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Bumper Sticker Bunkum

We all have our own personal gripes about the way people who disagree with us argue. Many such examples appear on the bumpers of cars. Perhaps my favorite in that genre is “War is NOT the Answer.” 

Well, that depends on the question. Want to win American independence? Free the slaves? Crush the Nazis? War worked out pretty well in those cases.

Dispelling such notions as “war is not the answer” lies at the heart of “The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.”

Think of it as an episode of “Mythbusters” turned into a political tome. The guys at the Discovery Channel are spending their time trying to figure out whether it really is easy to shoot fish in a barrel, or whether it is possible to knock someone’s socks off. Author Jonah Goldberg is performing the conservative equivalent: Is an ounce of prevention really worth a pound of cure in terms of national health care policy? Is it really better that 10 guilty men go free rather than one innocent man go to jail? 

This work covers some of the same ground — liberals refusing to come to grips with their own arguments, much less the arguments of conservatives — as Goldberg’s first best seller, “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.” This effort is less academic and less burdened by obscure references to 19th-century and early 20th-century political theory, although it is not free of these (Ludwig von Mises, call your office).

It’s also a lot more fun.

Now, that assertion comes with a caveat. If, for example, you are a liberal who often uses these kinds of shibboleths to make your case, then you’re probably not going to have much fun reading this book. You’ll grind your teeth and tear at the pages and mutter “but dissent really IS the highest form of patriotism.”

Goldberg, a nationally syndicated columnist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who cut his advocacy journalism teeth at National Review, treats the subject seriously but never gets so enraged by the inanities he is recounting that he loses his sense of humor. And if liberals can take the same step back away from their certainties, they might get a chuckle or two as well, even if most would come at their own expense.

Along the way, he busts cherished liberal myths in every chapter — nowhere more effectively than when discoursing on the use and nonuse of violence. Aside from war sometimes being the answer, Goldberg makes the reasonable assertion that those who believe most differences result from a lack of understanding don’t have much of an understanding of human relations. Best of all, he uses an example from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” to illustrate his point. (If you’ve never heard of the Judean People’s Front, you need to get out more.)

As for violence never solving anything, well, let’s ask the slaves and the colonists and post-war Europe. It would be nice, Goldberg observes, if a Gandhian adherence to nonviolence worked in every instance, but Gandhi had the advantage of dealing with the relatively humane British. “Absent the context of a liberal empire,” Goldberg writes, “he would have accomplished little or nothing.” A Gandhi in North Korea would simply disappear, never to be heard from again.

Goldberg does not pretend that conservatives are not ideological. Rather, he embraces ideology — principles grounded in a consistent view of the world — and chides liberals for pretending they’re not ideological.

They’re just for what “works.” What works, of course, is liberals getting their way. If liberals want to spend $10 billion on something, and conservatives don’t want to spend anything on it, liberals make a deal with moderates to spend $5 billion this year and call it a compromise, knowing they’ll get the other $5 billion next year. 

That’s putting ideology into practice. But it’s not a compromise. It’s modestly deferred gratification for liberals. 

In a compromise, everybody gets something. In this case, repeated ad infinitum over most of the past century, liberals get the money, moderates get to be seen as pragmatic (that’s like heroin for moderates), and conservatives get to watch as the government grows ever larger.

If the critical and liberal (is that one category or two?) reaction to Goldberg’s “Liberal Fascism” is any indication, few liberals will read “The Tyranny of Clichés.” They’ll ridicule it without reading it — which is too bad, because it contains useful lessons they could apply. 

Foremost among them is that the best arguments are made by taking the other side’s best arguments seriously. 

When a future conservative president finds it necessary to send American troops into harm’s way in defense of U.S. interests, it would be nice to have a legitimate debate about the proper uses of American power. We’ve already read the “War is NOT the Answer” bumper sticker; it wasn’t terribly helpful.

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