About That Tyranny of Clichés

G. K. Chesterton once quipped that “people generally quarrel because they cannot argue” – something you have to think about for a bit before it begins to make any sense at all. But then they didn’t call Chesterton the Prince of Paradox for nothing, and the more you think about this particular paradox – which is a sneer at those who love to show you the impressive intensity and sincerity of their belief in something or other, but have no way to even begin to explain the grounds for that particular belief in any coherent way at all – the more you realize most folks cannot even differentiate mindless quarreling from careful argumentation. Chesterton is wrong – it’s not a matter of having appallingly insufficient skill at mustering facts and logic, and skill in the effective presentation of those, which one might perhaps learn in any even moderately competent college – it’s that most people really see no difference in the two words – quarreling and arguing. Aren’t those exactly the same thing?

Well no, they’re not exactly the same thing. When there are two words in any language for quite similar things, then there are really two different things – as in Childish and Childlike. You use the right word. And thus Chesterton’s semantic distinction is more important than his sneer at the woefully skill-deficient in the give and take of any discussion. The problem is the folks who see no need for such skills, who can’t even imagine them – you know, politicians and pundits and the talking heads on cable television. These are those whose careers depend on showing you the strength of their beliefs, not the grounds for them.

And we are supposed to be impressed. And some are. But some of us foolishly expect an argument about the facts of a particular situation, and the options available, and a review of the benefits and dangers of each option – and get chin-out and chip-on-the-shoulder posturing intended to display dominance. That never helps, as argument is a process for working things out, and quarreling is somewhat the opposite. But this is a power and domination thing. Quarreling is about ending up looking good, with everyone else looking foolish. The game is King of the Hill – where what is won and what is lost in the quarrel, and who scored points, is quite irrelevant to the actual problem at hand. Sorry G. K. – they didn’t even try. We live in an age where argumentation is a quaint concept at best, and Chesterton is an old dead guy anyway.

But we do live in an age of some nifty rhetoric, as the novelist Stephen King offers this call for the rich to pay more taxes:

I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing “Disco Inferno” than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar.

And he has this to say to all the whining high-income Americans bitching about the idea of going back to the Clinton-era tax rate of thirty-nine percent, not the current thirty-five percent, which they don’t pay anyway:

It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that – sorry, kiddies – you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay – not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay – in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.

By the way, King’s net worth is four hundred million dollars give or take – those silly horror novels make him a lot of money.

And in the Economist, Will Wilkinson presents a careful and detailed argument that King just hasn’t thought this through at all – a discussion of tax rates and exemptions, and the reasons for those, historically and economically and socially, and the odd paradox of charity and government, and so on and so forth. It’s impressive, and almost unreadable. And the Stephen King item has gone viral – it’s been reposted everywhere, endlessly – to end all argument, as the last word on this issue – case closed. So there!

But of course it’s not. It’s just brilliant quarrelling. King is King of the Hill, so to speak.

But there will be pushback, from the protect-the-sacred-rich conservatives. And some of that will probably come from Jonah Goldberg, sooner or later. And you might remember him – “Goldberg’s career as a pundit was launched following his mother Lucianne Goldberg’s role in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, when he wrote about the ‘media siege’ on his mother’s apartment in The New Yorker.”

Yes, his mother was the one who advised Linda Tripp to record her conversations with Monica Lewinsky – so there’d be a record of the sexy stuff the two of them were dishing the dirt about – and to save that famous blue dress. There was a way to get Clinton, to impeach him, to run him out of office. That didn’t quite work out, but Jonah was angered and inspired and a conservative pundit was born.

And now he’s decided to write a book about, of all things, argumentation – The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas:

According to Jonah Goldberg, if the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the greatest trick liberals ever pulled was convincing themselves that they’re not ideological.

Today, “objective” journalists, academics and “moderate” politicians peddle some of the most radical arguments by hiding them in homespun aphorisms. Barack Obama casts himself as a disciple of reason and sticks to one refrain above all others: he’s a pragmatist, opposed to the ideology and dogma of the right, solely concerned with “what works.” And today’s liberals follow his lead, spouting countless clichés…

But Goldberg’s contention is that ideology is not argument, just shallow clanging nonsense:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Violence never solves anything: Really? It solved our problems with the British Empire and ended slavery.

Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer: So you won’t mind if those ten guilty men move next door to you?

Diversity is strength: Cool. The NBA should have a quota for midgets and one-legged point guards!

We need complete separation of church and state: In other words all expressions of faith should be barred from politics… except when they support liberal programs.

He wants real argument, not clichés, and of course his previous book was Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning – “Jonah Goldberg reminds us that the original fascists were really on the left, and that liberals from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism and Mussolini’s Fascism.”

He was interviewed endlessly and gleefully on Fox News, but there were other reactions like the NYC journalism professor Eric Alterman:

The book reads like a Google search gone gaga. Some Fascists were vegetarians; some liberals are vegetarians; ergo… Some Fascists were gay; some liberals are gay… Fascists cared about educating children; Hillary Clinton cares about educating children. Aha! …

Like Coulter, he’s got a bunch of footnotes. And for all I know, they check out. But they are put in the service of an argument that no one with any knowledge of the topic would take seriously.

And there was Michael Tomasky:

I can report with a clear conscience that Liberal Fascism is one of the most tedious and inane – and ultimately self-negating – books that I have ever read. … Liberal Fascism is a document of a deeply frivolous culture, or sub-culture. … However much or little Goldberg knows about fascism, he knows next to nothing about liberalism.

The man is not that good at argumentation. But he did get invited on NPR’s Morning Edition to explain the new book:

“One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids in particular are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. They’ll say, you know, ‘Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement,’ when I’m talking about tax cuts or something. … Of course it’s an ideological statement. You know I’m a conservative; I was asked to come here and be a conservative,” Goldberg says.

Goldberg, a columnist and editor-at-large for National Review Online, argues that ideology is not something to be shunned – in fact, it’s an inevitable part of political debate. “We are a species that must try to impose and find systems – systems of thought, ways of organizing and categorizing reality,” he says. … Goldberg argues that people he categorizes as “liberal” talk in ways that shut down any ideological debate.

So he had his chat with the show’s host, Steve Inskeep, and it was odd:

INSKEEP: Although I’m sure that there are people who can say, well, if you guys can call President Obama a socialist, he’s certainly able to call you a social Darwinist. There’s probably more evidence for the latter than the former.

GOLDBERG: Well, to a certain extent, sure.

Oops. Goldberg just said he argues the same way, in mindless clichés, and then we get this:

INSKEEP: Well, let’s be fair. There are plenty of conservative labels that are applied on the rivals of conservatives. We could go back to the past administration: You’re with us or against us. Are you with America, or are you with the other guys? There are plenty of rhetorical devices that are used to shut down debate on the other side, to make it – to not just appeal for unity, but to make it seem unpatriotic if you don’t agree.

GOLDBERG: Yeah, no. And some of these things – I absolutely agree.

What about the premise of his book? And then there’s this:

INSKEEP: So you’re opposed to these catchphrases that substitute for arguments. You’re opposing making too many assumptions. I want to ask about one that is commonly set on the right, though: Government is the problem – said again and again. In fact, you imagined, I think, in September of last year, a speech that you wished that President Obama would give, and the last sentence was: Government is the problem. Is that an oversimplification? I mean, you’re not against having a government.

GOLDBERG: No, I’m not against having a government. Yeah, and it’s – I don’t know, actually, if that qualifies as the kind of cliché that I’m talking about…

NPR isn’t Fox News. Steve Inskeep isn’t Sean Hannity. And Goldberg self-destructed. He pretty much admitted that the whole premise of his book – that conservatives can argue and liberals cannot – was silly. Somewhere G. K. Chesterton smiled, sadly.

