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The Tyranny of Clichés

by Jonah Goldberg
What does ‘social justice’ mean?

In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell says that a writer can avoid the heavy lifting of making an original or insightful argument by simply turning his pen on autopilot and fueling it with “ready made” clichés. “They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself,” writes Orwell. “It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.” More than a half century later, liberalism (and too much of conservatism) has switched to autopilot. For reasons I will discuss below, liberalism imposes itself not through sustained argument, but through a shabby tyranny of clichés, which hides its ideological underpinnings behind a façade of trite phrases and homespun truisms.

Let us start with the example of “social justice.”

In the Oscar-robbed movie Caddyshack, Danny — the protagonist — desperately wants to win the annual Bushwood Country Club scholarship, which is set aside for impressive young caddies. He meets with Judge Smails, who is in charge of awarding the scholarship. The encounter is awkward, because Danny was recently caught in flagrante delicto with the judge’s niece.

Eager to show how fair he is, Smails explains his thinking:

You know, despite what happened, I’m still convinced that you have many fine qualities. I think you can still become a gentleman someday if you understand and abide by the rules of decent society. There’s a lot of . . . well, badness in the world today. I see it in court every day. I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. I didn’t want to do it — I felt I owed it to them. The most important decision you can make right now is what you stand for — goodness . . . or badness.

I hate to spoil the plot for you, but Danny, eager to please, chooses goodness.

Danny’s vague but earnest answer captures the essence of what most people mean when they invoke social justice. A cry for social justice is usually little more than a call for goodness; “progressive” has become a substitute for “all good things.” But sometimes the word is too vague. So if you press a self-declared progressive to say what it means, he’ll respond, eventually, with something like, “It means fighting for social justice.” If you ask, “What does ‘social justice’ mean?” you are likely to get an exasperated eye roll, because you just don’t get it.

Social justice is goodness, and if you can’t see that, man, you’re either unintentionally “part of the problem” or you’re for badness.

“Social justice” is one of those phrases that no mission statement — at least no mission statement of a certain type — can do without. You simply cannot be in the do-goodery business without proclaiming that you’re fighting for social justice. Here’s the AFL-CIO: “The mission of the AFL-CIO is to improve the lives of working families — to bring economic justice to the work-place and social justice to our nation.” The 2 million–strong Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — which serves as the political shock troops for President Obama (former SEIU president Andrew Stern was the most frequent visitor to the White House during the first six months of the Obama presidency, which no doubt is why his presidency got off to such a great start) — asserts: “We believe we have a special mission to bring economic and social justice to those most exploited in our community — especially to women and workers of color.”

A recent editorial in the Harvard Crimson explains that readers should give the college money because “it largely succeeds as a mechanism for social justice.” Well, okay then, where’s my checkbook? The Ford Foundation gave the Newseum a grant “for a Web site incorporating videos, interactive games and primary resources in a curriculum-based structure for classroom use and to organize a forum on journalism and social justice.” In 2010 the Smithsonian held a conference on “A Deeper Diversity, the Nation’s Health: Renewing Social Justice and Human Well-Being in Our Time.” The Muslim American Society, an organization founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, and through which the Brotherhood has operated in the United States, declares on its website that it “hopes to contribute to the promotion of peace and social justice.” Even the American Nazi Party, not wanting to be left out of the fun, identifies “social justice for White Working Class people throughout our land” as one of its two main tenets (the other being “Aryan Racial survival”).

One of the great things about social justice is that once you become a poster child for it, you also become, ipso facto, an expert on it. Invoking the “longstanding commitment to all forms of social justice of the LGBT community,” the presidents of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce sent a letter (subsequently retracted) to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in May 2011 urging it to support “President Obama’s vision of an America in which everyone has high-speed access” by allowing the merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. I remain a bit hazy on how, exactly, high-speed Internet access is a requirement of social justice, or for that matter why it is of specific concern to gays.

