Not to put too fine a point on it, Williamson is opinionated. Some of his opinions are even backed up with proof sufficient to satisfy him.
-He calls the current obsession with memes “the moron bomb”. He calls them the agent of antidiscourse, the prevention of communication rather than the enablement of it. Antidiscourse recurs throughout The Smallest Minority. It’s a major meme.
-“The modern primitive is no less primitive for having a smartphone.”
-“If the 99% can’t boss around and pillage a minority that constitutes a mere 1 percent of the population, then what’s the point of democracy anyway?” He calls it “anti-Semitism for nice people.”
-He likens political discourse to dogs barking at each other.
-Speaking of the internet, he says “Outrage is intoxicating, and like other intoxicants, it makes people stupid.”
Clearly, Williamson is a provocateur. He insists on calling the Founders the Founding Fathers. A riot is honest, in his world. “The Bill of Rights ought to be titled ‘A List of Things You Idiots Don’t Get To Vote On, Because They Aren’t Up For Negotiation.’”
A lot of what Williamson describes is inherent contradiction. So for example, the way to combat Nazis is to implement policies like the Nazis did, curtailing free speech and oppressing minorities. I first learned this 40+ years ago from a comedian named Yvon Deschamps, who is still around. After a very long bit about the evils of intolerance as the root of hatred, disunity and unhappiness, Deschamps is carried off the stage yelling “Death to the intolerant!” as the battlecry of his movement to restore humanity. You can apply this contradiction to pretty much anything in life, and Williamson has filled a book with it. But at no point does it or he prove that the conservative or libertarian way is better.
He also does not cite libertarian deity Barry Goldwater, who said political ideology was not a continuum from right to left, but a circle. For example, people on the extreme left had very similar positions to his on the extreme right. He said he had more in common with extreme leftists than with the centrists in his own Republican party. So when Williamson claims antifa antifascists are fascists: yes.
In his chapter on corporations, he misrepresents the first amendment’s right of free speech, but gets it right later: “The first amendment exists to prohibit the censorship of political speech by the state.” But in between, he rails against any individual or organization attempting to keep things calm and civil, something not protected by the constitution. It’s another of those contradictions. He criticizes any law that “censors only ‘extreme’ speech – which is of course the only kind of speech that actually needs formal protection.” These meme games fly in the face of his criticism of memes, but when he employs them, it’s clever and entertaining. Up to a point.
He also discovers the single value underlying societal life – crowd control. It’s all about conformity, and those who won’t are doomed. In politics, family, work, anywhere, it’s all about conforming. It gives people a base to launch diatribes, outrage and hatred, knowing they qualify and belong. It is also stifling. This is hardly a new thought. Crowd control is the basis of religion, the feudal system, capitalism, socialism, democracy, monarchy, communism… anywhere there are numbers of people who could upset the ruling classes.
Possibly the most memorable quote is that Republicans think “angry white guys in moribund Rust Belt towns have an existential right to a 21st century standard of living with an Eisenhower-era culture.”
The longest chapter is on democracy and the appreciation of its aspects, particularly by German philosophers. Even more puzzling is the second longest chapter, which is a treatise on the devil, satan (both capitalized and lower case), his history, role and employment in western literature. The final chapter is not a conclusion but a memoir of his firing at The Atlantic, and how he came out better for it.
Williamson flings words around, but usually manages to keep the reader’s interest, much like his despised Donald Trump, who lies so often it has lost its punch as an impeachable offense (It’s hard to reconcile with Clinton being impeached – for lying). Interestingly, Williamson has perspective. He knows what people think of him and his opinions, and he admits to numerous weaknesses. In the end, it’s an entertaining book, but the reader will wonder what the point is.
Let’s just say Williamson is an iconoclast and leave it there.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.
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