Jonah Goldberg: Obama, Tom Friedman among America’s top cliché artists
Though he can’t exactly pinpoint who the cliché king of our modern politics is, conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg suggests President Barack Obama and his sometimes golfing buddy, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, are certainly among the top contenders.
“I don’t know who is king, but the most important one is probably Obama given that he exemplifies the core argument of my book,” Goldberg, author of the recently released book “Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas,” told The Daily Caller.
“He insists that he’s a pragmatist who only cares about ‘what works.’ I think that’s absurd. He’s the most ideologically-committed president of our lifetimes. I’d have a lot more respect for him if he’d admit it.”
As for Friedman, Goldberg said he is remarkably talented at “coin[ing] brand new phrases that quick-dry into desiccated clichés right before your eyes.”
In his book, Goldberg contends that liberals use clichés to avoid defending their positions on ideological grounds. But he readily admits that conservatives aren’t entirely free of guilt on the cliché front.
“Speaking in clichés is a universal human tendency,” Goldberg explained.
“And Republicans are every bit as guilty as Democrats in using buzz phrases, bumper stickers, and the like. Indeed, conservatives use a great many of the clichés I discuss in my book — and part of the point of this book is to educate conservatives on how they’re buying into progressive formulations when they use terms like ‘the right side of history,’ ‘hindsight is 20/20,’ ‘better ten guilty men,’ and even ‘Social Justice’ and ‘Social Darwinism.'”
Goldberg said President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a particularly irksome Republican cliché.
“And there are some terms that are almost exclusively conservative and ill-advised,” said Goldberg. “For example, I hated Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism.’ I’m an Old Testament kind of guy — I like conservatism with more smiting and wrath.”
Read below TheDC’s full interview with Goldberg about liberal clichés, his book and how he got Vince Vaughn to blurb it:
Why did you write the book?
Hey, a man’s gotta eat.
More seriously, it’s always hard to boil these things down to a single motivation. Part of it was an abiding frustration with the way conservative (and libertarian) positions are always cast as “ideological” — never mind “extreme,” “beyond the pale,” “fringe,” and “radical” — while liberal positions are routinely treated as “realistic,” “moderate,” and “centrist.”
One of the great strengths of conservatism (and libertarianism – but I will stop saying “and libertarianism” now for brevity’s sake), is that we accept that we have an ideological framework. It doesn’t make us less empirical or realistic; it does help us make sense of the world and understand what our biases are. One of our great disadvantages is that we admit our biases openly and that is used against us. I’ve never really understood this. In almost every other sphere of life, we’re told that really understanding our prejudices and preferences is a path to greater clarity and comprehension. But when it comes to ideology, understanding that you have one is used as proof of closed-mindedness.
Conversely, one of the great strengths of liberalism is that it has found a way to sidestep having to defend its positions on ideological grounds. (Yes, this is a sweeping generalization; there are of course exceptions to it.) In other words, and to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama himself, liberals tend to “believe their own bullshit.” The great disadvantage of this is that they fail to appreciate how so many of their ideas are riddled with category errors, groupthink, and intellectual stolen bases.
For reasons that I put in historical context in the book, liberals refuse to admit they have an ideology. They claim they are slaves to reasons, facts, science, etc. Their only motivation other than “what works” is the basic human decency and goodness. In short, they are dogmatically closed-minded about their own ideological commitments. Those commitments — many of them honorable and defensible — instead manifest themselves in clichés, intended to close off debate and push policies in directions that liberals think are simply “pragmatic” but are in fact profoundly ideological.
Why are clichés so dangerous? To paraphrase Mario Cuomo, what’s wrong with campaigning in clichés and governing in prose?
Well, for lots of reasons. While I get your meaning, the paraphrase of Cuomo doesn’t work perfectly. He said we campaign in poetry and govern in prose. I don’t mind poetry, per se. If you want to inspire people with poetry, I think that’s great. Lincoln did that. Reagan did that. And, I will concede, Obama did that in 2008 (even if I found much of his messianic hoo-hah more creepy than inspiring). The clichés I have in mind aren’t necessarily poetic. Indeed, for good poems to be good they should be free of cliché, right?
My problem with clichés is that they masquerade as time-honored truths when they are in fact deeply ideological assertions. In a very basic sense, they’re simply lies wearing the uniform of truth (or truism). It seems to me the dangers implicit in this should be fairly obvious.
Let’s go through some of these clichés you write about: Why isn’t dissent the highest form of patriotism?
My National Review colleague John O’Sullivan has a great formulation: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Therefore treason is truly the highest form of patriotism.” That’s transparent nonsense.
Look, dissent can be patriotic (though I should think that giving your life for your country would still outrank it in the hierarchy of patriotic acts). But dissent can also be very unpatriotic. It all depends on what you are dissenting from. If the consensus is patriotic, than dissenting from it probably isn’t. We’ve trained generations of college kids to honestly believe that dissent in and of itself is noble and patriotic. But I think anybody who has ever tried to get something done recognizes that dissent for its own sake isn’t the highest form of patriotism. It’s one of the highest forms of asininity.
