in one of his many books that made an unflattering reference to Abraham Lincoln.

We might also note how conservative intolerance has been spun in order to make it acceptable to the mainstream media.  This practice began when the talented WFB massaged his purging activities in justifying them to his liberal media friends.  Buckley claimed that those he kicked out of his movement and magazine were all anti-Semites and screaming racists.  The evidence for this is scant indeed.  The reasons for the expulsions have varied according to time and circumstance.  While the Cold War was on, anti-communism was the acid test for deciding who fitted into the movement and who didn't.  In the last several decades, I.Q. enthusiasts have been among those most likely to be booted out of conservative enterprises.  This was the well publicized fate of John Derbyshire at National Review in 2012 and of Jason Richwine at Heritage the following year.

Purges of this kind always look selective.  For example, Derbyshire, a widely published mathematician as well as a brilliant British stylist, was expelled from the N.R. editorial board in 2012 after suggesting that he would advise his children against stopping for a call for help from stranded black adolescents.  Whether or not one agrees with this position, one might ask why Victor Davis Hanson did not suffer a similar fate when he posted a similar piece of advice (that Hanson ascribed approvingly to his father) soon after Derbyshire's contretemps.  And why was Richwine fired from Heritage for raising I.Q. questions in a dissertation submitted and accepted at Harvard years before he went to work at a policy foundation?  Charles Murray said equally non-P.C. things about cognitive differences without losing his high position in the conservative movement.  The obvious answer is that conservative power-brokers grant indulgences to those who are useful to them, even when they express opinions that catch flak from the mainstream media.  But there are lots of people the bigwigs will happily throw to the wolves in order to avoid unwanted controversy or to build bridges to the national press.  I know those who suffered this fate personally.

This brings up the problem of mani sudicie (soiled hands) as opposed to the mani pulite (clean hands) that the judicial and police investigation of political corruption in Italy in the 1990s called for.  Conservatism, Inc. is not in a moral position to be defending open public discussion with clean hands, given its extensive, intergenerational purges of those who don't espouse its changing party lines.  Although one might sometimes agree with the examples of intolerance it cites, its own record on this score is so horrifying that one might be forced to ask: "By what right do you judge?"    

Postscript: Nothing written above should be misread as a trivialization of the war against intellectual freedom being waged by even the moderate left.  At the time of Derbyshire's firing, the Atlantic  incited National Review to go after Hanson, Heather Mac Donald, and other influential contributors as "racists."  Perhaps because such writers were better placed than Derbyshire in the conservative pecking order, they were spared.