Saturday, March 31, 2018

More Rhetorical Excess


More Stephens on Williamson:
Dear Kevin, 
I’m sorry to have to write you, for two reasons. Sorry, first, that you have to endure having your character assailed and assassinated by people who rarely if ever read you and likely never met you. Sorry also that your hiring as a writer for The Atlantic has set off another censorious furor in media circles when surely there are more important subjects on this earth.
(1) "I'm sorry to have to write you" is the form of an apology, when you're going to give somebody pain but your position obliges you do to it, as in "As Tiffany's teacher, I'm sorry to have to inform you that she is a very unpleasant little girl." Since this is not your plan, why are you doing that? (2) You don't have to write Kevin D. Williamson in any way, as a matter of fact. If you did, publishing your letter in The Times isn't the best way to get to him. I'm sure you could just pop him an email. Moreover, it's clear that you're not writing him. You're writing me, as a subscriber to the paper. And I didn't ask you. (3) I don't think anybody is in fact assailing, still less assassinating, Williamson's character. I think they're complaining about the shit he writes for public consumption, which is his job, which, to be sure, makes him look as if he had a pretty bad character (it's unlikely somebody would try to hide his true character by saying he believes women who have abortions deserve the same punishment as criminal homicides). I must say I love the idea that people can't judge your writing unless they've met you. (4) So this column is to quiet the censorious furor in media circles by publishing a column on the subject, in a censorious tone, in The Times? Or is that what you meant in the first place? "I'm sorry my censoriousness obliges me to contribute another 800 words to the furor when I'm sure you and everybody else would prefer me to be writing about something important."
Oh, another thing: As a NeverTrumper, you’re guilty of being insufficiently representative of contemporary conservatism. Had you been a Trumper, doubtless you would have been dismissed as a moron unworthy of the pages of The Atlantic.
Not exactly. They'd gladly hire a Trumper if they could find a literate-sounding one (I fully expect them to hire the gross Michael Anton when he escapes from the administration, which could be any day now). The issue is that commentary editors like James Bennett at The Times and Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic explain that they need to show a representative range of opinions, but then the only group they seem able to hire from is one consisting of about 30 people from the salons of the Upper East Side and whatever its DC equivalent is (somewhere in NW), writing for one another's tiny magazines and debating proposals for making themselves look as if they cared about poor people. I guess that 's why only people who have met him are qualified to judge his writing, because that's who he writes for.
Shouldn’t great prose and independent judgment count for something?
For fuck's sake he's not Kingsley Amis or V.S. Naipaul. His prose is not great. I have thought it was awful since 2013. Stephens's example of great prose is Williamson's paraphrase of Anthony Scaramucci's "I'm not Steve Bannon trying to suck his own cock" as "he reimagined Steve Bannon as a kind of autoerotic yogi" (one of the things wrong with that is that it raises the question of who imagined Bannon in the first place—why?). This is the traditional Buckley Proviso, which could be renamed the Stephens Proviso, according to which, since conservatives value pomp and circumstance, pomposity and circumstantiality in conservative writing are the marks of a superior style.
The wiser test of acceptability is whether an argument is thoughtful, thought-provoking and offered in good faith. That holds true even if the views aren’t politically representative. Last I checked, you and I were hired as columnists, not party ideologues or demographic segments.
I've discussed the relative thoughtfulness and good-or-bad faith of your work and his elsewhere, which is one reason for concluding—hate to be the one to break the news!—that both of you were clearly hired as tokens.

And Steve.

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