Commentary Magazine

In Tropes They Trust

The Tyranny of Clichés:
How Liberals Cheat 
in the War of Ideas
By Jonah Goldberg
Sentinel, 320 pages

Violence never solved anything. Diversity is strength. We’re only as free as the least free among us. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. It’s a slippery slope. I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Deploy one of these hoary, haughty pronouncements, and you may conclude you have made a watertight case and whatever discussion you are having can now come to a close, your interlocutor silenced by the unanswerable truth of your assertion.

This insufferable rhetorical trope is what motivated Jonah Goldberg to write his second book, The Tyranny of Clichés. Goldberg—sometime Commentary contributor, founder and editor-at-large of National Review Online, and author of the best-selling Liberal Fascism—here continues to hone his role as an intellectual provocateur of American liberals. And he has also done the conservative layman a great favor by laying bare the true purpose of these maddening shibboleths of the left.

Vexed by what he calls the ‘‘argument-that-isn’t-an-argument,’’ Goldberg leads his reader chapter by chapter through a series of these manipulative conversation-stoppers. In a chapter on ‘‘Social Justice,’’ he demonstrates how that catchphrase is used as a two-word validation for liberal policy, even though no one ever bothers to elucidate the precise meaning of the term. In his examination of “The Separation of Church and State”—a phrase that has come to refer to the need to cleanse the public square of any religious stain—what offends Goldberg is the two-facedness of those who use it. On the one hand, John Kerry in 2004 deployed the need to separate church and state to justify his personal opposition to abortion and his political support for the ‘‘pro-choice’’ position. On the other, Kerry happily used his faith to explain his motivation for his ‘‘fight against poverty’’ and his ‘‘fight for equality and justice.’’ In this way, the tyranny of clichés allows liberals not simply to escape the ‘‘war of ideas,’’ but, Goldberg says, to “cheat”—for clichés are designed to discredit, rather than counter, the very basis of the counterargument.

Goldberg devotes special attention, however, to one persistent cliché that appears in numerous guises: the purported opposition to ideology or dogma, or an espousal of ‘‘pragmatism’’ or the ‘‘center.’’ The most recent embodiment of this cliché is ‘‘No Labels,’’ the name assigned to a hip political group. As Goldberg points out, this avowed opposition to ideology is a deceit, for it turns out that these anti-ideologues do possess an ideology—and according to their ideology, those who profess the opposing ideology are ‘‘too ideological.’’ Liberals may claim to be not ideological but pragmatic, yet ‘‘pragmatism,’’ Goldberg emphasizes, ‘‘is the disguise progressives and other ideologues don when they want to demonize competing ideologies.’’ Goldberg points to a 2005 New Republic article by Jonathan Chait entitled ‘‘Fact Finders.’’ It asserted that liberalism is averse to dogma, and that if God revealed to mankind that economic claims made by conservatives are correct, liberals would abandon their long-held positions because their reasoning is empirical, whereas conservatives would not abandon their convictions even if God told them to, and they are therefore purely ideological in a way liberals are not.

Reality does not bear out Chait’s claim: As Goldberg reminds us, during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, ABC’s Charlie Gibson asked candidate Obama if he would continue to favor raising capital gains taxes even if he knew—not believed, but actually knew—that lowering them would raise more revenue. The future president said he would still argue for raising them out of ‘‘fairness.’’ One might add that, despite the failure of President Obama’s stimulus package, he did not, as Chait’s theory would predict, abandon that policy and pursue another, but pursued another stimulus instead.

Liberals believe not only that their worldview is free from ideology, but that it is superior to the conservative worldview as a result. Liberals are ‘‘simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to ‘what works.’” 

It’s the process, stupid. The process is pragmatic. It is empirical. And this pragmatic, empirical process reveals the truth to be a progressive one. John Stuart Mill is said to have originated the description of Britain’s conservatives as ‘‘the stupid party’’ for lacking an ideology—yet now, Mill’s successors among American liberals are slamming their conservative opponents for being too ideological! 

Goldberg observes that the conservatives of old were so ‘‘stupid’’ because they espoused a Burkean respect for tradition and an antipathy toward the original utopian “ideology” of the Jacobins in Revolutionary France. The notion that an entirely new system of living can be imposed on society without regard for culture or human nature is what inspired the Jacobins—and after them the Bolsheviks and the Progressives. After all, doing “what works,” if we could but rise above narrow ideology and dogma—that is, above politics itself—means we need not settle for merely the possible, but can achieve so much more.

G.K. Chesterton, however, was memorably unconvinced:

When [man] drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

The conversion of thinking people into trees and turnips for the purpose of cultivating them more efficiently and without any annoying individualistic guff is the grave weakness of progressivism (the central argument of Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism). The tyranny of clichés is indispensable to that effort because it is “a way to avoid arguments, not make them.” In a sense, Jonah Goldberg’s engaging and cant-free second book is not making an argument in itself; it is trying to facilitate argument that otherwise would be stifled by liberal cant constructed on a shaky foundation of self-satisfaction and ornamented to a fare-thee-well by intellectual conceit.

About the Author

Jonathan Neumann is the Tikvah Fellow at Commentary. His article “Occupy Wall Street and the Jews” appeared in the January issue.

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