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The Cliches of Tyranny

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?

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)

You are, of course, free to disagree with that proposition, and I shall defend to the death your right to do so. But there’s nothing quite like watching true ideologues in action when they think no one’s watching. In my younger and more vulnerable years as a student of literature, I encountered the school of "literary criticism” known as deconstruction. In theory, to engage in deconstruction was to whittle away at an author’s language to “expose” his assumptions, contradictions, and biases. In practice it was somewhat less impressive, and involved the reduction of centuries’ worth of literature to the interests of race, class, and gender. What struck me as most disagreeable was not the monism, ahistoricism, or juvenile self-righteousness of the whole enterprise; rather, I was disturbed mainly by the resistance to reciprocity.

Try deconstruction on a progressive’s own writing and watch him (excuse me: him/her) squirm and holler and bark. Eager to disrobe others, the progressive is allergic to descriptions of his own dirty tactics.

Thus reminiscing, I began the following train of thought: I can only imagine how hard it must be for liberals to review a book like this. Normally, the process of reviewing a book one doesn't like is a simple matter of accusing the writer, either overtly or by innuendo, of racism, sexism, genocidal militarism, hatred of the poor, etc. But how to proceed when it is those very methods—those cliches—and the unveiling of their vulgarity and crudeness that is the subject of the book itself?

Proceed as normal, of course. When the book was first released, we saw a preening Englishman named Piers Morgan (who by dint of some peculiar accident of the universe has his own television show) “interview" Goldberg and manage to instantiate perfectly the thesis of the book, which he had not read. (Morgan’s predecessor in this stupidity was Cenk Uygur, who admitted to not having read Liberal Fascism, Goldberg’s last book, before attempting to hector the author in his own “interview.”) Rather than ask questions or allow Goldberg to explain anything, he pounced with a series of slogans, evasions, and non sequiturs. Goldberg later lamented his l'esprit de l'escalier by not pointing this irony out to Morgan, but those of us who had read the book--this does not include Morgan--knew we were witnessing a few moments of delicious folly.

Goldberg manages a high-brow/low-brow synthesis quite effectively (if you like that sort of thing): we learn through accidental juxtaposition—Monty Python and Robert Nisbet, Animal House and Lord Acton—that Goldberg values bathos but not at the expense of thoughtfulness. For instance, he is capable of lines such as the following: “Dogmas are ideals broken in by time and consecrated by experience.” That’s a pretty good epigram. But then there’s this purple muck that precedes it: “On a much broader landscape, the forces of Enlightenment set about to pry off the dead hand of the past so that mankind could escape the clutches of history and take flight on the wings of their ideals.” In the words of Margaret Thatcher: No! No! No!

Goldberg’s metaphors may sometimes be mixed, but his message is not. He is at his best when, perhaps inadvertently, he undermines his own self-image as a couch-potato everyman and shows that he is a well read and effective polemicist. This book is not a Harvard dissertation, so it ought not to be read as such—though I’m sure you can find a few clownish reviewers who criticize it for not being “scholarly.” Those who make such a point have missed the larger one entirely. The worst cliches form when human reason and language lose their vitality and can neither support new ideas nor question old ones. This is perhaps a reason why cliches served 20th century totalitarianism so well. When you hear the same lies over and over, even the most skeptical person loses the ability to fight them. In this sense, Goldberg demonstrates not only how tyrannical cliches can be, but how cliched tyranny has become. It takes vigor and humor to revive our intellectual faculties and to save our language from dying--to use another banality--not with a bang but with a whimper.