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Ed Driscoll

Jonah Goldberg Discusses The Tyranny of Cliches, Part I

May 7th, 2012 - 12:00 am

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.

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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.

DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ, and we’re talking today with Jonah Goldberg, founding editor of National Review Online, the author of 2008’s New York Times number one bestselling Liberal Fascism, and his new book The Tyranny of Clichés:  How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.  It’s published by Sentinel Books.  It’s now out at, and your local bookstore. Jonah, thanks for stopping by.

GOLDBERG:  Hey, it’s great to be here.

DRISCOLL:  Jonah, when I first read the galleys of The Tyranny of Clichés back in February, my first thought—and pardon at how pretentious this 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.  Does that incredibly pretentious analogy work at all for you?

GOLDBERG:  Hey, look-it, it works for me.  Yeah, sure.  I mean, it’s certainly true that anyone who’s read Liberal Fascism will see the sort of radioactive half life of that project glowing throughout The Tyranny of Clichés, you know.

I just spent—you know, I spent—as I’ve been saying for years, I spent, you know, six years, like Howard Hughes, with Kleenex boxes on my feet, working on Liberal Fascism in my basement.  And so a lot of it—you know, it was a big education for me.  I learned a lot of things about the progressives and all that kind of stuff.  And I really got to work out what I think about progressivism and about how society relates to some of these idea or non-ideas, and all of the rest.

And in a way, you can think of Liberal Fascism as an extended, 500-page treatment of one of the types of clichés that I deal with in The Tyranny of Clichés.  You know, people—people use the word “fascism” to mean all sorts of things that have nothing to do with fascism, in order to close off arguments rather than to have them.

DRISCOLL:  And how will skeptics receive the new book’s subtitle, “How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas”?  I mean, don’t both sides speak in clichés?

GOLDBERG:  Well, yes.  And if I—and you know, I want to be clear about this.  Both sides have buzz phrases.  Both sides have bumper stickers.  Both sides use sound bites, all that kind of stuff.  The fundamental difference between the Left and the Right, as I argue in the first few chapters of The Tyranny of Clichés, is that conservatives and libertarians, and I’ll concede, Marxists and socialists—but how many Marxists and socialists are left out, you know, in the wild these days; they’re basically all in captivity on college campuses.

But libertarians and conservatives, unlike mainstream liberals or progressives, are open and fairly honest about the fact that they have an ideology.  We say, these are our first principles.  We wear Adam Smith ties.  We dork out like Dungeons & Dragons geeks about, you know, our founding texts.  We have arguments about what Ayn Rand would say, or what Whittaker Chambers would say, or whether or not Edmund Burke would agree with this, that or the other thing.

Liberals—and this is a point that, you know, people like E.J. Dionne and Martin Peretz and a lot of liberal intellectuals will concede—liberals don’t have the same relationship with their intellectual history, with their ideology.  They deny that they have one.

And so this is the key distinction.  Where, you know, conservatives may use buzz phrases; they certainly may use clichés, and sometimes they use them badly.  I mean, I can’t tell you how many conservatives misuse fascism to this day.  But at the end of the day, you talk to a conservative, you say well, look, here are my principles; here’s where I’m coming from and all of the rest.  Liberals claim that they’re pragmatists, that they’re empiricists, or that they’re fact finders, that they only care about what works, and they just wish we crazies on the Right would drop all of these labels and these ideological, you know, squabbles, so that we could get busy doing the work the American people sent us to Washington to do and all that sort of nonsense.  And that is a monumental lie.

And it’s first and foremost a lie liberals tell to themselves.  The idea that liberals aren’t ideological is just nonsense on stilts.  And I don’t mind that liberals are ideological.  What I mind is that they won’t admit it.  It’s sort of like liberal media bias.  I don’t mind that—I don’t really care that much that the mainstream media is biased at this point, you know.  I mean, that’s something we’ve learned to live with.  What bothers me is—what really drives me to distraction is the way mainstream journalists deny that liberal media bias even exists.

And so the tyranny of the clichés is that a lot of clichés that I go through in the book, they’re not just liberal talking-point clichés; they are more fundamental formulations that sort of steal ground for progressive assumptions about the way the world works, man’s place in the universe, and all of the rest.  It’s not just sort of Obama v. Romney kind of talking points.  It’s a more fundamental thing.

You know, John Ralston Saul has this expression “the unconscious civilization.”  And it’s sort of the civilization that maybe a visitor from Mars would see that we don’t really recognize, because it’s—you know, our dogma makes a lot of assumptions invisible to us.

