“My little book proposal was met with almost no excitement until I became, for a couple of weeks, the headline in the story.” Those are the words of the very excellent Kevin Williamson, from his 2019 book The Smallest Minority (my review here). While writing and proposing the latter, publisher interest was muted. Then he was fired by Lefty publication The Atlantic after three days on the job. How quickly things changed for Williamson, for the better.
Williamson was the talk on the Right upon his firing. Which is where it gets interesting. Fragile Lefties (a redundancy?) were horrified that Williamson would be employed by an “organization that the Left regards as its own,” but then an increasingly offended about everything Right was whipped up into a fury that the Left would push out one of their own. It makes you wonder. Members of the Right have long cherished the right of free association, but apparently not if the fundamental right is used to the alleged detriment of one of its stars. Or so it seems. Please read on.
Up front, Williamson was plainly angry at the time of his firing, and still was while writing The Smallest Minority. As he put it in the book, “I should have just packed up my personal belongings in a shoebox right then and made for the elevators,” when former Atlantic owner David Bradley (Bradley had recently sold the publication to Laurene Powell Jobs, whom Williamson describes as just “another nobody MBA student until she started banging Steve Jobs”) called Williamson into his office on his first day of employment, only to tell him in reference to his controversial hire that “We are not wavering. I am not wavering.” With hindsight, he concludes that “when an old WASP banker with no ass feels compelled to put on a serious face and promise that he’s not about to fuck you, you’re already fucked.”
Williamson’s anger is important to clarify as a way of conveying to readers that Williamson was plainly blindsided. This is important simply because what was unexpected with Williamson increasingly has a formulaic quality to it. A card-carrying, but perhaps lightly known member of the Right says or does something that bothers an always-bothered Left, the Right freaks out at Lefty fragility, the instigator of all the righteous indignation on both sides is lionized by the Right as an example of the Left’s desire to “quiet” all dissenting views, only for the instigator to become a high-profile “victim,” albeit an alleged “victim” well-positioned to cash in on the sudden notoriety via increased book sales, book deals, requests for speaking engagements, and certainly a cushy landing of the employment variety for having spoken truth to Left-wing absurdity (another redundancy?). As Williamson seems to acknowledge, his unexpected and enraging dismissal by The Atlantic paid off in a variety of ways.
Again, it makes you wonder. Not about Williamson. But in general. It’s as though both sides are playing a roll in the aftermath of the Williamson dust-up: Lefty hysteria about something written or posted on social media by a conservative, Right-leaning horror at Lefty fear of non-Left ideas, and then a soaring and saintly profile on the Right for the individual “cancelled” by those mean Left-wingers. Something is wrong here.
If there's any question, the person you’re reading is well right of center. Government squashes freedom, wastes precious resources, enters tragic wars, and saps incentives, among other misdeeds. Speaking of incentives, it’s the incentives driving the unwitting growth of what will be referred to as a “Cancel Culture Industrial Complex” that have me skeptical. There just seems to be so much that can be gained by conservatives willing and able to insult an easily insulted Left.
Take Bari Weiss, a former writer for the editorial page at the New York Times. In the summer of 2020, Weiss wrote an open-letter-of-resignation to Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, and when she did she had to have known that members of the Right were going to eat it up. Critiques of the Times on their own do big box office, but from a put-upon conservative writing from the inside? Such a letter would be box office gold. It was. Big time.
Which was why it was hard to take the letter too seriously. So the Times is full of hard Lefties who are hostile to the classical liberal or conservative view. This was news? Weiss’s letter didn’t open the eyes of the Right about the ideological nature of the Times as much as it opened the Right’s eyes to Bari Weiss, who would soon be “coming home.” Flipping the finger to “The Paper of Record” seemingly proved a winner for Weiss. She’s on the board of a well-funded new university (University of Austin), and one guesses interest in Weiss as a speaker and writer spiked in the aftermath of her letter; one Weiss could write reasonably certain that having written it, her landing would be cushy too. It's generally the case that if you're cancelled, fired, a high-profile offender of, or all three of or by the Left, work opportunities on the Right expand impressively....
At which point there’s a semi-personal quality to this. In March of 2020 I published an economic analysis of the tragic, and wholly unnecessary coronavirus lockdowns. While doing media for the book, it not infrequently came up from conservatives that Amazon might ban it. My regular quip was something like “Let’s hope!” Endless cash to spend on publicists wouldn’t come close to the publicity that an Amazon ban could generate. Alas, Amazon didn’t ban my book. It did pretty well, but was hardly a blockbuster. Too bad a speech at Cal-Berkeley, Oberlin, or Hampshire College wasn’t scheduled around publication…
About what’s been written, it will hopefully not be taken as a lighthearted approach to cancel culture in general. About the latter, I subscribe to the George Will view that “presentism,” whereby we judge people’s past actions based on present viewpoints, is nothing less than horrifying. It must stop.
At the same time, it’s hard not to cast a skeptical eye on the on the canceling of conservatives by liberals. In this case, both sides feed their flocks. Call it innocuous, but also insulting. There’s something so predictable about it, and for being predictable, something so unseemly about it. And it may not end well.
Indeed, since incentives matter, one of these days a conservative will consciously stage an offense of the Left in order to “win” cancellation. Think about it. Given the fruits of high-profile disdain from the other side, is it unreasonable to ask if the Right’s own, wholly manufactured “Tawana Brawley” embarrassment isn’t too far off? How about both sides just relax?