Career liberal watch: Dionne bows low before Will!


We can’t quite say this was wrong: E. J. Dionne wrote a rather strange column in Monday’s Washington Post.

Kevin Drum was struck by it too. He reacted to it by saying that Dionne is “possibly the nicest guy in the whole world.”

We think Drum was being a bit of a nice guy too, although we’re not entirely sure what to think about Dionne’s column.

In his column, Dionne defended Elizabeth Warren against an attack by George Will. What made Dionne the world’s nicest guy? In his column, he basically calls Will’s piece about Warren a fraud. But look how sweetly he sang it:
DIONNE (10/10/11): It’s not often that a sound bite from a Democratic candidate gets so under the skin of my distinguished colleague George F. Will that he feels moved to quote it in full and then devote an entire column to refuting it. This is instructive.

The declaration heard ’round the Internet world came from Elizabeth Warren, the consumer champion running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts. Warren argued that “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” that thriving entrepreneurs move their goods “on the roads the rest of us paid for” and hire workers “the rest of us paid to educate.” Police and firefighters, also paid for by “the rest of us,” protect the factory owner’s property. As a result, our “underlying social contract” requires this hardworking but fortunate soul to “take a hunk” of his profits “and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

In other words, there are no self-made people because we are all part of society. Accomplished people benefit from advantages created by earlier generations (of parents whom we didn’t choose and taxpayers whom we’ve never met) and by the simple fact that they live in a country that provides opportunities that are not available everywhere. The successful thus owe quite a lot to the government and social structure that made their success possible.

Will is a shrewd man and a careful student of political philosophy. I am a fan of his for many reasons, but more on that in a moment. In this case, he demonstrates his debating skills by first accusing Warren of being “a pyromaniac in a field of straw men,” and then by conceding the one and only point that Warren actually made.
Go ahead—read the whole column. As he proceeds, Dionne basically says Will played his readers for fools in his attack against Warren. But just check out the way Dionne says it! The bowing and scraping to Will never stops. This is the way the piece ends:
DIONNE: In light of my respect for Will, it seems only appropriate that I close by offering words of admiration—for him, and for Elizabeth Warren. Will doesn’t waste time challenging arguments that don’t matter and he doesn’t erect straw men unless he absolutely has to. That Warren has so inspired Will, our premier conservative polemicist now that William F. Buckley Jr. has passed to his eternal reward, is an enormous tribute to her. And remember: On the core point about the social contract, George Will and Elizabeth Warren are in full, if awkward, agreement.
Dionne accuses Will of constructing a straw man—a “straw colossus,” in fact. Will doesn’t do this sort of thing “unless he absolutely has to,” Dionne says. But he fawns to Will throughout. It made us wonder how many readers actually understood what they’d read by the time they finished this piece.

Having read this peculiar column, Drum observed that Dionne is “possibly the nicest guy in the whole world.” Possibly! But the piece has stuck in our mind all week as an example of the way the career liberal world has sold you out all these years.

We know—columnists aren’t supposed to stage feuds with their fellow columnists. This is a perfectly sensible rule; presumably, Dionne was observing it. He didn’t have to challenge Will at all. He could have written about something else.

But good lord! The fawning was general! We can’t quite say that Dionne was “wrong.” But given the bowing and scraping to Will, we still wonder how many people understood what they read in this column.

For the bulk of the past thirty years, the career liberal world bowed before rising conservative power. They chose to ignore a great many frauds. Even now, the worm has turned in only the tiniest ways.


  1. Once you get into the Washington Press core at a high enough level, you don't criticize your colleagues, no matter how bad the work is they do. It just makes for awkward moments at the office and cocktail parties, I guess.

  2. And another week goes by without seeing Chapter 6 of "How He Got There".
    Well, it would help in the tale of "How He Got There" to publish the information about it, would it?

  3. Maybe they were being ironic. I have a rather tin ear for irony myself.

  4. For myself, after reading a Will column, I am often left with the thought that that is pretty much the dumbest thing I have ever read, but then I say to myself, maybe it will make more sense when it's translated into English.

