The Tyranny of Clichés
Clichés: For when truth is relative
By Steven Martinovich
"Let's have some new clichés," Samuel Goldwyn once declared. The cinema giant was likely referring to his own industry when he made the comment but could have just as likely been referring to politics, which can easily challenge Hollywood for lack of originality. Players and issues may change but it seems the same charges fly across the political aisle as careful analysis gives way to hysterical charges. It is unlikely that if Cicero were alive today he would look at the collection of clichés that dominate politics and come away unimpressed.
Though no Cicero, Jonah Goldberg too is uninspired with the level of political argument as is hinted at in his recent book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. Goldberg charges that the political left relies on clichés in an attempt to portray themselves as above ideology, that while conservatives are mired in dogma, liberals prefer a pragmatic approach that purely focuses on achieving results. The current master of this approach in Washington, D.C. is none other than Barack Obama, seemingly able – thanks to the help of a wildly sympathetic press corps – to cast any Republican initiative as radically ideological while his proposals demonstrate a Solomon-like wisdom.
Goldberg divides his effort into 24 broad categories that represent the clichés he believes the left most often uses – from the worthiness of dissent to the value of diversity. He opens up with explorations of of ideology and pragmatism which are worth the price of the book alone. He argues that both the left and the right are equally ideological and dogmatic but that the former argues otherwise. Progressive political ideologies argue they are pragmatic – not surprisingly also the name of an American school of liberal philosophy – and not tied to dogma so that they are able to question the motives of their opponents. Goldberg's calm evisceration of pragmatism is a masterpiece and needs to be read by any conservative who does not completely understand the links between the pragmatic school of philosophy and today's liberalism.
From there Goldberg delves into the more mundane clichés that liberals spout, including accusations of Social Darwinism at the right, the concept of a living constitution, the role of violence and the need for social justice, among many others. Although some of Goldberg's attacks are stronger than others, one or two chapters touch close to being perfunctory, by in large he brings some impressive analysis and fire to his arguments. His chapter on the history and roots of the concept of social justice approach brilliance and would be uncomfortable for intellectually honest liberals to answer effectively.
Although Goldberg admits early on that that he does not "claim that the conservative mind isn't bound by clichés from time to time", he also asserts that the right tends to be more honest about its indebtedness to ideology. Perhaps true but The Tyranny of Clichés would have been better served had Goldberg explored some of those conservative clichés that pop up "from time to time", if only as an instructive tool and examples for the right to avoid in the future. It is by no means a fatal flaw for Goldberg's book, after all he makes it clear that he views clichés as a liberal intellectual tool that arose naturally from progressivism, but what is sauce for the goose also goes for the gander. That said, Goldberg has still crafted a valuable and enjoyable book.
The early stages of the presidential campaign have been surprisingly quiet but that will undoubtedly change once both conventions have taken place and the temperature of the campaigning rises. And just as predictably the clichés will begin flying as sober journalists declare a proposal to be of most danger to women, children and minorities or each party declares itself a defender of the middle class without defining what the middle class actually is. And once again millions of Americans will turn the channel from political "debate" to something a little more intellectually honest like a reality TV show or singing contest.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor of Enter Stage Right.
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