A Review of Jonah Goldberg’s ‘The Tyranny of Clichés’

By Jacqueline Otto

Always one for a good rant, Greg Gutfeld on Fox News’ late afternoon show The Five has recently had a series of “banned words.” He argues that certain words and phrases such as “narrative” and “slippery slope” have been over used and therefore shouldn’t be used until people learn what they actually mean. It’s almost as if Gutfeld has been reading from a copy of Jonah Goldberg’s new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.

This is a book about Goldberg’s pet peeves. It is about all of the debates, arguments and lectures for which he laboriously prepared and was countered with a lack-luster cop-out of a response. It is about those times that he dumbfoundedly stared as someone, and in his best Inigo Montoya voice said, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” In his own introduction to the book Goldberg says, “there’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument” and he was going to stand for it no longer.

Certain words and phrases have so much power in our political discussion that invoking one acts as a conversation-stopper. This is the tyranny that Goldberg argues serves no justice to the advancement of ideas.

In most cases, these clichés are relied upon as crutches for those too ignorant to realize that they don’t actually have an argument. What really vexed Goldberg is that liberals have a way of using them intentionally.

Have you ever wondered what liberals really mean when they said things such as “well you are just an ideologue…” as if they are not? Or they appeal to “social justice” as if we should all intuitively understand what that means. What about people who instinctively say that conservative policies hurt the middle class? Or they say that Republicans are all just “social Darwinists” who deny “science”?

While Goldberg is certainly not the first conservative pundit to point out the brevity and inadequacy of these kinds of liberal arguments, his book takes painstaking efforts to actually work through every tacky cliché. While these represent his personal pet peeves, they certainly ring true for most readers.

What I most enjoyed about this book, is the subtle subplot he builds, slowly attacking the pseudo-moral-superiority that liberals enjoy in their ephemeral insipidity. Liberals generally have little use for religion in public life, hence the “separation of church and state” cliché. But when they need moral-sounding arguments for their pet projects they trot out all manner of sentiments and scriptures. We ought to care for the poor, therefore we obviously need this agency, and so on. “I’m unaware of any passages in the Hebrew or Christian bibles,” Goldberg points out, “where God says that doing good to others means supporting bloated, inefficient, and often counterproductive government programs.”

In discussing how liberals dismiss capitalism as pure evil, he points out that capitalism actually had a founding in very moral sentiments.

“[Adam] Smith believed that the free market and, more broadly, the free society, directs men’s vanity towards its proper objects, the virtues of prudence, restraint, industry, frugality, sobriety, honesty, civility, and reliability. Freedom teaches the virtue of ‘self-command’ which, he writes, ‘is not only itself a great virtue, but from it all the other virtues seem to derive their principal luster.’ And this is the great and tragic irony. The hurly-burly of America’s cultural politics, while important, even vital, can never unravel the implicit social contract of capitalism which says that if you follow the virtues Adam Smith laid out, you will do just fine. If you teach those values to your kids, they will do better than you.”

This is a discussion often omitted from the debates. Liberals wholly believe in their moral superiority because of their cliché of “social justice.”

They seek justice from the government and from corporations, but as they correctly point out, time and time again, neither the government nor corporations are people. Morality must come from individuals. As a system, free markets and limited government treats individuals with more dignity, provides them with more opportunity, and deputizes them to be the moral agents in their community. The moral superiority of freedom is that it is balanced with the increased moral responsibility of individuals.

Liberals, most recently seen occupying Wall Street, expend great energy condemning caricatures of Gordon Gekko. In reality they are just a mob. And as Goldberg points out, “That is not the American political tradition or creed. In America the hero is not the mob. It is the man – or woman- who stands up to the mob…”

Ultimately though, the liberals are demonstrating not only their improper knowledge of freedom and free markets, but their misconstruction of the very morality to which their clichés appeal.

Political analyst Yuval Levin, one of Goldberg’s multitude of sources for the book, once said:

Properly understood, the case for capitalism is not a case for license or for laissez faire… It is a case for the moderate virtues, encouraged by market pressures but finally drawn from deeper wells–from the wisdom of tradition, the love of the family, and the divine and mysterious tug of a love beyond love, all of which must in turn be supported, encouraged, and strengthened.

Well-being and prosperity encompass more than material goods. They concern the condition of our character. Freedom is a well-spring of virtue for the well-being of our souls. Its product is the prosperity of our hearts.

This argument requires a fully-developed vocabulary to discuss, a well-honed sense of logic to debate, and a soften heart to understand. It cannot be captured nor countered by mere clichés. And that we cannot have the argument, because liberals lack or refuse to employ the capacity, is what Goldberg calls the tyranny.

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