Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: “Ruggles Of Red Gap” And “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic'”


Good Morning…

(Do you remember when Saturday morning was fun? Stupid, but fun…)

1. Your cultural literacy note of the day. The Charles Laughton classic “Ruggles of Red Gap” was on Turner Movie Classics last night. The movie itself is wonderful—I recommended it in an Independence Day post here—but it is also a cultural literacy triumph.  In 1935, when the film was released, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was in the process of falling out of the public’s consciousness. The film’s most famous scene, however, revived it. In a saloon, reference is made to “what Lincoln said at Gettysburg,” and all the cowboys in Red Gap ask each other, “What did Lincoln say at Gettysburg?” Then, quietly, unexpectedly, Ruggles the English butler (Laughton) and the only foreign-born man in the room, recites the speech. TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, in his post showing observations, revealed that when the film was first shown, audiences frequently stood and applauded Laughton’s rendition, and the Address itself became more widely known and quoted.

This is how popular culture works when it is in sync with national values, and not attempting to undermine them.

Here is the scene…for some reason YouTube doesn’t have it, but does have the entire film. The saloon scene begins at about the 56:09 mark:



2. The Atlantic-Kevin Williamson controversy. Unless you routinely plumb the depths of pundit wars and cultural bloodletting, you might well be completely unaware of this skirmish, but it is ultimately an ethics story.

Conservative writer Kevin Williamson was one of the National Review’s most quotable and flamboyant contributes. Like the magazine itself, but moreso, he is virulently anti-Trump, a NeverTrumper from the beginning. This apparently made him appealing to the relentlessly liberal magazine, The Atlantic, so in what was thought to be an admirable commitment to more ideological diversity, it hired Williamson away from the comfy conservative NR.  Then it fired him less than a month later after only one column.

The provocation was a remark he made on a 2014  podcast reiterated in more recent tweet :

And someone challenged me on my views on abortion, saying, “If you really thought it was a crime, you would support things like life in prison, no parole, for treating it as a homicide.” And I do support that. In fact, as I wrote, what I had in mind was hanging.

29 thoughts on “Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 4/7/2018: “Ruggles Of Red Gap” And “Williamson No Longer Of The Atlantic'”

    • I feel like “don’t say women who have had abortions should be hanged” should be included in everyone’s definition of “civil.” Am I wrong?

      • So you don’t understand Douthat’s point then?

        Here, I’ll make it clear: Saying Down Syndrome babies should be killed is ethically no different than saying those kill them should be hanged, if you believe that a aborted babies are human lives, which millions do.

        • I believe aborted fetuses are human lives, as you know, and I’m pretty sure the rest of the pro-choicers here do as well. I also think saying Down syndrome babies should be aborted is wrong. I still don’t think that is ethically equivalent to saying women who have abortions should be hanged. But if a right-of-center magazine fires a writer for saying Down syndrome babies should be aborted, I am not going to pretend that’s a free speech issue, because it absolutely would not be.

          • It’s not a First Amendment issue. Of course it is a freedom of expression issue: when you punish people for expressing opinions, you are chilling free speech, just like my Facebook friends do when they call me a racist or a fascist or a Breitbart follower for explaining why a progressive narrative is utter crap. The objective is to silence arguments and opinions they can’t deal with. That chills the speech of anyone who reads their responses.

            (it doesn’t work on me, of course.)

            • It doesn’t work on anyone, least of all actual racists and fascists. Somehow, they keep speaking even after being called racists and fascists. That’s why I struggle to see name-calling as “chilling free speech.” If the president is name-calling you, maybe. But a magazine choosing to fire someone because of controversial comments? No. Not even a little.

              • An opinion magazine fires a writer for having the “wrong” opinion. That doesn’t chill speech. Right.

                See, “chilling” means causing negative consequences for expressing an opinion that is only a problem because you disagree with it. In this case, the writer was fired for a pointed expression of seriousness—he seriously believes violent murder is worthy of violent capitol punishment, but is not lobbying for hanging. The idea is to make abortion fans consider the dichotomy Douthat laid out. The editor didn’t have the guts to enter that fray.

                Let’s say a pundit says we should shoot illegal immigrants. He gets fired. The next pundit says that illegal immigrants should be sent home wit a chip in their head that explodes when they cross the border. He’s fired. The next: deport them all. He’s fired. When do you decide that the magazine is enforcing conformity of thought and political belief?

