Friday, May 25, 2012

The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg

The Tyranny of Cliches by Jonah Goldberg is an easy, quick, eminently entertaining book. He makes the case that "Liberals cheat in the war of ideas" by using cliches and thereby avoiding any serious argument. A bumper sticker response becomes all that is required to shut down the opposition. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." "The centrist/independent voter" "Hindsight is 20/20." The first is easy to destroy. What if a man is JUST a terrorist and isn't fighting for anyone's freedom? What if a man is fighting for freedom but isn't a terrorist? Are they really as interchangeable as the cliche supposes? The highly valued centrist/independent voter is simply someone who hasn't put any thought into the issues. Besides, where is the assumed "golden" center in many of the issues that we face? Suppose the issue is gay marriage. One wants no gay marriage and the other wants to allow it. Is the holy, morally correct centrist position that we should allow gay marriage every other day, in half the states, in only every other application? "Hindsight is 20/20" usually implies that history has a trajectory and had we been able to see it at the time, we would have been on "the right side." But history has no "right side" or inevitable progression. Only progressives, by their very nature see history this way. The rest of us see history as a set of facts, none of which were inevitable. Goldberg goes on, chapter by chapter, demolishing cliche after cliche.

But first he clarifies a few things. Number 1 - Ideology exists. It's existence is neither good or bad. Everyone with a brain has an ideology, but will not cop to it. Ideology is simply a worldview, a lens through you see the world. We all have certain ideas that we believe to be true and therefore use these ideas to keep from rethinking an issue every time it presents itself. If I believe that life is sacred, I don't have to spend a lot of time rethinking my position on abortion or the death penalty for the most heinous acts of murder every time it comes up. Ideologies help us make sense of the world. Without one, we float in a random morass making decisions with no logical connections  resulting in contradictory outcomes. Generally when someone is criticized for being too ideological, the actual complaint is that the person does not agree with the critic's ideology. Better to admit you have an ideology, know what it is, and recognize that it informs your decisions. Honesty. Imagine that!

Now for the cliches:
1. No Labels. People say, "Don't label me." and "Let's move beyond labels to what works." The problem is that "labels" is another name for "words." Are we really to move beyond words and still be able to have a discussion. Of course we have to label things. If I don't label my spoon a "spoon" will you know what I mean when I point and grunt and make an "eating" pantomime? What people mean really mean is don't acknowledge the truth about my ideas by telling me the truth about my ideas. Let me continue doing what I want to do unimpeded by the knowledge that you know what I'm doing.

2. Dogma. Dogma is treated as an evil that gets in the way of true progress. People are said to cling to their beliefs because their dogma will not allow them to move beyond their stated position. But dogma is simply another word for ideology. We all have beliefs that we cling to... dogmatically! I believe the sun will rise tomorrow. I believe it dogmatically and you will not dissuade me from my belief. That's dogma. It's simply a way we categorize the world into ideas we absolutely believe to be true. If we didn't believe it to be true... we'd stop believing it... right? Without dogma, we sink into moral chaos. I believe that dogmatically, too.

3. Separation of Church and State. This cliche reverberates over and over by the liberal types when anything resembling Christianity makes itself known in the public square. A tiny cross on the seal of LA to commemorate the founding of the city by Spanish monks drives the ACLU to threaten lawsuits, but the HUGE central image of a Roman goddess is not even remarked upon. However, the left is given a pass when pushing for tax increases on the rich in the name Jesus! We are told repeatedly that the welfare state is simply doing what the Bible says, taking care of "the least of these." Social justice was and is a religious crusade begun by those desiring to bring the Kingdom of God to earth. Where's the ACLU? Clearly a national state-sponsored Church is a bad idea, but religion is inseparable from life and therefore politics.

4. Power Corrupts. Lord Acton's famous quote, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" works as a great cliche to throw at an enemy. No one uses it on themselves or their side. Even when the cliche manifests itself and someone is corrupted absolutely, the fact is overlooked by the supporters of said man. See: Ted Kennedy.

