May 21, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
It's too late for the first two-thirds of the U.S. presidential campaign. But with seven months to go, this thought-provoking work of historical non-fiction peels back the warm, fuzzy surface of much political rhetoric to expose the slimy, crawling realities of politicians' and pundits' use of clichés.
American Jonah Goldberg, a pundit himself, is an unapologetic conservative who writes for National Review magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
In 2002, he ruffled feathers north of the 49th with his tongue-in-cheek screed -- headlined Bomb Canada -- about our response to America's war on terror.
As he did in his first book, 2007's Liberal Fascism, Goldberg brings to bear his exhaustive knowledge of history, discussing the roots and implications of such common expressions as "power corrupts," "let them eat cake," "violence never solves anything," "social justice" and calls for "a Muslim Martin Luther."
Goldberg asks, "What freedom is al-Qaida fighting for, exactly? Hamas? The freedom to lock women away in burlap sacks, crush homosexuals and throw acid in the faces of children?"
While the book's subtitle will probably inflame the sensibilities of those who haven't gotten past the title of Goldberg's earlier book, a fair reading of The Tyranny of Clichés is both educational and entertaining.
He comes across as much more scholarly than such American conservative polemicists as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.
In his seminal 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell complained that "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness." To that base trio, Goldberg adds clichés: accepted, unchallenged, trite statements that become "placeholders for arguments not won, ideas not fully understood."
He elucidates the historical and philosophical background of sayings and ideas whose provenance is often wrongly taken for granted.
Goldberg refuses to be thrown by slippery arguments that move back and forth between "don't be ideological or dogmatic" and "be pragmatic."
He demonstrates the assumptions that connect the two and highlights the historical instances where both dogma and pragmatism have been used by both good and bad actors.
Presenting "the tyranny of clichés ... as the use of allegedly non-ideological insights to advance starkly ideological understandings of the world," Goldberg gleefully goes about showing the weakness of hackneyed boilerplate.
Throughout, Goldberg peppers intellectual depth with peppery prose. In the chapter discussing political promises to the middle class, he points out how progressives in the past poured contempt on that part of society.
Goldberg is especially effective at dismembering arguments that cherry-pick science, and the appeal to the magical epithet "scientific" to forestall arguments.
"The idea that conservatives are anti-science is self-evident and self-pleasing hogwash," he writes.
"It is also hogwash that liberals are intrinsically opposed to science. The reality is that each side sees science for what it is: a tool ... to advance larger arguments."
His excellent chapter on the Catholic Church attempts to correct conventional wisdom about the Crusades, inquisitions (there were many more than the Spanish one) and the Reformation. Hunting of witches and burning of heretics was done much more by secular authorities, and by mobs, than by religious authorities.
"If the dungeons and torture chambers of the Inquisition were so barbaric, why did some criminals profess ... heresy" to "be transferred from the far crueler secular prisons to those of the Church?"
Goldberg insists that his point "is not to exonerate the Church from its misdeeds, but to put them into context."
Throughout The Tyranny of Clichés, Goldberg provides such context, which can serve to make political and cultural discussion and thought clearer and more sophisticated.
Bill Rambo teaches at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.
The Tyranny of Clichés
How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas
By Jonah Goldberg
Sentinel, 320 pages, $29.50
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 J9