by Glenn Greenwald, Greenwald Substack:
In the prevailing climate, the rational choice is to avoid social scorn and ostracization no matter how baseless the grievances one must appease.
Will Wilkinson is about as mainstream and conventional a thinker as one can find, and is unfailingly civil and restrained in his rhetoric. But yesterday, he was fired by the technocratic centrist think tank for which he worked, the Niskanen Center, and appears on the verge of being fired as well by The New York Times, where he is a contributing writer. This multi-pronged retribution is due to a single tweet that was obviously satirical and sarcastic and for which he abjectly apologized. But no matter: the tweet has been purposely distorted into something malevolent and the prevailing repressive climate weaponized it against him.
Neither Wilkinson nor his tweet are particularly interesting. What merits attention here is the now-pervasive climate that fostered this tawdry episode, and which has unjustly destroyed countless reputations and careers with no sign of slowing down.
During the Bush and Obama years, Wilkinson worked at the libertarian CATO Institute but, even then, he was not much of a libertarian. As he himself explained, he is far more of a standard-issue neoliberal that one finds everywhere throughout DC think tanks, the op-ed pages of large newspapers, and the green rooms of CNN, just with a bit wonkier style of expression and a few vague libertarian gestures on some isolated issues. That self-description was in 2012, and he since then has become even more of a standard liberal during the Trump era, which is why the Paper of Record made him a contributor opinion writer where he published articles under such bold and groundbreaking headlines as “Trump Has Disqualified Himself From Running in 2020.”
On Wednesday, the night of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Wilkinson posted this now-deleted tweet in which he was obviously not calling for violence. He was instead sardonically noting that anti-Pence animus became a prevailing sentiment among some MAGA followers over the last month, including reports that at least a few of those who breached the Capitol were calling for Pence’s hanging on treason grounds, thus ironically enabling liberals and MAGA followers to “unite” over that desire:
The next morning, a right-wing hedge fund manager and large-money GOP donor, Gabe Hoffman, flagged this tweet and claimed to believe that Wilkinson “call[ed] for former Vice President Mike Pence to be lynched.” Hoffman also tweeted at Wilkinson’s New York Times bosses to ask if they have “any comment on your ‘contributing opinion writer’ calling for violence against a public official?,” and then tweeted at Wilkinson’s other bosses at the think tank to demand the same.
It is unclear whether Hoffman really believed what he was saying or was just trying to make a point that liberals should be forced to live under these bad faith, repressive “cancel culture” standards he likely blames them for creating and imposing on others. This is how he responded when I posed that question:
I was not attempting anything. Numerous major news outlets reported on Wilkinson’s tweet, including Fox News. I simply documented the events on my Twitter feed yesterday. Clearly, many liberal journalists were outraged at his firing, noticed my documentation, and decided to inexplicably blame me for his firing. It’s ridiculous that many liberal journalists apparently had nothing better to do on Twitter, than blame a guy with less than 10,000 followers documenting events, for getting Wilkinson fired, considering many major news outlets reported on Wilkinson’s tweet.
When I pressed further on whether he really believed that Wilkinson’s tweet was an earnest call for assassination or whether he was just demanding that perceived “cancel culture” standards be applied equally, he responded: “I did not take a position either way on the matter. Wilkinson is perfectly capable of explaining the tweet and his intended meaning, since he wrote it. Clearly, given the content, the least one can expect is that he should give that explanation.”
Either way, intentional or not, Hoffman’s distorted interpretation of Wilkinson’s tweet produced instant results. That afternoon, Wilkinson posted a long and profuse apology to Twitter in which he made clear that he did not intend to advocate violence, but still said: “Last night I made an error of judgment and tweeted this. It was sharp sarcasm, but looked like a call for violence. That’s always wrong, even as a joke. It was especially wrong at a moment when unity and peace are so critical. I’m deeply sorry and vow not to repeat the mistake. . . . [T]here was no excuse for putting the point the way I did. It was wrong, period.”
At least for now, that apology fell on deaf ears. The president and co-founder of the Niskanen Center, Jerry Taylor, quickly posted a statement (now deleted without comment) announcing Wilkinson’s immediate firing, a statement promptly noted by Hoffman:
Wilkinson’s job with The New York Times is also clearly endangered. A spokesperson for the paper told Fox News: “Advocating violence of any form, even in jest, is unacceptable and against the standards of The New York Times. We’re reassessing our relationship with Will Wilkinson.”
So a completely ordinary and unassuming liberal commentator is in jeopardy of having his career destroyed because of a tweet that no person in good faith could possibly believe was actually advocating violence and which, at worst, could be said to be irresponsibly worded. And this is happening even though everyone knows it is all based on a totally fictitious understanding of what he said. Why?