Sam Tanenhaus's 'Original Sin'

My note on “Original Sin” is too short to provide much detail about Tanenhaus’s evasions, misrepresentations, and general air of politically motivated mendacity, but I am happy to see that Peter Berkowitz has, in the politest possible way, waded into the fray to provide some historical detail to show just how shabby is Tanenhaus’s argument in “Original Sin.” In The Flawed Case Tying Conservatism to Racism, Berkowitz expertly picks apart Tanenhaus’s essay, which turns out to have the structure of an onion. Peel back all the layers any you are left with—nothing. “Small but telling flaws in Tanenhaus’s analysis,” Berkowitz shows, “reveal sloppiness with ideas.”

For example, he asserts that Calhoun’s doctrine advanced the lawless position that “each state was free to override the federal government, because local and sectional imperatives outweighed national ones.” Yet there is more to the South Carolinian’s doctrine than the clash of competing imperatives. Calhoun argued in the very lines from the 1831 Fort Hill Address quoted by Tanenhaus that states’ right to nullify federal law is grounded in their judgment that the law in question violates the Constitution.

And Brown v. Board of Education was not, as Tanenhaus writes, a decision that “outlawed legalized segregation”; rather, and much more restrictedly, it held that “in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” This may seem now to be a distinction without a difference, but the struggle over civil rights cannot be understood without appreciating it.

There’s a lot more in this vein, but Berkowitz is only warming up.  Whether he is talking about Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley Jr, or the journalist James J. Kilpatrick, Tanenhaus’s effort to saddle them with the charge of racism depends entirely on a congeries of misrepresentations. There are two points to bear in mind. The first concerns the deeply illiberal aims of what still, even now goes under the name “liberalism” but which is really a species of totalitarian leftism. Berkowitz is right: Tanenhaus’s “reduction of conservatism to a racially charged politics of nullification is not only illicit in its means but is also illiberal in its aim. It is an attempt to de-legitimize all dissent from left-liberal orthodoxy.”