  5. Dionne was simply employing his Somerby approved empathy. Show some tolerance Bob!

  6. I read both the Will and Dionne pieces before seeing your column. Will's piece may have been the single worst column he has ever written, not only the dumbest but also the meanest. I know that is saying a lot since there is a very deep pool to chose from.

    I personally felt like Dionne was being sarcastic, offering these 'compliments' in a backhanded way. After all, any rational observer knows that Will's stock in trade is to construct strawmen and make appeals to ridicule.

  7. Perhaps both pundits were trying their hands at a device William F Buckley had mastered; the double, and occasionally, the triple negative.
    It certainly forced his readers to mull over the words to decipher the meaning.
    It's a pity Dionne and Will lack Buckley's command of the language.
    If George Will has truly inherited the mantle of our "Premier Conservative Polemicist", there may be hope for us po' liberals yet.

  8. Confused in BrooklynOctober 14, 2011 at 2:31 PM

    If Dionne had attacked Will, the Howler would've called him tribal. Giving us liberals a tribal thrill up our legs.

    Make up your mind, Bob.

  9. I think we should give Dionne the benefit of the doubt here, as Chris suggests above. Exaggerated deference can often be used as an insult.

    And in response to Confused in Brooklyn, I think we should give the Howler the benefit of the doubt as well. Somerby is being consistent. "Tribalism" in the Howler lexicon is when you make blanket denunciations of the other tribe. Calling our powerful people by name takes a lot more courage.

  10. When nominally liberal writers go after so-called conservatives in a full-throated, taking-their-own-side manner, you attack them for stridency and start sobbing about poisonous tribalism. When a nominally liberal writer is polite to a so-called conservative while tearing apart the substance of the argument, you go at him for "fawning." How exactly can a liberal (who's not the saintly and infallible Al Gore) win with you, Bob?

  11. "How exactly can a liberal ... win with you, Bob?"

    If Bob doesn't mind, I'll take a stab at answering that. (Even if he does mind, I'll still take the stab...)

    Nominally liberal writers are engaging in tribalism when the gist of what they write can be summed up as "What do you expect? They're conservatives/teabaggers/troglodytes." Nominally liberal writers are engaging in tribalism when they criticize the rank and file of a group instead of the leadership. Nominally liberal writers are engaging in tribalism when they avoid criticizing the people who are actively engaged in misleading that rank and file.

    Bob is criticizing Dionne here because he is being so very tribal--it's just that the tribe Dionne is defending here is the pundit tribe.

    If you want to make Bob happy (I assume), attack the people who misinform the rank and file. Attack George Will for propogating his nonsense. Attack any conservative (or liberal) leader (or writer) who helps maintain the status quo of 49.5 versus 49.5. But whomever you attack, remember that the average person who votes Republican is being screwed just as much as you are; resist lashing out at "teabaggers" simply because we all need to work together if we're ever going to have a chance to fix this mess.

    At least that's what I think Bob would say.

  12. When I first read Dionne after seeing Drum's head's up about 'nice' those comments seemed pretty much like sucking up.

    I don't see much value to Dionne's critique for a reader by the inclusion of Dionne's extensive praise for Will. Their presence does fog up Dionne's critique.

    How would Dionne's critique of Will be weakened by omitting them? If it isn't fawning, why put them in?

    The column isn't strident if they are left out.

  13. Dear Anonymous, you keep missing the point.

    Bob Somerby is not talking about liberals, "nomimal" or otherwise, going after specific conservatives (or fellow liberals, "nominal" or otherwise, for that matter), BUT about trashing all conservatives based on the actions of a few or even sizable number. The first is often justifiable criticism and critique, the latter is tribalism.

    So: conservatives say Bill Clinton is bad, that's their feeling on Clinton. Conservatives say all Democrats are bad, unpatriotic, blah blah, that's tribal.

    Do you grasp that, Anonymous? There is a basic difference.

