I read The Age of Entitlement in one sitting, unable to put down Christopher Caldwell’s riveting account of the last fifty years of American politics and culture. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the nation’s leaders embarked on a series of grand projects. A modern welfare state was erected. Men were mobilized to fight in Vietnam. Most important of all, the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Immigration and Nationality Acts were passed in the course of less than one year between 1964 and 1965. These initiatives remade American society. By Caldwell’s account, we now live under a new constitution, significantly different from the one that preceded it.
The Age of Entitlement is an ambitious book that pulls together many threads—the sixties counterculture, sexual politics, Cold War strategy, the Reagan years, and the ascendancy of a new technocratic class. There is, however, a leitmotif: A “civil rights ideology” has inspired a government-led project of social transformation. In ways few anticipated when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the legal mechanisms developed to end Jim Crow are now used to fight discrimination on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, and soon, if activists have their way, gender identity.
The range of application is unlimited. The civil rights legal infrastructure puts immigration policy under judicial review, along with other executive branch policies that can be seen as having a discriminatory effect. We can foresee further expansion. What began as an effort to end white-only bathrooms in the South evolved into a nationwide requirement for wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Today, the antidiscrimination imperative dictates that we must prohibit single-sex bathrooms. Threats of lawsuits and government intervention encourage corporations and other non-governmental institutions to adopt the antidiscrimination imperative.
The most dramatic cultural consequence has been the functional prohibition of majoritarian views. A decade ago, same-sex marriage proponents said, “If you don’t like gay marriage then don’t get gay married.” The riposte implied that the institution of marriage would not be harmed by the innovation of gay marriage. Perhaps gay marriage proponents believed this, but it was never realistic, for the logic of antidiscrimination prohibits public endorsement of male-female marriage. If I observe that children flourish best when raised by a mother and a father, I imply that the mother-father household should be the norm for society. I also imply that gay marriage, if tolerated, should be marginal, which is to say abnormal. But this is precisely the condition the antidiscrimination regime seeks to prevent, which is why Mark Regnerus is denounced as “anti-gay” when he publishes social-scientific evidence backing up the claim that children do best with a mother and father.
Here, as elsewhere, the speech of private citizens is monitored by political correctness, the cultural-enforcement arm of the antidiscrimination regime. In 2017, Amy Wax coauthored an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that commended bourgeois values: Get and stay married, work hard, don’t get hooked on drugs or alcohol, stay out of jail, and respect authority. She was immediately accused of racism for “privileging” a certain cultural script. Commending bourgeois values is “white supremacist discourse.” Student and faculty groups have tried to get her fired. These denunciations are not accidental to the antidiscrimination regime. They follow directly from the urgency of inclusion. Any “privileged” script is by definition discriminatory, because it judges alternatives less worthy of public commendation. Therefore, the “privilege” must be eliminated, along with those who commend it.
Many anguish over “polarization.” Caldwell’s account helps me see that placing antidiscrimination at the center of our social compact fifty years ago was a mistake. We needed to fulfill the promise of Reconstruction by bringing the descendants of slaves into full membership in American life. But the antidiscrimination regime went far beyond this goal. The reasons are many and evident in retrospect. Civil rights became a utopian project, not unlike the War on Poverty. As Caldwell observes, both projects were undertaken by a generation convinced of its ability to right all wrongs, and though they were meant to be temporary, both became permanent elements of the post-sixties regime.
It was inevitable that the antidiscrimination project would run up against human nature. Male-female differences keep reasserting themselves, subverting the project of equality between the sexes, and many parents still have a healthy desire to shepherd their children toward normal male-female sentiments, though it runs afoul of gay rights. The all-or-nothing character of civil rights, as well as the intense moral meaning assigned to them, exacerbates rather than moderates the social tensions that arise in a pluralistic society. It encourages us to interpret personal setbacks as consequences of discrimination. Even white heterosexual males, who are not immune to career disappointments, raise the cry of “reverse discrimination.” This framework stokes anger and recrimination, and it has produced a culture of professional and reputational assassination, as Caldwell documents.
In this environment, the normal processes of political bargaining and compromise are short-circuited. Recourse to litigation means we have no incentives to learn how to live together. The centrality of civil rights also has encouraged a relentless emphasis on discrimination, so that a great deal of public rhetoric and education dwells on our society’s failures (or what we imagine to be its failures). This focus discourages the solidarity-building affirmations of what we have accomplished and share in common. After all, what we share is by definition majoritarian or “normal,” and any dynamic of social consolidation places what is not normal on the margins of the social compact. In brief: Coming together as a nation will invariably be cast as an act of discrimination. I have experienced exactly this dynamic. Whenever I speak about our need for solidarity, I am accused of promoting a dangerous “ethno-nationalism.” The response is so predictable it’s hard to take seriously—yet I still feel its coerciveness. Fragmentation and polarization are the desired outcomes of the antidiscrimination imperative; they are features, not bugs.
