The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg

I will admit up-front that I am far from an unbiased observer when it comes to Jonah Goldberg.  I am a fan.  And I have been lucky enough to get to know him some over the years and consider him a friend.  So feel free to factor that in to what follows.

But even with that caveat, there is a small part of me that is disappointed in his latest book The Tyranny of Clichés.  Don’t get me wrong, it is a quick, entertaining and informative book; full of useful arguments, insights and food for thought.  At its most basic it is a challenge to conservatives to fight back and not allow the left in this country to continue to make lazy, ideological loaded statements and arguments in the name of pragmatism and a fake “just the facts, ma’am” attitude.

For more on the book’s message and arguments, and on my rather subtle disappointment, keep reading.

First the sense of disappointment.  Here is the thing.  I am a intellectual history nerd.  I love the battle of ideas and the war of words and a host of other – yes – cliches that we use when we talk about intellectual history and public engagement with worldviews and arguments.  I thought Liberal Fascism was a powerful piece of historical push back.  As I said at the time:

I found Liberal Fascism to be an interesting read and one that forces you to understand and wrestle with many of the fundamental political issues of the twentieth century and their implications for today.

It bugs me that many attempt to dismiss Jonah as a joke teller and try to dismiss his success as a fluke (or worse connect it to his mother).  Jonah is a serious writer who wrestles with important issues that lie at the heart of so many of our political, cultural and societal problems.  He understands the rot at the heart of liberalism and yet the unwillingness of so many to deal with the actual intellectual, philosophical and historical truths at the root of this problem.

Yes, he enjoys and is engaged with and knowledgeable about popular culture.  Yes, he is funny and doesn’t take himself all that seriously.  But he is much more than pull my finger or woman’s prison flick jokes.

But Jonah has admitted the voice he enjoys writing with, and that most reflects his personality, is closer to The Tyranny of Cliches (TOC) than Liberal Fascism.  Which frustrates me somewhat because there so much potential depth and intellectual heft involved in Jonah’s thesis yet this book really just skims the surface.

But you know what? If Jonah took the time and hard work to write a detailed, flushed out more academic style book about the cliches and deceptions that underly contemporary liberalism few would probably read it and its impact would be much smaller.  This is in many ways a problem of popular perception and so perhaps that is where the battle must be fought.  But I would have loved a more fully geeked-out version. Just sayin’ …

So what is TOC about? Basically, it is about how the left seeks to sneak in ideology, and poor thinking, by laying claim to science, pragmatism, rationality and just plain goodness via an assortment of cliches, catch phrases and pithy statements.

As Jonah explains

Pragmatism is the disguise progressives and other ideologues don when they want to demonize competing ideologies.

For Goldberg ideology is not an insult.  Everyone has an ideology.  Whether you call it a worldview or first principles or fundamental assumptions or political philosophy or framework or whatever, we all start somewhere when we seek to make decisions, make policy or judge actions and outcomes. This is ideology.

Perhaps contra Russell Kirk, and other in the traditionalist or Burkean school, modern conservatives embrace ideology (at least of this type).  We argue about conservatism versus libertarianism, about paleocons versus neocons, about Ayn Rand versus William F. Buckley, about Kirk versus Frank Meyer (OK maybe just me on this one), etc.  We pride ourselves on arguing from bedrock principles and ideas.

The left in contrast is supposedly about what works.  Study the facts and find the solution, right?

Hogwash, says Goldberg. Progressives have a deep-and often dark-intellectual history that continues to influence their thought and policy prescriptions to this day.  But those roots don’t sell quite as well today, and they have some larger implications that the public might not accept, so the left chucks it all in the closet and pretends it doesn’t exist.

The point of TOC, in my opinion, is to help conservatives recognize this history and behavior and engage the left, forcing them to own their history and admit their ideology. I also think there are a few lessons for the right in the book.

First, both history and ideas matter.  Conservatives must be ever vigilant in defending their ideas and history from the encroachment of these liberal urban legends.  In chapter after chapter Jonah shows how these concepts and catch phrases are built on faulty history and ideological bias.  The historical background has been so warped as to produce a meaning in public discourse that is the exact opposite of what actually happened and was intended.

Philosophical Pragmatism is ideology not mere practicality or trial and error; Social Darwinism has no connection to conservatism and never did; Social Justice has come to mean the opposite of what it was intended to convey and is now an ideological trojan horse used to indoctrinate students; the Catholic Church in fact has a long history of fighting for the dignity of human beings and the defense of civilization not the destruction of science and freedom; on and on it goes.

Conservatives must know this history and be able to communicate it to the public so as to change their perceptions.  We must be able to tell stories that emotionally connect so as to tear down the default liberal assumptions of so much of popular culture and political debate.  You can’t assume that your ideas and the actual history of issues are known and understood.  We must not just attack the left but build on own story and tell our own history.

And a related point, and a cautionary one, is that self-deception is dangerous and damaging.  Seems like common sense but it is important.  Jonah argues that the underlying root of the tyranny of cliches is that these are the lies the left tells itself.  This has not led to an intellectually robust and dynamic movement but instead to a flabby, and in many aways viciously reactionary and often vulgar, movement that seeks a soft despotism of state involvement in every aspect of people’s lives all in the name of “solving problems” and “helping people” (hello Liberal Fascism).

What the right must do is reach the public with the message that things are not so simple and pretending they are leads to bad policy and bad outcomes.  A massive welfare state leads to dependence and dysfunctional families not a utopian community; sometime violence is needed and avoiding it quite often leads to even more violent and widespread suffering; an ideological and rigid belief in diversity as a good in and of itself leads to discrimination, closed minds and mediocrity not social uplift; there is such a thing as too much democracy and unity at the expense of freedom and individuality is dangerous a common tool of tyranny.

The simple message underneath is lazy thought leads to bad things.  This is a deeply conservative viewpoint – life isn’t as simple as you think it is and can’t be controlled and planned through willpower and good intentions.  In a humorous and engaging way, TOC forces you to unpack and re-think some of the fundamental cliches of our time.  And to see the base stealing the left is engaged in every day.  Conservatives must challenge and seek to overthrow this default position.  But they must also guard against engaging in equally damaging simplification and self-deception.

Perhaps, that could be Jonah’s next book …

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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