Interviewing Jonah Goldberg About His New Book, “The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.”
Earlier this week, I interviewed Jonah Goldberg about his outstanding new book, The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.
If you’re looking for a book about politics that isn’t just a regurgitation of things you already know or so topical that you can throw it out in a couple of years, I would not hesitate to recommend “The Tyranny of Cliches” to you. It covers timeless subject matter, the research is outstanding, and Goldberg’s a clever writer who keeps the book moving.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. Enjoy!
Here’s your first question: Is Piers Morgan kind of a jerk?
Piers Morgan was definitely a jerk in my first interview with him and he tried very, very hard not to seem like a jerk in the second interview with him. I don’t have a really great answer about what kind of person he is in his actual real life. I thought that he got himself in over his head a little bit in our first interview and tried to kill me with kindness in the second one. At some point you have to take people for their word when they sort of say we got off on the wrong foot and all of that. So, I feel like, barring any other evidence, I have got to take him at his word.
You talked about Centrists in the introduction to your book and I thought it was exceptionally good. I actually put up an excerpt from that on my Web page today. What’s your problem with moderates, Jonah?
Well, first of all they tend to be really salty when you cook them.
I have no problem with people if they have a position on the role of government. I may disagree with the substance of their position. But if their view is that they’re for a modified welfare state and they’re for certain policies that we tend to describe as centrist or moderate and all the rest, that’s fine.
What bothers me is when we elevate this idea that splitting the difference is in and of itself a more exalted and intellectually substantive position. The one thing you can say about serious conservatives and serious progressives is that we actually have a coherent view about the role of the state, the role of society, man’s place in the world and all that kind of thing.
Moderates, they’re sort of the Laodicea of the Bible. They’re neither too hot nor too cold. They’re just sort of sausage spined about these kinds of things and I think society gets into trouble when we start elevating people who think compromise is a value in and of itself regardless of what we’re compromising about. If I say two plus two is four and you say two plus two is ten, the person who champions the compromise of six is not a hero. He’s an idiot and at the very least I would like the moderates, centrists and the likes to defend the substance of their positions without appealing to the fake authority of centrism or moderation.
Now Obama did particularly well with the youth vote in the last election. Over the last few years, believe it or not, I’ve actually noticed several liberal bloggers pushing the idea that we should lower the voting age even further — since their future is on the line here. In the book you go out of your way to hammer home the point that 18-year olds are really dumb. Should we perhaps be thinking about moving the voting age in the other direction?
If I got to make policy, I would keep the voting age at 18 or maybe I’d raise it to about 25. But one thing I would definitely do is make everybody take a test. We don’t say that when you turn 16 you can drive, we say when you turn 16 you’re eligible to drive, which means you have to pass a test in order to be able to drive. Immigrants have to take a test and know the three branches of government, who the Founding Fathers are; they have to know about the Bill of Rights. They have to know those things. It seems to me that if immigrants have to know that stuff to become citizens and be able to vote, then I don’t see any principled objections why citizens who are born here shouldn’t have to take a similar test to be able to vote. I generally think that voting is too easy in this country and that if people want to value their citizenship, we should make it a little harder because things that are harder, we value more.
In terms of the youth, we have a popular culture that exalts young people simply because they’re young and I have a deep and abiding contempt for youth politics, certainly as it’s practiced on the Left. I like and work with a lot of young conservative organizations, but you know one of the things that the Young America’s Foundation does is actually teach kids why they should have a healthy respect for the past. The assumption that we have to cater to young people because they’re young and they’re the future and all that kind of stuff is just a naked form of power worship. It assumes that since they’re going to run everything one day, we might as well cave into them now. This completely turns the idea of civilization on its head. Hannah Arendt once said, “Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them ‘children.'” If then the logical extension of this argument that we should lower the voting age even more, why not just, you know, lower it to the age of three and then toddlers can all elect Elmo president….
He’d do a better job.
He may well, but we assume that simply because you’re young and you don’t know anything that somehow you have this better insight into the world, than if you’ve lived a little and you had real experience and you’re educated. At some point, society is going to have to straighten that out. Young people get a huge break anyway. They’re young, they’re having fun, they look better than old people, their bodies don’t hurt, and they’re having a good time. We don’t need to also say that they’re the best political philosophers and adjudicators of policy in the country because they’re not. Let them have fun being young people, but don’t tell me I have to defer to them simply because they know less than I do.
Isn’t it better that 10 guilty free than one innocent man be punished, Jonah?
The principle that we should give the accused the benefit of the doubt and have a standard of a reasonable doubt in criminal proceeding — I agree with all of that — and I don’t know anybody who disagrees with any of that. My objection is people say, “Look, all I think is that it’s better that 10 guilty men go free than one innocent man go to jail.” Then they stop talking as if they’ve made an argument. The problem with the cliché is that it’s a statement of principle and it’s a principle that nobody disagrees with.
