The Tyranny of Clichés is, at turns, a lesson in philosophy, a polemic on intellectual laziness, a treatise on linguistic imprecision and a revisionist history of, well, lots of stuff. Goldberg uses the phrase “historical fact-checking” to describe the work of another author, but it might be the best shorthand description of what he’s done here. He builds his arguments with references to well-known thinkers, obscure Progressive theorists, politicians old and new, and an occasional dollop of American pop culture. He begins one chapter, for example, with quotations from John Kenneth Galbraith and Napoleon, and follows with references (in order) to: So I Married an Axe Murderer, Adam Smith, John Locke, Edmund Burke, the French Enlightenment, Star Wars, Montesquieu, Jean Baptiste Say, Antoine Louis Claude Destutt Comte de Tracy, and Thomas Jefferson—in less than two pages. And, perhaps surprisingly, each of them actually serves his argument.
One suspects that readers will be left thinking of these Golbergian deconstructions long after they’ve finished his book, in much the same way that readers of William Safire’s On Language columns remembered his exhortations on the proper use of “begging the question” or “hopefully.” Consider “let them eat cake,” for example. Not only did Marie Antoinette probably never utter the phrase, it meant pretty much the opposite of what modern liberals intend when they use it to suggest conservatives are stingy aristocrats.
As a follow-up to his best-selling and deeply researched Liberal Fascism (2008), Jonah Goldberg’s new book confirms his reputation as one of the sharpest, funniest, and yet most serious of contemporary conservative writers. Coming as it does in the heart of this political year, and dealing as it does with the kinds of hackneyed aphorisms that have come to define contemporary political discourse, The Tyranny of Clichés provides an indispensable and enduring field guide to the arguments the Left makes—and the ones it tries to avoid.