Review of The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas, by Jonah Goldberg, (New York, NY: Sentinel, 2012)
With proper training, and maybe a bit of experience on the debate team, it’s easy to recognize logical fallacies in an opponent’s argument. When it comes to popular give and take, the sort of thing we have so much of now on opinion websites and news channels, there hasn’t been decent preparation for arguments outside the columns and blog posts of Jonah Goldberg.
In The Tyranny of Cliches, the National Review contributor, syndicated columnist, author of the bestseller Liberal Fascism, and American Enterprise Institute fellow, convincingly demolishes the Left’s oft-repeated, bumper-sticker slogans that seemingly defy repudiation by many who fear being depicted as a heartless jackanape.
For example, if an impassioned public figure pleads that yet another government expansion and encroachment is “for the children” it is therefore ipso facto in the best interests of everyone. This is a “case-closed” logical fallacy that circumvents rational discussion by declaring that if millions of cute kids benefit, only meanies, bullies, or some contemporary amalgamation of Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, and Darth Vader could oppose it.
Not so fast. Goldberg’s new book wonderfully dissects such liberal shibboleths as “social justice,” “diversity,” attacks on organized religion in general and Roman Catholicism in particular, and “separation of church and state” to reveal the hollowness within. In this regard, Goldberg resembles most William F. Buckley, with the difference that the latter stood athwart history yelling stop, and the former stands astride postmodernism to scream “enough!”
For conservatives at large, Tyranny of Cliches has much to recommend it. For those conservatives whose worldview is built on religious faith the book is essential. It provides talking points to counter the tiresome arguments made ad nauseum about Christianity. Among them: the way the faith handicapped progress with its small-minded, sky-god adulation used to torture Galileo and other scientific martyrs; the Inquisition’s deployment of an endless supply of iron maidens to squelch religious dissent; and capitalism stealing candy from babies and forcing octogenarians to work in honey wagons and salt mines.
For the purposes of this review, let’s focus on this last – the progressives’ tried-and-true attack on capitalism, free-markets, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and Austrian economics as somewhat staunchly appositive to what they perceive in any given situation as “social justice.” Goldberg makes a compelling case that the phrase “social justice” as it is currently employed itself is evidence of sloppy intellectual rigor and all-around lazy thinking. It’s an unearned shortcut, a bathetic platitude meaning all things and, therefore, nothing. In other words, it means whatever the person using it wishes it to mean.
Goldberg correctly identifies the origin of the phrase with 19th century Catholic theologian Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio. LTDA, as the kids might call him today, coined “social justice” in his 1840 essay on natural law, which is substantially different than how it was used more recently by Birkenstock-wearing Social Catholics shouting and choking back tears and throwing fake blood on things.
True – as noted by Goldberg – the “social justice” principle was introduced to church doctrine in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII. In what appears to be an oversight, Goldberg fails to mention that Rerum Novarum’s championing of social justice also included an inferred indictment of Marxist socialism as a violation of the principle of subsidiarity, which warns against governments directly competing with private enterprise unless the “lower body” of private enterprise fails to fulfill its social responsibilities. Once the goal of attaining social responsibility is met, however, a governmental “light touch” is recommended.
If Rerum Novarum coined social justice in general and subsidiarity specifically for Catholic social teaching by sketching in various areas where these principles might be applied, Pope Pius XI’s 1931 encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno, minted both. About subsidiarity, Pius wrote: “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” Subsidiarity, properly understood, also admonishes any attempt by government to select market winners and losers.
But, once unleashed, ”social justice” became a rallying cry for Liberation Theology, Dorothy Day’s Catholic Workers of America, and other groups and individuals convinced that the efforts of some industrious few should benefit the majority of whom some – through no lack of ability whatsoever – seem bent toward perpetually residing on the receiving end of the government-enforced social compact.
Goldberg sums up the “social justice syllogism” thusly: “1) We are liberals. 2) Liberals believe it is imperative that social justice be advanced wherever we find it. 3) Therefore, whatever we believe to be imperative is social justice.” And Goldberg supplies the syllogism’s corollary: “If you oppose liberals in advancing what they want, you are against not just liberals but social justice itself.”
Under this paradigm, Golderg writes: “What hardship could there be, one wonders, what with all the free food, housing, medical care education, and well-paying jobs?” This brings to mind a comic-strip I recently saw wherein the current White House occupant promises the electorate free health care, food, housing, and clothing. He also promises jobs for everyone. The baffled crowd responds: “What do we need jobs for?”
In the cultural and political skirmishes we encounter on a near-daily basis, we could do no better than to equip ourselves for battle with the counter-arguments to liberal clichés provided by Goldberg, supported as they are with humor, history, and an ear for hubris. The Tyranny of Clichés is a tonic for the troops.