A generation ago, our universities theorized this outcome when they rejected “meta-narratives” and embraced multiculturalism. Western culture, the natural center for an institution in the West educating people born in the West, had to go. The logic was flawless: If there is no center, nobody will be marginalized. This approach is now being applied to the country as a whole. The more disintegrated we are—the less defined we are by any “center”—the more fully everyone will be included. This is why progressives hail the coming “minority-majority” nation as an eschatological fulfillment. Diversity is our strength, we’re told. The dream is that America won’t have a dominant culture, which means (progressives imagine) nobody will be dominated.
I find the notion of a “minority-majority” nation implausible. A super-majority of Americans were born on these shores. Our pluralism, which has always been significant, does not blot out our shared identity as Americans. Mass migration, which Caldwell discusses, alters the demographic profile of our country (as has the sexual revolution and the resulting decline in birth rates). Not everybody feels a strong patriotic bond; nevertheless, most do. This reservoir of loyalty to our nation moderates the fissiparous effects of the last fifty years that Caldwell so skillfully outlines. With good leadership we can nurture the loves we share, restoring the bonds of solidarity eroded by the extremism of today’s antidiscrimination regime. There is a lot of ruin in America, but there are also many strengths.
Resistance to renewed solidarity does not come from the slums of Baltimore or the Spanish-speaking neighborhoods of Miami. It comes from the very rich, mostly white Americans who are perched at the top of society. In the penultimate chapter of The Age of Entitlement, Caldwell adduces a revealing statistic about wealth inequality: “The share of wealth held by the top 1 percent of American households, which reached its lowest level in recorded history in 1978 (23 percent), had nearly doubled (to 42 percent) by 2013, a generation later.” Most of us are aware that we are living in a new Gilded Age. Caldwell makes a further observation: Very rich people constitute a minority who are as vulnerable as black Americans. Theirs is a different sort of precariousness. A black American is more likely to be miseducated in dysfunctional urban schools and treated harshly by police and the courts. The wealthy suffer no such harms. They are instead at risk of being relieved of their wealth, as populists remind them.
Therefore, the richest and most powerful people in America have strong incentives to support an anti-majoritarian political system. Caldwell details how the antidiscrimination regime, though established by legislative acts in the 1960s, has been built out with judicial decisions and executive orders. He makes the mordant observation that Barack Obama’s political career was “built at the intersection of billionaire finance and community-based race activism.” Wealthy individuals shovel donations into elite institutions that incubate identity politics, which further fragments the nation and prevents the formation of majorities.
In Federalist No. 10, James Madison addresses the dangers posed by unrestrained majorities, not the least of which is the danger that they will dispossess the well-to-do of their property. He advises adopting a constitutional design that impedes majority rule, one republican and federalist in nature rather than purely democratic. It was wise advice. Yet Madison did not foresee the even more powerful anti-majoritarian mechanisms of judicial oversight and administrative lawmaking. These mechanisms predate the 1960s, but Caldwell is correct to note that the civil rights project made them much more expansive and intrusive, reaching into every aspect of society, even into the most intimate relations between men and women.
Given Madison’s reasoning, it is no wonder that elite Americans have been enthusiastic about civil rights, multiculturalism, and other projects that aim to break down well-consolidated majorities. Were I a billionaire, I would feel a strong incentive to multiply the different races on census forms and require court-ordered redistricting accordingly. The more fragmented the country, the less we will function as a republic capable of holding the powerful accountable to the good of the whole, and the more we will become a commercial empire dominated by wealth.
Militant multiculturalism and antidiscrimination are powerful tools for defending elite wealth and power, as I observed in “Bigot-Baiting” (August/September 2016). Organizing society around the antidiscrimination imperative allows those who have prospered over the last generation to redescribe the populist revolts against their indifference and arrogance as expressions of racism or other forms of bigotry, rather than as what they are—expressions of popular discontent with elite priorities during the last two generations. In 2020, the Democratic party is the party of the rich. Forty-one of the fifty wealthiest congressional districts are represented by Democrats. Caldwell’s insight into the vulnerability of the wealthy minority explains why the party of the rich throws itself into the cause of transgender rights. It is the ultimate upper-class project, a test of the elite’s power to cow every local school board, reluctant company, and red-state governor.
