The Tyranny Blog

Tim Noah’s Best Effort

In the Tyranny of Clichés, I directly criticize the founding editor of The New Republic, Herbert Croly, a half-dozen times. I openly refute arguments made by numerous liberals associated with the magazine, including Jonathan Chait, longtime “TRB” columnist and until recently a senior editor. The list hardly ends there. Indeed, the magazine itself comes up quite a few times, in large part because The New Republic, historically, is foundational to liberalism in much the same way National Review is to post-war conservatism. And so The New Republic, in a small way at least, is a central bit of evidence for the argument I make.

I bring this up because one might think that the New Republic would feel like it has some skin in the game, as it were.  So I was intrigued to hear that Timothy Noah, Chait’s successor if not exactly his replacement, had tackled my book in the latest issue.

Before we get to that, for the sake of clarity, let me briefly restate the foundational argument of the book.  I contend that liberals have deluded themselves into believing they are non-ideologues (or mere “Fact Finders” as Chait famously put it in a 2005 New Republic essay). Liberals are largely cut-off from their own intellectual history. “It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying,” wrote former New Republic owner and editor-in-chief Martin Peretz, in the 90th anniversary issue of The New Republic no less. I argue that this is a natural consequence of liberalism’s embrace of philosophical pragmatism – a school of thought significantly developed in the pages of The New Republic. Pragmatism oriented the liberal mind towards activity and power and away from ideas and principles. As I write on page 65:

The American public has soured on liberalism’s claims of pragmatism since the 1960s. People understand that it is an ideological approach, even if many liberal ideologues deny it. But they still play this game. They’re still convinced that their agenda is nonideological, focused simply on what works. This has put liberals in a terrible box. They desperately want to argue for ideological principles, but they’ve cut them- selves off from the authority of those very same principles. Herbert Croly, founder of the flagship liberal journal The New Republic and author of the Progressive bible, The Promise of American Life, responded to attacks that he and his magazine were supporting Mussolini too ardently by noting that The New Republic was “not an exponent of liberal principles.” Indeed, “[i]f 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.”

As a result of liberalism’s cultivated deracination and its empirical pose, liberals are ill-equipped or unwilling to discuss their ideological commitments openly (there are obvious individual exceptions to this rule, of course). Instead they advance their arguments through ideologically loaded but seemingly innocuous clichés,  appeals to emotion and rank assertions of their empirical superiority. When you bring up the fact they are ideologues, they tend to change the subject. When you point out how so much of their arguments are advanced through clichés, they fall back on tu quoque arguments (i.e. you do it too!).  

The problem with the “you do it too!” charge is that it is beside the point. Moreover, I do not argue that conservatives are without their own clichés. Indeed, I say so quite a few times in the book.  For instance, I write:

I do not claim that that the conservative mind isn’t bound by clichés from time to time, or that my collection exhausts the subjects covered, never mind those not covered. But I would and do argue that conservatives are more honest about their indebtedness to ideology. We declare our principles and make our arguments more openly. My only humble hope is that what I write here helps people, conservatives and liberals alike, rethink the way they understand the world around them, and maybe enjoy themselves a bit in the process.

In short, the point is that liberalism relies on clichéd ideas as a way to compensate for the fact that liberals want to hide their ideology (this partly explains why so few Americans identify themselves as liberals). Conservatives (and libertarians), for the most part, do not play the same game because they are open about their (our) ideological commitments.

Anyway, if you’ve read the book, followed this blog, or even heard any of the countless interviews I’ve given on this subject, you’d know this is where I’m coming from.

You wouldn’t, however, get nearly so clear a sense from reading Tim Noah’s predictably dim take on my book.

For instance, read the above excerpt from the book again.

Now read Noah’s opening paragraph:

In his new book, The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, Jonah Goldberg argues that liberals “advance ideological agendas that would expand and enhance the State’s mastery over our lives” by parroting hoary maxims and phrases. That bit alleging subjugation by the capital-S State is right-wing cant, but Goldberg’s accusation that liberals often spout clichés is so unchallengeable that I marvel he got a whole book out of it. Yet Goldberg won’t admit that conservatives often do the same. “I do not claim that the conservative mind isn’t bound by clichés from time to time,” Goldberg concedes in his introductory chapter (italics mine). But they don’t do it as much as liberals, because conservatives “make our arguments more openly.” In effect, Goldberg is arguing that liberals are more smug, and, since clichés are the lingua franca of smug people, liberals spout them more. You don’t have to be liberal to find such reasoning a bit … smug.

See what he does here. He takes my open admission that conservatives often use clichés and then says “Yet Goldberg won’t admit that conservatives often do the same.” I suppose Noah wants to hang a great deal of importance on the difference between “from time to time” and “often.” I’ll happily concede conservatives often use clichés. What they don’t often do is deny they are conservatives.

He says my “bit alleging subjugation by the capital-S State is right-wing cant.” No it’s part of a sustained argument about the ideological nature of liberalism.

And so on.

He has to play this lame game of bad faith primarily because it’s his nature but also because his real aim is to hackishly spout off about conservative clichés.  That’s fine. Though on that front, I will say that he misses another point of the book. For the most part I try to entertain and amuse the reader when I talk about specific liberal clichés. Noah does beat me in terms of concision, but he fails in his effort to entertain or amuse.

I’m not much interested in responding to them, because I find Noah’s tu quoque arguments banal and non-responsive. Besides, I think Dan McLaughlin has rebutted Noah’s “sad parade” as well or better than I could.

Still, I find it amusing and a little sad that this is the best Herbert Croly’s magazine can manage.


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