Who Do You Debate?

In a recent column in the New York Times, Michelle Goldberg raised a thorny but important issue: should liberal publications engage in affirmative action for conservatives?

The impetus for the question was a decision by The Atlantic to hire a conservative writer whose opinions would seem to place him outside the bounds of civil discourse.

The progressive objection to Williamson lies in the demeaning ways he’s written about poor people, black people, women, and trans people. He described an African-American boy in East St. Louis sticking out his elbows in “the universal gesture of primate territorial challenge.” Defiantly using male pronouns in a piece about the trans actress Laverne Cox, Williamson wrote, “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” Feminism, he wrote, is a “collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes.” He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, “I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”

The decision to bring a “conservative voice” in-house is understandable–even commendable. After all, progressives insist that dialogue is good, that minds must be open, that all ideas deserve to be considered. The term “liberal” once denoted open-mindedness and the willingness to engage people with whom one disagreed. But Goldberg’s question goes to the heart of our current political dilemma:

[Atlantic’s] hiring has set off the latest uproar over which conservatives belong in the opinion sections of elite mainstream publications, including, of course, The New York Times. These controversies are, naturally, of particular interest to people who write for opinion sections, and so receive disproportionate media coverage. But there’s a broader significance to these recurring fights, because they’re about how we decide which views are acceptable at a time of collapsing mainstream consensus. The intellectual implosion of the Republican Party, it turns out, creates challenges for liberals as well as conservatives, because suddenly it’s not clear which views a person who aspires to fair-mindedness needs to grapple with.

This issue isn’t limited to publications. Universities are constantly being criticized because a preponderance of faculty–especially at more rigorous institutions–lean left. The accusation is that conservative scholars are subjected to discrimination.

The reality is considerably different–academics are pathetically eager to demonstrate even-handedness, and most of us who participate in search committees would be deliriously happy to discover that a highly qualified candidate was politically conservative.  (In some schools, like business, that does happen.) But search committees look first and foremost for evidence of sound scholarship–and in many fields, the candidates with the impressive resumes tend to be liberal.

Just as the university isn’t going to hire a science professor who insists the earth is flat or evolution is a myth, a reputable opinion journal is courting disaster by failing to distinguish between a philosophical conservative and a purveyor of conspiracy theories and/or racial resentments. These days, it’s hard to find a conservative who hasn’t been co-opted by Trumpism.

As Goldberg notes, it used to be that in order to understand national politics, you had to understand certain conservative ideas.

Trump put an end to that. The field of ideas has gone from being the ground on which politics are fought to a side in politics, which is why it’s so difficult to find serious intellectual Trump defenders. Trump has resentments and interests, but not ideology; he governs more as a postmodern warlord than a traditional party leader. Few things signal the irrelevance of ideas to his presidency like the appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton’s relentless advocacy of regime change contradicts the isolationism Trump touted during the campaign. Trump called the Iraq war a “disaster”; Bolton is one of few who continue to defend it. Yet Bolton’s appointment isn’t discordant, because he and Trump are both belligerent bullies, and in this administration stylistic similarities matter more than policy details.

Inasmuch as there are ideas bound up with Trumpism, they are considered too disreputable for most mainstream publications. An opinion section that truly captured the currents of thought shaping our politics today might include Alex Jones, the conspiracy-mad Sandy Hook truther; the white nationalist Richard Spencer; and CliffsNotes fascist Steve Bannon.

The problem is, liberals need to engage with genuine conservatism. Just as the absence of a reputable Republican Party allows Democrats to become fragmented and intellectually lazy, liberal ideas need to be sharpened (and sometimes defeated) by contrary insights.

Giving a platform to people based upon their self-identification rather than their ability to articulate and defend a genuinely conservative point of view does conservatives–not to mention Americans– no favor.


  1. We have lost our ability to debate ideas in a way that we can listen and learn. Its all or nothing!! I recently saw a quote from JFK that touched me. “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures”. John F. Kennedy How do we find a way to shift our passionate anger into meaningful dialogue that reshapes our national discussion? We need to step back and take a breath.

  2. I wouldn’t give Trump so much credit. Evangelists have always been hypocrites for preying on the meek. Racists have always been racists. Sexists do their thang. Poor white trash is what it is.

