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The Dogma Business
Progressives are quicker to seize on the political opportunities created by a changing culture.

At the vice-presidential debate, October 11, 2012 (Getty)

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Jonah Goldberg

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is Jonah Goldberg’s weekly “news”letter, the G-File. Subscribe here to get the G-File delivered to your inbox on Fridays.

Dear Reader (including the president of the United States whenever he gets to this after dealing with many important fundraisers),

If you’ve been reading my stuff over the years, you’ll find a number of common themes (“And recycled jokes. Let’s not forget those.” — The Couch). One such theme is that liberalism hides behind seemingly value-neutral or benign language in order to advance a value-laden and not necessarily benign agenda. That was the basic idea behind The Tyranny of Clichés. Conservatives argue as conservatives. Liberals tend to argue not so much as liberals, but in a variety of disguises, each of which tries to draw on authority unearned by liberalism itself. Indeed, the history of American liberalism can be understood as a series of costume changes. A new nominally non-ideological discipline emerges — political science, engineering, public health, psychology, environmentalism, neuroscience and, these days, various forms of data prestidigitation — and liberals flock to it. They don the latest fashionable version of the white smock and say — à la Bill Murray in Ghostbusters — “back off man, we’re scientists.” Or to be more fair, they claim to be speaking for the scientists, engineers, psychologists, and other experts. “We’re not ideologues, we go with the facts.” This game was old when Walter Lippmann came out with his Drift and Mastery. After all, Karl Marx, the Babe Ruth of this sport, had long before insisted that his shtick wasn’t opinion or even mere analysis, but a new science.

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In 1962, John F. Kennedy delivered the commencement address at Yale. He explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the same year, he expanded on the idea. “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” These problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men” and should therefore be left to the experts to settle without subjecting them to divisive democratic debate.

Today, the political landscape is littered with earnest, well-intentioned, and often, incredibly sanctimonious liberals who insist that they are simply pursuing truth and fact regardless of ideology. This, of course, remains Obama’s favorite pose. It runs through the “scientific consensus” argle-bargle on global warming. When Chris Hughes took over what has long been considered the flagship magazine of American liberalism, he ridiculously vowed that, “the journalism in these pages will strive to be free of party ideology or partisan bias.” The same conceit is behind Vox.com and “explanatory journalism,” which everyday sinks further and further into liberal Ronburgundyism. (Coming soon at Vox: “Fifteen Reasons Why San Diego Really Does Mean ‘Whale’s Vagina’ in German — And Why That Has To Change.”)

It’s Biden’s Party

Speaking of Ron Burgundyism, remember Joe Biden’s vice-presidential debate with Paul Ryan? He’d flash those teeth like a flounder that accidentally picked up a set of dentures. He’d laugh like the crazy guy on the bus who knows the driver is really following the chem trails in the sky because you can still get a Snickers bar for less than a dollar. He’d guffaw at any suggestion he or the president did anything wrong — ever — and shout “malarkey” at the idiots and knaves who thought otherwise. And, sadly, it largely worked. I’m beginning to think Biden was simply ahead of his time. So much of elite liberalism these days is little more than bluster and self-satisfied blather.

For instance, I am so disappointed in John Oliver’s HBO show, Last Week Tonight. I like Oliver’s stand-up and his stints on Community. But his approach is simply Bidenism refined. The show begins from the premise that liberal conventional wisdom is not only right but obviously so and then simply works backward to “prove it.” In Britain, populist tabloids are condemned by people of Oliver’s persuasion for simply confirming the prejudices of the working class. Last Week Tonight is a similar effort for the more upscale — and often more prejudiced — HBO demographic. He doesn’t tell his audience anything it doesn’t want to hear, he just gives them new and occasionally funny reasons to feel good about themselves. The only difference between his show and the typical MSNBC host’s is that Oliver is funny on purpose.

The Dogma Business

Anyway, I kind of wandered off from where I planned on going with all of this. For the record, I’m not saying that politicians, pundits, and other partisans should not consult the opinions of scientists and other experts. Of course they — we — should. We learn new and interesting things all of the time. What I am saying is that liberalism is constantly rebranding itself as solely an explanation of reality and it constantly needs to rebrand itself because reality keeps revealing that it isn’t.



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