It is not often you will hear me say, “I agree with E.J. Dionne,” but it happens. Dionne is far more classically liberal than “leftie,” thoughtful rather than reactionary, so the discovery of some common ground can occur. His latest column, “The Virtue of Original Sin Liberalism,” is a classical defense of why the government should enact law at all.
In the piece Dionne is attempting to defend liberals against charges of heretical Christian theology. It is a worthy thing to do, I know a lot of liberal Christian that deserve such defense. Typical word count restrictions for a syndicated column prevent the defense from being thoroughly robust, which makes it possible, were I so inclined, to write pretty effective counter arguments, at least with a lot of the details of the piece if not its central thrust. Dionne’s conclusion:
Many of our arguments involve not irreconcilable values but different assessments of where this balance should tilt at a given time on a given issue.
is one that reasonable people, of any political persuasion, should agree with.
However, we exist in a media environment that works very hard to prevent us from having such a common starting point. And that is what I want to focus on here.
Let’s start with the previously mentioned word count restriction and consequent lack of thoroughness in the argument Dionne presents. The piece rotates around the gun control debate. Dionne picks on, as so many liberals do, the AR-15. Now, anyone that knows firearms knows the AR-15 is a standard rifle like so many other rifles out there that no one proposes to restrict – it simply looks aggressive. I would even bet that Dionne knows that. But reference to it is a sort of shorthand that helps him stay within his word count, while a discussion of rifle design and operation would consume a couple of paragraphs he does not have. And so, media expediency creates a major area of disagreement where none should really exist.
Dionne’s central argument is about the doctrine of original sin. There is a place, a huge place, for such a discussion when it comes to what laws we choose to enact regarding personal morality. Again, word count restrictions prevent him from discussing that doctrine in light of liberal policy goals that are not gun control. This allows him to pick a particularly vapid individual making the charge that liberals lack understanding of it. Dionne is absolutely right in arguing with this particular individual. However, socialistic liberal policy proposals do fly in the face of an understanding of original sin. The altruism required from every single citizen for a socialistic order to function well simply is not present in a world of original sin. At best socialism must wait for a fully and wholly redeemed world. So while Dionne is correct in the argument he makes in the context of gun control, that does not mean the interlocutor he has chosen does not have a point in a broader view. In this case, word count restrictions on both sides of the discussion prevent thorough examination of the points being made
Then there is the fact that because media demands sensationalism we always talk about gun control after truly spectacular events of “gun violence” things get pretty warped by the extremity of the particular events of the moment. School shooters are the extreme of the extreme in their exhibition of their birthright sin. Those opposed to gun control have a heck of a point when they say gun control is not going to prevent such people from committing the massive violence they have. If they cannot get a gun, they’ll build a bomb. These people are inhumanly defective, not merely sinful. But that said, reasonable gun control can, and probably has, prevented all sorts of more passionate, heat-of-the-moment violence – the kind that could be more rightfully attributed to our sinful nature than deep psychological defect. The media’s demand for the sensational warps the discussion completely out of shape.
Then, of course, there is the roll of social media where the already shortened discussions get distilled even further, which means even more extreme, because of the utter lack of nuance.
And now, as I read back over this piece it looks like I am arguing with Dionne which is not my intent. My intent is to point out the limitations media places on thorough and full discussion – using Dionne’s piece in a merely exemplary fashion. At best, media can only give us a small and limited window into a much broader discussion. Which brings me to the final point I want to make.
Media’s limitations will not change, they can’t. But our media consumption habits can change. And they need to. Read more; read deeper; read broader; read for understanding not argument.