                • Lots of magazines enforce conformity of thought and political belief among their writers. Virtually all political mags do. This isn’t the “everybody does it” rationalization, because it isn’t unethical. It’s unethical when mainstream newspapers refuse to hire any conservatives within the mainstream of American politics because they are conservatives. But the New York Times doesn’t have to hire birthers, and the Wall Street Journal doesn’t have to hire Louise Mensch. Deciding what views are too far outside the mainstream to tolerate is part of the job of any organization that publishes people’s views—they literally could not function without this ability.

                  The question is where the line is. You simply don’t see calling for the hanging of women who have abortions as too far outside the mainstream to tolerate. I find it strange that so many on the pro-life side who have spent the past few years insisting that they don’t want to punish women for having abortions now saying that Williamson’s firing was a rejection of mainstream pro-life views—which is it?

                    • “Too extreme to tolerate,” in this context, clearly means “Too extreme to publish.” Unless you’re telling me that if you owned a magazine, you wouldn’t have any problem hiring a writer who has argued that all conservative men should be chemically castrated, then you agree with me that there are views too extreme to tolerate.

                    • And the idea that only progressives get to decide is absurd. As if conservative outlets don’t decide who to hire and which views to publish every damn day.

                    • It’s literally quoted in Jack’s article:

                      Concludes Reason: “The Atlantic is essentially declaring that it cannot stomach real, mainstream conservatism as it actually exists in 21st century America.”

                    • Let’s try this again, since the author of the Reason article (a Libertarian publication) is Katherine Mangu-Ward, a pro-choice Libertarian. Can you find me quotes, please, in context, that fulfill this assertion:

                      “…so many on the pro-life side … now saying that Williamson’s firing was a rejection of mainstream pro-life views…”

                    • Make no mistake, I kind of appreciate what you are doing here, or at least what I think you are doing here. It looks like you are trying to parallel the conservative bemusement at vast swathes of accepted Leftwing spokesmen revealing the final end state of “common sense gun control” being repeal of 2A and confiscation of firearms despite years of assurance that no, that is not what those spokesmen want.

                      But, to make that parallel, you’ve really got to find ALOT of quotes of conservatives making such change in message regarding the mothers who abort…and not merely concern over what is essentially a bait-and-switch hiring and firing of a conservative voice for making a hyper-conservative assertion on a single topic.

                    • Thanks for pointing out that the Reason writer isn’t a pro-lifer.

                      I assume you don’t agree with her that Williamson’s firing represents a rejection of mainstream pro-life views.

                      I hope you’re right.

                      Here’s a thread documenting pro-lifers who made just that argument:

  1. #2 I wonder if Mr. Williams has grounds for a wrongful termination case. I bet his employment was “at will”, but maybe, he can argue that he was fired because of sexual discrimination. Would they have fired a black woman writer with the same views and credentials? I can’t say. I think it would be interesting if he was to sue them for $1, so they could at least admit that they are weenies, on the record. It would be a great teaching moment about integrity, lack of it, how organisations that purport to stand up for high ideals succumb to mob rule/peer pressure, because their support of the ideals was lip service instead of a mission statement in the first place.

  2. Stuff like #2 is why we got President Trump.

    Stuff like #2 proves Kurt Schlichter right. I wonder, Jack, how you would view the columns of his you discussed last year in light of this and other events.

  3. I’m going to have to check my sources but my understanding is that Kevin Williams, though conservative, is actually opposed to the death penalty. If this is accurate, this would lend a notion that his idea about hanging mothers who kill their unborn babies was made somewhat flippantly and tongue-in-cheek.

  4. Cast of Characters (mostly from their twitter profiles):

    @_Almaqah –

    Gabriel Malor (@gabrielmalor) – “Oklahoman. Attorney. Contributor at @FDRLST, @dcexaminer, and other places. Keep reminding me that I’m supposed

    to be rising above.”

    @Elwampito – “petty bourgeois”

    Mollie Hemingway (@MZHemingway) – “Senior Editor, @FDRLST”

    Katherine Mangu-Ward – Editor in Chief of Reason Magazine

    Fyodor – Possibly a libertarian & probably anti-Trump… (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

    @MsBaileyGurl – “fundamental human rights and fast wifi. So easy to please.”

    Mark Hemingway (@Herminator) – “Senior Writer @WeeklyStandard. Husband of @MZHEmingway”

    Jacob T. Levy (@jtlevy) – “Tomlinson Prof of Political Theory, McGill. RPF Niskanen Opinions

    here are mine not McGill’s.”

