In early March, I met up with Jeffrey Goldberg, the editor in chief of the Atlantic, at an event sponsored by the magazine at the South by Southwest conference in Austin. He had just hired me away from National Review, the venerable conservative magazine where I’d been a writer and editor for 10 years.
“You know, the campaign to have me fired will begin 11 seconds after you announce that you’ve hired me,” I told him. He scoffed. “It won’t be that bad,” he said. “The Atlantic isn’t the New York Times. It isn’t high church for liberals.”
My first piece appeared in the Atlantic on April 2. I was fired on April 5.
The purported reason for our “parting ways,” as Mr. Goldberg put it in his announcement, had nothing to do with what I’d written in my inaugural piece. The problem was a six-word, four-year-old tweet on abortion and capital punishment and a discussion of that tweet in a subsequent podcast. I had responded to a familiar pro-abortion argument: that pro-lifers should not be taken seriously in our claim that abortion is the willful taking of an innocent human life unless we are ready to punish women who get abortions with long prison sentences. It’s a silly argument, so I responded with these words: “I have hanging more in mind.”
Trollish and hostile? I’ll cop to that, though as the subsequent conversation online and on the podcast indicated—to say nothing of the few million words of my published writing available to the reading public—I am generally opposed to capital punishment. I was making a point about the sloppy rhetoric of the abortion debate, not a public-policy recommendation. Such provocations can sometimes clarify the terms of a debate, but in this case, I obscured the more meaningful questions about abortion and sparked the sort of hysteria I’d meant to point out and mock.
Let’s not equivocate: Abortion isn’t littering or securities fraud or driving 57 in a 55-mph zone. If it isn’t homicide, then it’s no more morally significant than getting a tooth pulled. If it isn’t homicide, then there’s no real argument for prohibiting it. If it is homicide, then we need to discuss more seriously what should be done to put an end to it. For all the chatter today about diversity of viewpoint and the need for open discourse, there aren’t very many people on the pro-choice side, in my experience, who are ready to talk candidly about the reality of abortion.
Which brings us back to that event at South by Southwest, where the Atlantic was sponsoring a panel about marginalized points of view and diversity in journalism. The panelists, all Atlantic writers and editors, argued that the cultural and economic decks are stacked against feminists and advocates of minority interests. They made this argument under the prestigious, high-profile auspices of South by Southwest and their own magazine, hosted by a feminist group called the Female Quotient, which enjoys the patronage of Google, PepsiCo, AT&T, NBCUniversal, Facebook, UBS, JPMorgan Chase and Deloitte. We should all be so marginalized. If you want to know who actually has the power in our society and who is actually marginalized, ask which ideas get you sponsorships from Google and Pepsi and which get you fired.
The event itself was revealing, not for the predictable banalities uttered on stage but for the offstage observations coming from the master of ceremonies: my new boss. Mr. Goldberg in private sometimes takes an amusingly ironic view of the pieties of P.C. culture. After giving the opening remarks, he joked about inflicting upon me the “wokiest” thing I’d ever suffered through and said that he himself was “insufficiently intersectional” for the event. He had a good laugh.
I couldn’t share so easily in his humor. Mr. Goldberg knows something about the power of the Twitter mob. A Jewish liberal with some hawkish foreign-policy views and a clear-eyed understanding of the problems associated with the poorly assimilated Muslim minority communities in Europe, he has been labeled everything from a perpetrator of crimes against humanity (he served in the Israeli military as a young man) to an “Islamophobe” to the intellectual author of George W. Bush’s ill-conceived war in Iraq.
But he underestimated the energy with which that mob would pursue someone like me. Mr. Goldberg sits atop one of the most celebrated magazines in our country’s history, and before that he was a star at the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker. He can survive the occasional heresy.
I’m an unassimilated conservative from Lubbock, Texas. Much of my career for the past 20-odd years has consisted of writing pieces that tell people things they don’t want to hear. My angry critics on the left think I’m a right-wing monster; my angry critics on the right don’t like the fact that I’ve reported extensively from Trump country and haven’t thought very highly of what I’ve seen. If I’d been hired for a new job at some conservative outlet, you can be sure there would have been talk about how I pray each night for the death of the white working class.
But this time, the tsunami came from the left, as I’d predicted.
On March 22, the Atlantic announced that it had hired me and three others as contributors to its new section “for ideas, opinions and commentary.” In no time, the abortion-rights group Naral was organizing protests against me, demanding that I not be permitted to publish in the Atlantic. Activists claimed, dishonestly, that I wanted to see every fourth woman in the country lynched (it is estimated that 1 in 4 American women will have an abortion by the age of 45). Opinion pieces denouncing me appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, the Huffington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and other publications.
The remarkable fact about all this commentary on my supposedly horrifying views on abortion is that not a single writer from any of those famous publications took the time to ask me about the controversy. (The sole exception was a reporter from Vox.) Did I think I was being portrayed accurately? Why did I make that outrageous statement? Did I really want to set up gallows, despite my long-stated reservations about capital punishment? Those are questions that might have occurred to people in the business of asking questions. (In preparing this account, I have confirmed my recollection of what Mr. Goldberg said with Mr. Goldberg himself.)