Still, though, what is social justice? That’s harder to figure out. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of “social justice” is that it sounds so pleasing and innocuous, a term any politician can use in a speech or signing statement. But each time someone tries to define it, the idea becomes more radical. The Green party is one of the few organizations that get into specifics, and its platform goes on for pages and pages delineating what “social justice” means — everything from “a commitment to ending poverty” through “welfare” to “open dialogue among all residents of Hawai’i on the sovereignty option of full independence.”

Meanwhile, a major report from the United Nations insists that “social justice is not possible without strong and coherent redistributive policies conceived and implemented by public agencies.” Typical U.N. statism? Perhaps, but it’s downright Jeffersonian compared with the more concentrated and pernicious asininity to follow. The U.N. warns: “Present-day believers in an absolute truth identified with virtue and justice are neither willing nor desirable companions for the defenders of social justice.” Translation: If you actually believe in the antiquated notion that rights exist outside the schemes of governments and social planners, then you are not part of the global effort to promote goodness.

I don’t have space here to detail the intellectual history of the term, but the sad irony of its birth is worth noting. In 1840, the theologian Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio came up with the concept as a way to defend civil society from the ever-increasing intrusions of the state. Social justice, according to Taparelli, was the legitimate realm of justice beyond formal legal justice. Since then, the term has become completely inverted: “Social justice” has become an abracadabra phrase granting the state access to every nook and cranny of life.

The reason Hayek refers to the “mirage of social justice” is quite simple: There’s no such thing. “Only situations that have been created by human will can be called just or unjust. . . . Social justice,” Hayek concludes, “does not belong to the category of effort but that of nonsense, like the term ‘a moral stone.’” The assertion that high unemployment is “unjust” is dangerously misleading nonsense. Justice creates a claim on others. So who is being unjust? The employers who cannot afford more workers? The consumers who refuse to create enough demand to justify more workers? The government, for not raising taxes to pay for labor that isn’t needed? Social justice is based on rights — social rights, economic rights, etc. — that cannot be enforced in a free society. It’s like saying “Let the market decide” in North Korea.

The only way for social justice to make sense is if you operate from the assumption that the invisible hand of the market should be amputated and replaced with the very visible hand of the state. In other words, each explicit demand for social justice carries with it the implicit but necessary requirement that the state do the fixing. And a society dedicated to the pursuit of perfect social justice must gradually move more and more decisions under the command of the state, until it is the sole moral agent.

There is, of course, a rejoinder. Hayek is working from the assumption that we do and, more important, should live in a free society, in the classical sense. That is the ideological prior conclusion, as it were, from which he launches his attack on the stupidity of social justice. I will stipulate that it is my ideological foundation as well (a shocking revelation, I know). So if you’re a progressive activist for social change and social justice, or for just plain goodness in the Smailsian sense, you are free to respond that the concept of social justice is worthwhile, but in order to do so, you must first concede that you are coming from a specific ideological perspective as well. To say “Social justice requires X” is to say the state is justified in compelling or coercing X.

And that’s the point. Social justice is not a non-ideological concept that simply draws on ethics or morality. No, it is a deeply ideological set of assumptions that most practitioners of social justice refuse to openly and sincerely acknowledge, preferring instead to roll their eyes and proclaim that they are on the side of goodness.

And this is where Hayek (praise be upon him) had it slightly wrong. Social justice isn’t so much a “mirage” as it is a Trojan horse, concealing a much more radical agenda. “Social justice” is a profoundly ideological term, masquerading as a generic term for goodness. In short, it is a tyrannical cliché, a seemingly benign truism that, like a pill with a pleasant protective coating, conceals a mind-altering substance within.

Such clichés are numerous. Some take the form of familiar phrases — “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” “Better ten guilty men go free,” “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” “Causes larger than ourselves,” etc. Others are seemingly wholesome or admirable concepts and categories — “community,” “unity,” “the center,” “sound science,” and “social justice.” But all contain within them ideological, radical, or just plain dumb ideas about the role of the state, the nature of politics, or man’s place in the world.

These clichés serve progressive ends because they allow those spouting them to hide their ideological biases in plain sight. Progressive ideas about the world are every bit as ideological as conservative ideas, and often far more so. But progressives won’t admit it, not even to themselves. Instead, they insist they are non-ideological, concerned only with “what works.”