    Trumpism is just a convenient name for it.

    If they believe Fox News is “fair and balanced” than they should be disallowed to debate. If an individual cannot acknowledge Fox and Sinclair as biased conservativism, there is no point adding them to the debate.

    I’ve actually read comments in the IndyStar, a Gannett owned newspaper, claiming the newspaper was just another, “liberal rag.”

    I thought marketplaces required ” two rational agents”. 😉

  3. To echo Mill, we need to give people like Williamson a mainstream outlet so we know what they are saying in speaking for their crowd and can call out the ideas being expressed for what they are. No, it’s not an intellectually rigorous conservatism -maybe not even conservatism- but it’s now the mainstream view of a major political party. And it’s arguably morally reprehensible (not that any of his readers will remember what any of those terms mean). Williamson’s views need to be in The Atlantic because we need to be reminded that this is what we’re up against.

  4. Sinclair Broadcasting’s blatant sucking up to Trump with their required reading of “fake fact” scrip is another national media embarrassment. Kudos to the few newscasters who refused to support Sinclair and Trump…do they still have jobs? If the two possible buyouts occur of our local news, WXIN 59 and WTTV 4; neither will be a surprise; WXIN is Fox59 and WTTV 4 is now the home of CBS after selling out their former Channel 8 home site of many years to save money. Yesterday I attempted to Google Sinclair owned broadcasting in this area but when I clicked on Indiana on their map, a message “Oops, an error occurred”, denying access. After two attempts I realized I was blocked.

    What point is The Atlantic trying to make with the choice of Williamson; an obvious racist of a broad scope and long standing? There must be a better option somewhere among the conservatives to provide both sides on issues; do they see Williamson as one of those “fine people” Trump referred to among the neo-Nazis, White Nationalist and KKK after the Charlottesville, VA, killing? Is The Atlantic switching side by considering this to be allowing conservative freedom of speech.

    Another AOL news item this morning puts Trump approval rate at 50%; polls done by Geobeat and Rasmussen Reports, both AOL conservative sources. If anyone knows a way to transfer my AOL Internet service address book and Favorite Places to another site..PLEASE tell me. I have used AOL since 1999; their new REQUIRED AOL Desktop Gold is problematic, the required download came with 88 viruses and sometimes brings up a 2011 list as current E-mails. It is like being trapped in our current Trumpville world.

  5. “The decision to bring a “conservative voice” in-house is understandable–even commendable.”

    Commendable? Would someone please elucidate? Whose voice is a conservative voice? If it’s FOX, the WSJ or the Pope’s I think we know the drill. I listen because I want to know what the ENEMY is doing, otherwise I resist such cacophony. What we don’t know is what to do about it except to quit calling it, if unexplained, “commendable” absolutely.

    For some “conservatives” it means a soaring stock market, for others it means what? Exploitation of labor and of natural resources? Only conservatives like and wear the moniker while they count the coin Midas-like. What do they “conserve”?

  6. I haven’t heard a “debate” between liberals and conservatives since Reagan took office. What I have heard during these long years is non-stop arguing and propaganda being spewed from the mouths of every self appointed jackass the country has produced.

  7. Even William F. Buckley would no longer be considered a conservative voice in the good old US of A. We might as well admit that there are no conservative intellectuals left.

  8. What Peggy Hannon just said.
    “Conservative” and “intellectual” are now mutually exclusive terms which in that area of communication are simply contradictory. Is this to say a Conservative can’t be an intellectual in modern day political and religious discussion?
    Yes, it is and it’s time everybody realized it. So it goes.

  9. The Christian Far Right (more far right than Christian) has hijacked the genuine Republican platform. This same base has hijacked the Second Amendment along with discussion of public health for women. Moderate conservatives with a mature integration of faith and work know they cannot win the current culture war within Republican primaries. The Republican primaries (it is so obvious) are heavily financed (hijacked) by a few obstructionists of high end wealth funding bobble head robots scripted with “pro guns … build the wall … stop immigration … less government … cut taxes … war on trade … more jobs (flip burgers and make America great again) and pro Trump.” There is no compelling vision to lift the ideals upon which our nation was founded to ensure peace at home and abroad. The dynamic debate among mature conservatives and liberals has been essentially subjugated by far right operatives for whom the current base of Republican lawmakers rewarded with a heavily skewed tax cut. Put on your seat belts. The pendulum will swing back to the middle in time for our grandchildren if we work hard enough and sustain the voice of more prudent reason.

