Book Review: Jonah Goldberg’s “The Tyranny of Clichés”

It took me a long time to read Jonah Goldberg’s latest, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. This is not because it’s a bad or a boring book but, instead, because it’s a deep and thoughtful book. I went into reading it expecting a sort of cheerful factual romp, a la his Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning and, instead, got a cheerful philosophical disquisition. After I engaged the higher part of my brain, however, I was able to enjoy and appreciate Jonah’s inquiry into the intellectual fallacies that liberals use to claim the moral high ground and shut down serious discourse.

Jonah’s premise is a deceptively simple one: Liberals, he says, have a set of clichéd expressions or ideas that they whip out alternately as a shield or bludgeon whenever their policies come under attack. I say “deceptively simple,” because most of us, hearing that, will say, “Well, duh! We knew that. Whenever liberals say ‘it’s for the children,’ you know they’re trying to raise taxes or lower the age of consent for abortions.” That’s all true, of course, but Jonah points to numerous more subtle liberal tropes that many of us conservatives, especially those of us who are neo-cons, actually think have substance. They don’t. Using his trademark wit and erudition, Jonah telling explains how these expressions are conversational dead-ends, meant to convince conservatives and independents that conservative ideas are small-minded, mean-spirited, greedy, and unkind.

A trip through the book’s Table of Contents is instructive, because you can see how many cultural paradigms Jonah attacks. Jonah’s first three chapters should be read in one go, since they are intertwined arguments. They are entitled, respectively, “Ideology,” “Pragmatism,” and “No Labels.” They all attack one thing, which is the liberals’ self-righteous contention that, while conservatives are blinkered by evil, fascist ideologies, liberals deal with political and social problems in a purely pragmatic way, one that raises them above primitive ideology and demands a “no label” world, in which the liberals’ ideology-free pragmatism is given free rein.

You and I have all seen this line of thinking in action. It shows up in news stories that identify a conservative think tank as “a conservative think tank,” but just call a liberal think tank “a think tank,” thereby implying that the latter is free of ideological bias. Indeed, the whole of our media and academic world is permeated with the assumption that the norm is Left, and deviations from the norm are Right. We understand the concrete reality of this line of thinking, but Jonah takes us on a factual and philosophical journey to appreciate the flawed intellectual thinking that nevertheless is so effective in shutting down debate.

In the “Ideology” chapter, for example, Jonah takes us with him on a journey that covers that appallingly flawed WHO World Health Report 2000; the origins of the entire notion of ideology, which is a fairly recent intellectual construct; Burke and the French Revolution; and the Left’s premature 2008 eulogies for conservativism, on the ground that the taint of ideology had met its match in Obama.  This is a lot of ground to cover, especially for someone like me, who is not entirely at home in the world of pure abstractions.  Jonah’s delightful writing style lightens the mental burden, but cannot make it go away entirely.

The chapter on Pragmatism (which has as its companion the later chapter on Science) talks about the way American Progressives, since the turn of the last century, have constantly jettisoned tried and true economic, social, and political ideas in favor of an unending stream of behaviors focused on socialist goals. Progressives justify this to themselves, and to intellectual wannabes across America by claiming that their death grip on the sciences (both social sciences and the physical sciences that they bend to social science ends) blesses them with a “pragmatism,” that transcends the petty ideology to which middle Americans cling so fiercely (along with their guns and Bibles, of course).

This is not light fare. But by saying so, I do not mean to dissuade you from reading the book. It is to warn you, instead, that even someone with an authorial touch as deft as Jonah’s still has to go very deep to excavate and expose the rotten foundations underlying so much modern Leftist thought. I don’t regret the effort it took me to read this book, just as I don’t regret a vigorous workout. When I’m in process, I’m simultaneously working hard and enjoying myself; and when I’m done, I have the slightly euphoric feel of someone who has accomplished something important and beneficial.

If you’re not in the mood for the heavy mental lifting in the first three chapters, skip them and go to the later chapters that focus more on specific expressions, rather than entire oeuvres of Weltanschauung. (And yes, I am very impressed with my ability to use two fairly obscure foreign words in a single phrase.) By doing so, you’ll learn how to counter the silly liberal who says that everything conservatives believe is a “slippery slope” leading to an American Taliban; that liberal political policies advance the amorphous cause of “social justice;” that ours is a “living constitution” when liberals want judges to interpret it their way, but a sacred, untouchable document when conservatives suggest the amendment process; that “youth” is truth; or that all of the Western world’s ills begin and end with the Catholic Church.

