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Kevin Williamson, Transphobia, and the Myth of Ideological Diversity

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“Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman,” reads a much-quoted passage in a crude, censorious piece from 2014 by The Atlantic’s latest hire, Kevin Williamson (who also, in a tweet he has doubled down on many times, suggested that women should be put to death by hanging for having abortions and, in another 2014 essay, compared, with Heart of Darkness references, a black boy to a monkey), a man praised both by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, and Ta-Nehisi Coates alike. The passage appears in an essay entitled “Laverne Cox Is Not a Woman” in The National Review, where Williamson worked for years before Goldberg decided he was an excellent fit for The Atlantic. The essay—which argues, as its title suggests, that transgender people are not really the gender we claim to be—bears a remarkable resemblance in content to an almost comically crass piece by Gavin McInnes from the same year entitled “Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural,” which posed, as did Williamson, that “trannies” are “fucking unusual… mentally ill gays who need help, and that doesn’t include being maimed by physicians” and that “[w]e’re all transphobic,” whomever “we” is. Williamson’s essay differs from McInnes’s only in tone and literariness; McInnes (much like Milo Yiannopoulos on the issue of trans people) is simply saying what Williamson is thinking.

Whereas McInnes’s essay got him fired from VICE, Williamson’s essay did not bar him from getting hired at The Atlantic; instead, one could argue, it actually helped him get hired, as his sentences, if nothing else, have occasional stylistic charm. “I was struck, as many people are, by the quality of his prose,” Goldberg gushed in a memo he sent to the magazine’s staff justifying his decision. “I raised my concerns about the trollish qualities of some of his writing and tweeting,” Goldberg added, but things were pretty much fine now because “[a] couple of months ago, in one of our conversations, I mentioned some of his more controversial tweets, and in the course of that conversation, he himself came to the conclusion that Twitter was a bad place for him to be, and he spiked his account. I took this to be a positive development and a sign of growth.” If this is what Goldberg truly meant to express, a “positive development and a sign of growth” was not Williamson changing or adjusting his toxic opinions; it was merely his decision not to broadcast them as easily on social media. This almost risible justification is telling: keep your bad ideas, be they about abortion, race, or trans people, but just make sure you package them in a smarter, more unimpeachable way, as opposed to releasing them into the chaotic badlands of twitter. Be toxic, but water it down, so it tastes better. If McInnes and Yiannopoulos were too gauche and blunt in their description of people like me as delusional, disgusting freaks, at least Williamson, it seems, has a touch more savoir faire and a better instinct towards social self-preservation. When conservative commentator Ben Shapiro said recently that “men are men and women are women” as a way to supposedly discount the reality of gender dysphoria, Williamson, in a smirking short article from earlier this year, agreed with Shapiro without saying it: “no, no, unthinkable thought,” he says sardonically at the end of the idea that trans women are really, well, guys, and vice versa. See, it’s okay—he didn’t explicitly say anything bad, technically, right?

Toxicity, on ice.

What is remarkable about this is that the virulently transphobic essays that would have (possibly) hindered Goldberg’s hiring of McInnes or Yiannopoulos differ from Williamson’s essay only superficially—and not, really, that much, when one gets down to the sentence level. Goldberg never mentioned the essay, or Williamson’s later anti-trans commentary, directly in his memo; he at least invoked the infamous, incondite, inexcusable tweet about abortion, but to leave out the transphobia is telling. The abortion tweet nearly crossed the line, it seemed, but the transphobia didn’t even merit a mention.

That this particular essay by Williamson is not an obscure blog post but, rather, one of his most widely known pieces—a frequently cited instance of his notoriety—only makes it all the more striking that The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief decided Williamson was the best fit for the job. Not someone truly radical, like someone from the far left—a political position rarely given space in the mainstream media—but, instead, to a more jejune type already represented in such media outlets: yet another bigoted Never-Trump right-leaning pundit. One can be as crass as one wishes towards trans women, and people who wish or even medically need to have abortions, or can describe a black child as adopting the “universal gesture of primate territorial challenge” towards the writer as he continues his “Marlow-like” journey through Illinois “where instead of meeting my Kurtz I get yelled at by a racially aggrieved tyke,” language that is (even if one is charitable and assumes the writer was merely asserting that homo sapiens are, indeed, primates, and his evocation of Conrad was merely to suggest a generic journey into the subjective unknown) tone-deaf and tone-dumb at best and redolent of the long racist history of comparing black people to simians at worst, to say nothing of the colonialist implications of his reference to Heart of Darkness, in which Marlow, on his journey into the Congo, reflects midway through of the black locals that “the men were—No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it—this suspicion of their not being inhuman”—one does wonder if this new Marlow of more Atlantic currents is really so detached from commonsense as to not expect people to connect him to the racism of Heart of Darkness, unless, of course, he thinks Conrad’s totally-not-racist character had it right all along, and he wants us to know it.

“The sad truth is that trans people like me don’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, to many such media institutions—trans people of color appearing to matter least of all.”

None of this sufficiently matters, it appears, to Goldberg et al. All that one needs to be hired at certain institutions, it seems, is to grasp the low-hanging fruit of opposition to the president and to have, as a bonus, a memorable prose style—in Williamson’s case, one shadowily reminiscent of the acerbic tone of Vidal or Christopher Hitchens, though lacking the erudition and rhetorical verve of either.