  10. My concern about equal voice would be the assumption that the middle of the road gives equal balance to both which I don’t believe is true now. I don’t believe that the spectrum here/now is liberal-conservative but has become liberal-authoritarian or free-powerful, even tyrannical.

    As a businessman I understand the balance necessary over different times of investing in the future vs conserving when time appropriate so debate with Buckley about optimism vs pessimism under today’s circumstances would always be interesting and welcome but unheard of in the culture we have been led to by oligarchical brainwashing over pervasive persuasive media.

    IMO freedom for all is not negotiable. In fact compromise to freedom is abborant to liberalism. It probably is to authoritarians too but they are concerned only about their personal freedom which insists on power for them uniquely.

  11. Another AOL news headline, “Trump lambasts Obama over approval ratings”; this is referring to the article I mentioned in my earlier comments. Further research showed Rasmussen Reports polled 500 people and referred to the CNN requested poll by SSRS (that 42% approval rating of Trump) as further proof of his increasing popularity. Is there anyone left (definitely no pun intended) worthy of taking time and effort to debate? The term “liberal” has lost almost all meaning; those of us who want to uphold the Constitution are considered the liberals of today and “conservatives” want to conserve nothing of value in the government by ignoring the Constitution.

    What does The Guardian say? Maybe we need to go beyond our own borders for facts and figures we can believe.

  12. Here is an analogy. The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould refused to debate creationists because he felt that giving them a platform partially legitimized their positions, positions which had no inherent legitimacy. I never heard of Williamson before the kerfuffle over his being hired by the Atlantic, but what I’ve read about him suggests he belongs in the same category as Alex Jones and Richard Spencer, and there is no reason to take either of them seriously.

    Now, having said all that, is there any difference between Williamson and Donald Trump?

  13. Were this the ideal ‘United States’ as we tried to conceive it, we might see someone without fear of ability or need for prompting of any kind, stand and be willing to face the most bigoted and racist person or group alive and provide a reasonable debate and not just a diatribe of explitives and emotion. A person willing to place facts before personality and reputation. These people were considered great states people. Where are they now?
    Why is it that we who sit outside the beltway can sit discuss, dialogue and even debate issues and come away with all learning something instead of more division? And Washington is rife with nothing but divisions even in departments and our houses of government in ways we have never seen displayed before. Where is true debate? – it is still well and alive, but it now needs to be brought back to where it is needed most – in our leadership (whereever that is!)

  14. The distinction made here between conservative intellectual philosophy and the demeaning, empty-headed drivel of jerks like Williamson is very important. If publications such as The Atlantic are going to publish pieces by conservatives, they need to make sure that their intellectual quality of the writer is high. The same goes for liberal writers. The Atlantic should immediately sever all ties with Williamson and try again with someone who has a brain and a heart.

  15. It seems that IDEAS (conservative, liberal, etc.) are what needs to be debated, not people. When one comments on the race, gender, disability, ethnic background of a person in a demeaning way, they are not debating an idea. IDEAS about financial policy, foreign policy, national security policy, etc. can be debated by both sides. (That’s the problem with Trump – he has NO policies, he just flies which ever way the latest FAUX news talking head blows him.) Also, no policy should include personal religious beliefs — if one believes in something based on myth & legend, fine, but it does not belong in matters of policy debate. My beliefs are just that, beliefs, not facts. If one suggests that women who have had an abortion should be treated as murderers, that’s based on a religious belief, not legal fact. This might seem pretty simplistic (I hate to see so-called liberals use the term “white-trash” – a demeaning term based on race) but I think it might be a good place to start.

  16. I think The Atlantic made a mistake, though as a lifelong liberal I understand our penchant to hear all points of view in the marketplace of ideas. Trouble is, I cannot believe that so-called points of view of neo-Nazis and their ilk are anything other than propaganda, and I don’t propose to, for instance, provide such people a platform from which to spew pretended “ideas” that strike at the heart of our democracy, or what is left of it. I think instead that our resources should be employed to fight off such propaganda and note that “Free speech does not include the right to yell Fire! in a crowded theater,” as one jurist famously noted. These people yell Fire! daily.

