Review: The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas
"It's a cliché because it's true" goes a cliché. Yet as National Review powerhouse and American Enterprise Institute fellow Jonah Goldberg demonstrates in his new book The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, many of the oft-repeated phrases and dicta utilized by the left are grounded in myth or complete falsehood, which is very appropriate given how the left uses them.
For instance, did you know that Marie Antoinette never said, "Let them eat cake"? That Voltaire never said, "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it"? That there is no record even of Edmund Burke having said, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"?
Goldberg's revelations are meant not to compile an interesting batch of factoids to drop at dinner parties, but to illustrate his thesis: the left employs clichés in order to cloak its ruthless, ruinous ideological aims in the language of easy-listening rhetoric, all the while denying that it is promoting a program attempting to establish a technocratic all-encompassing state in the name of the pragmatism of Progressivism: "The greater good"; "Social justice"; "Violence never solves anything"; "Power corrupts."
The term "social justice" is a prime example. Goldberg reviews the history of the phrase and shows that the concept originated in the Catholic Church to oppose the idea that the state should establish an increasing reach into the private affairs and commerce of citizens. Only in the last hundred years have Progressives captured the phrase and turned it on its head -- all the while, Goldberg persuasively argues, without acknowledging that the phrase is anything more than a happy notion that only ingrates would not embrace.
One of the most impressive things about Goldberg's book -- as was the case with his first book, Liberal Fascism -- is the amount of research he obviously conducted. It might be tempting to dismiss Goldberg as flippant for the pop culture references that characterize his writing in the book and in columns. Goldberg is second only to Mark Steyn in his ability to amuse readers with allusions to popular culture whilst considering deadly serious issues and depressing social trends.
But one could spend the better part of a decade attempting to digest all of the sources and writings upon which Goldberg relied to write this book. He is particularly familiar with interpreting and explaining the Progressive philosophy, especially the thinking of Progressive fathers such as Herbert Croly, John Dewey, and Woodrow Wilson. The instance of Goldberg recounting Wilson's repeated shouting of "Progress!" is eerily reminiscent of the latter-day Progressive chant "Forward!" As George Orwell wrote, such is the refrain of "the stream-lined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets."
In its own ham-fisted manner, The New York Times went a long way to make Goldberg's point -- that the left's understood slogan is "Conservatives dumb, Progressives smartest" -- by trotting out a living cliché called Joe Klein to review the book. You may know Klein by his nom de plume, Anonymous. Klein patronizes Goldberg by informing the erudite Times readers that Jonah "read around a bit" to back up the arguments in the book. There is no need to read Klein's review further after such a comment. Goldberg has complete command of the philosophers of the right and left (especially the writings of Progressives) and did not wildly pluck quotes from hither and yon in an attempt to shoehorn them into preconceived conclusions. That may be the first instruction in the style guide at Time magazine or the Times. But Goldberg did the work. To use a timeworn journalistic cliché, Goldberg "got his hands dirty," which seems to be a lost concept in contemporary journalism. In doing so, to employ another cliché, Goldberg makes it look easy.
Goldberg's arguments and unanswerable parade of facts to back up assertions show that leftists are as adroit at cheating in their attempts to advance their agenda as they are at flouting the rule of law. In essence, Goldberg is issuing a warning that, following the last hundred years of Progressivism and the last three and a half years of Barack Obama, should be obvious but has yet to sink in for too many: leftists fly under false colors, and it is best to be dubious of their claims of magnanimity, for such claims amount to nothing more than a thin veil over a rabid desire for naked power.
Matthew May is the author of the book Restoration. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.