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.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:
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.
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.