I’m optimistic about the future of America. Hannah Arendt observed that European politics in the 1920s and 1930s became formless. The structuring contest between labor and capital gave way to a politics of dreams and nightmares. Fortunately, today’s populism moves in the opposite direction. Voters are returning to the politics of class and away from the pseudo-politics of race, gender, and sexual orientation. In my estimation, this does not mean the triumph of Marxism (which is also a pseudo-political utopianism). Voters want their leaders to prevent their communities from being hollowed out by globalization. They are tired of being told that affirming what we share as Americans is racist, or that normal sentiments about men and women are sexist. Most of all, they don’t trust the prosperous “creative class” to have their interests at heart.
The next decade will not be easy. But it will not be about what has preoccupied us since the sixties, and which Caldwell describes so well. Rather than the perils of discrimination, we are increasingly concerned with the problems of disintegration—or, in Charles Murray’s terms, the problems of “coming apart.” The pivot in this direction was obvious in Trump’s campaign in 2016; it is evident in the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. We are unlikely to reverse course on civil rights. Many of the problems Caldwell outlines will remain. But they will recede in importance. Our politics are moving toward a new imperative—that of restoring solidarity.
The mop-top hair gave Roger Scruton a boyish appearance. The bags under his always calm and sometimes dauntingly expressionless eyes gave him a look of experience and depth, befitting a Confucian sage more than an English gentleman. Roger was reserved. I never heard him make heated remarks, though he could be barbed in his prose. His reserve was not cold and remote but warm and ironical, manifest in his often bemused, crooked smile. His irony was born of a forgiving awareness of the foibles and failures of his fellow man.
Roger was the opposite of the pretentious professor or know-it-all eminence. He was always ready to listen. I recall a late evening at the Dominican residence at St. Vincent Ferrer in New York. We were drinking wine and talking about the nature of addiction, the topic of one of the presentations at the conference that had brought him to town. Roger ventured some observations. The woman who had given the presentation responded with particular acuity. Roger paused and drew a small piece of paper and pencil from his coat pocket to scribble down some notes, wanting to retain the insights. The wise know best the necessity of learning.
He was a man of extraordinary gifts. His writings show the power and scope of his critical intelligence. In “The End of the University” (April 2015), he makes the arresting observation that the ambition to create an egalitarian society, “a society without distinction,” will require the erasure of cultural competence, for that competence rests in making distinctions between crude and fine, common and extraordinary, ugly and beautiful. I reprise this insight above in my discussion of Christopher Caldwell’s new book, observing that a self-imposed cultural amnesia results when we make antidiscrimination the central imperative of society.
Brilliant as he was as a critic, the knowledge Roger prized most highly was love’s knowledge. In “Why I Became a Conservative” (New Criterion, February 2003), he recalls the first sentence of Charles de Gaulle’s wartime memoirs: “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France.” De Gaulle gave himself to something concrete—France is a place, a nation, a way of life—and to an idea that enrolled him in an ongoing project, a past with an as-yet-unrealized future, a personality with accomplishments, true, but also depthless potential and inner mysteries. In marriage, in civic affairs, in literature and the arts, indeed in every sphere of life, one comes to know more fully only that which one loves. (This was also the thrust of N. T. Wright’s 2019 Erasmus lecture, “Loving to Know.”)
The disposition to gratitude and the imperative of love were the reasons Roger shone as a writer. The essays gathered in Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life are delightful to read and often moving. One chapter, “Drinks in Helsinki,” is a hilarious account of a jet-lagged, alcohol-blurred visit to Finland. The Disappeared, his novel about the Rotherham scandal, shows his talent as a writer of fiction. The main character, a young girl being groomed by Muslim men for the sex trade, tries to convey her plight to a sympathetic literature teacher at her school by writing an essay on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It’s an entirely believable performance by a bright girl struggling to understand her fate. As a writer, Scruton had no patience for bad ideas; but he had sympathy for people, including bad people who seduce, brutalize, and betray. The ideologically blinded social worker and feckless officials in The Disappeared are not caricatures. They are real people with mixed motives, captive to self-deceptions but half-aware of their culpability. Solzhenitsyn said that the line between good and evil runs through every heart. Roger knew this truth well. The Disappeared is well worth reading, not least because the English establishment’s culpable refusal to address the problem of the Muslim sexual exploitation of working-class English girls continues.