So the real hard thinking is, “Okay how do we apply that principle?” Because if you take it to its logical extension, then we can’t have prisons at all because we might risk imprisoning somebody who doesn’t deserve to be imprisoned. If you take liberals at their word that they aren’t ideologically driven and it’s just a factual statement, well then it’s palpably idiotic because you can make a very strong utilitarian argument that 10 murders and rapists out on the street are far worse for society than one poor, innocent accountant unfairly thrown in jail.
Let me read a quote from the book, “Those yearning for a Muslim Martin Luther don’t realize there are Muslim Martin Luther’s all over the place and they’ve been fermenting religious oppression and cruelty in the Middle East and terrorism abroad for generations now.” What did you mean by that?
Well, I wasn’t trying to say that Martin Luther was a terrorist. I’m not trying to do it backwards like that, but you know there is this bias that we have in our discussion about the Middle East. We say, “Oh, we’re waiting for a Muslim Martin Luther” and sometimes people even say we’re waiting for a Muslim Martin Luther King. I would love to have a Muslim Martin Luther King — a Muslim Martin Luther King practicing non-violence and peaceful democratic action and all that kind of stuff. I mean, Martin Luther King’s economic views were batty, but he was definitely a force for justice and goodness and I think the Middle East could use someone like that.
But Martin Luther was a profoundly pious Catholic. His critique of the Catholic Church wasn’t that it was too religious, that it was too dogmatic, it was that it wasn’t righteous enough. His critique was that it became too worldly. If you go back and you look at the early Protestants that swept forth across Europe, these were not moderates as we think of them today. These were true religious zealots who were passionately trying to get closer to God.
Some of the ideas that came out of the reformation are indispensable to modernity. We wouldn’t have the American founding without it, but they weren’t compromisers. They were true believers and that’s what in many ways the Wahabi’s and the Salafists are. They were reactions to the worldliness of the Ottoman Empire. They thought it was too corrupt, much like Martin Luther thought the Catholic Church was too corrupt.
Perhaps the cliché that most annoys me that you covered in the book is spiritual, but not religious. To me that’s kind of like saying you hope this is a pass/fail class and God’s grading on the curve. Talk about that. What’s the problem with being spiritual but not religious?
There are a bunch of problems with it. You know Glenn Reynolds makes a good point when he says the people who say they’re spiritual, but not religious are basically giving license to their instincts. They’re basically saying that if it feels good, do it. I want to pursue my own gut desires or sexual desires and religion works exactly the opposite way. Religion serves to constrain the excesses of human nature, to make us better than just animals walking upright.
And every so often you find in popular culture this whole idea that spirituality is something to extol and explore and celebrate and it’s wonderful and karma and crystals and reincarnation and all these wonderful things that are in tune with nature. At the same time, the same people who buy all this stuff say, “Oh, I don’t understand why those Catholics are so superstitious. I don’t understand why those Christians believe that crazy stuff.” What’s so infuriating about it is that Christianity and certainly Judaism has spent a long time thinking through spirituality and trying to codify it and understand it and channel it to make men better than they were born to be. Yet, there is a smug self-satisfaction among the champions of spirituality who think that all of these people who came before them and dedicated their lives to thinking these issues through were idiots. They think they can figure it all out if they just sit in a yoga position.
Last question, Jonah. Everybody knows liberals are pro-science and conservatives are anti-science, right?
This is one of the topics that I think could be a whole book. There is this core assumption that liberalism is on the side of science and before liberals were making this argument, Marxists were making this argument. There was the whole idea about scientific socialism, that basically you were suffering from false consciousness, that you had been somehow brainwashed if you disagreed with Marxism because Marxism was obviously objectively scientific fact.
I don’t for a moment claim that Republicans or conservatives have a monopoly on science. There are a lot of people out there who have views about evolution I disagree with. There are a lot of people out there who are not willing to even listen to the scientific arguments about global warming. What I object to is this idea that liberals have the monopoly on it. There is this whole book out by this guy Chris Mooney that says that liberals are simply open to science because their brains are hardwired to think rationally in ways that conservative brains aren’t. Invariably when you actually look at these things closely, what are considered the benchmarks of support or opposition to science have less to do with the actual science and more to do with the preferred public policies that flow from them.
So let’s just say for the sake of argument, that I agree with everything that the global warming alarmists say about the earth getting warmer — that man is causing it and all of this. That does not require that I agree with them about the solutions. One of the reasons why conservatives are right to be suspicious of global warming is that it confirms the exact same suite of policy approaches that these people were arguing for when they were worried about a population bomb. You know, managed scarcity, throw a wet blanket on capitalism, manage the economy.
If I say, “Hey, you know what we should really do is think about ways to fix the problem” — if my kid has a fever, I’m not going to go spend a lot of time worrying about how my kid got the fever. I’m going to want to treat the fever or even the underlying disease that’s causing the fever. But if you talk about geo-engineering, which is this approach of sort of fixing the climate, most liberals treat it as if you were trying to turn a church into a stable. They think it’s just absolutely sacrilegious and you can do the same thing with DDT, nuclear power, or the evidence that fetuses feel pain when they’re aborted. Talk about any of these things and because they undermine the policy preferences of liberals, they simply don’t count as proof that science is on your side.
Jonah, really appreciate your time.