The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas
By Jonah Goldberg
(Sentinel, 312 pages, $27.95)
Like that humble survivor, the common cockroach, the cliché will always be with us…and that is not entirely a bad thing. Carefully chosen and properly applied, a cliché can become a concentrated dose of common sense, folk wisdom or simple truth. When, way back in the 1960s, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey warned that pressuring the South Vietnamese government to negotiate power sharing with the communist Viet Cong would be like “letting the fox into the chicken coop,” he was using a cliché. But he was using it as an effective image to reinforce a valid point. (All too valid, as subsequent events would prove.)
At its best, a cliché is a triumph of linguistic Darwinism: one of that small, brave band of phrases that acquire lasting resonance and find a permanent—or at least long-term—place in the language and life of a people. Unfortunately, like so many of us, clichés are seldom at their best…and we notice them most at their least favorable moments. No one understood this better than Frank Sullivan, a talented contributor to the New Yorker during its long-gone salad days (to use an appropriate cliché), when most of its articles still managed to be as clever as its cartoons. Today Sullivan is best remembered, by those who remember him at all, as the creator of Mr. Arbuthnot, “The Cliché Expert.”
Mr. Arbuthnot skewered clichés and their user/abusers by reeling them off ad absurdum. For example, when asked what he did for exercise in the country, Mr. Arbuthnot replied: “I keep the wolf at the door, let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns, count my chickens before they are hatched and see that the horse isn’t put before the cart or stolen before I lock the barn door.
Unfortunately, although his creator didn’t die until 1976, Mr. Arbuthnot’s appearances in the New Yorker were confined to the years between 1934 and 1952. It was almost half a century before another popular writer took up the cudgel (yet another appropriate cliché); in 2001, Martin Amis, one of England’s leading contemporary novelists—and the son of the great Kingsley Amis—decided to call a compilation of his best essays and criticism, The War Against Cliché. While not, strictly speaking, a polemic against the cliché itself, the Amis book demonstrated its author’s lifelong opposition to the trite, the shoddy, and the false…when and how he recognized them. Eleven years later, in a book that often reads more like a kindred collection of miscellaneous pieces than a unified text, Jonah Goldberg, a prolific and often penetrating conservative columnist and commentator, has declared war in his turn on what he calls the “tyranny” of clichés, especially as that tyranny is practiced by liberal ideologues.
Readers who enjoyed Mr. Goldberg’s first book, Liberal Fascism, will find plenty to appreciate in The Tyranny of Clichés. The same high energy, nimble argument and welcome flashes of humor that helped to make Liberal Fascism a best-seller are on ample display here, and, if one is willing to accept The Tyranny of Clichés as an exercise in advocacy rather than belles lettres, there is much to admire and little to complain of. In 24 short, not-always-cohesive chapters, Mr. Goldberg takes on—and usually bests—liberal semantic folly and abuse in fields as vast and varied as ideology, pragmatism, diversity, dogma, dissent, science, and religion. His writing is never dull, but there are times when less (to use another appropriate cliché) might have been better than more. In his effort to dazzle the reader, Mr. Goldberg sometimes piles on superfluous layers of marginal trivia the way someone’s elderly aunt might clutter a small collection of genuine objets d’art with a few too many tchotchkes.
From time to time, he also has trouble drawing clear, logical distinctions. An example is his justified annoyance with the way many contemporary liberals casually dismiss the brutal tactics of groups like Hamas and al Qaeda with the tired bromide that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” Obviously, in some cases, the two categories overlap: as Mr. Goldberg himself acknowledges, abolitionist John Brown murdered, robbed, burned, and plundered in his self-proclaimed jihad against slavery. Similarly, the Zionists who blew up the King David Hotel, murdering many innocent civilians, and the Irish rebels who resorted to terrorist tactics against the British in their struggle for independence considered themselves freedom fighters—and were recognized as such by many sympathetic to the political objectives behind their tactics. Perhaps a better formulation would be, “Today’s terrorist may be tomorrow’s freedom fighter,” since the final labels will be assigned by the winning side once the struggle is over.
The problem lies not with the clichés themselves but with the ways in which inept writers and speakers unintentionally misuse them and—even more so—the way clever but wrongheaded writers and speakers deliberately misapply them to support false premises, whether political, philosophical, religious, or aesthetic. The worst of both worlds results when a really dumb writer deliberately tries to bend words, and Mr. Goldberg is at his best when deconstructing and dispatching the resultant liberal blather. Consider his handling of one of the best minds of my generation, Hollywood’s answer to the Delphic Oracle, Ms. Barbra Streisand. The fair Barbra attacked the Los Angeles Times for sacking Robert Scheer, a tired old lefty columnist who had littered its commentary page for too many years, and Mr. Goldberg quotes her infantile, semi-literate letter at length, briskly inventorying its contradictions, fallacies, and lapses from basic literacy. Then comes the perfect coup de grâce: the Streisand “mini-manifesto…was so syntactically impaired, if it was a horse it would have been shot.”
And how can one resist an author who begins his book with the following anecdote involving two legendary conservative prose masters?
According to legend, when George Will signed up to become a syndicated columnist in the 1970s, he asked his friend William F. Buckley, Jr.—the founder of National Review and a columnist himself—“How will I ever write two columns a week?” Buckley responded (I’m paraphrasing), “Oh it will be easy. At least two things a week will annoy you, and you’ll write about them.”
Jonah Goldberg is annoyed by the right things… that is to say, the things that are most wrong about the smug, arrogant, and willfully ignorant liberal mindset that has been rejected by most ordinary Americans but still dominates much of academia and pop culture. And, to use a few of his own words in his favor, with Jonah Goldberg, “Annoyance is an inspiration, aggravation a muse. That which gets your blood up, also gets the ink—or, these days, pixels—flowing.” Here’s hoping that Jonah Goldberg keeps annoyed—and keeps writing—for many years to come.