“My interest is finding something that works,” Barack Obama told CBS’s 60 Minutes at the dawn of his administration. “And whether it’s coming from FDR or it’s coming from Ronald Reagan, if the idea is right for the times then we’re gonna apply it. And things that don’t work, we’re gonna get rid of.”

Obama was alluding to FDR’s famous promise (at Oglethorpe University in 1932) to pursue “bold, persistent experimentation” to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s vow was itself a homage to the reigning philosophical pose of American liberalism at the time: pragmatism. Self-anointed champions of the “pragmatic method,” the progressives believed they were anti-ideologues, experts and technicians using the most scientifically advanced methods to replace the failed liberal-democratic capitalism of the 19th century. Words like “philosophy,” “dogma,” “principle,” and “ideology” were out, and terms like “progress,” “method,” “action,” “technique,” and “disinterestedness” were in. When Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and author of the progressive bible The Promise of American Life, was accused of violating liberal principles when he supported Italy’s great modernizer, Benito Mussolini, Croly replied that the flagship journal of American liberalism was in fact “not an exponent of liberal principles.” Indeed, “if there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity.”

This has been the primary disguise of liberalism ever since: “We’re not ideologues, we’re pragmatists! And if only you crazy ideologues” — “market fundamentalists,” “right-wingers,” “zealots,” “dogmatists,” etc. — “would just get out of the way and let us do what all smart people agree is the smart thing to do, we could fix all the problems facing us today.” It’s a variant of the old “scientific socialism” that exonerated the Left from the charge of ideological bias. “We’re not seizing the means of production and these great vacation homes because we want to — it’s science!” The subtext is always clear: People who disagree with liberalism do so because they are deranged, brainwashed, corrupt, selfish, or stupid. In his 1962 Yale commencement address, President Kennedy explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the previous March he had told the country, “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” And therefore we needed people like him and his Whiz Kids to “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.”

“Pragmatism” and “ideology” have themselves become clichés. Liberals are smart and realistic because they do smart and realistic things; smart and realistic things are the things liberals do. Conservatives, meanwhile, are ideologues who don’t live in the reality-based community; the things they do are by definition ideological, because conservatives do them.

While I’m sure the notion that Obama has focused like a laser on “what works” is the subject of a fantastic new rap video coming out from the GSA later this summer, for most of us, the idea that he has been a pragmatist is the sort of statement that summons coffee through the nose. The enduring strength of both conservatism and libertarianism as intellectual movements is that they acknowledge that they are, in fact, intellectual movements. We not only know what we believe, we know why we believe it. But while liberals know what they believe, they have a hard time explaining why they believe it. That’s because, as E. J. Dionne, Martin Peretz, and other liberals have written, they’ve turned their backs on their own intellectual history. Liberals, in Peretz’s memorable phrase, are “bookless,” so they follow an ideology without knowing why it upholds and cherishes its ideas. As a result, they don’t know when, or how, to subordinate their ideology to larger concerns (and when you cease to be aware that you have an ideology, it doesn’t make you a pragmatist; it makes you a dogmatist).

Driven by feelings more than fact, they seek rationalizations. Or as William Voegeli puts it in his book Never Enough, liberalism has lost its ability to articulate a “limiting principle” to the size, cost, and ambition of government. Indeed, as we saw during the oral arguments before the Supreme Court over Obamacare, this administration is incapable of articulating any principled limit to the apparently infinite powers of the Commerce Clause and the living Constitution.

There’s perhaps no better proof that liberals are terrified of admitting their own ideological aspirations than the effort to mint fresh clichés to preserve the integrity of old ones. That’s the apparent goal of the group No Labels, whose official motto is “Put the Labels Aside. Do What’s Best for America.” (Or at least that’s one of them; for a group that doesn’t like labels, they sure have a lot of mottoes.)

Their mission statement goes on: “We are Democrats, Republicans, and Independents who are united in the belief that we do not have to give up our labels, merely put them aside to do what’s best for America.” Elsewhere on its website the organization likens itself to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), which it describes as an area designed by North and South Koreans alike for “cool heads” to craft “elegant solutions.”

