Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

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Mimsy Review: The Tyranny of Clichés

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 25, 2015

What makes this a quintessential scam is that it uses the classic psychological trick mastered by all con men: making people feel dumb for being smart.

Jonah Goldberg takes down political clichés, such as “violence never solves anything” and “I don’t believe in labels”.

RecommendationWorth reading
AuthorJonah Goldberg
Year2012
Length314 pages
Book Rating6

The subtitle is “How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas” but it’s really “How politicians cheat in the war of ideas”. I’m not going to say it’s an equal-opportunity cliché-killer, because it isn’t. Goldberg focuses his analysis on the left. But he acknowledges that many of these “placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood” are used by politicians regardless of ideology.

His choice to focus on the left is that outspoken progressives tend to claim not to have an ideology more often than outspoken conservatives, who acknowledge their ideology and argue from it. The left often tries to claim that their ideology is simply the default position, and that only other positions are ideologies.

For example, in the introduction, discussing the progressive belief that “laws and words have no binding power on future generations, [living constitution, for example] but once Team Progressive puts points on the scoreboard, they can never come off”, in the context of someone saying that social security is a covenant that cannot be broken no matter what, Goldberg writes:

There is nothing wrong and a great deal that is right with having ideological convictions. What is offensive to logic, culturally pernicious, and, yes, infuriating to me is the claim that it is not an ideological tenet. Progressives lie to themselves and the world about this fact. They hide their ideological agenda within Trojan Horse clichés and smug assertions that they are simply pragmatists, fact finders, and empiricists who are clearheaded slaves to “what works.”

He starts his examples with Voltaire’s most famous dictum:

There’s a kind of argument-that-isn’t-an-argument that vexes me… I’ve spoken to a lot of college audiences… During the Q&A session after my speech [a serious student] will say something like “Mr. Goldberg, I may disagree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Then he will sit down, and the audience will applaud…

…the kid is almost surely lying. He’ll take a bullet for me? Really?

Clichés like these are a way to earn bravery on the cheap, defending principles you haven’t thought through or perhaps only vaguely support. Or, heck, maybe he really would leap on a grenade so I could finish talking about how stupid high-speed rail is.

It would be interesting to try them out on their assertion: have someone bring out a gun and see if the student jumps in front of Mr. Goldberg. I’m going to go with Goldberg on this: I don’t think they would.

At my most cynical, I think they’d applaud the grenade—or at least start blaming Goldberg himself for its explosive nature.

He also looks at clichés that don’t spring solely from an oft-used quote. One of the most pernicious clichés in Washington is that compromise is always good. But if one person wants to spend lots of money building a bridge, and another person doesn’t want to build a bridge at all, there is no useful compromise in building half a bridge. In the case of the bridge, both extremists, those who want a bridge and those who don’t want one, have:

…a much better grasp on reality than the centrist does. The extremists have a serious disagreement about what to do. The independent who splits the difference has no idea what to do and doesn’t want to bother with figuring it out.

Or, in the case of the Middle East, one side wants to kill all the Jews, one side wants to let the Jews survive, and it does seem as though some otherwise intelligent people want to compromise in the Middle East by only killing some Jews.

And yet we hear constantly how independents who borrow a little from this side and borrow a little from that side are somehow more politically sophisticated and mature than the straight-line thinkers of the left and the right. But here’s the thing: The straight-line thinkers tend to think in a straight line not because they are hidebound and close-minded and clinging to an ideological agenda. They tend to think in a reasonably straight line because they’ve worked out a reasonably consistent way of seeing the world. The independents and moderates who just grab stuff from this shelf, then from that shelf, like a panicked survivor of the dawn of the dead grabbing what he or she can from the supermarket before the zombies pot her, do not value consistency at all.

Speaking of self-proclaimed centrists who haven’t really thought out their position, the “No Labels” movement…

…likens itself to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which it describes as an area designed by North and South Koreans alike for “cool heads” to craft “elegant solutions.” Likewise, No Labels wants to be a “Depoliticized Zone” that achieves the same purpose.

It’s a metaphor that does not speak well of the No Labelers. The Korean DMZ is one of the most heavily mined and dangerous places in the world, with soldiers waiting for the slightest provocation to launch a devastating war, and where nothing fruitful in the affairs of men has happened for half a century. Moreover, the DMZ is the demarcation point between the fundamentally decent, prosperous, and democratic nation of South Korea and the fundamentally evil, impoverished, and totalitarian criminal regime of the Kims. But other than that it’s a boffo metaphor.

And on the subject of de-militarization, he also takes on pacifism and its cliché, that “violence never solves anything”, head on. Obviously, violence does solve some things, or we would not arm our police. And of course it took a lot of violence to end slavery.

“On the issue of slavery,” writes Thomas Sowell, “it was essentially Western civilization against the world.” And “what was peculiar about the West was not that it participated in the worldwide evil of slavery, but that it later abolished that evil.”

That’s not from the violence is never right section, but from the the West is always wrong section, which is itself fascinating.

This book does not present a coherent narrative—it’s a representative collection of clichés, showing that clichés, especially those used as if they were arguments, are pretty much always wrong. It can’t be comprehensive, as there are far too many such clichés in politics. But it is very entertaining.

The Tyranny of Clichés

Jonah Goldberg

Recommendation: Worth reading