Liberals have an enormous amount of dogma.  They’re far more dogmatic than conservatives are.  And it expresses thems—and they express their dogmatism and their ideology, not in open and honest exp—you know, declarations of ideological preference, but in these sort of clichéd buzz phrases and terms and truisms that they claim aren’t ideological at all.

I mean, there’s no—there’s nothing a conservative regularly says that is more wildly radically extremist in its ideological assumptions than, say, violence never solved anything.  I mean, that is the most idiotic, wildly, radically ideological reality-distorting conviction, if you actually believe it.  And yet they say they believe it, and at the same time they claim that it’s not ideological at all.

DRISCOLL:  Well, hence the conservative T-shirts that started making the rounds during the Iraq war that read, “Except for Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism and Communism, War Has Never Solved Anything.”

GOLDBERG:  Right, right.  I mean, it’s—I mean the response has sort of become clichéd.  And so one of the things I did in the book is I actually went and tried to do a little of the intellectual history on this.  And there are a lot of people who believe, including some devout and decent Christians, that we get the “violence never solves anything” from Jesus.  But we really don’t.

You know, the Catholic Church had a just war theory for, you know, a thousand years.  Jesus told his followers to carry swords.  The idea that Christian—it’s fundamental to Christian belief that violence never solves anything, is just not true.  It doesn’t mean that Christians are particularly keen on violence.  But they don’t believe that it never solves anything.

We really owe it to Gandhi.  And Gandhi’s success—which is a point that George Orwell and Paul Johnson have made in great detail—Gandhi’s success owed itself entirely to the fact that he was playing on the guilty consciences of Westerners, of basically the British Empire.  He was a creature of the British Empire.  Gandhi would not have been able to succeed in anything that he was doing, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was working within the constraints of a decent, liberal empire.

And it’s telling that, you know, we use this phrase “violence never solves anything” as a means to basically check the use of force by the United State government, or by NATO or the West.  You know, it’s always to stop the good guys from doing anything to the bad guys.  And that’s how it was born.

Gandhi never told Adolf Hitler—he called Adolf Hitler his friend.  He never told Adolf Hitler don’t invade, you know, Britain.  He told the British that they should surrender to Adolf Hitler because violence doesn’t solve anything.  His solution to the Holocaust was that the Jews should commit mass suicide, which, you know, as a Jew, I find, you know, not all that helpful.  And certainly I don’t consider it to be a pragmatic position.

You know, it’s not a pragmatic non-ideological position.  It is a wild-eyed fanatical position.  But because it’s said by a dude in a sari, you know, who cared more about bowel movements than sex, and all that kind of crazy stuff, people sort of take it at face value that it was the sort of decent high-minded thing.

So people ask all the time:  what would Gandhi do?  And frankly, I don’t give a rat’s ass what Gandhi would do, because, you know, while I think he did some wonderful things and I think he was ultimately right about, you know—and he was a decent man in many respects in his personal life and he was not a hypocrite and all that kind of stuff, for the most part, his worldview was nonsense.

And countries that aren’t decent, and societies that aren’t decent, the Gandhis get swept up the first night and get thrown into a prison cell or executed.  There are no Gandhis in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or in North Korea or in Castro’s Cuba, not walking about openly flaunting the system, because they get arrested and thrown away.  It’s only in decent societies where we care about these kinds of things, where the Gandhis flourish.

DRISCOLL:  When we spoke in late 2007 about Liberal Fascism, I was surprised that it wasn’t the laugh-a-minute riot that early G-Files were.  And you had mentioned at the time, you had retired, as you put it, your Shecky Goldberg phase.  You’re sense of humor seems to have definitely returned in The Tyranny of Clichés.

GOLDBERG:  Yeah.  You know, I mean, I remember talking to you about that back then.  And you know, part of it is, is I really wanted to—you know, you only write your first book once.  And I wanted to write a serious book.  I had this thing I wanted to get off my chest.  I had this argument I wanted to make.  And you couldn’t do Liberal Fascism with a lot of jokes, you know.  And they just—you know, it’s just hard to do the:  Hey, funny thing about the Holocaust, kind of approach to it.  And it had to be a serious book.

DRISCOLL:  It would make a great Broadway play

GOLDBERG:  That’s true, that’s true.  It was so demonized by the Left and all that kind of stuff.  If I had started making, you know, pull-my-finger jokes, in parentheses in it, it would have been disastrous.  It had to be a serious—seriously written, serious tone kind of book.

