Sam Tanenhaus's 'Original Sin'
This month in The New Criterion, I have a short note about “Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People,” Sam Tanenhaus’s tendentious and interminable article in a recent New Republic about how awful and racist the GOP is and why they will never, ever be able to redeem themselves until they give up on being nasty conservatives and start thinking just like — well, just like Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and therefore a man who has the right (i.e., the approved left-wing) opinions about everything.
As I observe in my note, what makes “Original Sin” so odd is what I call its “historical legerdemain.”
When it comes to racism, the elephant in the room for Democrats is the unhappy historical fact that the Democratic Party was the party of slavery in the nineteenth century, the party of segregation for much of the twentieth century, and the party of multicultural neo-segregation today. Tanenhaus does not put it quite like that, but his essay slyly acknowledges the first two items. When it comes to contemporary realities, however, he argues that conservatives, by opposing identity politics and supporting the ideal of limited government, have slid under the wheels of history. The changing demographic complexion of America, he says, has consigned the GOP to bitter irrelevance. Searching for an intellectual paterfamilias for this drama, he settles on Lincoln’s great antagonist John C. Calhoun. The reasoning goes something like this: Calhoun supported states’ rights and limited government. He worried about the tyranny of the majority. He also supported slavery. Conservatives support states’ rights and limited government, they worry about the tyranny of the majority, ergo they are racists.
Not much of an argument, is it? In many ways, Tanenhaus’s piece is reminiscent of his earlier exercise in ill-informed polemical logorrhea, The Death of Conservatism, which, like “Original Sin,” started life as a bloated article in The New Republic before darkening a few acres of wood pulp in its appearance between covers and on remainder shelves across the country. James Piereson treated that opuscule to at least some of the withering criticism it deserved in The New Criterion. That book disappeared without trace since the 2010 mid-term election did for his thesis what Cato’s denunciation helped do for Carthage.
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.”
The second point revolves around the ideology for which Tanenhaus has been cheerleading: the big-government, stick-your-nose-in-everyone’s-business version of bureaucratic leftism that defines the Democratic (and, alas, much of the Republican) Party’s elite. “The progressives’ case for entrusting government with more and more power,” Berkowtiz observes, “depends in part on the trustworthiness of government officials. If the editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review and the editors of The New Republic can’t be trusted to present history and restate their political opponents views without flagrant distortion, why should partisan politicians on the left (or the right, for that matter) be trusted to exercise responsibly ever-expanding government power?” Good question.
But as I noted in my note for The New Criterion,
But historical accuracy is not part of Tanenhaus’s brief. Like "The Death of Conservatism," "Original Sin" is an attempt at political demolition masquerading as journalism. It tells us a lot about The New York Times in its present configuration that the editor of its book review should be the author of such an intellectually dishonest, politically mischievous, and morally repellent essay.