    Genuine conservatives with genuine points of view to offer on genuine and not manufactured issues of the day are welcome to the fray, of course, but they seem to have evaporated from the current political scene in favor of the greedy who lust for power and money, and given such motivation in lieu of an honest attempt to reconcile our differences for the common good, I see no reason to invite Kochs, Mercers, Trumps, neo-Nazis and other such abusers of free speech to our political table; nor do I think we do democracy a favor by having them espouse their “views” in reputable publications. I vote no to such abuse.

  17. Consider:

    Williamson wrote, “Regardless of the question of whether he has had his genitals amputated, Cox is not a woman, but an effigy of a woman.” Feminism, he wrote, is a “collection of appetites wriggling queasily together like a bag of snakes.” He tweeted that women who have abortions should be hanged, later clarifying that while he has doubts about the death penalty, “I believe that the law should treat abortion like any other homicide.”

    This is merely hate speech! As Gerald says, no reputable publication owes such views a platform or forum.

  18. It’s a question of crass versus class. The continuous braying and bullying that passes for commentary from so-called conservative voices simply must not be condoned in any manner. Debate in this context is merely a street brawl, an exchange of blows rather than ideas. Give me a Gore Vidal- William F. Buckley debate any time over the sort of discourse we have today. I’d much rather hear two informed, intelligent individuals who are able to articulate their opinions without resorting to brutish behavior and street gang vernacular. But that would be considered a form of elitism. Where we once prided ourselves on being educated, we now take pride in our ignorance. Unless that changes we will continue to see guttersnipes posing as political commentators.

  19. I subscribe to the Atlantic, and while I appreciate the Atlantic’s motivation for including Williamson’s thoughts, I really have no wish to read them. I feel that every day brings one more nail in the coffin of democracy, and the current drivel that passes for conversatism isn’t worth my time.

  20. We need sensible and responsible political commentary on all sides of all issues, but I wouldn’t extend a platform to the rascists and other haters. If they can’t disagree agreeably, they should be denied a platform until they demonstrate enough maturity to control ugly impulses.

  21. Is it really debate that we need? Or is it conversation? I just finished listening to the Note to Self podcast episode “You deserve to die and other fun conversation starters” . Dylan Marron talks about talking to people that drag other people online and the outcome of talking to them. Interesting podcast.
    Perhaps The Atlantic should put Williamson in a room with Dan Rather and print the conversation.

  22. Terry, @ 12:10 pm very good comments. Good recent examples of the “crass” includes the Rabid Reactionary Right and their all out gutter attacks on the survivors of mass shootings going back to Sandy Hook. Fox News will try not go with all out assault, but sometimes like in Laura Ingram’s case of they cannot help themselves.

    Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, told Newsweek via text, “I continue to be both shocked and incensed by what is clearly a coordinated attack on the Parkland students—who are children and also survivors of gun violence.”

    Watts continued, “Pundits who support the NRA’s deadly agenda are so desperate to protect the status quo of gun violence in this country that no ad hominem attack is too low.”
    I did not always agree with William Buckley – you could respect his intellect. I do not recall him engaged in the trash talk and outright false hoods and twisting facts. I find Chris Matthews to be odious also. He must be paid by the word as he is constantly interrupting and talking over his guests.

    Any way for the take over the Media, we can than Bill Clinton. In 1996, Clinton passed the Telecommunications Act, the first major overhaul of the country’s telecommunications legislation in over 60 years. Twenty-two years later, that deregulation threatens to upend our democracy.

    “The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did not just permit consolidation in TV,” noted Guardian reporter Kevin Carty last November. “It paved the way for radio monopolization as well. Before the law, it was illegal for one company to own more than 40 radio stations. Today, the company formerly known as Clear Channel—iHeartMedia—owns 858 stations.”

    “A diverse, de-concentrated, and competitive media system protects free speech in the United States,” Carty continued. “It guarantees that public discourse cannot be monopolized by concentrated power, whether in form of populist demagogues or corporate plutocrats, as it is in so many less fortunate nations.” https://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/we-have-bill-clinton-thank-part-trumps-propaganda-machine

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