The Cliches of Tyranny
Jonah Goldberg's battle in the war of ideas.
July 15, 2012 - 12:47 am
The notional student’s repartee, it should be noted, is usually attributed to Voltaire, but Goldberg shames the cliche further by debunking its received origins (it was Evelyn Beatrice Hall, Voltaire’s biographer, who, well over a century after her subject’s death, wrote the phrase as her own summation of Voltaire’s views).
Another of Goldberg’s targets is the pseudo-intellectual pose of “pragmatism.” Related to other neutered and absurd constructs like “centrism” and the “No Labels” gang, pragmatism alleges to transcend ideology and deal, Dragnet-style, with “just the facts.” By this self-regarding logic, one is above the fray by virtue of one’s superior rationality; thus one’s opponents disagree, by definition, only for irrational reasons. A symptom of the pragmatic syndrome is the tendency to regard one’s views as dispassionately “scientific.” The epigraph to the second chapter, from the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is worth quoting in full here:
I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I’m for that. Where the government is necessary, I’m for that. I’m deeply suspicious of someone who says, “I’m in favor of privatization,” or, “I’m deeply in favor of public ownership.” I’m in favor of whatever works in that particular case.
Now how many times have we heard some form of that? (By the way, Galbraith, a lifelong apologist for the Soviet command economy, was never even the slightest bit skeptical, much less “deeply suspicious,” of his own views.) Political pragmatism is based on the arrogant and tautological claim that its purveyors are correct because they are realistic and realistic because they are correct. Indeed, the interstitial idea holding all these cliches together is the assumption that certain people are exempt from “ideology” and have, contra Immanuel Kant, free access to the world of fact.
An important but easily overlooked component of Goldberg’s thesis, however, is the repudiation of the decades-long conviction on the Right that conservatism is not an ideology. This theory, made famous by Russell Kirk, posits that conservatism, being naturally skeptical of human machination, was actually the anti-ideology of the modern era. By disagreeing, Goldberg may surprise, befuddle, or anger some of his “base.” In his telling, all of us (this includes certain Oakeshottian poseurs) are in the grip of ideology, which is nothing more than “your worldview, your set of principles, your checklist by which you measure and judge events and actions.” Not willing to cast off the conservative legend completely, Goldberg argues that Kirk was using a much narrower definition of ideology than the one employed today. “Ideology” has become a dirty word, saddled with shades of the Marxian false consciousness (Goldberg credits Napoleon with initiating this semantic shift). “But on the whole,” he writes, “conservatives and libertarians differ from liberals in that we are honest about our ideologies.” (emphasis in original)