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.)