Joe Klein, who was in my youth an interesting writer, has reviewed The Tyranny of Clichés for the New York Times. If you work from the reasonable assumption that he set out to pan the book — and me — from the start, it’s something of a rave, full of grudging compliments and concessions. Indeed, according to Klein, “Goldberg’s erudition can entertain and enlighten.” I should’ve had him blurb it!
The problem, of course, is that Mr. Klein comes not to praise me, but to bury me, and such compliments are intended to generate an air of regret that I’ve squandered what little talent and insight I have on such bilge (he even ends the review with groan-worthy “a mind is a terrible thing to waste”). Indeed, the most grating thing about the review is Klein’s studied pose as my better, who’s been forced to render an opinion of my work at all. Most of us know the type. Someone who assumes that he knows more than you and then proceeds to demonstrate he doesn’t, but from a great height. To that end, the review is peppered with the sort of haughty concessions you might expect from a professor who really doesn’t think you’re worth his time.
In short, I’m not all that bothered by what I think are his unjustifiably low opinions of my work, but I really can’t abide his unjustifiably high opinion of himself.
One quick point about Liberal Fascism. My first book still serves as something of a liberal emetic. It elicits vomitous exhalations of bilious nonsense. There’s just something about that damn book that many liberals can’t make peace with or contend with honestly. It can be very annoying, but I also take it as a compliment. If the book didn’t matter so much, they’d stop bringing it up and distorting what it says. So I take some pleasure in the fact that he spends the first quarter of the review of my new book whining about a book that came out four years ago. And I think it’s outright funny how he claims to understand it.
The Serious v. The Silly
Before I get into the weeds — and what is the point of having a blog dedicated to your book, if not to get into the weeds on such things? — I will admit one mistake. As various reviewers have noted, The Tyranny of Clichés is really two books in one. The first book is a serious, sustained argument about the nature of ideology in general and liberal ideology in particular. The other book is intended to entertain the reader. The problem is that they are the same book. People who get that tend to enjoy the book. As Mark Hemingway writes, “It’s quite a feat to write a polemic about byzantine ideological disputes and political semantics and make it thoroughly enjoyable.”
But here’s the problem I did not fully anticipate. The fun parts — let’s call them “silly” — and the serious parts can work against each other if a reviewer is working from bad faith or is simply obtuse.
Enter Mr. Klein.
Vast swaths of his review play the trick of treating the serious arguments of the book as if they were silly and the silly parts as if I were deadly serious. For instance, he takes my argument ad absurdam about centrism and reduces it to this:
One of Goldberg’s next targets — and we’re still in the introduction, by the way — is centrism, which he sees as a particularly insidious brand of liberal obtuseness: “Well, the Wahhabis want to kill all the gays and Jews. The Sufis don’t want to kill any gays or Jews. So the moderate, sensible position must be to kill just the gays, but not the Jews. . . . The point is that sometimes the extreme is 100 percent correct while the centrist position is 100 percent wrong.”
Would it be pedestrian, in a decidedly liberal way, for me to point out that this sort of argument is not merely infantile, but a sly denigration of the necessary compromises that are at the heart of almost every real policy dispute? Figuring out how to calculate cost-of-living increases for Social Security is not an all-or-nothing proposition. But Goldberg is not interested in anything so quotidian as actual governance.
Well yes, it is pedestrian in a decidedly liberal way for him to say this. When I write: “The point is that sometimes the extreme is 100 percent correct while the centrist position is 100 percent wrong,” I mean “Sometimes the extreme position is 100 percent correct.” Does he deny that? Or does he honestly believe the difference-splitting middle is always right?
Well, maybe he does. Like so many in his phylum, Klein is fixated on the issue of “compromise.” These days, “compromise” means conservatives should cave in on all of the big issues and liberals should be gracious about not rubbing it in too hard. Amusingly, this is a major theme of my book, and Klein not only doesn’t really seem to understand it but – like Piers Morgan before him — seems determined to illustrate the point for me.