Williamson’s hire is a shameful capitulation, a moral-financial kowtowing before, ironically, Trump’s signature phrase: fake news, almost always synonymous with non-right-leaning media. A place can’t be fake news anymore if it has conservatives, right? Williamson’s hiring seems to ask. It’s valuable, of course, to have a variety of political and ideological viewpoints at an institution that prides itself on, as Goldberg put it in his memo, “ideological diversity.” And Never-Trumpers’ reasons for rejecting Trump are valuable to know. Yet “ideological diversity” is rarely actually on any sort of display by the institutions who hire Never-Trump conservatives as their token right-wingers to try to win back right-leaning readers who will, the hope seems to be, help pay the bills with subscriptions or views. What diversity is there when the default is to move to the right, while progressive, far-left voices are rarely given a chance to be heard in the same media outlets? A Williamson will easily be given a chance to shine at such an outlet; a progressive, socialist, or communist voice, less so. (This despite the fact that, according to many a poll, left-wing populist ideals about healthcare and the economy are generally what the American people appear to want, at least if they aren’t labeled “left-wing.”)

Goldberg, to his credit, claims that “I would love to have an Ideas section filled with libertarians, socialists, anarcho-pacifists and theocons, in addition to mainstream liberals and conservatives, all arguing with each other,” yet this desire is not reflected in Goldberg’s actions. (As Williamson’s absurd 2015 fear-mongering article on Bernie Sanders reveals, Williamson does not really know what socialism is.) Unfortunately, “ideological diversity” often really means exploring the far right and ignoring the far left. Why hire a radical queer writer, when you could hire a transphobe who believes that accepting the scientific and social reality of trans people means regressing to “very primitive understanding of reality?”

Is it because, at some level, the radical on one political side scares you more than the radical on the other?

Because the radical on the left will scare away readers?

Because it’s more and more normalized, more evil-become-banal, to see crass transphobia and racism and violent misogyny, but an earnest appeal to left-wing populism would really be too much?

Lest one worry that Williamson’s hiring might betoken some shift away from inclusivity by virtue of his dismissive views towards women, trans people, and African-Americans, Goldberg assured staffers that “[i]t is my mission to make sure that we outdo our industry in achieving gender equality and racial diversity.” How better to tick off the box of gender equality and racial diversity than by hiring yet another straight white male?

As Jessica Valenti wrote in a heartfelt Medium post condemning Goldberg’s staffing decision: “By hiring Williamson, The Atlantic is sending a clear message: That the worst kind of harassment and intimidation women face — extremism that has been directly linked to real life violence — is acceptable.” The same message, I assert, is also being sent towards transphobic individuals: that as long as you oppose Trump and write well, your casual hatred of us is acceptable, even to be encouraged, perhaps, for clicks.

To be sure, I am a staunch supporter of freedom of speech and expression (even as neither is equivalent to the right to a particular platform, nor to freedom from consequences for what one says). Williamson and his ideological ilk have the right to write whatever they wish. Just because someone writes something I consider degrading doesn’t mean I’ll never read anything by them again; I frequently read and watch what my ideological opposites have to say because I am open to being wrong about my beliefs, whatever they may be. And I deeply respect The Atlantic. I’ve long been a reader of the magazine and have no intention of ceasing due to this. I do not judge the New York Times solely by the many times I’ve disagreed with Bret Stephens or Bari Weiss, and the same will be true, holistically speaking, of The Atlantic—even as I, who once visited friends at the magazine’s office, now feel more nervous about the idea of doing something similar in the future, since it’s hard not to feel less welcome when someone who despises your kind is themselves welcomed into the masthead.

I feel conflicted, shitty, sad.

Of course, I, too, believe people can change. A terrible tweet or write-up from the past does not inherently mean one is the same person in the present—even if those past views must be confronted to make one’s present self more meaningful. Goldberg himself alluded to this idea in his memo, justifying his choice by arguing that he likes to “give people second chances and the opportunity to change”—in of itself sound and even admirable, yet, in this specific context, weak and bizarre, as he could have also given someone entirely different a first or second chance. And Williamson, for all intents and purposes, has not visibly changed his views on women, trans people broadly, abortion, or race.

At the end of the day, I’m not here to advocate for the stifling of any voice. I believe in the freedom of belief. What we have here, however, is indeed the ironic yet unsurprising stifling of a voice in the name of “adding” a voice: the silencing of any “problematic” left-wing radical. I hear from certain conservatives that the popular media, broadly, has a left-wing bias; it’s interesting, considering that those given a voice are increasingly right-wing peddlers of toxic ideas rather than people who aren’t center-left. American politics is so far to the right that conservatives frequently refer to centrist Democrats as “the far left.” For all his asinine, insulting beliefs, the “safer” choice was for Goldberg to hire Williamson.

The sad truth is that trans people like me don’t really matter, in the grand scheme of things, to many such media institutions—trans people of color appearing to matter least of all. Transphobia sometimes crosses the line, as McInnes learned, but there are far more cases where it hasn’t. After all, it wasn’t transphobia that got Yiannopoulos’s book rejected, months after his deal, from Simon and Schuster; it was an accusation that the British provocateur endorsed child molestation. (The latter, of course, is horrifically disqualifying, yet I can’t help but note that the many times Yiannopoulos called trans people deranged and hideous and dangerous and, ironically, pedophilic predators didn’t seem to matter to Simon and Schuster; those little old transphobic accusations didn’t cross the line.)

With the president’s callous, obscene ban on trans people in the military now, despite prior objections, poised to take effect in more draconian fashion than “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” it’s all the more noticeable that The Atlantic hired someone with a history of callous, obscene transphobia, amongst other bigotries. But, then again, we’re quite accustomed to being thrown under the bus. If anything, it would have been more surprising to hire someone not cautiously in favor of our existence, or simply dismissing our rights as “boutique issues” the left shouldn’t focus on right now, in the words of Bill Maher, but rather someone who was fiercely, vociferously demanding our improved legal and societal status. Instead, we get what we’re fairly accustomed to getting: nothing, and then a bit less.

Ideological diversity, indeed.

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