If you bought Kevin D. Williamson’s latest book hoping for a blow-by-blow, score-settling tell-all of his tempest with The Atlantic, you’ll be disappointed. You’ll also miss the point entirely.
Williamson began writing the manuscript for The Smallest Minority in 2015 while still at National Review but shelved it when he couldn’t find a publisher. As he tells it, the day he got the ax from Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, his phone rang with offers of book deals before he even made it to the airport. The work Williamson subsequently produced is a jewel of political thought and an essential contribution to the lexicon of liberty.
The Smallest Minority is a dense little volume that punches above its 230-page weight. Williamson draws on political philosophy, social science, and classical literature to produce a deeply personal battle cry for individualism. From Aristotle to Oakeshott, Williamson is unflinching in his treatment of humanity’s tribalist and authoritarian impulses and unsparing in illuminating how they manifest in today’s culture.
Williamson draws from John Stuart Mill to ground his thesis in an indictment of blind faith in democracy. “Mill was rightly worried about the encroachment of government,” he writes, “about the need for formal limitations on governmental powers, the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ and the other inevitable abuses of democracy. But he was also apprehensive about informal illiberalism, the non-governmental suppression of ideas, discourse, and social experimentation by a ruthlessly if unofficially enforced conformism.” Williamson couldn’t have selected a more appropriate intellectual, and not because of Mill’s Harm Principle.
Mill wrestled with individual sovereignty in a time where the middle classes began to flex the newfound muscle of their opinions through newspapers, the 19th-century version of “new media.” A prolific writer, Mill repeatedly argued that mass public opinion would enervate intellectual discourse. In his personal life, Mill was in love with another man’s wife (whom he would eventually marry and dedicate On Liberty to) in Victorian England, hardly an “anything goes” society. He was most certainly subject to social blowback for contravening accepted norms. In short, Mill did his most important work from the radical edge of politics and polite society. (No, Williamson isn’t Mill—but does this sound familiar?)
Kant also lurks in the background of Williamson’s assessment of culture, specifically the Humanity Formulation of the Categorical Imperative: We must never treat human beings only as means; we must treat them as ends. A human being’s rational capacity confers a right to dignity. Williamson sees an outright violation of this in the “instant culture” of social media.
The moral ethic of an Instant Culture is founded on mutual instrumentalization, a lonely and atomistic condition that necessarily relegates everyone outside the self to the Kantian Kingdom of Means. There can be no friendship among means. Decency in government is an impossibility among citizen-subjects who understand one another only as a means to some other end rather than as valuable in themselves — valuable as individuals.
Williamson establishes a history of illiberalism powered by the interaction of the ancient concept of ochlocracy and the more modern concept of streitbare Demokratie. Our tendency toward mob rule (“ochlocracy”) is animated by the idea that illiberal and antidemocratic means must sometimes be employed to achieve liberal democratic ends “as a form of self-defense against the profounder and more ruthlessly scrotum-punching assaults on liberalism and democracy.” It’s an eternally seductive illogic that yields a broad spectrum of political and social oppression.
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The university, the corporation, and social media are “three of the most sensitive inflection points in American life” that have become host to the intellectual parasite of streitbare Demokratie—the practice of curtailing certain rights in order to safeguard democracy-enabling institutions. It bears noting that these three, which comprise much of the book’s focus, are not part of the state. “When — or while — the apparatus of the state is beyond the mob’s reach,” writes Williamson, “the mob must turn to other organizations, grasping other cudgels with which to beat the dissidents and critics into conformity. In many cases, these private-sector organizations are much more effective instruments of suppression than are government agencies.”
Endemic to all three is the phenomenon Williamson terms antidiscourse — communication intended to stifle good-faith intellectual exchange, a rhetorical cudgel employed to adjust social status rather than create understanding. To anyone who spends much time on social media or cable news, this phenomenon is instantly recognizable. To Williamson, it is “the noise that overpowers the signal,” allowing the mob to supplant intellectual debate with a zombielike social status war.
Williamson is the master of the long-form essay and at his most edifying when he peels layers back to reveal the intellectual bankruptcy of commonly held wisdom. But in the wide-open country of a couple hundred pages, his pacing is uneven at times. It’s also fair to question how he reconciles his professed admiration for the scale of large American business with his contempt for the Kultur of large American corporations. These nits notwithstanding, the bulk of his thesis is compelling and the brilliance of his style, argumentation, and original insights far outweighs his lapses.
The 10th, penultimate chapter is the book’s apex. It is some of Williamson’s most exceptional work as a thinker and wordsmith. The learned examination of Lucifer, Caesar, treason, and the origin of man speaks to Williamson’s power as an intellectual and enacts for the reader the very individuality that makes us human. If you’re only going to read one chapter, skip the Atlantic bullshit and read this one. Read it twice.
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Williamson spends the better part of 200 pages demonstrating how tribalist and authoritarian impulses are woven into society because, fundamentally, they are a nasty part of the human soul. Long passages are discomfiting, but the intent is not for the reader to be comforted. Williamson doesn’t offer straightforward solutions, in part because understanding his diagnosis and his apologia of individualism is the solution.
Mill foreshadowed the present moment 160 years ago, writing,
The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or as fellow-citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature, that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.
With The Smallest Minority, Williamson shows us how such a strong barrier may be raised.
Steve Stampley is a former congressional aide and campaign manager. He served as an Air Force pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on Twitter @stevestampley.