Jonah Goldberg, of Liberal Fascism fame, has a new book out entitled The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. I love reading Goldberg, because when he is wrong, which is very often, it is quite funny. And when he is right, it is usually not in the way he thinks he is right, but very important nonetheless. So, I really will have to read this book of his at some point.
In the meantime, here are some excerpts from an NPR interview with him. [Goldberg’s words in red]:
“What you have often in American political discourse are appeals to clichés 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.’ “
What becomes rapidly apparent from listening to Goldberg is that he is not, in fact, against cliches. He is only against liberal cliches. Well, to paraphrase Nietzsche: “he who fights clichés should take care that he does not himself become a cliché”. And indeed:
On the response that conservatives also have their own clichés
“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.”
It might have been good to notice that before you wrote the book. So, he certainly is willing to allow as how conservatives also have clichés. But whatever, it’s okay, because everyone does. But liberals, when they do it, do it wrong and perniciously. Got it?
But when an actual instance of something thought to be a conservative cliché is raised, Goldberg is skeptical of its status as “cliché”:
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 cliché 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.”
Yeah, but the point is, when you just start quoting that line of Reagan’s all the time when talking about the government, then it becomes a cliché. That’s how clichés work, Goldberg. Remember; every cliché was an original thought once.
At bottom, though, his point is correct. Clichés in politics are a problem, like I wrote about in this post. As I see it, both Democrats and Republicans use clichés all the time, and it does, as Goldberg says, hinder productive argument.
But as far as I can tell, without having read the thing yet, Goldberg’s book is just a compilation of liberal clichés. I haven’t heard anything to suggest he offers a solution to our cliché-filled politics. Which is fine, but how would one go about fixing it?
George Lucas once said “Don’t avoid the clichés–they are clichés because they work!” And he proved it, too, by making billions of dollars off of a movie franchise built around some of the oldest clichés of all. It works the same with political clichés.
Like I said in the other post, people learn their communication through imitation. Why should political communication be immune from this? Think about the effort involved in figuring out how to not think in political clichés: you’d have to be willing to ignore all the slogans and ideas told to you by your friends, family, colleagues, political analysts, writers and the politicians themselves. The you would have to try to reevaluate everything about politics. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. You might just become Alex Jones.
Back to what Lucas said: “clichés work”. They sure do. It’s a cliché to say the Republicans are defenders of the super-rich, and indeed, that is oversimplifying things greatly, but even so it’s still a pretty good synopsis that gives you a decent idea of their behavior. It’s not the whole story, but it’s part of it, and if you go around operating on that assumption, it will be awhile before you notice anything that makes you question it.
It goes back to what I’ve talked about before lots of times on this blog: people are too busy to get really involved in politics beyond following the leaders of their parties. And it’s not because people are lazy or stupid; it’s because really thoroughly understanding politics is a full-time job.