  14. I don't know who I was reading a month ago who said that, yes, we are living in a hyper-reality in which we don't know what's going on most of the time; yes, our fellow citizens are confused and misinformed to the point where they don't know who is responsible for their misfortune. and, yes, there are people who are so misinformed that they'll take their rage out on people lower on the social ladder than they are. But the only difference between them and you is degree, and hating them for being misinformed isn't going to make them any better informed.

    But getting mad at people like George Will, on the other hand.... George Will is an idiot who only knows how to serve up stale arguments that I was tired of hearing back when I was in high school. EJ Dionne could have responded to his column without insults and without sucking Will's cock - he could have just plain responded to Will's column.

    Would a tea partier on the street have been made fun of for expressing the same opinion as Will? Probably. But Will gets felated instead. Fun system!

  15. I think all the fawning makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps, there's no need to start off the discussion with "George, you ignorant slut..." -- but then again, it would be right on the money.

  16. I get the same uneasy feeling when reading the column. Good catch. Establishment liberals like Dionne joust with their intellectual opponents with one hand tied behind their back.

    Dionne's writing is great. Just imagine if he used that skill more productively rather than getting bogged down trying to convince George Will to play fair with Elizabeth Warren. Hey, at least he's not begging Rush Limbaugh to understand some debating point of order. Now that would be pathetic!

    Plus, George Will will probably be nice enough to give him a reach around--especially since Will knows this means he can give a half apology and yet still have landed a few blows. Of course Will will land more blows in the future. He won't even agree to Dionne's implied gentleman's agreement--or won't live up to it even if he agreed to it.

    I wish Dionne would write the following story:

    Conservatives like Will have attacked Elizabeth Warren in an underhanded manner . . . which reveals they are worried about what and who she represents . . . but is Warren really the champion of the middle class and of the consumer that she claims to be?
    Has she opposed the recent free trade agreements, for instance? Why did she talk about OWS people committing crimes but not promise to put Wall St. crooks in jail? Why does she support the drug war like other corporate Democrats?

    How can any champion of the people be a member of the Democratic party and especially if one must make compromises in order to get the party's support to run and especially serving in a body like the Senate? Is Warren making deals with the Democratic party leadership? A leadership that represents the top 1% and not the rest of us. This party leadership directly thwarted her purported efforts to reform Wall Street. Yet Warren played a good foot soldier and stood by her party--even when her party was working against her. What does this say about her judgment that she would join forces and collude with the very people that were preventing her from achieving her putative goals?

    Those are the questions Dionne should be asking but instead he's getting bogged down in a contrived personality fight between George Will and Elizabeth Warren. It's like living in a Baby Boomer High School hell--which pretty much explains our politics the last 20 years--no wonder those under 40 have tuned out of politics and want to shoot themselves in the head. I can't wait for the Will rebuttal wherein he breaks out an obscure reference to 1960s pop culture so round and round Will and Dionne can go debating distractions . . . .

  17. Still Confused in BklynOctober 14, 2011 at 5:53 PM

    @Anonymous circa 3:46pm: Too many rules to follow here. My head hurts. Sometimes I just want to call an ignorant, racist douchebag an ignorant,racist douchebag. Especially when he/she is announces him/herself as such. Sometimes I like to do this --- sometimes, not always, just sometimes --- without thinking 20 moves ahead on the chessboard, or without having to carry the weight of four decades of inadequate liberal response to one of the most successful and brilliantly devious political maneuvers ever devised: the Southern Strategy.

  18. There are two reasons why Dionne praised Will:

    1) Dionne is scared that the WAPO owners will scold him for scolding another WAPO workers.

    2) Dionne lacks balls.

  19. But first you must learn how to smile as you kill. John Lennon

  20. Some of the commenters here are stuck in Loser Liberalville. The average voter does NOT understand "backhanded complements," or subtle irony, or much anything else besides what you tell them in straightforward language. When you start twisting logic pretzels, pretending that crap writing (or, as used to be done with Obama, a crap presidency), is anything more than what it is, you enable it. If people like Will are going to lose their influence, it will be because people like Dionne point out, in language normal people who might -- might, mind you -- read their columns over a bowl of cereal in the mornings before rushing off to work, understand. Normal people don't have time to puzzle over stupid columns by hack writers, trying to figure out what they "meant." That's what loser liberals do.

