Title: The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg
Motivation: Frequent advertisements on National Review Online.
Completed: June 2, 2012 (#36)
Recommendation: Mr. Goldberg and his NR colleague Mark Steyn have been on a best-selling roll in recent years. This book is not for everyone, as it is very much oriented to a conservative audience.
As the attentive Reader has no doubt discerned from his title, the premise of Mr. Goldberg’s book is that political discourse is ridden with tendentious clichés that all tend to bolster unthinking leftism at the expense of conservative argument.
Some examples: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” “Violence never solves anything.” “Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer.” “Diversity is strength.” Each of these is dissected by Mr. Goldberg at some length; there is no need to rehearse the details of the argument here.
Mr. Goldberg’s polemics have come a long way in the years since he first founded National Review Online, the august magazine’s virtual persona on the Internets. He is often engagingly funny—a typical sentence reads like vintage William F. Buckley mixed with a dirty Judd Apatow movie:
There’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument that vexes me. I first started to notice it on university campuses. I’ve spoken to a lot of college audiences. Often, I will encounter an earnest student, much more serious looking than the typical hippie with open-toed shoes and a closed mind. During the Q&A session after my speech he will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud. Faculty will nod proudly at this wiser-than-his-years hatchling under their wings. What a glorious moment for everybody. Blessed are the bridge builders. My response? Who gives a rat’s ass?
A paragraph that begins with the word “vexed” and ends with “rat’s a**”—Mr. Goldberg’s style is not for everyone, but he surely does entertain.
The most interesting argument put forward in the book revolves around the question of “ideology.” To paraphrase, Mr. Goldberg believes that conservatives (and liberals, for that matter) should neither shun the term nor deny that their views are driven by ideology. Vis-à-vis the Left, Mr. Goldberg’s thesis has some purchase—it is surely a common trope for Democratic politicians of late to claim that their positions are driven by concern for “what works” or “social science” rather than by ideological conviction. The Left, at least in electoral politics, has with few exceptions abandoned the bloody-shirt waving of Robespierre, Marx, and even lesser lights like McGovern—pragmatism of the William James and John Dewey variety is their rhetorical lodestar today. Even the terms “liberal” and “socialist”—freely acknowledged and owned by the European counterparts of the American Left—have been abjured in public in favor of euphemisms like “leaning forward” or “progressive.”
The matter is more complex on the Right. Ever since Edmund Burke and the French Revolution, the dominant strain of conservative thought has defined itself in opposition to the ideologues of the Left, be they Jacobins, Wobblies, Communists, or New Dealers. Conservatives of this garden variety are most comfortable standing athwart history, playing the empirical Hume to the Left’s rationalist Descartes.
The mighty Burke:
The age of chivalry is gone. — That of sophisters, œconomists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold a generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, achieved defensive nations, the nurse of the manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage while it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.
Custom, prudence, prejudice, prescription, temperance, moderation, tradition—from Burke to Kirk, these have been the terms in which the Anglo-American right has conceived of itself. By contrast, Mr. Goldberg argues that conservatives indeed do have an ideology and that it is perfectly proper that they should. This circle can likely be squared by recognizing that when Mr. Goldberg uses the term “ideology,” he actually means something rather more like Weltanschauung than the utopian dreams of “sophisters, œconomists, and calculators.” It is not that Mr. Goldberg rejects Edmund Burke’s views, but rather that he conceives of the Burkean world view itself as an example of ideology.
This, anyway, is the lesson that A Superfluous Man draws from Mr. Goldberg’s appearance on Uncommon Knowledge a few months ago to promote this book: