REVIEW: The Age of Entitlement – Christopher Caldwell (Simon & Schuster, 2020)

It’s 2020. We know that America has deep, possibly irreconcilable divisions across moral lines that they’ve severed families. We saw in 2016 that these divisions were not drawn according to political party affiliation, either, as the Republican presidential candidate, propelled into office by shrewd campaigning and a legitimate grassroots support, was hated by his own party for being, among other things, too nationalist. We’re seeing this again this year, as the DNC melts down—again—in order to rally behind a guy so mentally fatigued that he has trouble completing sentences. That said, of course, it’s difficult to observe the trends of the last administration, and the behavior of the opposition party under this one, and not think that our political betters are playing by two different rule books.

This is exactly what The Age of Entitlement makes clear. Christopher Caldwell, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and editor of the Claremont Review of Books, approaches the dramatic transmogrification of the United States from a reasonably stable, Christian, predominately white, industrial powerhouse and global hegemon after the Second World War into the divided, fraying, debauched country that it is today. The culture war that has been out in the open for the last eight years or so, Caldwell rightly believes, is due to two different American constitutions being unable to coexist.

Caldwell lays the blame for this squarely at the feet of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, though it’s just as appropriate to mention the whole movement that got it to Johnson’s desk—and where it went after it was law. For Caldwell, it was this act that most facilitated the use of the Supreme Court, and of courts in general, as not merely arbitrators of law, but dictatorial benches from whose authority there was no recompense. This is not an altogether unpopular theory, as the major court cases of the last half-century all trace themselves to hard lobbying from specific interest groups, each of whom rallied under particular banners of class—not merely in the form of economic strata, but most often those delineated by race, by sex, or by sexual attraction. The Civil Rights movement provided the template for each of these successive revolutionary endeavors to organize.

The legalistic framework setup—or merely implied—by the Civil Rights Act flatly denies rights of association delineated by the First Amendment, which then undermines most, if not all of the next nine amendments that follow. The constitution of 1965, as he calls it, is one based on court edicts, ruled by protected classes of minorities, and decided by degrees of oppression. In a certain sense, this is just dressing up the sort of outdated and cringe language that #MAGA boomers might use to ridicule snowflakes, but where the aviator-clad Israel respecter on Facebook is dropping Drudge Report links, Caldwell leaves an extensively sourced notes section that brings a bit more to the table than mere hysteria.

Caldwell tracks how this new constitution was implemented and used across each of the major upsets in American life since the sixties, kicking off with the racial conflicts that began in 1965 and which never went away. The sexual revolution, the change in foreign policy and the reaction to foreign wars, entitlement programs, and the role debt has played in dismantling the American Dream all get their own chapters. He lays out a convincing case of how protesting racial injustices turned into ripping truckers from big rigs and murdering them in broad daylight to “Hands up, don’t shoot” in the space of about five decades, with the rise of abortion mills and the debt ceiling along for the ride.

The obviousness of the toll these movements have taken upon the American nation is precisely the point of this book, and not merely ideologically—as that shift was one that most Americans wouldn’t notice, or be willing to notice, until diversity started overturning even the limits of common sense—but materially as well. Caldwell believes that the expense of Civil Rights upon the country is what led to the selling of America’s future in order to fund the entitlement-driven welfare state of today. He writes:

Civil rights transformed the country not just constitutionally but also culturally and demographically. In ways few people anticipated, it proved to be the mightiest instrument of domestic enforcement the country had ever seen. It can fairly be described as the largest undertaking of any kind in American history. Costing trillions upon trillions of dollars and spanning half a century, it rivals, in terms of energy invested, the peopling of the West, the building of transcontinental railways and highways, the maintenance of a Pax Americana for half a century after World War II, or, for that matter, any of the wars the country has fought, foreign or civil.”

The skyrocketing of debt under presidents W. Bush and Obama are directly related to the unfunded liabilities of the national civil rights experiment. Sure, the expenses of war can be pointed to, but a few hundred billion dollars in wasted equipment disappears as a blip inside the twenty trillion number that doomsayers insist will cost us our status as superpower.