    Alexandra DeSanctis (@xan_desanctis) – “Buckley Fellow at National Review. Co-host of “Ordered Liberty” with @DavidAFrench. @NotreDame alum. ”

    Bre Payton – “the culture and millennial politics reporter for The Federalist”

    @JackFromAtlanta – possibly a conservative & possibly an Eastern Orthodox Christian (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

    @UrbanAchievr – probably a leftist, most probably anti-Trump (judging from a quick scan of tweets)

    Oliver Darcy (@oliverdarcy) – “senior media reporter, @CNN. writing at the intersection of media & politics.”

    Kirsten Powers – “USA Today Columnist / CNN Political Analyst / Cohost of @thefaithangle podcast”

    I think this is an informative tweet dialogue on a handful of levels. For one, it reveals some informal fallacies that inetivably ruin any discourse and are especially ruinous tendencies in any summarized forum (which twitter represents the extreme end of the spectrum). It also reveals what I think is the fundamental problem with the discussion here. I think we’re operating on two different meanings of “mainstream”. Simultaneously this reveals two different attitudes regarding the Overton Window.

    As for the term “mainstream”, Almaqah below, seems to mean it as “anything someone is willing to hear another person discuss”. I presume your friendliness toward Almaqah’s opinions implies you generally believe the same. When I use it, and I think when most others use the term, we use it as more of a quantitative assessment. Where “mainstream” means “anything that a sufficient percentage of people believe”, to which it might be effective to add “that it holds enough weight to begin to sway policy discussions” (but that’s not necessary).

    I think Almaqah’s subsequent side-bars reveal a somewhat concerning attitude towards diversity of opinion as well as tolerance of that diversity. He seems to think that acceptable discourse should be extremely narrow and that anything outside of that window should not be tolerated one bit.

    Here’s the opening salvo, as Almaqah responds to Gabriel Malor (which “El Wampito” rapidly jumps into).

    @gabrielmalor – “The man just lost his job because of his political beliefs. The people celebrating it, particularly the ones who work in media, are trash human beings, not to mention completely unself-aware morons.”

    @_Almaqah (two combined tweets) – “Stop convincing me “executing women who have abortions” is a conservative belief, I’m trying to be generous. Also he’ll be fine, NR will take him back. Most prolifers say they don’t want to punish women who have abortions, so it’s odd to see some of them conflate KW calling for execution with normal conservative beliefs. Which is it?”

    @Elwampito – “it’s the latter”

    @_Almaqah – “I’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt!”

    @Elwampito – “i mean, if you believe abortion is murder and support the death penalty, it would seem to fit unless you think women lack moral agency or something”

    @_Almaqah – “This is true, most of them get around having to reach this conclusion by just saying women are victims of abortion too. KW was willing to say he takes their agency seriously and thinks they should be held culpable”

    Here, Almaqah subtly shifts the accusation. The topic is the specific stance that women who kill their unborn children should be executed. Almaqah expands this to “Punishing women who seek abortion”. There’s a significant difference here where his latter use of “punish” compels the person he’s arguing with to either agree or disagree to a general assertion which may or may not reveal an actual attitude towards the specific assertion. This isn’t rhetorically responsible dialogue.

    @MZHemingway – “In only article pubbed @ Atlantic before being fired for being pro-life, NeverTrumper Kevin Williamson wrote enemy was @VDHanson.Interesting”

    @_Almaqah – “Another person who equates ‘prolife’ with ‘wanting women who have abortions to be executed’. I’ll take your word for it!”

    Molly Hemingway, is playing the typical journalist role of saying something triggering to her base, “Fired for being pro-life”, when she knows he was fired for having a stance about how to enforce those who have abortions. She isn’t being responsible with her tweet, and Almaqah capitalizes on this. But in reality, we know he wasn’t fired for being pro-life, but standing up *for* him and his right to hold opinions, is not an endorsement of those opinions NOR is it a claim that the opinions are “mainstream” (unless you insist on the Narrow Overton window definition of mainstream).

    Here, Almaqah quotes the same Reason article, by Katherine Mangu-Ward, which you referred to and is linked in Jack’s piece.

    @_Almaqah (two combined tweets) – “Kevin’s defenders would’ve been better off just saying ‘yes, punishing abortion w/execution is completely reasonable conservative belief, what of it?” instead of “he was just trolling, of course he doesn’t believe that horrible thing!” I mean, once you concede it’s a terrible thing to believe it, kind of hard to get mad when there are consequences for actually believing in it”

    @Fyodor32768 (three combined tweets, bold is what Almaqah responds to) – “I think that conservatives probably believe that say the median viewpoint should be outright illegalization and that Williamson’s execution position is on the right side of the spectrum but not crazy. So by saying that his hanging position puts you outside the spectrum you are saying something about what the “baseline” opinion is that they dislike. Sort of like how a lot of mildly racist conservatives didn’t fully agree with Trump’s more forceful racism but didn’t feel it should be condemned as outside the pale because they though of their own more mild racism as the midpoint for views on minorities.”