Scruton had an activist side. Founding editor of the Salisbury Review, he wrote and published pieces that stuck knives into establishment opinion—though with little effect, for progressive sentiment, confident that it “owns” the future, cares little for arguments. He was a sharp critic of architectural modernism and loathed its arrogant disdain for the traditions that give terroir to buildings and win the affection of ordinary people. Roger saw in architectural modernism the characteristic misanthropy of progressive politics. He worked with others to establish the Vanenburg Society, a pan-European group of conservative intellectuals. He cared about these efforts, but his deepest ambition was to observe and understand, to see truly. This, too, gave his prose depth and elegance, for even in the light pieces he tossed off so effortlessly he had profound things to say. (I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine is a good example.)
In 2016 Scruton was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his “services to philosophy, teaching, and public education.” The honor was richly deserved, though I could never bring myself to address him as “Sir Roger,” not just because of the Emersonian elements of my American character that I cannot expunge, but also because Roger was, well, “Roger.” He philosophized out of life, not books, and he lived as he thought, which made his admirers feel like friends and his acquaintances feel like intimates.
Roger grew to have a great appreciation for Christianity. He recognized that religious faith is both a firm anchor and a source of transcendence and thus renewal. Not unlike Michael Oakeshott, he was grateful that others believed, and, tiptoeing to the edges of faith, perhaps wished that he could as well.
When I learned of his illness and the dim prospects of cure, I recalled these lines from Gentle Regrets, where Roger reflects on a hard truth: “All attempts to conserve things come too late.” Surveying the wreckage of late-modern life—the physical desecration of ancient cities by modernist monstrosities, the disordered dance between men and women, sex made banal, truth prostituted to activism, and other doleful dysfunctions—Roger had much to mourn, as do we all. This awareness of loss can demoralize, but if taken in the right way, it can also humanize. “So,” he concludes, “I acquired the consciousness of death and dying, without which the world cannot be loved for what it is. That, in essence, is what it means to be a conservative.” May we take from his death that very lesson, learning to love more dearly that which is for what it is and, just so, to love more deeply the One from whom all blessings flow.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ President Trump’s speech at the January 24 March for Life was the first time a sitting president had addressed the annual event in person. The content and tone of the speech were significant as well. Trump spoke with directness and force about the evil of abortion. Unabashed in his affirmation of the divine source of life, Trump demonstrated a fighting spirit. Two lines stood out: “We are fighting for those who have no voice,” and “We will win because we know how to win.”
I don’t know about the second claim. Having been in a defensive posture for so long, do we know how to win? But of this I am confident: The speech marks a turning point in the politics of the pro-life movement. For the last two or more decades, Republican politicians have indicated their opposition to abortion by promising to appoint judges who “respect the Constitution as written,” a euphemism for overturning Roe. This tactic made sense politically. Why alienate swing voters who are not pro-life when you can gain pro-life votes with indirect signals? A clear referendum on our radical abortion regime was thus deferred, and the status quo went undisturbed. With his physical presence and blunt words, Trump has destroyed that evasion and accepted direct political responsibility for the cause of life. For that we should be grateful.
♦ Good things are happening in church architecture. On November 3, 2019, the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City blessed the site and broke ground for the construction of a church and shrine to be dedicated to Blessed Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma native who served as a missionary in Guatemala, where he was martyred in 1981. Designed by the Washington, D.C., firm Franck & Lohsen, the church and expansive plaza are in the style of Spanish colonial architecture. As the local ordinary, Archbishop Paul Coakley, insisted at the outset of the project, “This will not be a Pizza Hut church!” He has solid support: First Things reader Molly Bernard chairs the building committee.
♦ And not just in church architecture. Icon Realty is raising two apartment towers on Second Avenue in Manhattan, one on the corner of 80th Street, the other on the corner of 81st. They are handsome stone- and brick-clad buildings with elegant six-over-six windows. Designed by Studio Sofield and SLCE Architects, the buildings speak the vernacular of prewar apartment houses in Manhattan, a look very much in demand. For reasons I cannot fathom, most new apartment houses in New York either have the same plate-glass look of faceless office buildings in Midtown, or are so festooned with balconies that they look as if they’d been transplanted from Miami. Now it seems that intelligent developers are returning to a way of building that draws upon the best traditions of New York.
♦ On January 3, American drones killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport. Soon thereafter, a group of Christian ethicists drafted a statement deeming the action “not morally justified.” The statement goes on to argue that Trump’s decision to launch the strike that killed Soleimani violates just-war principles. The statement, posted on the website Catholic Moral Theology, is signed by nearly one hundred professors of ethics and moral theology.
In view of the fact that Soleimani was in Iraq to exercise active command over the militias targeting Americans and our allies, the arguments ring false. Moreover, I searched in vain for a statement by Protestant or Catholic academics denouncing Barack Obama’s 2011 decision to send special forces into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden. At the time, one contributor to Catholic Moral Theology described Obama’s appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes to talk about his decision as a “particularly sterling” performance, before making some tentative observations. In view of the kid-glove treatment of Obama, one suspects the eruption of moral concern over Soleimani is motivated by partisan politics, not moral principles.