5. Diversity. This great cliche shows up in universities most often. Of course them mean diversity in only the narrowest sense. Diverse diversity would work to the detriment of the desired outcome. One hundred leftist professors is not diverse. One hundred leftist professors, each one exhibiting a different shade of skin color is a University President's dream. Elizabeth Warren alleges her 1/32 Cherokee background makes her viewpoint a valuable addition to Harvard's faculty. The fact that it's not true and therefore, she brought nothing more than a plain old female, leftist viewpoint is irrelevant. As long as everyone thought she represented diversity, the campus of Harvard was that much richer. Even so, actual diversity, actually seems to cause more problems than offer solution in many instances. It helps us avoid "groupthink" but is unthinkable in the NBA. Would the addition of a bunch of one-legged midgets really make professional basketball better?

6. Social Darwinism. This "go-to" cliche is magical, "an alchemist trick that transmogrifies the gold of freedom into the lead of Hitlerism." All things bad can be labeled "Social Darwinism." (Except by the people that eschew labels. They just point, grunt and pantomime Hitlerian salutes.) Since leftists worship at the altar of Darwin, dogmatically, anything negative flowing from Darwinism must be a bastardized version of Darwin, i.e. Social Darwinism. When progressives practice actual Social Darwinism and tried to sterilize the undesirables, this is swept under the carpet. When conservatives promote capitalism as the best way to lift people out of poverty, they are accused of pursuing "survival of the fittest" philosophies and not caring about the poor. Dogmatically.

7. Slippery Slope. All kinds of ideas can be demised simply because they will lead to a "slippery slope." The problem is that there is no such thing as a slippery slope. It is metaphorical. A genuine slippery slope would, in fact, be problematic. Once set upon it, slipping downward is inevitable and unavoidable. Yet real life does not work that way. We are humans, not greased up slides left out in the hot sun. We can, at any time, realize the consequences and reverse course. While it is true that some actions make other actions easier to pursue, nothing is always inevitable. Should I steal a few pencils from my employer, I may find it easier to steal a ream of paper the next time. But I will not inevitably steal the paper. I may find the original theft abhorrent and vow to change my thieving ways. Likewise, the cliche of the dominoes indicates an inevitability that simply does not exist. Even real dominoes, when lined up perfectly, do not fall from beginning to end in perfect order. People are not dominoes. We can and do change our opinion and direction. Every fight is worth having. Nothing is set upon the slippery slope never to be stopped.

8. Dissent. We all heard, ad naseum, during the George W. Bush years that, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."Except when it's not. Dissent of a liberal president is not only, not patriotic, it's downright unAmerican! Dissent in and of itself, has no value. It's value lies in what is being dissented from and why. The lone dissenter may be brave, "speaking truth to power," or he may be a kook. Tying dissent to patriotism is a non-sequitor in any case. Patriotism, a true love of country, could lead one to unquestioned agreement or honest, moral dissent.

9. Social Justice. Just as all things bad can be labeled Social Darwinism, all things good can be labeled Social Justice. No one really has a good definition of what social justice is, but it is unquestionably doing what someone considers good and necessary. Any relation to actual justice is purely coincidental. In fact, actual justice is by definition, NOT social justice. Actual justice would demand that a man keeps what he earns. Social justice demands that a man's earning be taken and given to a favored recipient, who by definition, did not earn the reward. Social justice started as a religious movement meant to point out that true justice may not always be defined by the law. The church wanted to remind people to live their lives justly and not simply legally. Today, social justice means goodness. Therefore to be against social justice is to be for... badness...? And who wants to defend badness?

10. Community. This is a euphemism for government. The community simply bond together to accomplish what we cannot accomplish on our own. It sounds nice and squishy and the left that worships feelings loves it, but the government is the government. Making the government a squishy, feely entity is an invitation to tyranny.

