I haven’t yet finished Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, which is unusual for me, given that I’ve had it since Friday. It’s the kind of book one gobbles up — but that assumes time to gobble. Since I bought the book and Jonah signed it (more on that later), I’ve been in perpetual motion. You’ve seen that reflected in my blogging silence, and I’ve seen it reflected, as well, in my inability to find time to sit and read.
Having found time to read half the book, though, I can tell you a few things about it. While Jonah’s last book was about history — namely, the way in which liberalism and fascism have marched hand in hand through the 20th century, albeit sometimes with a smiling face — his current book is, as the title says, about ideas. Ideas are much harder to marshal into a book. They’re slippery and abstract and, if I can add yet another adjective, abstruse too. Jonah does a great job getting a handle on ideological constructs and anchoring them to a more solid world.
The premise of Jonah’s book is an interesting one: he contends that liberals constantly deny that they are anything but pragmatists, which is a good thing and, say liberals, the complete opposite of an ideologue, which they say is a bad thing. Conservatives, of course, are ideologues.
Liberals refuse to acknowledge that the pragmatism they describe is simply their willingness to use all possible coercive approaches to achieve their end, with the end invariably being something that falls under the socialist rubric. By denying that they have an ideology, they are therefore able to castigate conservatives for being blinkered by an ugly conservative ideology that advocates dying sick people, homeless old people, starving children, etc.
Jonah’s absolutely right. I had my epiphany when I finally sat down and looked at the way in which, during the 1980s and 1990s, Christian conservatives referred to Democrats/Liberals as “secularists.” This made no sense to me. As far as I was concerned, the Christian conservatives were the ideologues, with their talk of God and the Bible, and their wacky habit of letting their moral beliefs inform their political stances. We, the high-minded, enlightened, pragmatic liberals had no ideology at all. Ideology was solely the Christian preserve and we were simply un-Christians, shedding political enlightenment wherever we went.
It wasn’t until I read Stephen Carter’s The Culture of Disbelief that I finally figured out that imposing disbelief on politics is just as ideological as imposing belief on politics. Those darn Christian conservatives were right. Once I had that epiphany, I could never again pretend that my political beliefs were purely the absence of bias and primitivism. (Carter’s book was, obviously, another stepping stone in my slow journey across the ideological Rubicon, from unthinking liberal to thoughtful conservative.)
I still have a lot to learn about abstract political ideas, though, since I tend to be a remarkably concrete thinker. This can be a good thing when I finally understand an abstraction, because it means I’m adept at explaining the abstract idea to others in fairly concrete terms. Not all of us, after all, are philosophers. Jonah’s book is excellent because he too is good at explaining abstract political thought — and, in the case of Progressives, the false denial of abstract political thought — in easy to understand terms. More than that, and unlike me, he’s extremely knowledgeable, which makes his book both witty (which we expect from Jonah) and informed (which, I have to say, we also expect from Jonah). As I said to Jonah when we met, I feel as if he’s got the smarter version of my brain.
Here’s what I took away from the book after reading about the development of Progressive ideology: Progressives have as their touchstone “pragmatism.” This was new to me. I knew that in the 21st Century, Progressives like to call themselves the “reality-based community,” something that I’ve always seen as a wonderfully ironic joke. Their reality is always bounded by what suits their political ends.
Pure Progressive pragmatism goes behind this unreal commitment to reality. It turns out that it also means denying the collective wisdom of the ages. Progressives put all their faith in modern science, economics, social science, etc., believing that anything that came before lacked this scientific gloss, making it ineffectual and inefficient.
This refusal to draw from the past’s wisdom means that, for all their constant reminiscences about the Roosevelt and the New Deal, and Johnson and the Great Society, Progressives see these historical events only at the most superficial level. They stand for the principle that government can do big things. That’s it. Progressives have no interest in what actually happened. That is, they don’t seek to replicate the precise procedures that FDR or Johnson used — something that is scarcely surprising given the uniformly dismal results. The takeaway for Progressives when they look back in time is simply “Government.” The rest of history is useless to them, because it’s old and wrong, and their experts are very busy reinventing everything in the here and now.
Which leads me to my pithy epigram: Progressives deny that known history has any value, yet they insist that their predictions about the unknown future are entirely accurate.
Pretty good, huh? And it is, I think, a nice companion piece to my blog slogan: “Conservatives deal with facts and reach conclusions; liberals have conclusions and sell them as facts.”
Oh, and about that book signing? Two things. One, Jonah wrote a nice inscription in my book: “To Bookworm! Hail, Bookworm” Hail! All my best, from one happy warrior to another.” I liked that.
The other nice thing is that, when I identified myself to Jonah as Bookworm, a gentleman standing in line behind me exclaimed “You’re Bookworm? I love your blog.” To that gentleman: Thank you. You made my day!