I should probably start off by saying that as far as I know Jonah Goldberg has a fine and average sized (or bigger!) penis, and that to my knowledge he has never advocated any harm to your children. And for all I know he’s a vegetarian. But in this NPR interview (h/t Burt), he calls for a more openly argumentative society, and says that’s why he followed a book with the needlessly inflammatory title Liberal Fascism:The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning with one that had the needlessly inflammatory title The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. So I hope, on the extremely small chance he should he ever read this, he knows I have his back with this post’s title.
Goldberg’s latest tome is a cry for liberals to stop using heart-string plucking cliches in place of well thought out, rational arguments when debating serious policy issues. As anyone who can recall when I was still a guest poster here knows, it’s a battle cry with which I am only too happy to join in chorus. Unfortunately, the new book is a hard one to get in a froth over either for or against, if only because I suspect he doesn’t take its thesis all that seriously himself. The NPR interview gives this away, I think. When the interviewer concedes that liberals often use cliches over rational arguments but points out that conservatives do this as well, he laughs and agrees, saying basically, “yeah, but I wanted to write about liberals doing it.” Also, when he talks about where he most runs into this phenomenon, he cites his visits to college campuses and interactions with students. I’m hoping this is just him tossing a little complimentary anti-college red meat to the Red State crowd, because otherwise it’s a little sad. Even if Goldberg is not my cup of tea policy wise, he is both an excellent writer and an obviously intelligent guy. So hearing war stories of him intellectually destroying a bunch of 18 year olds freshly away from living with Mom and Dad strikes me as similar to me thumping my chest after dominating my youngest son when we play one-on-one hoops.
So I get the impression that when Goldberg wrote this book, it was less a “powerful story that needed to be told,” and more of an “I’ve thought of a new way I can package my blog posts and make a butt-load of money.” If so, my hat’s off to him. The only thing that keeps me from repackaging my blog posts into million dollar royalty checks is that tricky bitch, The Marketplace. And as I said I do agree with the book’s general thesis, if not the narrow scope of it. Tom, mensch that he is, listed Goldberg’s Top 5 example’s of liberal cliches that may or may not be true, but are just accepted as an argument stopper in and of themselves. They are:
1. Diversity is Strength
2. Violence Never Solved Anything
3. The Living Constitution
4. Social Darwinism
5. Better to let 10 Guilty Men Go Free…
And to whatever degree these are used as arguments rather than points to argue about, I agree with Goldberg. Violence obviously solves lots of things, like… (wait for it)… Hitler! Or British rule over the American colonies. Or genocidal tin-pot dictators. Mind you, it has also historically been used to solve pesky issues like blacks wanting to vote, women back talking to their husbands and Treyvon Martin’s perpetual school discipline issues, so Goldberg is obviously correct that we should do our best to look both morally and rationally on a case by case basis where we are willing to accept destructive forces. The whole Social Darwinism meme was eye-rolling enough that even I wrote about it. And the blanket statement “Diversity is Strength” is as vapid and meaningless as “Any Attempt to Diversify Anything is Political Correctness.”
Unfortunately, the inclusion of only liberal transgressions – with the presumption that this is a singularly liberal problem – adds to the white noise rather than dampening it. Also, I would argue, it keeps the right in its current pattern of “gear everything toward media sales and rating over governance” that is keeping it from being the meaningful voice of fiscal conservatism this country really needs these days. And so in the spirit that Goldberg himself evokes (as well as my constant need to come up with blog post ideas), let me present – in no particular order – my Top 5 Cliches Used By the Right In Their War On Ideas:
1. Gay People Marrying Destroys the Sanctity of My Own Marriage: I think of this as the perfect example of an emotional “argument” for people that are anti-gay that doesn’t actually mean anything in any kind of rational sense. Gay marriage has zero effect on my own (or anyone’s) straight marriage, and yet this meme is passionately embraced by the right as a reason so powerful as to negate the need to actually debate same-sex marriage. It’s the kind of focus-group tested statement that allows people to be bigoted while simultaneously playing the victim card that the right so excels at these days. Also, it’s often championed by public figures that are divorced or caught in scandals outside their marriage bed; the lack of concern about this among its supporters has always seemed a tell-tale sign of its inherent lack of seriousness.