    @_Almaqah – “Yes, to them punishing abortion by execution is just a policy difference to be debated politely among friends. It’s not like Williamson called for something truly offensive like an 80% estate tax”

    Almaqah, relying on the narrow, intolerant view of the Overton Window, again shifts the term from the specific “execution” to the broader term “punishment”.

    Fyodor does a great summary rebutting him here.

    Almaqah’s reponse is to belittle the notion of tolerating an individual, who generally in agreement with most actual mainstream opinions, holds one or two more extreme ideas. This is problematic. If Almaqah’s attitude is to reign, we cannot tolerate individuals having anything other than exactly the same lock step views on every opinion we grant “mainstream” status…we must, upon discovery that one of our “orthodox” fellows, when holding even a single “out of whack” viewpoint, must be shut up and sent out of the camp.

    @Herminator – “Kevin Williamson was Never Trump *and* one of the most talented writers of his generation. They still wouldn’t let him work for a a venerable liberal institution. Let that be a lesson.”

    @MsBaileyGurl – “The lesson is…don’t advocate for the murder of women. Seems pretty easy for the ‘law and order’ party to get behind.”

    @Herminator – “Adovocating for the murder of women who murder others is the issue at hand. This is misdirection.”

    @_Almaqah – “”he doesn’t want to murder all women, he just wants to murder women who have abortions” might’ve sounded better in your head”

    Almaqah has jumped onto someone else’s sidebar with Mark Hemingway. Not alot of new takeaways here.

    @jtlevy (several tweets combined, the bolded section comes from the tweet that @_Almaqah responds to) – “Roseanne Barr, an ideologically messy kind-of-leftist (Green Party the Peace & Freedom Party pres candidate, Occupy advocate) is beyond the pale because she supports Trump. Kevin Williamson, author of The Case Against Trump and a longtime vocal Never Trumper, is beyond the pale for still being the kind of conservative he was before Trump. Even while recognizing the ways that Williamson pushed things farther than other conservatives…I’m uneasy at how those two things sit together.

    If Trump’s presidency is an emergency and a catastrophe— and I think it is!— then there’s some value in a broad coalitional attitude among his opponents until the emergency is over.

    I often really disaliked Williamson’s pre-Trump trollish writings. But he’s made real contributions since 2016. I wouldn’t vote for him for president or DA or judge. But it’s good to have his voice out there, right now.

    NB that I’m not making a poor-put-upon-Williamson argument or a free speech one. I’m worried about the strong signal that, really, it’s still politics as usual right now, and that there’s not anything especially important or unusual about the current situation. For the (many) people responding to me “but he advocates executions for abortion”— would it really make a difference to you if he advocated 20-year prison terms? 10 years? Excommunication and damnation? Is there an acceptable pro-life position for an Atlantic writer to hold?

    @_Almaqah – “But I keep reading most prolifers are against punishing women, so why is this the range of prolife opinions presented? Unless you’re saying….”

    Almaqah still relying on shifting the term being discussed and also conflating defense of Williamson’s employment with endorsement of Williamson’s views. This is wrong for all the reasons already discussed.

    But more interesting about the Overton Window again… Williamson, other than his particular anti-abortion stance, would be a liberal-friendly conservative. Yet he was canned for ONE opinion. Oddly enough, left-wing extremists on abortion, such as Singer (I forget his name), who have published works advocating for AFTER BIRTH “ABORTION”, have been completely tolerated as authors for the Atlantic. Should we claim that after-birth aboriton is a mainstream Leftwing attitude? No. Yet, Williamson, who wrote not ONE SINGLE abortion piece for the Atlantic, indeed, only wrote ONE piece for the Atlantic was sent packing for less than a handful of comments he made.

    Several of those comments made with the idea of consistency. That is, he’s actually opposed to the death penalty, but if we are to have a death penalty, he would see it as consistent to apply the penatly to mothers who kill their unborn.

    @xan_desanctis – “No one raises an eyebrow when a columnist defends the eugenic extermination of unborn children with Down syndrome. But a pro-life columnist is fired for expressing his views in a controversial way. Unbelievable.”

    @_Almaqah – “Another prolife writer saying ‘execution for abortion’ is a normal prolife position. Strange”

    @xan_desanctis – “Hm, except that I never said it was a normal prolife position. Would love it if you could find even one example of me saying this.”

