Author Interviews
3:23 am
Wed May 2, 2012

Do Liberals Live Under A 'Tyranny Of Cliches'?

Originally published on Wed May 2, 2012 7:03 am

Conservative critic Jonah Goldberg says he's inspired to write when he gets annoyed. "Aggravation is a muse," he says. And after speaking on a number of college campuses, he grew aggravated enough to write a book. It's called The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.

"One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids in particular are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. They'll say, you know, 'Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement,' when I'm talking about tax cuts or something. ... Of course it's an ideological statement. You know I'm a conservative; I was asked to come here and be a conservative," Goldberg says.

Goldberg, a columnist and editor-at-large for National Review Online, argues that ideology is not something to be shunned — in fact, it's an inevitable part of political debate. "We are a species that must try to impose and find systems — systems of thought, ways of organizing and categorizing reality," he says.

But in The Tyranny of Cliches, Goldberg argues that people he categorizes as "liberal" talk in ways that shut down any ideological debate.

Goldberg joins Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep to talk about the book.


Interview Highlights

On the way cliches are used in place of arguments

"What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to cliches that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument. I don't care that liberals have an ideology. I want them to have an ideology. I want to have a contest of ideas. What bothers me is when they come in and they say, 'Oh, you guys are the crazy ideologues with your labels and all of the rest, and we're just pragmatists who care about sound science and the numbers and the facts' and all that.' "

On his experience speaking on college campuses

"You'll get these kids who will stand up in an audience and say, 'Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.' You know, and the professors nod, they're so proud of this kid, and the administrators say, 'Oh, he's gonna be a statesman someday.' And, first of all, it's just a lie – this kid's not going to take a bullet for me. And second of all, it's completely not responsive. All it is, is sort of getting bravery on the cheap, claiming to be valiantly defending my right to free speech."

On the saying, "Better 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail"

"As a principle, I have no problem with it. The principle behind it is society should err on the side of rights of the accused. Right? We should be careful not to convict innocent men. As a matter of utilitarianism, which I don't support ... you could make a very good argument that society would be much worse off if you let 10 rapists and murderers free rather than put one poor, wrongly accused accountant in prison. And so, my only point on that is that it should open up an argument — it should not sort of settle one because nobody disagrees with it."

On the charge of "social Darwinism"

"President Obama recently talked about 'social Darwinism.' ... He's against it. But here's the funny thing: Nobody is for it. There was no intellectual movement in American history called 'social Darwinism.' The people who were supposedly the leaders of the social Darwinist movement never embraced something called social Darwinism. It didn't exist. But it is one of these sort of mythologies about America and its intellectual history that the right embraced this thing called social Darwinism when it never did."

On the response that conservatives also have their own cliches

"Yeah, and some of these things I absolutely agree. I think that there is something endemic — one of the reasons why some of these cliches appeal, why they have power, why they move men, is because they appeal to the hard-wiring in our human nature. We're all built from the crooked timber of humanity; we all want to live in groups; we all want to live in tribes; we all want to, you know, band together and do good things."

On political calls for unity

"This is one of the cliches that Obama invokes all the time, this idea of unity. That somehow ... if we could all act like a military unit, like the one that took out bin Laden, or if we were all just unified — if we all tried our hardest and made this the best yearbook ever! — that somehow this would be a much better country. Well, that's not what this country is about. Our country, if you read the Federalist Papers, is about disagreement. It's about pitting faction against faction, divided government, checks and balances. The hero in the American political tradition is the man who stands up to the mob — not the mob itself."

On the saying, "Government is the problem"

"No, I'm not against having a government. I don't know if that qualifies as the kind of cliche that I am talking about ... The mainstream media never talks as if government is the problem — you never hear that repeated over and over again. Even on Fox, to a certain extent, you won't hear that sort of thing. It's a catchphrase, to be sure, and it's a glib catchphrase that oversimplifies things, but the context in which I was talking about it was that Ronald Reagan had said, 'In the current situation, government is the problem, not the solution.' And that is the beginning of a serious argument."

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The columnist Jonah Goldberg says he's inspired to write when he gets annoyed. Aggravation, he says, is a muse. And when he did some speaking on college campuses, he grew aggravated enough to write an entire book.

JONAH GOLDBERG: One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids, in particular, are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. And they'll say, Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement - when I'm talking about tax cuts or something. And I'll say, well - first of all - of course it's an ideological statement. I'm, you know, I'm a conservative. I was asked to come here and be a conservative and it - ideologically conservative.

INSKEEP: And Goldberg, who writes for the magazine National Review, argues for more ideological debate.

GOLDBERG: We are a species that must try to impose and find systems - systems of thought, ways of organizing and categorizing reality.

INSKEEP: In "The Tyranny of Cliches," Goldberg writes of people he categorizes as liberal, whether they accept the label or not. He contends they talk in ways that avoid ideological debate.

GOLDBERG: What bothers me is the way in which cliches sort of sail right through. And so you'll get these kids who will stand up in an audience and say - you know - Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it - you know, and the professors nod. They're so proud of this kid. And the administrators say oh, he's going to be a statesman someday.

And first of all, it's just a lie. You know, this kid's not going to take a bullet for me. And second of all, it's completely not responsive. All it is, is him sort of getting bravery on the cheap, claiming to take - you know, to be valiantly defending my right to free speech.