♦ The universities are entirely captive to progressive politics. So argues Arthur Milikh in a recent National Affairs article, “Preventing Suicide by Higher Education.” As he observes, institutions of higher education do not serve the common good. They have become partisan political entities that drive polarization. The partisan imbalance is extreme. In the fall of 2016, only six law professors in the entire country publicly supported Donald Trump. At more than 90 percent of American universities, a job applicant who is known to have doubts about the legitimacy of gay marriage or any other dogma in the LGBT alphabet soup is immediately disqualified. Wearing a MAGA hat on campus might be enough to get a student disciplined. These are not epiphenomena; they are direct consequences of the hold progressive politics has on the universities. Milikh argues that calls for fairness and objectivity will fail. Defenses of free speech on campus may do some good but will not address the deep and system-wide politicization of university education. Stronger measures must be taken. Our woke universities will not reform themselves. Change may require the stiff medicine of revoking tax-exempt status, withdrawing federally funded research grants, and putting an end to government-guaranteed student loans. In this issue, Bruce Gilley (“Taking Power in the Academy”) offers further proposals: Eliminate funding to universities with diversity bureaucracies, deprive faculties of the exclusive power to hire the next generation, and abolish departments of “grievance studies.” What’s needed is a willingness to use political power to address the civic cancer that is higher education.
♦ In his review of Michael Lind’s The New Class War (“Replace the Elite”), Patrick Deneen observes that the people who run things work hard to explain away populist anger over their misrule. They fix on “Russian collusion” or blame voter discontent on racist backlash. I’ve come to see that climate change also serves this purpose. If you engage a baby boomer in a discussion of how the economic and cultural priorities of his generation have harmed working-class Americans, he’ll wave away criticisms with the remark, “All that amounts to very little in the face of the global challenges that are coming with climate change.” It’s no wonder that Greta Thunberg gets invited to address legislatures and congresses. Baby boomers welcome and applaud her because she reassures them that there are far greater problems in the world than the ones they themselves have caused. Those who read business magazines talk of technological replacement—another way to change the subject. If you argue that economic policy should address the needs of the high school–educated American worker, the boomer will say, “That’s beside the point. Technology is going to make their labor obsolete.” Like children who have broken mom’s precious vase, they welcome the prospect of a three-alarm fire.
♦ Writing for City Journal, Park MacDougald has produced a clear and thoughtful account of the intra-Catholic debate about “integralism” (“A Catholic Debate over Liberalism”). MacDougald explains twentieth-century Catholic efforts to show that church teaching, properly understood, brings out the best in American liberal democratic culture—a liberal integralism of sorts. First Things played an important part in making those arguments, though, as I observed last month, Richard John Neuhaus triggered controversy when he suggested that the American regime was illegitimate in his introduction to “The End of Democracy” (November 1996). Setbacks such as Obergefell and, more recently, transgenderism represent clear departures from basic Christian teaching, yet they are justified by judges and bureaucrats as necessary outcomes of liberal ideals. This has caused many to wonder whether Catholics should seek to overcome liberalism rather than redeem it from within. Perhaps loyalty to liberalism is a mistake (the thrust of Patrick Deneen’s argument in Why Liberalism Failed). I’m not sure I agree, not least because “liberalism” is such a protean term. But I am certain of this: We should restore both metaphysics and theology to our public debates, reordering public life “to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good,” as Sohrab Ahmari put it in “Against David French-ism,” his much-talked-about polemic against a conservative default to classical liberalism. This is what it means to speak of first things. Charity dictates respecting the dignity of others, and this might mean sustaining elements of our liberal tradition. But charity also wishes for one’s fellow citizens the fullness of natural and supernatural goods—an empty wish, if we refuse to make those goods available in appropriate ways in public life. The catch is in what we deem appropriate. That question requires spiritual discernment and prudential judgment, not political theories, liberal or otherwise.
♦ I am delighted to report that our year-end fundraising campaign met with great success, exceeding our goal, thanks to the generous response of readers. If you wish to know more about the finances of First Things, please look out for the 2019 annual report. It will be available on firstthings.com at the end of March.
♦ Scott Anderson would like to form a ROFTERS group in Rockford, Illinois. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rev. Dr. Mark D. Atkinson in the Down East region of North Carolina plans to form a group. You can reach him at 484-798-4081.
William Rhea would like to start a group in San Antonio, Texas. Contact him at email@example.com.