A review of The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg
Two months before Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Cass Sunstein took to the pages of the New Republic to extol his friend's brilliance and, equally important, his pragmatism. Many of those who covered Obama on a daily basis accepted and propagated the conventional wisdom that he was "postpartisan"—a reputation his handlers had assiduously cultivated since the 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his career. Sunstein gave these assumptions an academic gloss: not only was Obama postpartisan, he was post-ideological. Obama, Sunstein gushed, "prefers solutions that can be accepted by people with a wide variety of theoretical inclinations;" his "skepticism about conventional ideological categories is principled, not strategic;" and Obama's "form of pragmatism is heavily empirical; he wants to know what will work."
It's a persistent trope. "Obama is a centrist and a pragmatist who understands that in a country divided over core issues, you cannot make the best the enemy of the good," wrote Fareed Zakaria, resident intellectual at CNN and Time magazine, under the headline, "The Pragmatic President." Zakaria's claim is interesting not only because he is a reliable proxy for the views of the chattering classes but because he made it more than two years after Obama was sworn in as president. It came after a $1 trillion stimulus larded with giveaways to left-wing interest groups; after regulation of everything from dust to carbon dioxide; and after a government takeover of U.S. health care—nearly 20% of the economy—a move that, among its many statist provisions, tramples religious liberty. Obama has done more to expand government than any president since Lyndon Johnson—perhaps Franklin Roosevelt—and yet he is regularly described as a non-ideological pragmatist. Why?
Jonah Goldberg's The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas answers this question and many, many others with depth, authority, and humor as he builds a forceful case that the Left (and its unwitting allies) uses clichés to avoid having to make difficult arguments. Indeed, Goldberg, editor-at-large for National Review Online and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, opens Tyranny with chapters on "Ideology" and "Pragmatism"—the two longest in the book—providing detailed etymological analyses of the words and their meaning, historical and current. He concludes that "Pragmatism is the disguise progressive and other ideologues don when they want to demonize competing ideologies."
* * *
Examples are legion. Among them: an essay by New York magazine's Jonathan Chait arguing, in effect, that conservatives are dangerous ideologues unpersuadable by facts and logic but that liberals are such slaves to the truth that they are not only willing to abandon long-held views when presented with contradictory evidence but are eager to do so. "Empirical reasoning simply does not drive their thinking," writes Chait of conservatives. And: "Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy—more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition—than conservatism." Chait points to conservative claims that the United States has the best health care system in the world, something that he says "isn't true by almost any objective measure," and cites a study by the World Health Organization that found "the United States ranks just 37th in overall health care performance."
The problem, explains Goldberg, is that the "WHO study Chait uses to prove the empiricism of liberals might be the worst study ever." Far from a rigorous analysis of health care outcomes, it heavily weighed factors that have little to do with actual health care performance—for instance, it rewarded systems that demonstrated "Financial Fairness," i.e., wealth redistribution via health care. "A government-run soup kitchen might do wonderful and vital work," notes Goldberg, "but only an ideologue would declare one a contender for the best restaurant in the world because they give away free food to the poor that is paid for by the wealthy."
As he does in his syndicated column, Goldberg enlivens serious arguments with droll logic. From his chapter challenging the notion that diversity is good in itself: "The National Basketball Association would be vastly more diverse if a rigid quota of midgets and one-legged point guards was imposed on it. But the game would not be improved, and any team that voluntarily adopted such a regime would have very long odds of making the play-offs."
* * *
The Tyranny of Clichés is, at turns, a lesson in philosophy, a polemic on intellectual laziness, a treatise on linguistic imprecision and a revisionist history of, well, lots of stuff. Goldberg uses the phrase "historical fact-checking" to describe the work of another author, but it might be the best shorthand description of what he's done here. He builds his arguments with references to well-known thinkers, obscure Progressive theorists, politicians old and new, and an occasional dollop of American pop culture. He begins one chapter, for example, with quotations from John Kenneth Galbraith and Napoleon, and follows with references (in order) to: So I Married an Axe Murderer, Adam Smith, John Locke, Edmund Burke, the French Enlightenment, Star Wars, Montesquieu, Jean Baptiste Say, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt Comte de Tracy, and Thomas Jefferson—in less than two pages. And, perhaps surprisingly, each of them actually serves his argument.
One suspects that readers will be left thinking of these Golbergian deconstructions long after they've finished his book, in much the same way that readers of William Safire's On Language columns remembered his exhortations on the proper use of "begging the question" or "hopefully." Consider "let them eat cake," for example. Not only did Marie Antoinette probably never utter the phrase, it meant pretty much the opposite of what modern liberals intend when they use it to suggest conservatives are stingy aristocrats.
As a follow-up to his best-selling and deeply researched Liberal Fascism (2008), Jonah Goldberg's new book confirms his reputation as one of the sharpest, funniest, and yet most serious of contemporary conservative writers. Coming as it does in the heart of this political year, and dealing as it does with the kinds of hackneyed aphorisms that have come to define contemporary political discourse, The Tyranny of Clichés provides an indispensable and enduring field guide to the arguments the Left makes—and the ones it tries to avoid.