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Friday, May 4, 2012

Two Cheers for Tyrannicide

Jonah Goldberg catches liberals cheating again -- big time.

The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas
By Jonah Goldberg
(Sentinel, 312 pages, $27.95)

Like that humble survivor, the common cockroach, the cliché will always be with us…and that is not entirely a bad thing. Carefully chosen and properly applied, a cliché can become a concentrated dose of common sense, folk wisdom or simple truth. When, way back in the 1960s, then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey warned that pressuring the South Vietnamese government to negotiate power sharing with the communist Viet Cong would be like “letting the fox into the chicken coop,” he was using a cliché. But he was using it as an effective image to reinforce a valid point. (All too valid, as subsequent events would prove.)

At its best, a cliché is a triumph of linguistic Darwinism: one of that small, brave band of phrases that acquire lasting resonance and find a permanent—or at least long-term—place in the language and life of a people. Unfortunately, like so many of us, clichés are seldom at their best…and we notice them most at their least favorable moments. No one understood this better than Frank Sullivan, a talented contributor to the New Yorker during its long-gone salad days (to use an appropriate cliché), when most of its articles still managed to be as clever as its cartoons. Today Sullivan is best remembered, by those who remember him at all, as the creator of Mr. Arbuthnot, “The Cliché Expert.”

Mr. Arbuthnot skewered clichés and their user/abusers by reeling them off ad absurdum. For example, when asked what he did for exercise in the country, Mr. Arbuthnot replied: “I keep the wolf at the door, let the cat out of the bag, take the bull by the horns, count my chickens before they are hatched and see that the horse isn’t put before the cart or stolen before I lock the barn door.

Unfortunately, although his creator didn’t die until 1976, Mr. Arbuthnot’s appearances in the New Yorker were confined to the years between 1934 and 1952. It was almost half a century before another popular writer took up the cudgel (yet another appropriate cliché); in 2001, Martin Amis, one of England’s leading contemporary novelists—and the son of the great Kingsley Amis—decided to call a compilation of his best essays and criticism, The War Against Cliché. While not, strictly speaking, a polemic against the cliché itself, the Amis book demonstrated its author’s lifelong opposition to the trite, the shoddy, and the false…when and how he recognized them. Eleven years later, in a book that often reads more like a kindred collection of miscellaneous pieces than a unified text, Jonah Goldberg, a prolific and often penetrating conservative columnist and commentator, has declared war in his turn on what he calls the “tyranny” of clichés, especially as that tyranny is practiced by liberal ideologues.

Readers who enjoyed Mr. Goldberg’s first book, Liberal Fascism, will find plenty to appreciate in The Tyranny of Clichés. The same high energy, nimble argument and welcome flashes of humor that helped to make Liberal Fascism a best-seller are on ample display here, and, if one is willing to accept The Tyranny of Clichés as an exercise in advocacy rather than belles lettres, there is much to admire and little to complain of. In 24 short, not-always-cohesive chapters, Mr. Goldberg takes on—and usually bests—liberal semantic folly and abuse in fields as vast and varied as ideology, pragmatism, diversity, dogma, dissent, science, and religion. His writing is never dull, but there are times when less (to use another appropriate cliché) might have been better than more. In his effort to dazzle the reader, Mr. Goldberg sometimes piles on superfluous layers of marginal trivia the way someone’s elderly aunt might clutter a small collection of genuine objets d’art with a few too many tchotchkes.

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