Sam Tanenhaus: The Architect of Decay

This week’s New York Times Book Review includes a potentially promising meditation on ideology by Stephen Metcalf, who writes about a recent essay anthology, Why I Turned Right: Leading Baby Boom Conservatives Chronicle Their Political Journey. Ensconced within this essay is Metcalf attempting to come to terms with his personal ideology, with a surprisingly uncharacteristic use of the first-person — surprisingly uncharacteristic, at least, for the Tanenhaus crew, who have continually operated as if writing in first-person was akin to shaking hands with a leper or eating an entree with a salad fork. But I must agree with Levi that Metcalf misses a significant opportunity with this revelation:

In short, I am white, privileged, middle-aged and boring. But one thing I am not, and never will be, is a conservative.

Never will be? Countless individuals have written statements like this over human history, only to live against the promise. While I commend Metcalf for copping to his alleged “privileged” and “boring” status (would Rachel Donadio ever confess anything like this?), it is a great misstep to remain so convinced that one will not change over the course of time — particularly in unexpected ways — while also closely examining a collection with contributors likely to adopt a similar position from the other side (“I own a home. I make good money. I never will be a liberal.”). This could have been a more compelling essay if Metcalf had stopped to examine the plausibilities of conservatism influencing him and others, the rhetorical similarities behind any ideology left or right, or if he had kept up his daring personal perspective throughout the piece’s entirety. Instead, we get this overly tidy generalization:

Because these conservatives were, by and large, low-status males (or the feminism-disdaining women who loved them) in high school and college, they know instinctively how to connect with the culturally dispossessed.

Whether this specific sentence came during the writing or the editing process is difficult to say, but it does fit in with the NYTBR‘s current m.o. Never let the audience contemplate a position outside of a rigid dichotomy. Ironically, this is the very position that Metcalf objects to in the anthology.

I have enjoyed some of Metcalf’s work for Slate, which often has him adopting the contrarian position, only to gradually work against this initial summation over the course of a piece. (See, for example, this essay on Bruce Springsteen.) It’s a nice approach that allows Metcalf to drift eventually to the more interesting gray areas. But I’m wondering if the NYTBR‘s rigid orthodoxy allows Metcalf to take the same intellectual liberties.


  1. “Some of my best friends are Armenians” — Ezbet Nezer speaking to the Forum of Industry and Mechanical Sciences, Trieste, 1908. The forum was brought about with much fanfare but failed to deliver the productivity gains the Turks required to defeat allied forces. Except the Australians, who were routed at Gallipoli a few short, and bitter, years later.

  2. The NYTimes Book reviews have a rigid orthodoxy? I thought Sam was just shooting hard for mediocrity. Shooting hard and NAILING IT. Yes.

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