And it is true, that for a while I was really rejecting the sort of humorist label, first of all, because I don’t consider myself a humorist; I consider myself a conservative writer, who’s not afraid to tell a joke from time to time, and who thinks that sarcasm and mockery is an important form of expression.  But you know, I’m not a P.J. O’Rourke.

And the thing about—it’s just very hard to be P.J. O’Rourke.  P.J., you know, maintains a level of comedy in his writing that is just—it’s very hard to maintain.

But at the same time, with Liberal Fascism out of the way, I thought it was sort of important to get back to the practice of entertaining the reader.  And so I tried to make this a funnier book.  I also just wanted to write a book that was more fun to write.  Liberal Fascism was not a fun book to write.  You know, it was a lot of work.

DRISCOLL:  Let’s discuss some of the liberal clichés that are debunked in the new book.  One of your chapters spends quite a bit of time debunking a newly favorite phrase of President Obama, “social Darwinism.”

GOLDBERG:  Yeah, this is, you know—this is a good example of the sort of—the spinoffs from Liberal Fascism.  One of the things, when you start studying fascism, that you have to deal with, is this thing called “social Darwinism.”  And you’re constantly told in various, you know, textbooks and all the rest, that Nazism was a doctrine of social Darwinism.  And at the same time, we’re told that the Robber Barons and people like Herbert Spencer were champions of something called social Darwinism in the United States.

And there’s a huge disconnect here.  Right?  I mean, it sort of gets at sort of the same problem you have where people call libertarians fascists.  You know, a libertarian fascist is almost, by definition, an oxymoron.  Hitler was not a real leave-’em-alone kind of guy.

And that’s part of the distinction here, is that social Darwinism, in the European context, basically means Hitlerism and racial eugenics and state—you know, and state cruelty and invading countries to impress upon them, you know, Aryan superiority and all that nonsense.

But in the United States social Darwinism, if it means what Herbert Spencer believed in, is wildly, radical libertarianism.  Herbert Spencer was a soaked-to-the-bone libertarian who opposed imperialism, favored women’s suffrage, was a huge champion of private charity.  And he is routinely denounced as this social Darwinist who wanted the poor to suffer; and sort of, somehow his ideas gave fruit to Nazism, which is just an unbelievable slander.  In many ways, Herbert Spencer is the most maligned public intellectual of the nineteenth century.

But here’s the bigger problem.  There was no such thing called social Darwinism in the United States.  Herbert Spencer never called himself a social Darwinist.  William Graham Sumner, his sort of sidekick in the alleged school of social Darwinism, never called himself a social Darwinist.  Spencer never even called himself a Darwinist.  He had a different theory of evolution.

And when you start pressing people about this, they say oh, that’s true, or maybe so, or whatever, but you know, Herbert Spencer came up with the term “survival of the fittest,” which was used to justify so many things, so many evil and terrible things.  And you know, but Darwin is this great and wonderful guy, and he never used that phrase, “survival of the fittest.”

It’s just simply not true.  Darwin eventually borrowed the term “survival of the fittest” and started putting it in all his own work and all of the rest.  It’s just a complete mish-mash of gobbledygook and mythology that the Left has created in order to demonize what was basically the American understanding of the role of government, of limited government, free markets, free minds, the individual pursuit of happiness.

And the term was essentially invented by defenders or practitioners of reform Darwinism, which was essentially eugenics, which wanted to interfere in the warp and woof of society, which wanted to cull out the unfit and all of the rest.  It was an invidious way to describe non-socialists.

And to this day, Obama and countless liberal politicians and intellectuals invoke social Darwinism, as if it is a philosophy that conservatives, first of all ever held, and that we really want to return to; but they also make it sound as if it ever really existed, which it didn’t.  It was always a made-up label that the Left used to distort and demonize the Right.

DRISCOLL: Jonah, we’re out of time for this segment, but we’ll be back tomorrow for Part Two. This is Ed Driscoll and you’ve been listening to Part One of our interview with Jonah Goldberg about his new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the  War of Ideas. Tune in tomorrow for Part Two, in which Jonah will discuss the etymology of words like “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 Jonah’s previous book, Liberal Fascism was received by the right, the left, and by historians. For PJ, I’m Ed Driscoll.

Update (5/8/12): Part II is now online here.

(Transcription by Penina Wolicki of eScribers.)

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