Liberal Clichés 101: Dogmatism

(Editor’s note: The Mackinac Center welcomes author and syndicated columnist Jonah Goldberg for “An Evening with the Mackinac Center” on Friday, July 6, at the Grand Traverse Resort. Register to attend here.)

Perhaps no contemporary writer other than Thomas Sowell writes as often and as well on the misleading memes saturating public discourse than Jonah Goldberg. Goldberg’s syndicated columns and extended National Review essays frequently pause for a discussion of the logical fallacies frequently employed by the progressive cause. These small beacons of light shed on deceitful rhetorical tactics have sparked a veritable solar storm of revelation in Goldberg’s book, “The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas.”

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The title of Goldberg’s sophomore effort says it all: oft-repeated syllogisms, ad hominems, bumper-sticker phrases and sound bites have a tendency of sticking in the ol’ noggin whether their initial truths are verifiable or not. For example, if one is a proponent of so-called “social justice,” then whatever remedies pursued toward this end are ipso facto wonderful, brilliantly conceived and always preferable to the ugliness and unfairness of the status quo. Who in his or her right (or left) mind could oppose social justice?

Having covered Goldberg’s decimation of the social justice cliché elsewhere, I’d like to focus on yet other canards exposed in “The Tyranny of Clichés” in this and subsequent reviews leading up to Goldberg’s appearance on behalf of the Mackinac Center. In this particular essay, I will focus on Goldberg’s brief defense of dogma, which is a term and practice that has fallen on remarkably hard times over the past few decades. Suffice to say that utterance of the accusation of dogmatism should be enough to squelch all dissent. As no one wishes to be attacked as being on the wrong side of the social justice creed, the vast majority also desires to escape the accusation of dogmatic argumentation.

All this, as Goldberg persuasively depicts, is poppycock. There is no inherent reason why a reasonable individual adhering to an equally reasonable system of beliefs must rhetorically slip the noose of charges of dogmatism. Certainly there are both admirable and despicable dogmas, Goldberg argues, but the charge of dogmatism in and of itself is an empty slur against a neutral term.

However, the term “dogmatic” increasingly has been the go-to ad hominem employed against those who would stem the tide of progressivism. The dogmatic individual, readers understand, is a zealot who will not abide reason, reasonableness or rational analysis. Tea Party adherents, for example, are labeled dogmatic for their opposition to big government solutions to problems that may or may not exist, but simply leveling the charge of dogmatism against them isn’t nearly enough to prove them wrong. It is, in fact, dogmatic to assume Tea Party members are, to a person, irrational in holding fast to their agreement with Thomas Paine that the government is best which governs least.

The dogmatism calumny has been perpetuated endlessly by those who wish only to replace it with one of their own. Hitler, for example, is quoted by Goldberg: “As for the men close to me, who, like me, have escaped from the clutches of dogma, I’ve no reason to fear that the Church will get its hooks on them.” Goldberg retorts:

Of course not all, or even remotely most, sworn enemies of dogma embrace genocidal ideals. But that is because they uncritically embrace an equally dogmatic aversion to mass murder. We create dogmas so that we may understand what is good and right in our everyday lives; hence the Greek root of the word “dogma:” “seems good.” When the academics proclaim we must cleanse humanity of its dogmas, what they are in effect arguing is that we must shed humanity of its humanity.

Prior to this, Goldberg quotes the great G.K. Chesterton: “Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.” For it is a universal truth that humans in control of their mental faculties will be forever dogmatic. In his inaugural speech, President Obama pledged an “end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.” In that pledge and events subsequent it becomes apparent that the president wished to supplant Republican dogma with one of his own.

Science, writes Goldberg in his closing paragraphs on dogma, is neither a tonic nor a substitute for dogma due to the fact that science is also a neutral term that can be restrained or allowed to flourish unfettered by such dogmatic entities as morality and religion. Yet, any person who doubts the severity of global warming has been subjected to the charge of anti-scientific dogmatism regardless of the dubious merits of the claim.

This reader for one wishes Goldberg went one step beyond the identification of the liberal cliché of dogmatism by offering up a response. As for me, “I know I’m dogmatic, but so are you,” hardly cuts it.


Bruce Edward Walker is the former managing editor of MichiganScience at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.