Jonah Goldberg has a new book out coming out tomorrow – the full title is The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas – which will be seen by many to be a sort of sequel to his previous (and very useful work Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. I say ‘sort of sequel’ because The Tyranny of Cliches is not exactly an expansion of Liberal Fascism as it is a book that references a lot of the same events and themes as its ‘predecessor,’ only from the angle of ‘how progressives manipulate language’ as opposed to ‘how progressives manipulate history.’ Capsule review: The Tyranny of Cliches does an excellent job in puncturing several progressive delusions about their ideology, including the one about how progressives don’t really have an ideology in the first place; you want to read it.
The central message of The Tyranny of Cliches is Progressives have a consistent ideology, which they then proceed to pretend is not an ideology at all, but instead mere ‘Pragmatism.’ The reason why this is important is because ideologies can be and are rigorously questioned and challenged as a matter of course; but if one can instead get people to treat an ideological position as merely being something that ‘everybody knows,’ then it theoretically becomes easier to get people to unquestionably endorse said position. Hence, ‘tyranny of cliche:’ cliches are of course self-contained and internally consistent thoughts* that most people in a culture understand and accept. Having progressive ideas and concepts slip into that shared consensus would go a long way towards having those ideas and concepts adopted and used.
Like most things about the progressive movement, however, getting people to fully buy into the Left’s cliches is (fortunately) easier said than done: it takes constant effort… and, more importantly, a lack of critical analysis. What Jonah did in The Tyranny of Cliches is to devote each chapter to some of the worst offending cliches out there. Jonah then proceeds to demonstrate the faulty reasoning, over-simplification, historical illiteracy, and general mendacity of each one. For example: “social justice.” Everybody hears it, everybody is supposed to be in favor of it, only the most hardcore radical Lefty groups dare to define it**. And… as it turns out: the concept originated in the Catholic Church as a reaction against the notion that the State could get to run roughshod over anything inside of society that could challenge it. It was only after progressives – first in the Church, then in America – got a hold of it that the phrase started to shift to being a justification of… using the State to run roughshod over anything inside of society that could challenge it. Jonah notes the right of progressives to do this, by the way: after all, if you believe in the need for a strong State to maintain and control a ‘proper’ society, then you believe in the need for tools to facilitate that maintenance and control.
And that’s the point. Social justice is not an nonideological concept that simply draws on ethics or morality or the overall need for goodness in society. No, it is a deeply ideological set of assumptions that most practitioners of social justice refuse to openly and sincerely acknowledge.
The book does this to a great number of cliches – including Social Darwinism, which Jonah (and I) find particularly annoying in the amount of nonsense written and spoken about it – and if I have a criticism of The Tyranny of Cliches, it’s in this: for the full effect of it, you probably do need to have read Liberal Fascism first. Although that’s more of a criticism of our current educational system, given that said system adamantly refuses to discuss various embarrassing details of the first half of the Twentieth Century***. It would have made Jonah’s life a bit easier if he could have assumed that the recounting of certain unsavory aspects of the historical Progressive movement were a standard part of the high school curriculum; but then again, if they had been then possibly Jonah wouldn’t have had to write his two books in the first place.
All in all, I liked the book: good information, good but not breezy presentation of said information, and it will be good ammunition for people tired of listening to the same regurgitated talking points at holiday dinners – which is, of course, a cliche all its own. I thought that I should end the review with one. Because, of course, cliches are themselves not bad; but they can be put to bad uses. Which is the point of The Tyranny of Cliches, really: and I suggest that you pick the book up.
Moe Lane (crosspost)
*I’m doing my best here to not bring up the emerging science of memetics, but it’s not that easy.
**Essentially: “Let’s put distribution of resources into the hands of people who subscribe to an economic/political ideology that failed at food production!”
***Specifically, that the greatest thing that Woodrow Wilson ever did for the cause of liberty and democracy in America was to have a debilitating stroke at precisely the right moment.