11. Ten Guilty Men. We've all heard, "Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished." This sounds nice and has a righteous ring to it, making us feel all moral and honorable inside. Unfortunately, it's another cliche used by the left to avoid argument. It is patently false that freeing ten guilty men is better than punishing one innocent man. One innocent man rotting in prison hurts no one. Ten guilty men can unleash a lot of damage on society. Well, it's not meant literally, but as more of a principle. Except is doesn't work in principle either. Innocent men will always be convicted as long as our judicial system relies on humans. If we are to ever punish the guilty, we must acknowledge that the occasional innocent will slip through. The "Ten Guilty Men" philosophy set an impossible standard and therefore makes all punishment out of the question.

12. Living Constitution. One of my favorite cliches to knock down. A "Living Constitution" is nothing more than a "Living Dictator." The reason our laws are written down and not subject to the whims of a living, breathing entity, is because the Founders rightly distrusted living, breathing entities. A Living Constitution is to a real Constitution what Social Justice is to real justice - it's exact opposite. However, the left only uses the idea of a living constitution when it suits their purposes. If the regular, Constitution-as-written supports their side, then the Constitution is no longer living, but set in stone, and they will argue the merits of the wisdom of the Founders to the death.

13. Let Them Eat Cake. Not only does Jonah Goldberg denounce these senseless cliches, he dives into the history and debunks many of the notions surrounding the origins of the cliche. "Let them eat cake" is a case in point. After tracing the history of the statement, it's actual meaning is, "If the common people cannot afford bread, why don't they eat the government mandated sweet cakes?" Of course, mandating that bakers give away food rarely works the way the government envisioned it. There was no cake to be given away. But the phrase is usually attributed to the mentality of the rich, callous, capitalists and their attitude toward the less-fortunate. (The term "less-fortunate" connotes that the rich are fortunate/lucky and the poor, not so much.) Yet if one is looking for the "Let them eat cake" mentality, it is to be found, not within boardrooms that must engage with and please their customers, but in the glitterati and celebrity culture usually found on the left. It is movie stars, not businessmen, that insulate themselves from the little people.

14. Violence Never Solves Anything. Except when it does. All in favor of laws, enforced by police, repeat after me, "Violence may solve something."

15. The Middle Class. This is a fun one. Ninety-eight percent of Americans believe they live squarely in the Middle Class. All politicians appeal to "The Middle Class" because it's an easy way to say "all of you." Actually, to speak of the middle class at all is a Marxian term. Marx divided people into 2 classes, but later revised it into several more. (The term "Middle Class" seems to imply there are at least 3 classes.) But we are not a class-driven society. The reason American all tend to see themselves as the middle class is because we all essentially believe we are all in the same class. That is to say, there are no classes, just Americans. However, in practice, the way the left uses the term "Middle Class" it usually means welfare for the middle class. We must retire this useless term.

16. Science. It's amazing how the invocation of "Science says..." can shut down an argument. Because Conservatives use science for facts and not the interpretation of those facts, they are considered anti-science. But it works both ways. When scientific knowledge points with certainty to the viability of a fetus, it is called an attack on the right to an abortion. When scientific facts seem to claim that stem-cells offer medical breakthroughs, we must go where the science point us. Liberals worship at the altar of science and are just as driven by faith as any radical religious fanatic. They offer "scientific" proof that the earth is warming due to man-made carbon emissions. If a little fudging of the facts is necessary, that's irrelevant. They have overwhelming faith in the global warming thesis and inconvenient facts will not detract them. In addition, liberals are "scientifically" able to prove that conservatives are mentally unstable. Everyone believes that conservative thinking is wrong. Therefore the conservatives who think those thoughts are definitionally irrational. That's not circular logic. That's science!

17. Youth. If the youth are for it, it must be fantastic. Except when they are too young. Then it's just silly. But at some magical point, the youth magically know better than their elders and we are to all stand in amazement at their wisdom. Bottom line: young people are ignorant. It is up to the older generation to pass on the values and wisdom gained through a lifetime of living in the real world. While their enthusiasm is infectious and necessary to continue this American experiment, the youth are not definitionally a force to be worshipped.