Caldwell does not—nor does he claim to—attribute the deep division of the American public specifically to the Civil Rights movement and the legal cases that enshrined it. That the competing constitution which undergirds the conflict is legitimized by the Civil Rights movement is a solid thesis, but that says nothing as to what caused that constitution to come about in the first place. On the matter of a loose constitution “written” in order to justify the behavior that it protects, perhaps it was rooted in the Civil Rights Movement, and an ostensible but poorly managed attempt at rectifying the injustices that have existed since almost the beginning of the American colonial period. But perhaps not. That doesn’t speak to the problem of who drove the Civil Rights Movement forward: from the mildly corrupt and morally questionable leadership of secular saints MLK, Jr., to the honest if borderline terroristic Malcolm X, to the deep ties with Soviet instigators ubiquitous among community organizers of the sixties and seventies, to the well-documented federal interference of the same period—nor, more relevantly, does it speak accurately of the people who were attracted to the movement in the first place: not merely disaffected blacks in a downtrodden South, but active revolutionaries with chips on their shoulders, as Caldwell alludes to with regards to Rosa Parks.

Beyond Caldwell, we can point racial tensions inflamed by the treatment of blacks overseas during the War and its aftermath, but that fails to explain why the revolutionary character of the movement began twenty years after the return of most of those troops. It also leaves ambiguous as to why why the movement took on its revolutionary character, considering the prefigured civil rights characters like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. Caldwell points to the republication and popularization of Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography as the catalyst for magnifying the average American’s guilt over slavery, which in turn led to 1965, 1968, and the riots of the ‘70s, ‘90s, and ‘10s, but there’s always more to the story than a single book.

Peppered throughout Age of Entitlement is no small serving of overbearing irony. Passages that highlight what things were like versus what they have become is an easy tactic to employ when painting the present day in the bleakest colors imaginable, but Caldwell really takes it to another level. And this isn’t a critique, either; no amount of overstatement really does justice to the clownish hyperbole of a country we’re left dealing with today.

As he presents without comment:

As early as the spring of 1975, among those who blocked [the ERA’s] passage, the reason most often cited was that ‘equal rights for women could eventually end up destroying the institution of marriage and family life.’ By the end of the decade, a majority of Americans had come to fear that, once women were given equal rights, ‘employers will have to hire admitted homosexuals.’ Nineteen percent even believed that ‘separate public toilets for men and women will not be allowed,’ though three quarters of the country dismissed that idea as fanciful.”

Keep in mind also that 1975 was dead center of the seventies’ glut of dystopian sci-fi films—from the then-obscure THX 1138 to the following year’s Logan’s Run, these ‘fanciful’ fears of an androgynized future were nonetheless popular enough to be depicted on the silver screen. And how can we forget who the movers and shakers were of the North Carolina boycott over bathroom facilities back in 2017?

On this note, curiously untouched upon throughout all of this is the role major media figures, entertainers, and publications had to play in the dramatic overturning of American society. Although it may be beyond the scope of the book to address, for a book whose subtitle is America Since the Sixties, their relative absence forms a silhouetted hole that’s hard to ignore. Certain ones get specific mention of course; Gloria Steinem for instance is understandably given special attention for her center-stage performance in the sexual revolution. Steinem, however, is more known today for her feminism than her journalism, despite the latter being what made her the former.

Regardless, Caldwell’s breakdown and summary of the main assaults of cultural revolution from 1965 through to 2016 is a pretty solid and brief read, well worth it for the fresh, critical take it offers regarding the civil rights era. There is plenty more that could be said about the book, from the way he puts the tech giants of the millennium into perspective, his chapter on debt, and his breakdown of the winners and losers of the last half-century, but I haven’t really the time to get into any of that. Rather, it’d be better if you just read it yourself.

I definitely recommend this book.

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