When I heard that Jonah Goldberg inked a $1 million book deal, I naturally wanted to read the column that apparently inspired it. Having done so, I see that Mr. Goldberg is primed to write a jeremiad against “the tyranny of cliches” such as “better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be punished,” “unless you’ve walked in a man’s shoes… you have no right to judge,” and “when one person loses his freedom we’re all a little less free.”
I share a distaste for cliches, and I can’t fault Mr. Goldberg for taking a million dollar advance to tilt against them. Unlike most of the nonsense that passes as “a conservative book” these days, it is difficult to see what harm it could cause. It isn’t as if his wrongheaded premise make him complicit in bringing Sarah Palin closer to the presidency!
But the premise of the article is surely wrongheaded, so it’s only natural to wonder if the book is going to share its flaws. How does it go astray? By asserting, as though it requires no proof, that cliches are some sort of deciding factor in America’s debates — so much so that we’re under their tyranny!
Let me give you the example that made me want to write this column in the first place. Because I’m skeptical about slippery-slope arguments, because I’ve argued that America is largely immune to becoming a totalitarian state, and because I don’t particularly care if Jose Padilla, John Walker Lindh, or Richard Reid ever get a lawyer, a lot of people keep telling me that when one person loses his freedom we’re all a little less free.
You wouldn’t believe how many famous people have offered or repeated this observation. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Eli Wiesel, Captain Jean Luc Picard, as well as countless politicians have said something to the effect of “we are only as free as the least free among us.”
Yes, people are so bowled over by the cliche about only being as free of the least free among us that Gandhi and Martin Luther King had merely to utter it, never fleshing out the sentiment with any sophistication, and as a result the Indians and black Americans respectively were free from injustice, so powerful, even tyrannical, was the faulty reasoning.
The column goes on:
It sounds nice, of course. Unfortunately, it’s also a crock, factually, logically, and morally.
First, facts and logic: Remember how we all agreed at the beginning of this column that there’s undoubtedly an innocent person in prison right now? Well, he’s not free. Are you only as free as him?
There are undoubtedly innocent men in prison?! And we’re not all obsessed with identifying them? In fact, almost none of us are? Why it’s almost as if literally no one in America behaves as if they believe that we’re only as free as the least among us… which is sorta what Mr. Goldberg is arguing, weirdly, because his larger point is supposed to be that cliches — specifically, the “only as free” cliche that inspired his column — are so tyrannically powerful.
It is going to be quite a trick to earn a seven figure advance by extending this argument in a way that doesn’t cause every halfway conscious reader to realize that they can hardly think of a single instance when someone offered a cliche as their main argument, and it won the day. Wait a moment, hasn’t every English teacher I’ve ever studied under in fact commanded that I strike cliches from my writing? And wasn’t the most shameless purveyor of cliches in recent American politics, Sarah Palin, just defeated in her bid for the vice-presidency, despite such marvelous cliches as “America must not waive the white flag of surrender ” and “You can’t blink”?
I’ll leave you with a parting sample of the column that an actual American publishing company is paying a million dollars to get at book length:
The same moral logic powers clichés like “first they came for the Jews” or “we’re only as free as the least free among us.” It is not an appeal to conscience but an appeal to the self-interest of those who fear they might be next.
Indeed, the adage “first they came for the Jews” is often used as part of an argument for the state to never “come” for anybody. I can’t tell you how many fools write me to say that the government cracking down on terrorists is akin to the government cracking down on Jews (or blacks, or gays, etc). In effect, not only does this logic hold that the government is so inept and immoral that it will be forced to “come” for other people once it’s through with the terrorists, it also implies that Jews and terrorists are somehow similar. After all, if cracking down on the Jews first is indistinguishable from cracking down on terrorists, what’s the difference between Jews and terrorists?
Admittedly, this book might actually be worth $1 million dollars if Mr. Goldberg is compelled to persuade the partisan book buying audience that we should in fact judge some books by their cover.