Politics & Policy

Arguments — Good, Bad, & Indifferent


There are a lot of people who look at what happens in Washington who bemoan the (“white male”) “argument culture” which “privileges confrontation over consensus.” They believe that we would have more “enlightened policies” if the “partisan rhetoric” and “hateful finger-pointing” were put to an end. What we need, they say, is a government based upon mutual respect and understanding. If we can only “embrace hope” and put away our cynicism we can build a bridge someplace very important for bridges to be built to, say, Cleveland.

Anyway, these people are a pain in the ass and I don’t want to talk about them. My apologies for the quotation marks, but I can’t use the words without a heavy dose of irony.

Suffice it to say I like the argument culture. I think Democracy needs more conflict, more arguing. Washington should be like a Thanksgiving dinner where the turkey’s over-cooked; grandpa keeps griping about the Kaiser; the youngest daughter comes home from school bearing new theories about macrobiotic vegetarianism, and wearing a nose-ring; and the firstborn son comes home with a nose-ring too — only his is attached to a 105-pound performance artist named Gary.

Arguments are good. When all of Washington agrees on something, hold on to your wallets and take an inventory of your liberties because the fire sale is about to begin. In the 1970s Republicans and Democrats agreed to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. The Left thought this was liberating an oppressed minority. The Right thought this would save a few bucks. The result was that city kids like me had to spend their childhood roller-skating around Thorazine addicts who believed my neighborhood playground was really their Martian colony.

Nonetheless, there are a couple of arguments which drive me nuts, and unfortunately they are raging because of the tragedy in Littleton: gun control and the effects of popular culture on individual behavior. I have two problems with the arguments and the arguers. First, they elicit a level of fundamentalist certainty and self-righteous condescension that only I should be afforded. Second, I hate catching myself sounding like some Third Way yutz who bemoans the false choices of both the Right and the Left.

Take popular culture, the vast wasteland I call home. The regnant cliché of the chattering classes about popular culture is that the Left hates the violence of the movies and television — though it loves the makers of movies and television. The Right hates the sex and amorality. This is true but it misses the fact that the argument usually doesn’t slice that way in Washington. Many on the right and left are on the same side of the argument. Free marketers and free speechers are on one side. Cultural conservatives and left-wing meddlers are on the other side.

The free-market types argue that watching sex, violence, and evil behavior has no effect on the viewer. This flies in the face of common sense and over the head of stupidity. Corporate America and presidential candidates alike spend billions on these eensy-weensy television shows called “commercials,” which the networks insist have a profound influence on the viewer. Ad dollars flow disproportionately to “youth-appeal” shows rather than higher-rated mature-market programs, precisely because kids are the more important and more easily influenced demographic. Somehow, their argument goes, consumers will be unable to resist the allure of the Chia Pet after seeing its miraculous growth in a thirty-second spot, but the two-hour movie about some guy who’s constantly getting laid when he isn’t murdering people with a pear knife and a tennis shoe, will have absolutely no effect.

If people cannot be swayed by what they see on television, then advertisers should … spend their dollars RIGHT HERE! Call National Review’s ad department for a rate quote right now!

There is no doubt that violence and sex have an effect on the attitudes of the viewers. But the effect isn’t uniform and measuring it accurately is pretty much impossible. If the influence were universal and consistent, pretty much everyone I know would be waiting to be beamed back up to the Enterprise or building stills in their tents. Instead, only a fraction of my friends are doing that.

On the other hand, people like Hollywood lobbyist Jack Valenti, who say “who’s to decide?” what other people should watch, are simply cowering behind a principle protecting their profit. Presumably there is something that shouldn’t be allowed on television. Goat rape perhaps? Well, why? If it has no effect on people, shouldn’t they be allowed to watch it? Who are we to remove goat rape from the cultural menu? The Hayes code which governed Hollywood wasn’t tyranny. It may have been overkill, but if it were provable that the overkill in Littleton is the alternative, we would have some decisions to make.

As for gun control, my sympathies are far more with the gun nuts than the why-can’t-rape-victims-just-call-911? crowd. Gun control has virtually no positive effect on crime control. Still, “guns don’t kill people, people do” is a bit too simple. If these little barbarians in Littleton didn’t have guns, they wouldn’t have killed people. The question then is, so what?

Answers are hard to come by. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes reading about the Second Amendment with an open mind (which rules out the constitutional scholarship of most MSNBC commentators and the Eleanor Clift sect), must concede that it protects an individual’s right to bear arms. Regulations which fall short of violating this constitutional principle are for the most part meaningless. President Clinton’s new post-Littleton crime bill calls for child safety locks. These kids were running a gun shop in the garage. Would some chintzy kiddie locks have stopped them?

Guns have always been here. The desire of teenagers to turn their school into a video game is what’s new.

Which brings us back to the culture and annoying arguments. Many “progressives” believe that for every page you rip off a calendar, you are one month closer to a better society. They think all of our institutions should conform in lockstep to these changes and government should be the one to enforce the guidelines. Conservatives suspect we took the wrong fork in the road somewhere and want to pull the culture back a ways. They too think government should lead that charge. That’s the real reason the arguments are so annoying. Both sides are sure they’ve diagnosed the diseases of our culture. The problem is they only know how to use one medical device — government. And government’s about as useful as a bone saw on a common cold when it comes to curing the disease that caused Littleton.


NOTE: Jonah Goldberg will be appearing “LIVE” in an online chat at www.townhall.com. at 4:00 PM today. All nudity will be tasteful and integral to the plot.


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