Last week, as former National Review writer Kevin D. Williamson was defenestrated abruptly from his brand-new post as token “conservative” columnist for the Atlantic over his hardline stance on abortion, I was going through a bit of an abrupt left-wing defenestration of my own. So, Kevin: #MeToo.
I was curtly and unexpectedly barred from covering the 19th annual White Privilege Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for the Weekly Standard, even though: 1) I had signed up for a press badge at least a month in advance, carefully and honestly identifying my conservative-press affiliation (the conference has been afflicted by right-wing reporters passing themselves off as participants, but I don’t do undercover); 2) I agreed in writing to an elaborate set of restrictions on my reporting, including no recording (fine—I’d just take notes); no reproduction of conference “content” such as handouts; no interviews without organizers’ permission, and so forth; and 3) I was actually given a press badge at the conference, a silky lavender piece of ribbon to wear around my neck bearing the word “Press” in prominent gold letters. I (or actually the Standard) had to pay for my attendance, instead of getting in free as is often the case for media. But as I already knew, there are hardly any freebies when it comes to bashing white privilege.
Further, I had already covered and written about the White Privilege Conference for the Weekly Standard in 2013, when it had met at a Seattle airport hotel. Back then, the conference had struck me strictly as a subject for laughs. “White privilege”—the idea that white people enjoy “unearned” societal benefits based on their skin color that are, for one unconscious reason or other, unavailable to minorities—had been knocking around academia for decades. But to most Americans in 2013, it was a baffling concept; several non-conference hotel guests had wondered aloud to me what on earth was going on.
So my story had highlighted the conference’s most salient feature: that although minority-group victimologists were robustly represented, many of the speakers, and certainly most of the audience, consisted of white people feeling guilty for being white. I gently poked fun at the George Mason University professor who got up onstage to apologize that his pants had been stitched in a sweatshop in Bangladesh, the soi-disant American Indian activist who had been ousted as tribal chief for financial mismanagement after a large sum of money went missing, and the large percentage of conference workshop leaders who seemed actually to be flogging their books and hustling for participants to sign up as paying customers for their own white-privilege conferences elsewhere.
Moreover, the conference themes seemed to have subtly migrated from the grievances of people of color to the grievances of the LGBTQ (“gender-neutral restrooms” were an important conference feature). Still, I couldn’t help liking the organizers: Eddie Moore Jr., a charming and sartorially magnificent prep-school diversity chief in the process of transforming himself entrepreneurially into a veritable emperor of white privilege , and Abby Ferber, an earnestly old-time-liberal sociology professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs who lent the conference an academic patina (until state legislators complained in 2014, the university had officially co-sponsored the conference, and Ferber reportedly still offers credit for attending in one of her courses). Just as I treated the conference as a source of entertainment, so the organizers, fully aware that the Weekly Standard wasn’t exactly the Nation, treated me. I posed for a photo with Moore and joked that I was feeling the Stockholm Syndrome.
I returned to the scene in 2018 because during the intervening five years “white privilege” seemed to have mushroomed from a zany preoccupation of far-left professors into a mainstream pedagogical trend. Just a few days ago elementary-school teachers in Raleigh, N.C., sent second-graders home with a sheet for their parents titled “11-Step Guide to Race, Racism, and White Privilege.” The sheet proffered such injunctions as “Drop ‘colorblindedness’ (which is arguably an ableist term anyway)” and “Only white people can be racist.” The white-privilege movement had become serious—and a serious threat to those who declined to be indoctrinated or to have their children indoctrinated.
Still, since no one connected to this year’s conference had objected to my being there, just as they hadn’t objected in 2013, I was genuinely surprised when my entrance to a conference workshop on white women’s implicit racism was suddenly blocked by a gray-haired conference functionary named Stephanie who wore a ribbon-badge saying, “Ask Me About My Pronoun” (more evidence, I suppose, of the gradual LGBTQ takeover). Stephanie informed me that my signing the agreement not to reproduce “content” meant that under no circumstances was I allowed to write an article for the Weekly Standard. I was at the conference only as a “participant.”
Uh, really? What about this here press badge you just gave me? I wondered how exactly my handwritten notes could be construed as conference “content.”
Stephanie continued: “You’re the reason this conference is closed to the press. People got death threats over that last article you wrote.” Death threats? Over making fun of someone’s pants?
I called my Weekly Standard editor. We discussed hassling with lawyers and decided that the best thing for me to do was cut my losses. I flew home the next morning.
I’m writing this not to whine about maltreatment. I spent a pleasant afternoon not having to attend a workshop on white women’s implicit racism and instead strolling around downtown Grand Rapids, a handsome riverine High Industrial Age city in decay whose boarded-up warehouses and lack of vehicular traffic, even during rush hour, signaled it was one of those communities that Kevin Williamson believes “deserve to die.” What my latest adventures with the White Privilege Conference were about was a hardening.
It’s a hardening that occurred in many erstwhile liberal institutions that now perceive it as their mission not just to denounce those on the Right but to silence them (my fate, presumably), and if they can, to destroy them. That has essentially been the fate of Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who had the temerity, in an off-campus conversation with a leading black public intellectual, to point out that less-qualified black law students admitted to Penn under affirmative-action policies tended to perform worse academically than their white counterparts.
Wax has tenure, so Penn Law couldn’t fire her (although many of Wax’s colleagues undoubtedly wished it could), but it could effectively demote, marginalize, and stigmatize her by barring her from teaching required courses, which means that all students except the most recklessly conservative will shun her elective courses as well. Wax is essentially finished at Penn Law.
When Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted at 17-year-old anti-gun activist (and media darling) David Hogg for complaining that some colleges he had applied to had rejected him, the leftist mafia—led by Hogg—tried to drive her off the air, even after she apologized. Then there’s the Christian-student club suspended by Harvard last month for not allowing an active bisexual to lead its Bible-study group.
That’s today’s so-called liberalism. Back in the day—the 1990s—I, too, wrote for the Atlantic (and also, from time to time, The New Republic and the Washington Monthly). Those days, and those generous-souled managements, are long gone. Kevin Williamson didn’t seem to realize that he hadn’t been hired because broad-minded Atlantic editors wanted readers to be exposed occasionally to a conservative voice. They hired him solely because, as a National Review writer and book author, he had been a reliably prolific Trump-basher, the only kind of conservative that the Atlantic (David Frum), the Washington Post (George Will, Kathleen Parker), and the New York Times (David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Bret Stephens) consider acceptable. Williamson dutifully complied with a Trump-bashing maiden—and, as it turned out, only—column that even took a swipe at his former employer. When the Atlantic belatedly discovered that Williamson believed that abortion was murder—an actual conservative position that didn’t involve NeverTrumping—and had expressed himself hyperbolically about appropriate punishments, he was gone overnight.
Because this is the time of the hardening, and there must be no dissent.
Photo credit: Cory Clark/NurPhoto via Getty Images