Perhaps the opening quote in Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Tyranny of Clichés, from George Orwell — “We have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men” — unduly influenced me. But as I joked with Jonah at the start of our two-part interview, when I first read the galleys of The Tyranny of Clichés back in February, my first thought, despite how pretentious it sounds, was that whereas Liberal Fascism was the equivalent of Emanuel Goldstein’s “The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism,” the alternative history book within the book of George Orwell’s 1984, The Tyranny of Clichés was sort of like the Cliff Notes to the Newspeak Dictionary.
As to the tyrannical nature of cliches, and how they’re used to steal bases in political arguments, Jonah writes in his new book:
I started to notice that the same thing happens in writing, on TV, in books; people invoke these clichés as placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood. At the same time, the same sorts of people cavalierly denounce far more thought-out positions because they’re too “ideological.” Indeed, in America, we train people to be skeptical of ideology. College students in particular are quick to object with a certain gotcha tone: “That sounds like an ideological statement.”
Such skepticism doesn’t bother me. Indeed, I encourage it. The problem is that while our radar is great at spotting in-bound ideological statements, clichés sail right through. People will say “It is better that ten men go free than one innocent man go to jail” and then stop talking, as if they’ve made an argument simply by saying that. They will take the slippery slope at face value. They’ll say “Diversity is strength,” as if it means something, and “Violence never solved anything,” as if that were not only plausible but so true that no further explication is required. “We are only as free as the least free among us” they’ll proclaim, misquoting Martin Luther King, Jr., or Elie Wiesel, or was it Captain Jean-Luc Picard? But of course, this isn’t even remotely true. It is a very nice thing to say. It’s a noble thing to try to live by. But it’s in no meaningful sense true. Rather, it is the sort of thing people assert in the hopes that it will win them uncontested ground in an argument.
Sometimes the problem is simply lazy thinking. But in other cases the lazy thinking merely creates the vulnerability for radical thinking. Some incredibly ideological ideas simply ride into your head like the dream spelunkers in the movie Inception— setting up, working their way through your programming— all because they’re wrapped in the protective coating of clichés.
Click below to listen to the podcast:
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Watch for Part II of our interview tomorrow, in which Jonah will discuss the entomology of liberal clichés such as “diversity” and “social justice,” and how Bill Clinton used the phrase “The Middle Class” as a cliché he rode to victory in 1992. Plus a look back at how Liberal Fascism was received by the right, the left, and by historians.
A transcript of Part I of our interview begins on the next page. (Part II’s transcript will appear tomorrow.)
Update (5/8/12): Part II is now online here.