And there’s Dan Turner in the Los Angeles Times:

I very seldom agree with conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg, whose work appears in the Times weekly, but he said something Wednesday morning in an interview on NPR that was dead-on: “Aggravation is a muse.” His interview aggravated me so much, and unintentionally revealed so much about what’s wrong with conservatism in general and Goldberg’s mindset in particular…

But what really gets Turner is this:

“One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids, in particular, are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. They’ll say, ‘Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement,’ when I’m talking about tax cuts or something. Well, first of all, of course it’s an ideological statement – I’m a conservative, I was asked to come here and be an ideological conservative.”

How dare those liberal college professors educate our children to think that having an open mind is a good thing? Later in the interview, he explains that ideology is good because it forms the basis for valuable debates that move the country forward:

“All I want is an argument. I don’t care that liberals have an ideology – I want them to have an ideology. I want to have a contest of ideas. What bothers me is when they come in and say, ‘Oh, you guys are the crazy ideologues with your labels and all of the rest, and we’re just pragmatists who care about sound science and the numbers and the facts and all of that.'”

And here Turner echoes Chesterton:

Goldberg isn’t really talking about a debate – he’s talking about two people who are both impervious to rational argument barking at each other. An ideologue is a person who is closed-minded; no amount of facts, scientific evidence, expert opinion or historical examples will sway someone who is wedded to his own world view. I suspect that what bothered the college students about Goldberg was that as an ideologue, he didn’t seem to be considering any inconvenient facts that might contradict his position. Rather than see this as a failing, Goldberg was inspired to write a book in defense of ideologues.

Hey – Goldberg loves quarreling, and he has no concept of argumentation, and thus confuses the two words Chesterton cleverly untangled. But Turner sees the difference:

A person with an open mind would be inclined to base his decision on whether to depose Saddam Hussein on whether there was clear and convincing evidence that he possessed weapons of mass destruction; an ideologue would be more likely to remember how Saddam tried to kill his dad and launch a costly nation-building exercise regardless of the facts (just to give one random example). A person with an open mind would be inclined to examine the overwhelming evidence compiled by scientists around the world that burning fossil fuels is altering our planet’s climate in dangerous ways, and conclude that doing something about it would be smart policy; an ideologue would conclude that scientists are in league with liberal environmentalists in a quest to derail industrial freedom, and opt to ignore them. A person with an open mind would examine past government failures to properly oversee the banking sector and conclude that unrestrained capitalism leads to unacceptable booms and busts, so tighter regulation is a good idea; an ideologue would label such people “socialists” and promote laissez-faire oversight policies. A person with an open mind would see how all these ideological approaches under President George W. Bush had disastrous outcomes and conclude we should go another way; an ideologue would repeat the mistakes and vote for Mitt Romney.

But people quarrel because they cannot argue – it happens all the time. But it actually happens more on the right:

There are liberals who are every bit as blinded by ideology as conservatives, and just as resistant to information that challenges their beliefs. Yet I do think there’s a difference: It was the very “liberalism” of those college students who objected to Goldberg’s ideological approach to issues that prompted him to write his book. He says himself that liberals consider themselves pragmatists who “care about sound science and the numbers and the facts and all of that.” Moreover, one would have to be completely unfamiliar with the hot-button issues that divide Americans — gay marriage, healthcare, climate change, regulatory policy and so on — to fail to recognize that the liberal side is more inclined to respect the views of experts and more willing to accept change when evidence shows past policies have been discriminatory or ineffective.

So this is pretty simple:

The college students who so offended Goldberg were dead right: People blinded by their own ideology are narrow-minded and backward-thinking. An ideologue is the last thing anyone of any political persuasion should want to be accused of being.

So Turner finds it absurd for Goldberg to argue for open-mindedness by embracing the label of total ideologue, as badge of honor, arguing everyone should be an ideologue, so we can talk. The conservative mind is an amazing thing.

And by now Chesterton is weeping. Things now are far worse than he ever imagined.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to About That Tyranny of Clichés

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    I at least scan all of your posts. This one is particularly brilliant. I don’t much care which ideological edge (left or right) of the American political universe an individual occupies, they condemn themselves by their certainty: no other opinions matter. The vast moderate middle mostly stays silent. They don’t want to get in a fight.