Along the way, you’ll run headlong into delightful witticisms that had me laughing aloud. For example, in the chapter entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious,” Jonah tackles the fatuous lefties who claim that approaching an abstract God through a structured, moral doctrine is stupid and dangerous, but that communing with crystals and worshipping Gaia is an act of spiritualism that makes them much more sophisticated than mouth-breathing church-goers. Or, as Jonah said

I love having conversations with people who deride organized religion as so much superstition and magic, but who don’t have any problems with superstition and magic when it is disorganized.

Jonah’s formulation is a much wittier, deeper statement than my trite “wishes are the atheist equivalent of prayers.” As I told Jonah when I met him, I consider him to be the smarter, better-informed version of my brain.

As you read the book, please pay special attention to the chapter on the “Middle Class,” because it dovetails so perfectly with the current campaign and, even more, with Obama’s fateful statement that “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” When Liberals aren’t bloviating about doing things “for the children,” they’re assuring us that all of their policies will save the Middle Class – a conveniently moving target, the center of which happens to be wherever a liberal policy drops the most taxpayer money. To the extent those policies occasionally drop hard cash in the laps of those who actually do work and strive, however, Jonah points out that it’s not a good thing. Easy money destroys people’s innate ability to build and do and make things happen. (In this regard, you might also want to read John McWhorter’s Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, which points out that it’s probably no coincidence that black families began to implode precisely when well-meaning Great Society social workers headed out to black communities to urge them to get on welfare because the white government “owed” it to them.) Says Jonah:

The problem with the contemporary liberal approach is that it amounts to middle-class welfare. Not only can we not afford it economically, the middle class cannot afford it morally. To miss out on the opportunity to cultivate the [Adam] Smithian virtues is to eat the seed corn of social capital. Liberals to be sure don’t see it that way. They see it as an effort to make life easier, to expand the realm of “positive liberty” that John Dewey envisioned and FDR hoped to implement with his “economic bill of rights.” Here’s Nancy Pelosi explaining how the Affordable Care Act (i.e., ObamaCare) would stimulate the economy: “We see it as an entrepreneurial bill, a bill that says to someone: ‘If you want to be creative and be a musician or whatever, you can leave your work, focus on your talent, your skill, your passion, your aspirations because you will have health care. You won’t have to be job locked.

Never mind that the causal link between socialized medicine and entrepreneurism is not exactly firmly established. The larger point is that the liberal vision of an advanced society is one where it is finally rich enough to liberal the middle class from their comfortable bourgeois lifestyles and to subsidize their conversion to bohemian ones. [snip] In other words they are going to win their centuries’-old war on the middle class by subsidizing the bohemian lifestyle to the point where it no longer pays to be bourgeois. It probably won’t work in the long run. But in the short run, it will bankrupt us all, not only financially, but morally as well. (p. 203.)

Angelina’s arrogance perfectly exemplifies the Left’s refusal to engage

A woman named Jane Pitt recently exercised her Free Speech rights by sending a letter to a local paper castigating Obama for supporting same-sex marriage and urging people to vote for Romney, because he will support traditional marriage.  She was predictably savaged by Leftists who didn’t merely challenge her beliefs, but effortlessly went to the next step of threatening her physical well-being.

Normally, the MSM would ignore this story.  After all, Jane is guilty of wrong-thinking.  What makes her story news worthy is that her famous son, Brad, and his paramour, Angelina Jolie, disagree with Mom’s views.  Were they normal people, they would say, “We disagree with her views.”  But they’re not normal.  Instead, they’re Hollywood Leftists, with all the arrogance, shading into totalitarianism, that this implies:

Since the letter was published, Angelina has now reportedly asked Brad to teach his mother not to be so outspoken about same-sex marriage, especially since the celebrity couple clearly support it.

‘(She) has told Brad he must educate his mother, but Brad is too much of a mama’s boy,’ a source told the magazine.

‘If Brad won’t do it, Angelina will have to take matters into her own hands and talk to Jane about how, as the mother of such a prominent celebrity, she shouldn’t be writing letters that clash with her son’s personal opinions.’

Let me translate: Angelina says “Shut up, Jane, you ignorant slut.”

This sorry little news squiblet has ramifications beyond proving what we all know, which is that Jolie is a self-obsessed, not-very-nice excuse for a human being. After all, Jolie’s personality, or lack therefore, is a great big “duh.”

As it is, the story deserves consideration because it so perfectly proves the point the inimitable Zombie makes about the latest book purporting to teach Progressives how to win the argument.  You see, George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling, both Leftist academics, just saw published The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic.