2. Terrorists Attack Us Because They Hate Our Freedom: … and also, I suspect, because they hate baby seals, the syndication of Family Circus, and those posters with the kitten clinging to a branch that says “Hang In There, Baby!” There are a actually a lot of reasons terrorists might hate us: we occupy and/or keep forces in other countries, our corporations will take their natural resources in a way that makes us richer than them, and we do have a history of being willing to prop up corrupt and evil governments if it suits our economic and security needs. And I will be the first to say that it may well be that in some (or many) of those circumstances it is best that we do so. It’s the kind of difficult argument that, as Goldberg might say, is well worth having: what are we really willing to do to be the country we want to be? Of all the potential foreign policy debates we might choose to have, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more important one. But the “They Hate Our Freedom” line isn’t meant to be a defendable argument; it’s meant to shut arguments down before they start.
3. Government Regulation is Bad: It certainly can be, and it often is. But it can (and often does) also protect us from corporate malfeasance in all kinds of forms. As I’ve noted here before, I work in risk management that among other things deals with employee safety issues. And one of the things we recognize is that around the time I was born the rule of thumb when building a skyscraper was if you could limit yourself to one death or catastrophic injury per story, you were doing pretty good. Such tragedies are almost unheard of these days, and the reason is entirely based upon governmental regulations and a mandatory workers comp system that made it less expensive for employers to be safe than to treat workers as cheap and disposable units. Does this mean all safety regulation is good? No, a lot of it is a joke. So arguing the merits of any particular piece of regulation is a good thing. But using the knee jerk argument “government regulation is bad” is lazy.
4. “Socialist:” Think of this as the counterpoint to Goldberg’s Social Darwinism cliche. As I have noted before, either the right has to use a definition of “socialist” so broad (e.g.: someone that uses the government to subsidize costs) that the whole of the GOP falls under its rubric, or it’s just an inflammatory piece of propaganda used to avoid actual debate.
5. Government Can’t Do Anything Right: There is a tremendous amount that government does very poorly, and I think there are a variety of reasons for this. One of those reasons is that government doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have the ability to service only those that are most profitable, the way my own business can. And for some services, this is probably a good thing. The military, for example, does not cut costs by only choosing to defend only those parts of the country that are either easily defendable or that provide the most tax revenue. Also, the size of it may (or may not) necessitate a level of bureaucracy that is incredibly inefficient. (Though, as I noted here, the idea that large private companies escape this same fate is largely a myth.) But we do have an infrastructure, and parks, and libraries, and live our lives amazingly (historically speaking) unafraid of military invasion from others who might covet our natural resources. Earlier this year a lot of conservatives including those at NRO pointed to a study that said after decade of New Deal liberalism, poverty didn’t really exist in America any longer and so safety nets were no longer necessary. I didn’t really agree with this argument, but those that did turned a pretty purposeful blind eye to the obvious conclusion of the argument they were citing: Roosevelt and his ideological progeny had created a system that eliminated poverty while simultaneously building one of the greatest economic forces the world has ever known. Again, I did not agree with the argument put forth by the right, but I recognized that if it were true it was the best argument for government intervention I had ever seen.
Honorable Mention: Thinking Simply Saying the Acronym “PC” Out Loud Is An Actual Argument*
So there are my five cliches for the right. I might quibble with Goldberg’s choices for the left, but not because I think he’s wrong; there are just a few I find more eye-rolling than his specific choices. (Hello, We’re Doing It For the Children!) What would be amazingly, astoundingly awesome is if Goldberg or any of his bloggy brethren passed these along (or cited some of their own) to make an actual attempt to change and improve the way we talk about public policy in this country. To really try to discard tired cliches that keep us from thinking, and instead engage in real and meaningful arguments about the people we want to be as we push farther into the 21st century.
But I’m not holding my breath.
*(Note: I am purposefully not including the War on Christmas, despite it’s being the very worst offender on either side, because it’s such an awesomely entertaining piece of crap meme I’m genuinely going to miss it when it finally peters out.)