    Would the average reader have any problem understanding Will's attack on Warren? DO they have to pore over the column, thinking, "Gee, I wonder if he's using irony here?"


  21. For myself, when I engage with a conservative, I tend to be respectful, even complimentary. It can be a way of defusing tension, of shifting away the argument from personalities to ideas. There is a whiff of the straw man about it, the more you build up an opponent or an opposing argument, the greater the triumph when you knock them down. On whole, it's much more a question of rhetorical style than substance.

  22. The overthinking, handwringing, and agonizing at this site is cartoonishly liberal. No wonder their side always wins, even when they lose.

  23. @Confused in bklyn wrote: "No wonder their side always wins, even when they lose."

    "Their side" is about as pure a statement of tribalism as there is. You've proved Bob Somerby's point in a single sentence. Thank you.

  24. Sorry, I thought substance of Mr. Dionne's dismantling of Mr. Will's philosophical argument was airtight. So adding the "compliments" makes it even better. It is standard diplomatic-speak. You find a way of telling your opponent is full of shit while being respectful and exuding praise.

    Mr. Somerby is simply wrong here. (As he himself might say, if you wanted to find out the thrust of Dionne's critique of Mr. Will's statements, you won't learn about it here. Somerby did not present it.)

    I must say, Somerby has become a broken record over the past years. I don't read him everyday, I used to, but the trajectory of his columns are as predictable as a Tom Friedman column. An iPad app that "generates" a Somerby column is coming soon.

    It is sad it has come to this, because some of Somerby's best works were truly great.

  25. Who cares if Dionne dismantled Will's arguments? It doesn't matter. Will and Dionne are wasting a bunch of time debating a silly question--Warren's character.

    Warren's character will be unimpeachable to the tribal liberals like Dionne and those that think he did a bang-up job in this column. He spent a lot of energy winning that debating point. And win it he did.

    But he lost the broader fight--he fell for the distraction and liberals (or Democratic partisans) will be content having fight over Warren's character instead of fighting over policy.

    Dionne just admitted defeat--the Democrats have no plan other than having meaningless debates over personalities while they give away the store to the plutocracy.

    Dionne actually makes things worse by getting bogged down in this debating point--it simply doesn't matter and it makes things worse debating it.

  26. Re Walter Wit Ma

    Dionne just admitted defeat? You are trying too hard, as evidenced by your stretched logic. But if you think it is better to let Will's statements stand, that is what would be admitting defeat in my view.

    For Warren's statement may not have been policy, but it certainly was a justification for her policy. Or maybe you fail to see the importance of that?

    Sorry, you have nothing, wally

  27. Thanks for the suggestion Anonymous . . . I should revise my statement to say Dionne revealed to ME that he and the Democrats are defeated animals. He won't admit defeat--evidenced by his frantic efforts to make George Will play fair with Elizabeth Warren.

    I contend that this is all a distraction and a fight not worth having. I would call Will a fool and walk away. I wouldn't spend my energy trying to defend Warren and get him to play nice with her. Both parties want us to spend our time fighting over Warren's character--this will distract us plebes from the fact that both parties are in substantial agreement on the policy issues, and that Warren will toe the Democratic party line. This is very similar to the previous D v. R fake story lines in the past. It's just getting hard to cast Obama in the heros role again so they need a fresh actor. Warren is volunteering but she's showing an over eagerness to please her benefactors. She needs to go back to the actor's studio and work on her role of defender of the middle class.

  28. "frantic"? Really? Where? I fail to find a even comma in Mr. Dionne's rhetoric that I would characterize as "frantic". Again, you are trying to hard. You are grasping at straws.

    You can call Mr. Will a fool and walk away? No you can't. If you do that, you are just preaching to the converted. It is better to demolish Mr. Will's arguments. This is the forum of opinion.

    Warren's statement was spot on, and a good one to make. It is effective in neutralizing the other side's talking points. Therefore, I think it Ms. Warren should be defended with rigour.

    Upon further review, you are a loser, Mr. Wally.