The tryanny of cliches (Jonah Goldberg)

The tyranny of clichés: How liberals cheat in the war of ideas, Jonah Goldberg, Sentinel, 2013.

This is a thoughtful, clever and thoroughly researched book, with one overarching theme: Many expressions that have been employed by liberals (Goldberg is a noted conservative, who naturally focuses on the fallacies of the other side) over the years sound reasonable, but dig down and you will discover intellectual dishonesty at their core.

Perhaps the sentiment expressed is false, reflecting only an effort to claim moral superiority. Example: “I do not agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Really, so the speaker is prepared to take a bullet for you? Why? And by the way, Voltaire never actually said this – let alone believing it.

Or the proposition is intended to work like a one-way ratchet. Thus the “No Labels” movement – founded on the premise that people need to put their political labels aside in order to get things done – primarily serves as a call for conservatives to intellectually disarm. What the “no labelers” really want, according to Goldberg, is that “you must unilaterally put aside all of your philosophical and principled objections and get with
their program.” Ditto liberals who accuse conservatives of being ideological, but fancy their own thinking to be purely practical.

Or the statement is often false. Take the idea that liberals and conservatives adopt extreme positions, so the truth is necessarily in the middle. Surely this is sometimes true, but in other cases the middle-of-the-road answer would be nonsense. “If I say we need one hundred feet of bridge to cross a one-hundred-foot chasm that makes me an extremist. Somebody else says we don’t need to build a bridge at all because we don’t need to cross the chasm in the first place. That makes him an extremist. The third guy is the centrist because he insists that we compromise by building a fifty-foot bridge that ends in the middle of the air?” Either of the extremists may be right, further discussion required, but the centrist “has no idea what to do and doesn’t want to bother with figuring it out.”

Inevitably, the author’s logic gets repetitive at times. However, the chapter headings should be useful in locating the particular clichés that you would like to home in on. Ideology – pragmatism – no labels – dogma – separation of church and state – power corrupts – diversity – etc. Happy reading, and good luck in your next political argument!

Amazon review posted
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