He says that real policy disputes revolve around how much Social Security checks should go up, and that it is “infantile” for me to suggest otherwise. In other words, according to Klein conservatives are grown-ups when they agree to the status quo and/or growth in the size of government, but they are extremists when they suggest more structural reforms. Liberals, meanwhile, are grown-ups when they agree to bend a little on how much bigger the checks should be and, I surmise, they are never extremists because Joe Klein’s version of liberalism is never wrong. Ultimately, any effort more ambitious than slowing the rate of increase in entitlement spending is, by Klein’s lights, extremist.
No wonder he doesn’t like the book. It’s as if I wrote it about him!
The Wasteland Chapters
So much for him taking the silly stuff seriously. Now here’s Klein treating the serious stuff as if it were silly:
And so we get whole chapters wasted in combat against the tides of standard English usage, in which it is argued that having an “ideology” or “dogma” is not a form of extremism. If you have one of the above, Goldberg posits, it just means you have a “worldview.” Even pragmatism, that classic American anti-ideology, is a worldview — although a rather smarmy one, since William James’s “moral equivalent of war” was a liberal cliché: “In Europe James’s will to believe joined forces with Nietzsche’s will to power and produced the ideas that led to Italian Fascism.” Who knew?
First of all, if Klein thinks the first few chapters are aimed at the “tides of English usage” his grasp of what constitutes English usage is shakier than he thinks. You might say, I suppose, that I am combating common liberal usage in the hope that it doesn’t become any more established as common English usage.
Regardless, I don’t merely “posit” that ideology and dogma aren’t forms of extremism (though some ideologies can certainly be extremist); I make a sustained argument in this regard. Indeed, I do so for “whole chapters,” as he puts it. His hand-waving dismissal doesn’t change that fact. Moreover, my arguments about dogma and ideology are hardly unique to me, or even all that controversial, as anyone who has read the book will know. I align myself with G. K. Chesterton, William F. Buckley, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, and quite a few others on this point. Klein shows not the slightest interest in taking these arguments seriously. Perhaps because he can’t.
A Word on Pragmatism
As for pragmatism, this is a bit more controversial and complicated because it does brand itself as anti-ideological. But of course it is a worldview. Even — especially! — William James wouldn’t dispute that. Pragmatism seeks to reduce notions of eternal truth to more handy conceptions of usable truth. Famously, James measured truth by its “cash value.” But that doesn’t mean James rejected the idea of making dogmatic commitments. “Democracy,” James explained, “is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure. Faiths and utopias are the noblest exercise of human reason, and no one with a spark of reason in him will sit down fatalistically before the croaker’s picture.”
Does that really not count as a worldview or ideology? Really? Ironically, James was far more open to the idea that different ideologies, or worldviews, are legitimate if they work for you. Such open-mindedness certainly can’t be found in abundance among today’s liberals (like Klein) who witlessly and maliciously insist that the tea parties are two holes in a pillowcase shy of being Klansmen simply because they think government is too big and Obama is spending too much.
Take Out Your Red Pens
Actually, I’m a modest fan of William James himself, as I note in the book. Besides, it was the later pragmatists and progressives who made a mess of things and turned a sincere effort to be unbiased into a marketing effort for progressivism and, eventually, a self-serving myth of liberalism’s monopoly on empiricism. I am happy to discuss this more in future posts (or you could just read the book), but let’s get back to Klein.
Klein scoffs at the idea that James’s “moral equivalent of war” has become a cliché of the liberal mind. But he makes no effort to dispute the point because, I assume, he can’t. Still, if Klein seriously thinks that liberalism hasn’t been enthralled by the quest to find a “moral equivalent of war” over the last century, I’m tempted to say he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But then he removes the temptation entirely and replaces it with the obligation to say he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “Who knew?” he tweely writes of my suggestion that James’s will to believe and Nietzsche’s will to power were merged to help form the foundation of Italian fascism.
