I’ve praised Jonah Goldberg’s The Tyranny of Cliches previously, but I just wanted to highlight a pretty perfect example of his theory in a recent issue of the New Yorker. In a piece about TED Talks—those slightly counterintuitive lectures intended to give you a new way of looking at some international problem—Nathan Heller describes the conference’s political tilt as such:
Ted is generally aligned with mainstream left-of-center views, but any policy positions it leans toward tend to be framed in terms of broad and undeniable goods: education, environmental sustainability, equal rights.
This is, unwittingly, almost the perfect distillation of Goldberg’s point. How can anyone possibly be against “education” or the “environment” or “equality”? The justice of these positions is, Heller asserts, “undeniable.” They are beyond ideology. Unfortunately, these are naught but cliches. It’s easy to be in favor of a cliche; it’s dangerous to blindly follow cliches to their logical conclusions.
Let’s just consider “education.” If you don’t think about it, it’s easy to say, “Sure, education is a goal we should strive for.” Who could be opposed to a 100 percent literacy rate? Of course, if getting from 99 percent to 100 percent entails spending a trillion dollars or removing dullards from their dullard parents and having them educated (and raised) by the state, well, maybe we wouldn’t think the cost is worth it, right? Or maybe we want to get even more ambitious: 100 percent of the population receiving undergraduate degrees. In the coming information age, who could be opposed to everyone receiving a college education? Think of all the human potential that could be unlocked, all the economic benefit we’d gain, by creating a universally highly educated workforce!
Of course, if you think about this even for a second, you’ll realize it’s insanity: the world needs as many—nay, more!—McDonalds employees as it does nuclear scientists. And you don’t need a Bachelor’s to operate a fry machine (trust me; I did just fine with one on less than a 10th grade education). OK, maybe we should just guarantee universal access to an undergraduate education. Surely no one could be opposed to that, right? Well, it depends. Are you in favor of college degrees escalating mercilessly in cost and individuals crippled by mounting debt? Because that’s what you’re in favor of if you support the government promising everyone who wants to go to college money to do so.
You could levy similar complaints against the other bullet points on Heller’s list. The point is, those goods may be “undeniable.” But only if you don’t bother really thinking about what they entail.