I think it’s telling that the left insisted “dissent is the highest form of patriotism” when people were dissenting from George Bush’s agenda. But the moment people — e.g., the tea parties — started dissenting from Obama’s agenda, the left suddenly treated dissent as the lowest form of racism. The cliché is used primarily to selectively defend only certain kinds of dissent.
Why isn’t it better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished?
Well it depends. I have no objection to the principle represented in this axiom. Society should go the extra mile to protect the accused and work from the presumption of innocence. But no one really disagrees with that. In other words, my objection isn’t to the principle; it’s to people who think they’ve offered a novel insight or a useful argument. When O.J. Simpson was in the dock for two murders, people would vomit up the “better 10 guilty men” thing all of the time. (Funny how they’ve largely stopped in the case of George Zimmerman.)
But this assertion doesn’t speak to any of the relevant issues — i.e., whether O.J. Simpson would be the 11th guilty man or the one innocent man. Almost invariably, people say “better 10 guilty men should go free” when they want to sound like they’re offering a profound and dispositive argument; however, they’re just stating a principle no one disputes. The serious thinking comes into play when you have to figure out how to apply the principle to the real world.
And there are limits to the principle. If there weren’t, we would say “better everybody be let out of jail, lest one innocent man suffer.” That’s suicidal stupidity.
Lastly, it’s an ideological principle! We believe in protecting the rights of the accused for reasons having to do with our conception of a just society and the limits of government power. Those are purely ideological considerations. If you take the ideology out of the equation, and look at it purely in pragmatic or utilitarian terms, it’s not true. Far more social harm would be done if you let 10 rapists and murderers loose than if you locked up one innocent accountant. I’m not in favor of doing that, because I have an ideological commitment to justice and limited government.
What’s wrong with the term “social justice?” Who doesn’t like justice?
Social Justice is the quintessential tyrannical cliché because it presupposes a role for government that is profoundly and deeply statist. Social justice assumes that the government — i.e., actual flawed human beings — has the wisdom and the right to willy-nilly reallocate resources in the name of “fairness.” It is a writ to empower a kind of state-sanctioned theft.
Now, I am not in fact opposed to every and all forms of state assistance for the truly needy. But social justice works from the assumption that it is the State’s job to refashion society from the ground up to fit the egalitarian aesthetic criteria of the left. It is deeply bound up in socialist and other redistributionist dogmas.
Lastly, as Friedrich Hayek brilliantly demonstrated in “The Mirage of Social Justice,” Social Justice is utopian because it assumes the state has the knowledge, wisdom, and authority to decide how much money a man deserves to earn from his labor, and give it to somebody else who may not work as hard, or at all.
Where do you stand on “no taxation without representation?” Are there clichés that you think are actually true?
Sure. Though I think it clarifies things if you say that they are principles not clichés. “No taxation without representation” is a principle I hold and I am willing to defend it on principled — i.e., ideological — grounds.
Which is preferable: a tyranny of clichés or a tyranny of guns and forced labor camps?
Obviously my use of the word “tyranny” is largely figurative. I’m hoping to illuminate the tyrannical hold certain ideas have on our minds. Literal tyrannies are obviously worse. But it’s worth noting that there has never been a tyranny of guns and labor camps that didn’t try to justify itself through tyrannical clichés. One need only look at phrase like “Arbeit macht frei” to understand that.
What’s the most interesting thing you discovered researching the book?
My favorite chapter is probably the one on the Catholic Church. I learned a great deal from researching it. In particular I found the history of witch hunts and inquisitions to be fascinating. It’s hard to pick just one thing, but one example that comes to mind is the fact that the vast majority of witch hunts were carried out by secular authorities and the greatest organized effort to put an end to them was conducted by the Catholic Church. Also, the fact that, contrary to a lot of feminist propaganda, the witch hunts were not always necessarily a misogynist enterprise. In Iceland something like 90 percent of the witches were men.
Don’t conservatives use stupid clichés as well? What are the dumbest conservative ones?
Of course they — we — do. Speaking in clichés is a universal human tendency. And Republicans are every bit as guilty as Democrats of using buzz phrases, bumper stickers, and the like. Indeed, conservatives use a great many of the clichés I discuss in my book. And part of the point of this book is to educate conservatives about how they’re buying into progressive formulations when they use terms like “the right side of history,” “hindsight is 20/20,” “better ten guilty men,” and even “Social Justice” and “Social Darwinism.” If anything, conservatives invoke the “slippery slope” argument more than liberals and I hate that cliché.
And there are some terms that are almost exclusively conservative and ill-advised. For example, I hated Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.” I’m an Old Testament kind of guy — I like conservatism with more smiting and wrath.
Who’s the cliché king of our politics today and of all time?
I don’t know who is king, but the most important one is probably Obama given that he exemplifies the core argument of my book. He insists that he’s a pragmatist who only cares about “what works.” I think that’s absurd. He’s the most ideologically committed president of our lifetimes. I’d have a lot more respect for him if he’d admit it.
I should also give an honorable mention to Tom Friedman. He does something remarkable: He repeatedly coins brand new phrases that quick-dry into desiccated clichés right before your eyes.
Finally, how did you get Vince Vaughn to blurb your book? Is he a buddy?
Buddies is strong. He’s a friend. He’s a very interesting guy, extremely intellectually curious and shockingly normal — for a guy who is so money.
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