    I’ve been fiddling with how to approach this topic with my own family, without starting WWIII, and the closest I’ve been able to come, so far, is this. (I’m 72 today, and maybe writing this reply will give me the courage to click on ‘send’ on a blogpost to my far-flung family later!)

    “I’m old enough to remember the edges of the “good old days”, and while they weren’t all that good, in many ways they were better than what we live in now.

    At least people talked with each other.

    They had no other choice.

    A few years ago I read the book Bones of Plenty, by Lois Phillips Hudson. It is a college education in how it was in those older days. It is worth reading today.

    Bones of Plenty was about 1934, perhaps the most awful year of the Great Depression. It is set in a tiny rural community 20 or 30 miles west of Jamestown, North Dakota. (The remnants of the town still exist, just off I-94. I’ve been there.)

    In 1934 there was no television, and while radio existed nobody had one, and telephones when one had one were not used frivolously.

    There were newspapers and magazines – lots of them. They were the window on the world as then known. And if somebody wrote and submitted something, it was likely printed.

    And they were read, every word, every ad.

    Then there were the meetings: at the town hall, after church, in the saloon, at country dances.

    You went to these events. They were life as you knew it.

    You could love Roosevelt or hate him but you not only needed to talk to someone who might disagree with you, but actually listen to point of view of someone else.

    Sure there were fights, often alcohol-fueled, but at the end of the day, if your barn burned down, it was your neighbors who you’d depend on to rebuild; and they on you.

    We don’t think in those terms any more, and it’s killing us as a civil society.

    We are the ones who can change the conversation….”

  2. Rick says:

    Jonah Goldberg:

    “One of the things that really drove me crazy was the way in which college kids in particular are educated to think that ideology is dangerous and bad. They’ll say, you know, ‘Mr. Goldberg, that sounds like an ideological statement,’ when I’m talking about tax cuts or something. … Of course it’s an ideological statement. You know I’m a conservative; I was asked to come here and be a conservative.”

    The kids are right. Yes, people are ideological, and should be allowed to be ideological — I should be allowed to be a liberal and you should be allowed to be a conservative — but don’t expect to sway me with your ideological argument that requires I share your conservatism in order to buy it. You’re allowed to be a Roman Catholic but don’t expect me to agree with you when you say some jigger of wine is actually the blood of Jesus, on the grounds that that’s what your church teaches.

    I disagree with Dan Turner about what it means to be an ideologue or ideological. He acknowledges the existence of liberals and conservatives, but without damning them in the same way he damns ideologues, he fails to recognize that these political stances are actually ideologies.

    The problem is not being ideological, it’s being blinded by your ideology. Being a liberal or a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean being a close-minded liberal or conservative. An ideology is really just a loose framework of belief we use to help us understand issues from the context of the kind of world we’d like to live in. What makes my brother a conservative (something he denies he is, by the way) is his belief that government tends to be evil and gets in the way of free markets, and that there’s too much taxation, bordering on theft, and that our money is being used to support lazy slackers, and is in fact encouraging their laziness, and that trickle-down supply-side economics actually works, and so on. But in spite of his being a conservative, has also no use for global-warming deniers or anti-abortionists or God-believers who push their beliefs on the rest of us.

    Goldberg makes a few good points. One I agree with is that (especially) liberals espouse “pragmatism” and pretend to believe in only “solutions that work”, when in fact, a “solution” that liberals think “works” may not be one that conservatives would support, or the other way around. But he tends to present his points in ways that showcase his hyperbole, one example being his mocking what he considers a liberal cliche, “We need complete separation of church and state: In other words all expressions of faith should be barred from politics… except when they support liberal programs.” But nobody says “complete separation of church and state” means “all expressions of faith should be barred from politics”, it means government should try to neither help nor hinder the practice of anyone’s religion, and that the two institutions shouldn’t meddle in each other’s business.

    Much of what Goldberg does is to set up liberal straw men, then knock them down. So you’re right, although he pretends to have mastered the language of argumentation, he’s actually only being a quarrelsome, and ideological, nag.


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