Modes of Existence

Adam Shatz · Tanenhaus on Franzen

Sam Tanenhaus, reviewing Jonathan Franzen's Freedom in the New York Times Book Review, writes:

Liberals, no less than conservatives — and for that matter revolutionaries and reactionaries; in other words, all of us — believe some modes of existence are superior to others. But only the liberal, committed to a vision of harmonious communal pluralism, is unsettled by this truth. This is why a Ramsey Hill pioneer like Patty Berglund [one of Franzen's characters] will suffer torments of indecision when thinking how best to “respond when a poor person of color accused you of destroying her neighborhood.”

If Tanenhaus weren't the editor of the Book Review, you'd wonder how this got past the editor. Never mind the confusion between liberalism and relativism. Is he really suggesting that a middle-class white person's 'mode of existence' is ‘superior' to that of a poor person of colour, and that the gentrifier's rights trump those of a slum dweller by virtue of that superiority?


  • 31 August 2010 at 7:24am
    Imperialist says:
    Tanenhaus might want to read Jerry Fodor in the London Review for a refresher course on the distinction between epistemology and, say, metaethics.

  • 31 August 2010 at 1:43pm
    coolraoul says:
    Whatever its superiority or inferiority, Raoul's mode of existence is definitely cooler than this Tanenhaus's.

  • 31 August 2010 at 2:18pm
    Patrick Campbell says:
    I'm don't think that he's suggesting that a middle-class white person’s ‘mode of existence’ is ‘superior’ to that of a poor person of colour: I think he's asserting that, as he writes, 'all of us — believe some modes of existence are superior to others.'

    • 31 August 2010 at 3:11pm
      aisia says: @ Patrick Campbell
      Well yes, but surely the point here is that he’s chosen to tie this idea about some modes of existence being superior to others with an encounter between a middle class white person encountering a poor person of colour, with the implication that the white person would have behaved differently if he had believed in the superiority of certain modes of existence over others, and that it was aberrant that the white person should not believe in this. The suggestion is glaring, even if it is unintended, that it is only natural for a white person to believe that a poorer black person lives out an inferior mode of existence.

    • 1 September 2010 at 9:28am
      Joe Morison says: @ aisia
      This is a small point, but it always annoys me. 'White' people are not white, we are all 'of colour'. When my children were little i used to tell them that i was pink, their mother brown, and that they were gold.

  • 31 August 2010 at 8:49pm
    A.J.P. Crown says:
    A little googling shows that, as well as being editor of the NY Times's Sunday book review, Sam Tanenhaus is a conservative who wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers. Apparently he's currently writing one about William F. Buckley. If he lived in Britain, he'd surely work at the Telegraph or a Murdoch paper. Just to be quite clear: the NY Times is a conservative paper.

    • 2 September 2010 at 9:28pm
      matthew boudway says: @ A.J.P. Crown
      A little googling is a dangerous thing. The fact that Tanenhaus wrote a sympathetic biography of Wittaker Chambers and is now at work on a biography of William F. Buckley does not make him a conservative. If he were a conservative and wanted to work for a conservative, Murdoch-owned paper, he could stay right here in New York and work at the Wall Street Journal.

  • 1 September 2010 at 4:41pm
    lostlit says:
    What, so you're all out to get this guy now? Shameful liberals. I think he's saying that everyone (try to deny it, regardless of race) no matter how well-intentioned toward others one might be, in their core, thinks their being, their existence is the superior mode; otherwise, why would you live it? This idea does not inherently suggest race or racism.

    If you carry this sense to Franzen's novel in which there is an American, white, middle class liberal woman whose guilt of material privilege is confronted by one of little material privilege (and in the U.S. this guilt is only made manifest when it is white to black; white liberals do not give a hoot for materially disenfranchised white people) you can see Tanenhaus's point. She is unsettled by the truth of superior existences because she feels guilty for thinking her mode of existence is superior to the poor, black person's. The incorporation of race into the idea of superior modes is specific to the character, not to Tanenhaus's comment. Trust me, there is a lot of white, middle class liberals who, in tormented self-righteousness, pretend to be for that harmonious pluralism but cannot shake their guilt for thinking they are superior to poor colored people. I've known them. I was one until I taught in an inner-city school (to cleanse myself of guilt, no doubt) and now I see less that I am superior and more that I was guilty of something, but I'm not sure what. Not true, I do know! I was guilty of thinking I was superior to poor colored people!

    Tanenhaus, I don't think, is saying that this idea of superior modes is inherently racist but that it translates well to the white, liberals in America who suffer the guilt of believing theirs is superior with regard to race, those whom Franzen portrays expertly.

    I also suspect Mr Shatz, in calling Tanenhaus out so confidently, must suffer his own uncertainty of what a superior or inferior existence might look like since he drags the point into a gross generalization of what Tanenhaus is "really suggesting". And though his point on the example of Liberalism as opposed to Relativism is correct with regard to the philosophical definitions of those terms, he is incorrect to attribute this mistake to Tanenhaus. He never made it, not in that paragraph. A liberal in this country is different from Liberalism. And liberals in the U.S. - though their politics tend toward relativism - do consider and call themselves liberals. This is a review of fiction where real life, real cultural truths are explained or sketched; this is not a treatise on present-day American politics.

    • 3 September 2010 at 2:36pm
      Niall Anderson says: @ lostlit
      "The incorporation of race into the idea of superior modes is specific to the character, not to Tanenhaus’s comment"

      It's specific to both, you big silly. The problem is that Tanehaus doesn't see what he's implied. He may have done it in error, but it's a pretty revealing error.

    • 4 September 2010 at 11:46am
      lostlit says: @ Niall Anderson
      It may be an implication but it's an implication you really have to look for. And I don't see it.

  • 1 September 2010 at 6:39pm
    loxhore says:
    I'm a liberal and I believe that successful people value success more highly in what they're than what others are successful at.

  • 17 September 2010 at 11:58am
    outofdate says:
    Just got round to reading it (moniker's no accident), but for what it's worth: he's just saying lots of people think their mode of being is better than other people's but only 'liberals', in the American sense of the word and as depicted in the novel, are prone to bellyaching about it.

    First of all, the main characters in the novel do think their mode of being is better than others' -- they think they live more ethical lives -- and keep running into walls, often in the shape of their children and neighbours. Liberals, or call them progressives, who wish to improve the world and ‘change the mindset’ of the benighted by definition know their mode of being to be superior; as witness middle-class, middle-aged Guardian columnists who think the British Collective of Prostitutes must be either brainwashed or acting under duress because no path they would not themselves contemplate could possibly be freely and rationally chosen; or Adam Shatz professing himself shocked that Tanenhaus’ sentence ‘got past the editors’ since if he was in charge he’d no doubt police such thoughts with superior rigour.

    And while you may disagree that it's the 'central paradox' -- though if it ain't I don't know what is -- it's equally true that people who believe in 'harmonious pluralism' are, again by definition, more likely to worry about the concerns of the anti-pluralists within the plurality than vice versa. You know: Shirley Williams saying Salman Rushdie's knighthood was 'unfortunate' given the feelings of some book-burners, often poor and of colour, about a novel they haven't read, and all the meta-arguments that ripple out from that, or my own occasional qualms about wanting Slavoj Zizek silenced...

    That only leaves the perhaps infelicitous phrase ‘modes of being,’ which I suspect Tanenhaus picked because he couldn’t bring himself to say ‘lifestyle choices’ or whatever, so I hardly think we need to haul him down the Lublianka for that.

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