Who knew? Well, for starters Mussolini knew. A lover of Nietzsche, Il Duce often cited James as one of his greatest influences. He was probably exaggerating a bit but, more important, Mussolini and the amorphous group of socialist, syndicalist, and pragmatist intellectuals who laid the foundation for fascism were deep readers of Georges Sorel, whose influence on fascism is not disputed by anyone who knows anything about the intellectual roots of fascism. Sorel and similar thinkers swam in the tide of Nietzschean pragmatism (Julian Benda’s phrase) that flowed across the West at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here’s the philosopher Lee Harris:
Combining Nietzsche with William James, Sorel discovered the secret of Nietzsche’s will to power in James’s will to believe. James, like Pareto, had shown that certain spontaneously occurring beliefs enabled those who held these beliefs to thrive and to prosper, both as individuals and societies. But if this were true of spontaneously occurring beliefs, could it not also be true of beliefs that were deliberately and consciously manufactured?
(By the way, perhaps my favorite liberal philosopher, Richard Rorty, argued that Nietzsche and James were committed to the same project, although they came at it from different ends.)
I’m not contending that my argument about Nietzsche and James is the only legitimate point of view, but anyone familiar with the works of A. James Gregor, Ze’ev Sternhell, John Patrick Diggins, et al. will concede that it is a legitimate point of view. Why Klein’s ignorance should count in his favor is beyond me. Oh, and if he actually read Liberal Fascism, as he claims, he’d be familiar with all of this since I talk about it over and over again.
By the end Klein simply starts to unravel entirely. It’s easy to imagine him dictating the last bits from his fainting couch, as he gestures for his attendants to bring him a cold rag for his brow. Assuming you’re still with me, I promise to keep it briefer than Klein deserves.
He suggests I’m being absurd when I write: “Liberals are uncomfortable with the topic of patriotism because their core philosophical impulses are to make America a different country than it is.”
“In other words,” Klein responds, “the reforming instinct — the progressive insistence that meat be inspected by the government, for example — is inherently un-American because it’s a first step down the slippery slope toward government control?”
Yes, that is exactly what I am saying! Meat inspections are unpatriotic!
(Actually, I make no such slippery-slope argument, but he makes a slippery-slope inference. Also, I never say liberals are unpatriotic, I say they are confused about patriotism. For instance, Barack Obama has voiced his desire to “fundamentally transform the United States of America,” a locution, I think, that is hard to square with a love for America as it is. Don’t believe me? Tell your wife or husband, “Honey, I love you, I just want to fundamentally transform you.”)
Finally, Klein completely abandons his condescending professorial pose and just throws his dress over his head. He writes, for example:
After a while, it just becomes exhausting. “Feminism was in no small part launched as a Trojan horse for an older and more familiar Marxist assault.” And “No Jews were tortured in the Spanish Inquisition” (only “former” Jews who claimed conversion to Catholicism were, but Jews were treated far better by the Muslims than by the Catholics, a fact Goldberg neglects). Gandhi evinced “stunning naïveté” and was, occasionally, “incandescently dumb,” without a mention of the impact of his philosophy on the American civil rights movement or the collapse of the Soviet empire. Does Goldberg really believe this stuff? Or is he just being tendentious for rhetorical effect?
Well, yes, I do really believe this stuff. What I want to know is whether Klein thinks any of this amounts to an impressive rejoinder or is he just monkey-dancing for the readers of the New York Times Book Review as the editors churn the organ grinder? Does Klein dispute that Gandhi was “incandescently dumb” when he advised the Jews of Germany to commit mass suicide? How about after the war, when Gandhi said, “The Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife”? Does he know George Orwell and I see eye to eye on this? Is Klein arguing that Gandhi was savvy and smart when he told the British to surrender the British Isles to the Nazis? Does he deny Gandhi was naïve to call Hitler his friend? And what does Gandhi’s influence on the American civil-rights movement have to do with anything?
While we’re at it, does Klein dispute that Betty Friedan was a water carrier for Marxism? (Before he answers he might want to review her work over at Marxists.org.) What do his “gotchas” about the Catholic Church have to do with anything I’ve written? How are they even “gotchas”?
In the Tyranny of Clichés I write that liberals are largely ignorant of, and disconnected from, their own intellectual history and blind to their own dogmatic and ideological commitments. As a result, their thinking has become calcified, and they tend to mask their ideological agenda behind clichés that sound more intelligent and harmless than they really are. I want to thank Mr. Klein for proving my point.