When John Adams first wrote the phrase “tyranny of the majority,” in 1788, he was helping to inaugurate a tradition in American politics to regard the faceless masses with, at best, a healthy and measured skepticism. Indeed, political history since the Enlightenment is full of epigrams and catchphrases—”banality of evil” being one, “totalitarian democracy” another—reminding us that the worst of humanity is often derived from the quotidian. The participants in a genocide are usually not disfigured foreign monsters but the victims’ fellow citizens. The scary thing about a serial killer is that it’s always the quiet guy who, as the neighbors tell the network reporters, “keeps to himself.” One finds that this tendency holds true at the level of language as well: the worst trespasses on our intellect are those sayings that, worked into a state of flaccidity and vacuity, have slipped by our rational defenses and have become “cliches.”
A society governed by slogans is condemned to repeat them. The degeneration of political debate into a series of cliches, particularly those of the self-proclaimed progressives, is the subject of an intelligent new book by Jonah Goldberg titled The Tyranny of Cliches. The author’s goal is to discern, as the subtitle informs us, “how liberals cheat in the war of ideas.” It was Richard Weaver who warned us that ideas have consequences, and Goldberg has assigned himself the adjunct role of showing that the lack of ideas is just as important. This means that concepts like “diversity” and “social justice,” bromides like “violence never solves anything,” and comfortable thought-terminating rejoinders like “social darwinism” and Marie Antoinette’s never-uttered “let them eat cake” are up for consideration.
For Goldberg, cliches “are a way to earn bravery on the cheap, defending principles you haven’t thought through or perhaps only vaguely support.” Those who have spoken before a crowd, especially one of the college aged, and entertained questions will nod gently in agreement as they read Goldberg’s own version of the experience:
Often, I will encounter an earnest student, much more serious looking than the typical hippie with open-toed shoes and a closed mind. During the Q&A session after my speech he will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud. Faculty will nod proudly at this wiser-than-his-years hatchling under their wings. What a glorious moment for everybody. Blessed are the bridge builders.
My response? Who gives a rat’s ass?