Cassandra calling…

Jonah Goldberg has just written a new book entitled The Tyranny of Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. Goldberg is the bestselling author of Liberal Fascism, a book which set out to dismantle what he saw as the “progressive myths” that are passed-off as wisdom in our schools, media and politics.

Goldberg’s view of ascendant liberalism is that it portrays itself as reasonable, rational and rooted in the truth of the real world. The members of the liberal establishment claim to know what justice is and that those who oppose them don’t. If the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, he argues, the greatest trick liberals ever pulled was convincing themselves that they’re not ideological.

Goldberg identifies the ideology of non-ideology as the Trojan Horses that liberals use to cheat in the war of ideas. He argues that the grand Progressive tradition of denying an ideological agenda while pursuing it vigorously under the false-flag of reasonableness is alive and well. He holds the view that this dangerous game may lead us further down the path of self-destruction.

Golberg’s line is basically that this Trojan Horse is carrying within its belly a selection of “objective” journalists, academics and “moderate” politicians peddling some of the most radical arguments by hiding them in homespun aphorisms.  Their hero is Barack Obama who casts himself as a disciple of reason and sticks to one refrain above all others: he’s a pragmatist, opposed to the ideology and dogma of the right, solely concerned with “what works.”

Typifying this aphoristic onslaught are the following, with Goldberg’s antidote response:

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Violence never solves anything: Really? It solved our problems with the British Empire and ended slavery.

Better ten guilty men go free than one innocent man suffer: So you won’t mind if those ten guilty men move next door to you?

We need complete separation of church and state: In other words all expressions of faith should be barred from politics …except when they support liberal programs.

David Mamet, a one-time liberal who blew the whistle on that establishment in the past decade, likes the book. Mamet in his liberal days was in fact a genuine liberal. The time came, however, when he realised the shallowness of his fellow travellers. He shouted “stop”, loud and clear, in his own book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, published last year.

“What can one say”, Mamet muses over Goldberg’s book, “to the self-proclaimed ‘independent’ who never has nor ever will vote other than Democratic; or to the wise soul suggesting, of any conflict at all, “the truth must lie somewhere in between”? Mr. Goldberg reminds us that one must stand up and demand of the muddled and supine either an absolute declaration of their principles and acknowledgment of the results of actions having flowed therefrom or a straightforward admission of their intransigence in refusing a concise reply.”

Goldberg’s take on the predicament of our civilization in terms of Barack Obama casting himself as a disciple of reason – whereas in fact he is nothing more than a pragmatist who is solely concerned with “what works” – finds an echo in another assessment of our current culture by Toby Young in the current issues of The Spectator. Young is re-visiting that seminal 25 year-old book by the late Professor Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, which opened with the following sentence:

‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.’

In the intervening years since Bloom’s book was published, Young believes that this belief has become, if anything, even more ubiquitous. This all-encompassing relativism, he says, — which Bloom said was accepted as ‘a moral postulate, the condition of a free society’ — is shared by the educated and uneducated alike.

How did this happen, he asks? He first offers what he describes as a superficial answer – it is simply that children are taught to believe it.

If they happen to be studying the International Baccalaureate, they are literally taught it. One of the core requirements in the IB diploma is something called ‘Theory of Knowledge’ — or TOK for short — which is essentially a crash course in epistemological relativism. On the IB’s official website, it’s described as follows:

‘It is a stated aim of TOK that students should become aware of the interpretative nature of knowledge, including personal ideological biases, regardless of whether, ultimately, these biases are retained, revised or rejected.’

And the deeper reason? Why, he wonders, do responsible grown-ups feel a moral obligation to impose this doctrine? How did the ideas of Nietzsche and Heidegger become such an integral part of the fabric of liberal democracy?

The root of the problem, I think, is that the bonds of Western civilisation have become too weak. In our increasingly diverse and multicultural society, the only values that command anything like universal assent are procedural ones — ethics, rather than morality. We’ve been taught to value tolerance and mutual respect and to abhor racism and homophobia — essential conventions if all the different ‘communities’ are to get along — without being asked to believe in anything substantial to anchor those conventions in.

On the contrary, as Bloom observed, the prevailing orthodoxy that’s taught in our schools and universities is that one set of substantive moral values is no better than any other and to claim otherwise is to risk appearing racist or sexist. Indeed, there’s a widespread belief that the survival of the procedural conventions depends upon a general scepticism about anything deeper or more meaningful — that the one strengthens the other.

At the time, I thought of Bloom as just another Cassandra, albeit one who could write with extraordinary clarity and power. Now, as the forces of chaos gather on the darkling plain, I’m beginning to think I was wrong. Today, he looks more and more like a prophet.

Kevin Tobin, commenting on Young’s Spectator essay brings us right up to date on the state of play.

At a conference held here in the United Sates, just last week, he tells us, a spokesman for the University of Notre Dame observed that behind the current freedom of religion firestorm here lay a smug secular conviction that religious belief is mere bias and not particularly worthy of respect. That is how far the idea that truth is relative has already taken us — to a direct conflict between a secular government and millions of religious Americans. Dangerous stuff. Stay tuned.

Back in 1987, as Young says, Bloom was cast in the role of Cassandra. Not unlike Cassandra, while people were intrigued by him, not many really took him seriously enough to do anything about his dire analysis. There are now many more prophets of doom around. That they didn’t heed Cassandra in Troy was unfortunate – for Troy. That we remain beguiled by the relativism-riddled but nonetheless totalitarian clichés enumerated for us by Jonah Goldberg, and that so many cling to the idea that their personal choice is the only ground of truth, may prove to be the source of an equally great misfortune unless we come to our senses soon.

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