    @_Almaqah – “You said KW was fired simply for being prolife and expressing those views controversially. He repeatedly advocated hanging as punishment for abortion. Is that w/in range of acceptable prolife positions?”>

    @xan_desanctis – “I did not say he was fired simply for being prolife. I’ve never defended his comments, called them prolife, or shared his view, which is what you’ve wrongly accused me of doing. How ’bout you take it back now.”

    @_Almaqah – “you wrote “a pro-life columnist is fired for expressing his views in a controversial way” … He was fired for advocating execution. Again, is that w/in acceptable range of prolife opinions? If not, what’s the issue?”

    <a href=" – “I can oppose Kevin’s firing without sharing/defending his view on executing post-abortive women or believing that his view is prolife — which, again, are two things you’ve wrongly accused me of doing.”

    @_Almaqah – “you can also oppose his firing (which I didn’t support) while accurately stating what he was fired for – repeatedly advocating hanging as punishment for abortion, not “expressing his views in a controversial way””

    (a deleted tweet by @xan_desanctis, which, according to an image posted by @_Almaqah was a snarky jab about expecting an apology for his misrepresentation of her comments)

    @_Almaqah – “I should’ve been more accurate since ‘normal’ implies the average opinion, which I don’t believe is true. I’ll amend and say you appear to find execution as punishment within the acceptable range of prolife opinions, although on the further end”

    MOre of the same from Almaqah. No need to explicate. I enjoy though that Alexandra pushed back and all Almaqah had was mischaracterizing her comments.

    @JackFromAtlanta – “This whole exercise is ridiculous. Obviously most conservatives don’t hold his view, but think it’s within the acceptable range.”

    @_Almaqah – “that’s all I’ve been saying, why can’t they just admit that”

    JackFromAtlanta nails the Overton Window aspect of this.

    Here, Almaqah shows an image of an article by Bre Payton. Kevin Williamson Fired From the Atlantic for Opposing Abortion

    @_Almaqah – “He repeatedly said he supports hanging as punishment for abortion. We can now say this is a standard prolife view, according to many prolife conservative writers, who I presume are the experts on this”

    @UrbanAchievr (two tweets combined, bold tweet is what Almaqah responds to) – “Pro-life conservatives are falling into a trap. I wonder if they care. “I am pro-life and Kevin Williamson doesn’t speak for me when he says women who have abortions should be hanged.”

    How hard is that to say? You’re really going to let the left define his argument as standard pro-life conservative?”

    @_Almaqah – “There’s no trap, just trying to understand what’s on the table. If people say being fired for advocating executions as punishment for abortion is the same as being fired for being prolife, I will take them at their word”

    Evidently marching orders at the Federalist was to use irresponsible journalism in their headlining. If you actually read her article, she thoroughly discusses the actual reason he was fired. Verdict: False Headline, but nothing with which to draw the conclusions that Almaqah insists.

    @oliverdarcy (referring to an article in USA Today: Kevin Williamson is wrong. Hanging women who have an abortion is not pro-life – “—@KirstenPowers points out that wanting to punish women for having an abortion (not to mention death by hanging) does not fall within mainstream conservatism and is one of the few positions Trump was forced to reverse …”

    @_Almaqah – “she’s wrong – it’s not the average opinion but it’s clearly within the range of acceptable conservative thought, judging by KW’s many defenders in rw media”

    Kirsten Powers makes an odd argument but ultimately supports the notion about this not being a “mainstream” stance, and Oliver Darcy bolsters this. Almaqah has begun to soften his stance.

    Again, the essential difference here is how we define “mainstream”. It seems to me that you think “mainstream” means “anything people are willing to permit spoken” and therefore because conservatives are willing to allow Kevin Williamson to speak they consider him mainstream. I’ve always understood “mainstream” as “a large percentage of such-and-such a group generally hold to such-and-such a belief”.

    • Terrific and helpful post, MW, and a Comment of the Day once I figure out how to format it. I’m sorry I took so long to get it out of moderation.

      By the way, my guess is that many readers don’t know the Overton Window concept. For their benefit: Joe Overton described the Overton window for a think tank in Michigan, theorizing that politicians can only hold position within a narrow band inside the left to right political spectrum. Any politician who voices an opinion outside this range of acceptable opinions will see their career come to an abrupt end and be ostracized.

      Two observations on that:

      1. Trump’s election undermines the concept
      2. The Overton Window isn’t supposed to apply to pundits, scholars, artist and writers.

      • Thanks! Though I wish I had dived into it a little more in depth. The hyperlinking burned me out and turned that into a multi-evening affair.

        It wasn’t in moderation long…just over night.

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