Just for the record, the Korean DMZ is one of the most heavily mined and dangerous places in the world, with soldiers on each side waiting for the slightest provocation to launch a devastating war. It’s a place where nothing fruitful has happened for half a century. Moreover, the DMZ is the demarcation point between the fundamentally decent, prosperous, and democratic nation of South Korea and the fundamentally evil, impoverished, and totalitarian criminal regime of the Kims — hardly an apt metaphor for No Labels’ professed we’re-all-in-this-together spirit. But those kinds of distinctions matter only if you’re the shallow kind of person who’s into labels.

More to the point, the notion that we should give up our labels is an ancient grift, a venerable con, a time-honored ruse used by ideologues to clear the field of opposition (as I chronicle at some length in my new book, the tactic was pioneered by none other than Napoleon Bonaparte, who invented the practice of using “ideologue” as an epithet). This Jedi mind trick has two parts. First, the liberal says: “In the spirit of civic cooperation and problem-solving, we must all abandon our ideological priorities!” Then comes the implicit Step 2: “So we must accept my ideological priorities as fact and wisdom.” It’s like saying “Nice doggie” until you can find a rock.

You never hear people say, “We’ve got to get beyond labels for the good of the country. So that’s why I am abandoning all of my principles and agreeing with you.”

In past decades, the serious Left was at least a bit more honest about this game. That’s why John Dewey begged the American Socialist party to abandon the label “socialist” but keep the policies. Earl Browder pushed the Communist party to brand itself as “20th-century Americanism.” And, as historian Ronald Radosh has chronicled, this has also been the tactic of Browder’s heirs, down to Obama’s erstwhile “green-jobs czar” Van Jones, who gave up honestly proselytizing Marxism in order to sell his wares with more attractive packaging. “I’m willing to forgo the cheap satisfaction of the radical pose for the deep satisfaction of radical ends,” he explained in a 2005 interview.

Today the grift is played by liberals who don’t even seem to understand what they’re up to. For instance, whenever Arianna Huffington is accused of spewing boilerplate leftism, she responds with a long, canned answer about how the left-right paradigm has outlived its usefulness. Here she is on CNN: “This whole framing as a right-versus-left debate — a liberal-versus-conservative debate — is completely flawed. It’s obsolete. It’s making it much harder for us to solve our problems as a country.” And here she is ranting in one of the books with her name on it: “Someone please alert the media: not every issue fits into your cherished right/left paradigm. Indeed, that way of looking at the world is becoming less and less relevant — and more and more obsolete.”

This argument might have been a teeny-weeny bit more compelling if it hadn’t appeared in a left-wing screed of a book titled “Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe (And What You Need to Know to End the Madness).” For Huffington the anti-ideologue, only one ideological perspective is too ideological.

The most basic problem with “I don’t believe in labels” talk is that it is incandescently stupid. “Label” is another word for “word.” Everything we associate with civilization, decency, and progress depends on labels. If we cannot label something poisonous, people will die. Similarly, labeling policies, or politicians or commentators, with ideological or party identifiers helps make clear their underlying assumptions and values. If you cannot understand why having a rule against labels is such a terrible idea, I urge you to march into your kitchen and peel the wrappers off all of your cleaning supplies, prescription drugs, and canned goods. Natural selection will take care of the rest in due time. (Though in many cases, refusing to label politicians is like refusing to label men and women by gender; the difference is usually easy to see regardless.)

The coming election will be a terrible test for liberalism. On one hand, Obama speaks almost entirely in the progressive language of clichés. He describes the world through the ideologically loaded tropes of the campus worldview, all while insisting he’s nothing more than a pragmatist stymied in his reasonable, American quest for social justice. But you can see in Obama, particularly the Obama of Osawatomie, a burning desire to shed the pretense and admit what he truly he is: a thoroughgoing, progressive man of the Left. The problem with that is obvious: If you let the troops out of the Trojan horse and into broad daylight, you are inviting a fair fight in the war of ideas. And a fair fight is the last thing progressives want.

– Mr. Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas goes on sale May 1.

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