You really have to read Zombie’s erudite and well-researched post to appreciate the full Orwellian-think on display in Lakoff’s and Wehling’s book.  I just want to focus on one aspect, which is the fact that Lakoff says that the worst thing good-thinking Progressives can do is actually to engage at a substantive level with conservatives:

Lakoff is also the reason why liberals and conservatives never seem to be able to communicate with each other. This frustrating problem is no accident, nor a natural result of differing ideologies simply not seeing eye to eye. Rather, it’s a conscious behavior explicitly recommended by Lakoff over the years, and one which he hammers home repeatedly in The Little Blue Book. Page 43 contains the book’s core message:

“Never use your opponent’s language….Never repeat ideas that you don’t believe in, even if you are arguing against them.”

So central is this notion to Lakoff’s thesis that his publicist sent out a list of “The 10 Most Important Things Democrats Should Know” with each review copy, and guess what comes in at #1:

“Don’t repeat conservative language or ideas, even when arguing against them.”

And many politicians, pundits and talking heads have taken Lakoff’s recommendation to heart. This is why conservatives and liberals can’t seem to have the simplest conversation: liberals intentionally refuse to address or even acknowledge what conservatives say. Since (as Lakoff notes) conservatives invariably frame their own statements within their own conservative “moral frames,” every time a conservative speaks, his liberal opponent will seemingly ignore what was said and instead come back with a reply literally out of left field.

Zombie addresses the major problem with this Leftist approach, which is a problem common to all totalitarian systems:  The cognitive dissonance that inevitably arises when the facts on the ground fail to mesh with the totalitarian rhetoric.  Zombie uses the abortion debate to focus on the ground one loses when slogans clash with reality.  I recommend reading that discussion.  If you’re interested in an even more in-depth analysis of the vast chasm between Leftist slogans and reality, not to mention honesty, check out Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. Likewise, you can’t go wrong reading Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, which explains that it was this cognitive dissonance that enabled the refusniks and other dissidents to stand against the weight of the Soviet Union.

The totalitarian conversational approach, in the long-term, turns each of its advocates into slightly insane, and definitely untrustworthy people, who spend their time stalwartly advocating something that fact, reason, and logic deny.  In the short-term, though, it has an evil, insidious effect on the Lefts’ political opponents:  It effectively turns them into non-people — that is, people who have no right to hold opinions separate from Leftist dogma or, if they have the temerity to have separate opinions, people who must be silenced.  This totalitarian imperative is so overwhelming that even family members are suspect and must be controlled.  Those of you who lived in the Eastern bloc or the Muslim world probably know precisely what I’m talking about.

Anyone who suspects that Angelina is a self-centered idiot is, of course, correct.  But all of us would be wise to realize that she is also the living manifestation of the Leftist world view.

Thoughts about Progressives, inspired by Jonah Goldberg’s new book

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!

Jonah Goldberg’s Tyranny of Cliches

Let’s see….  Today is Sunday, right?  I ask because being out-of-town for the weekend (which I am) always skews my perception of time. It now seems like a lifetime, ather than something less than two days since I heard Jonah Goldberg talk about his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.

Would it surprise you to learn that Jonah is a great speaker?  It didn’t surprise me at all. One only has toreach his work, or watch him on TV, to know that any talk he gives will be entertaining, both at the substantive and the performance level.

Jonah’s thesis, which he delivered with a great deal of verve and humor, is that liberals fall back on meaningless political catch phrases, in order to shut down any substantive political argument. For example, being told “We need to get on the right side of history” makes no sense. But liberals use it all the time to avoid examining the merits of their ideas.

One of the reasons liberals get away with this meaningless rhetoric is because they’ve convinced themselves that they are actually apolitical.  They have no guiding ideology.  They’re pragmatists who, like Joe FrIday, function in a world governed by “Just the facts.” This is belief is a “Big Lie,” one that they tell themselves and, worse, our credulous young folk, who are held hostage in their public school and Ivy League classrooms.

I’ve only just started Jonah’s book, since I’ve been too busy to sit down and read anything more than a paragraph here or there. I can tell you already, though, that it’s a winner, written with Jonah’s hallmark wit, erudition, and insight.

The prescient Huey Long

I found this in a book of anecdotes written in 1944:

Somebody once asked the late Huey Long if he thought we would ever have fascism in the United States.  “Sure we will,” predicted Long, “only we’ll call it anti-fascism.”

And if that doesn’t make sense to you, hie yourself to the local bookstore or library and pick up a copy of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.

A lovely turn of phrase

I do like Jonah Goldberg’s writing.  In an article about Obama’s static trajectory, and Democratic befuddlement regarding that mystery, Goldberg has this lovely, laugh-out-loud bit of writing:

Ask the typical Obama supporter why this should be so and you’ll get a range of answers. Some just stare at the poll numbers the way my late basset hound would look at me when I tried to feed him a grape: with pure unblinking incomprehension.