Magazine | May 28, 2012, Issue

Taking Back the Debate

From the cover of The Tyranny of Clichés, by Jonah Goldberg (Roman Genn)
From the May 28, 2012, issue of NR.

Decades ago, during the 2012 Republican presidential primaries — it was decades ago, right? or does it just seem that way? — Newt Gingrich made his bones with a simple strategy.

He dissented from the premise of the question.

Some smug television news personality would ooze out a question — cradled, inevitably, in left-wing assumptions — and Newt would blast away at the foundation of the question itself, the superficiality of the process, and often the right of the questioner to be there in the first place.

It was “dials up,” as campaign strategists say, referring to the focus group reactions. People eat that stuff up — I know I did — and a lot of us were halfway to the post office with our checks made out to “Gingrich 2012” before we slowed down and asked ourselves, “Dude, c’mon. Newt?”

Newt may not get the big prize of 2012, but he’s certainly booked up with speaking gigs for the next half decade. People — and by people I mean me, and us — are tired of folding themselves into a protective crouch every time someone trots out a liberal cliché, and we’re thrilled when someone else bats it away. Most people — and by people I mean me, and us — read the New York Times positively punch drunk, as we are peppered with bad assumptions, liberal pieties, and un-challenged shibboleths.

#ad#So along comes Jonah Goldberg.

Jonah Goldberg writes as if he’s handing you a drink. You know what I mean: It’s a friendly gesture, inviting, almost conspiratorial. He writes that first sentence, and sits you down, tells you a few jokes, tops off your drink, and before you know it you look up from your empty glass, deep into his book, and you’re both laughing away like fast friends. You’re out of the crouch and well into your second belt. Suddenly, you’re not punch drunk anymore. You’re drunk drunk. Happily so.

In his new book, The Tyranny of Clichés, Jonah Goldberg pulls the Mother of All Gingriches. He enumerates the top two dozen liberal clichés — about the separation of church and state, the living Constitution, political dissent, that sort of stuff — and peppers them into tatters with research and argument and wit. Jonah Goldberg, for 277 sprightly, clever, and calmly reasoned pages, dissents from the premise of the question.

Here, for instance, is Jonah on Ideology:

What is ideology? Academics have an infinite capacity to make this a profoundly complicated question. How could it be otherwise for a profession that has managed to make the films of Keanu Reeves into a realm of serious inquiry?

Or here, on Diversity:

Diversity can strengthen a group or it can weaken it. The problem with the progressive obsession with diversity is that it is a very narrow understanding of the term applied universally. When Bill Clinton said he wanted a cabinet that “looks like America,” he synthesized the problem perfectly. Superficially, his cabinet was the most diverse ever, boasting a remarkable number of women, blacks, and Jews. . . . More to the point, his cabinet may have looked like America but it acted like what it was — a collection of uniformly liberal lawyers.

#page#The drawback to being such an effortless stylist — or, should I say, an effortless seeming stylist: there are over 200 footnotes to this closely researched book — is that it can sometimes feel like a comedy act. A smart one, with a point and a point of view, but an act nonetheless. It’s possible to read The Tyranny of Clichés and bleep over the highbrow references — and there are lots of them — to German philosophers and American political thinkers and historical events, and still get a lot out of the book. I know because I did exactly that.

But then I felt guilty, like I do when I eat the crunchy croutons on the salad and pick out the shards of Parmesan cheese, and I went back and read it again, this time for the actual nutrition. The good news is that the book delivers at every level. The best news, at least for me, is that it’s still funny, even if you chase down the footnotes.

Although that raises the question: Who, exactly, is this book for? It’s unlikely, given the current state of the American conversation, that anyone left of center is going to pick it up and be persuaded. We’ve all managed to cocoon ourselves fairly snugly within our own type — especially the Left. But persuasion doesn’t seem to be what Goldberg is really after. He’ll take it, to be sure. And be glad for it. But what he’s doing, I think, is what you do when you hand a friend a drink after a long day.

#ad#What conservatives have been missing is a sense of joyful confidence. We’re right about everything, of course, and we know it, but we’ve behaved — at least out there in the culture, when ambushed by left-wing media stars or surrounded by liberals at a cocktail party — as if we’ve got something to hide, something to apologize for. As if, ultimately, we’re on the losing side.

That’s what Goldberg is up to, I think, in this smart and browsable book. He’s bucking us up. He’s reminding us what this struggle — for a country, for a way of life, for a future of opportunity and progress — is all about. In two dozen chapters, he’s providing some good natured argument for all of us — especially those who live, as I do, surrounded by liberals — in our struggle against the Tyranny of Clichés. The jokes, which are plentiful and funny and cheerfully delivered, are a little bonus. Which isn’t bad for $27.95.

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