18. Ounce of Prevention. Often we will hear that prevention is much cheaper than the cure. This is probably true for an individual, certain to have a particular disease. If I know I am destined to get cancer and spend the thousands necessary to fight it, I would do well to invest in tests and broccoli in order to prevent it from occurring. But, if I will never get cancer, then I am foolhardy to run headlong over the cliff of spending gobs of money on vitamin-rich food. Better to live cancer-free enjoying chocolate. Of course, the problem is, we rarely, if ever, know who is destined to get a particular disease. So we test everyone and make everyone eat their asparagus. But testing everyone can cost more than only treating the few who contract the disease. Sounds cruel and analytical, but the argument being made is an analytical one. The fact is, prevention is better for a number of reasons, most importantly to alleviate unnecessary suffering, but it is not automatically cheaper.

19. The Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is seen as bad on every level and rarely given it's due as a force for good. One particular example is the incessant calling for a Muslim Martin Luther. The thinking goes that the Catholic Church was evil and corrupt to its core. The moderate, reasonable Martin Luther came along and reformed it. A moderate Muslim is required to reform the evil, terrorist entity that Islam has become. The truth is, there are already tons of Muslim Martin Luther's. They, too want to shake up their religion and return it to it's pure roots. They see corruption and defilement rampant within their fellow believers, and are willing to use dramatic means to reform their religion. They are called terrorists. The facts are that Martin Luther was a radical, but the Church was not Islam. The pure religion Luther sought pushed the Church to return to the ideal of love for your neighbor. The Church has been disparaged in other ways as well. The Crusades. The Witch Hunts. Galileo. While the Church has not always lived up to its ideals, "everything we revere about modernity and progress -- education, the rule of law, charity, decency, the notion of the universal rights of man, and reason were advanced by the Church for most of the last two thousand years."

20. Spiritual but Not Religious. A leftist favorite. Religion - bad. Spiritualism - good. Organized religion - a sham and source of evil. Disorganized religion and a hodgepodge of mystical beliefs - highly desirable. Yet, many of the so-called spiritual beliefs which find their way into any good New-Ager's lexicon came right out of the Bible. While the left laments a lack within society of a connection to something larger than themselves, they will fight to the death to prevent a poster of the Ten Commandments from gracing the walls of a courthouse. These people are seriously confused.

21. Understanding. "If we could only just sit and a table and hash things out in a reasonable way, wars would be a thing of the past." The key is UNDERSTANDING! Yet, once again, reality is quite different. The most heinous of wars and killings were between people who understood each other only too well. "Greeks and Turks, North Koreans and South Koreans, Serbs and Croats, Crips and Bloods, Irish and English, Irish Catholic and Irish Protestant, Red Sox fans and Yankees fans; It is almost alway the peoples who understand each other best who have the worst conflicts." Rarely do the Crips execute drive-by shootings in front of the American Society of Engineers. In fact, ignorance seems to play a key role in the love some groups feel for another. We love those starving Africans we see on late-night infomercials. We have no idea whatsoever who they are or how they came to be so impoverished, but we open our checkbooks and the love pours out, but get your brother-in-law, Bob, a little tipsy and the venomous hatred is sure to pour out. Actually, the best way to promote peace is trade. Not understanding. Old-fashioned capitalism. Trading partners do not annihilate each other.

22. Democracy and Unity. Unity only works one way. You be united with me. Why would I be united with you. You're wrong. Not only is unity seen as a cure-all, but the promotion of democracy for the sake of democracy promises to transform the world. Yet pure democracy is mob rule and the Founders rightly feared it. Unity, coupled with democracy inexorably leads to totalitarianism. We vote in our dictators who rid the nation of those who refuse to unify with the rest of us. Minorities have rights. Dissent is patriotic, right? Calls for unity are calls to stifle debate and concentrate power in one group. Unify when a girl falls down a well. Unify when taking an airliner back from a terrorist. The rest of the time - Go Factions! Stand up athwart history and yell, "Stop!"

What a fun and fantastic read this book is! Now I have my antenna up and am ready for all the cliches the left can dish.

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