INSKEEP: But you would rather he actually engage your arguments, and tell you where he thinks you're wrong or right or anything...

GOLDBERG: Yeah. I'd rather have an argument. And the same thing with so many of these things that you hear in the mainstream media all the time. And, you know, not just on the mainstream media, but all over the culture. You know, better 10 guilty men go free than one go to jail.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with that?

GOLDBERG: Well, as a principle, I have no problem with it - you know - as the principle behind it is, society should err on side of the rights of the accused. Right? We should be careful not to convict innocent men, as a matter of utilitarianism - right? - which I don't support. I'm...

INSKEEP: That's the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

GOLDBERG: The greatest good for the greatest number of people. You can make a very good argument that society would be much worse off if you let 10 rapists and murderers free rather than put one poor, wrongly accused accountant in prison. And so my only point on that is that it should open up an argument. It should not sort of settle one, because nobody disagrees with it.

INSKEEP: You seem to be arguing, basically, against the notion of phrases. They may be cliches. They may be very carefully chosen, politically poll-tested phrases that are designed to shut down debate rather than open it up.

GOLDBERG: That's right. I mean, it's not a book about bumper stickers and buzz phrases. Those are sort of endemic to politics, and I'm not sure you can ever completely get them out. I sort of want to go one layer beyond that, you know, things like social justice. Or President Obama recently talked about social Darwinism. And...

INSKEEP: He's against it.

GOLDBERG: He's against it. But here's the funny thing: Nobody is for it. There was no intellectual movement in American history called social Darwinism. The people who were supposedly the leaders of the social Darwinist movement never embraced something called social Darwinism. It didn't exist. But it is one of these sort of mythologies about America and its intellectual history, that the right embraced this thing called social Darwinism, when it never did so.

INSKEEP: Although I'm sure that there are people who can say well, if you guys can call President Obama a socialist, he's certainly able to call you a social Darwinist. There's probably more evidence for the latter than the former.

GOLDBERG: Well, to a certain extent, sure. And then you have to have an argument about it. I like arguments. I'm in the argument business. I'm in - you know, democracy is about disagreement, not about agreement. And this is sort of one of the cliches that Obama invokes all the time - is this idea of unity, that somehow - or the moral equivalent of war. If we could all act like a military unit, like the one that took out bin Laden, or if we were all just unified - and we all tried our hardest, and made this the best yearbook ever! - that somehow, this would be a much better country.

Well, that's not what this country is about. Our country, if you read the Federalist Papers, is about disagreement. It's about pitting faction against faction, divided government, checks and balances. The hero in American political tradition is the man who stands up to the mob - not the mob itself. And what you have, often, in American political discourse is these appeals to these cliches that steal territory, steal terrain unearned by argument. And all I want is an argument. I don't care that liberals have an ideology. I want them to have an ideology. I want to have a contest of ideas. What bothers me is when they come in and they say, oh, you guys are the crazy ideologues - with your labels and all of the rest - and we're just pragmatists who care about sound science and the numbers and the facts, and all the rest.

INSKEEP: Well, let's be fair. There are plenty of conservative labels that are applied on the rivals of conservatives. We could go back to the past administration: You're with us or against us; are you with America, or are you with the other guys?

There are plenty of rhetorical devices that are used to shut down debate on the other side, to make it - to not just appeal for unity, but to make it seem unpatriotic if you don't agree.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, no. And some of these things, I absolutely agree. I think that there is something endemic. One of the reasons why some of these cliches appeal - why they have power, why they move men - is because they appeal to the hard-wiring in our human nature; that we're all built from the crooked timber of humanity. We all want to live in groups. We all want to live in tribes. We all want to, you know, band together and do good things.

INSKEEP: It feels uncomfortable to not be agreeing with somebody. It can, anyway.

GOLDBERG: It can. But so what? You know, I mean, the nature of democracy is to hash out these arguments.

INSKEEP: So you're opposed to these catchphrases that substitute for arguments. You're opposing making too many assumptions. I want to ask about one that is commonly said on the right, though: Government is the problem - said again and again. In fact, you imagined - I think, in September of last year - a speech that you wished that President Obama would give, and the last sentence was: Government is the problem. Is that an oversimplification? I mean, you're not against having a government.

GOLDBERG: No, I'm not against having a government. Yeah, and it's - I don't know, actually, if that qualifies as the kind of cliche that I am talking about, because one of the - sort of things I try to unite all the cliches in the book around are ones that have this sort of progressive bias towards a certain understanding of the role of the state, and all of the rest. And I'm sure a liberal could come up with a whole bunch of conservative cliches that go the other way.

But you're never taught in schools - we don't teach anyone in public schools that government is the problem. We don't teach anyone in college that government is the problem - except maybe a handful of sort of unique, conservative schools. But mainstream media never talks as if government is the problem. You never hear that repeated over and over again - even on FOX, to a certain extent. And so it's a catchphrase, to be sure, and it's a glib catchphrase that oversimplifies things. But the context in which I was talking about it was - was that Ronald Reagan had said, in the current context - in the current situation, government is the problem, not the solution. And that is a - it is the beginning of a serious argument.

INSKEEP: Jonah Goldberg is the author of "The Tyranny of Cliches." Thanks for coming by.

GOLDBERG: Hey, it was great fun. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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