Christoper Caldwell, “The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties” (2020) – It’s getting on towards the end of the year, and so I find myself thinking about the best and worst books I’ve read lately. Since I’ve instantiated “readings on the right” as a slot in my book rotation system, I can rely on it (and the random crap I read for birthday lectures) to fill up my “worst of” list. I don’t feel great about that, as it makes me look like I have an ideological litmus test for quality, which I don’t. It is what it is, as people now say, and I can console myself with the several literary libs who have also made this year’s shitlist so far.
But the bottom three — the ones that have earned my “half-star” rating, for those playing the home game — are all shining examples of contemporary right-wing brain rot, the sort of thing that really makes you (or, well, me) wish we could restrict their (ab)use of the English language for the aesthetic good of society. And they’re three quite different examples, which pleases me as much as I’m going to get pleasure from dogshit like this. Michael Mahoney, you may remember, is a boy nazi who has tried his hand at avant-garde literature and produced nothing but bloviation and commentary on lifestyle choices. I guess in this triptych he’d represent the contemporary right trying to be cool and cutting edge. Andy Ngo produced his pants-wetting “journalistic” account of the dangers of antifa, a laughably cack-handed and incompetent work. There’s the right as brave, honest truth-tellers, above ideology.
And then we come to Chris Caldwell, a journalist of sorts and a Claremont center hack (Claremont is a California school/tax-dodge whose lit review came to some prominence on the strength of having a sufficiently undiscriminating digestive tract to swallow Trumpism without the show of gagging other right wing rags made). Here we have the contemporary right trying to be intellectually relevant. One thing you can say for Caldwell is that he’s not trying to get intellectual relevance by aping anyone on the post-Buckley tree of conservative intellectuals. He’s too coy to come out and say “Trump is great” (his coyness is one of his nauseating qualities) – but he has to be able to express enthusiasm for Trump, his program, and what he represents. And he has to do so in a way that doesn’t come out of the box compromised by what a certain portion of Trump’s base — and something tells me this guy has browsed 4chan and congratulated himself for his edgy currentness in so doing — would call “countersignaling.”
And so, “Age of Entitlement.” I suppose I could, if I wanted to, applaud the ambition of this book, an attempt to read the whole period from the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to the beginning of the Trump campaign in 2015 from a Trumpian (but coy and faux-reluctant) lens. But what distinguishes sweeping, ambitious historical readings from your uncle bitching on Facebook about kids these days? Well, a carefully constructed argument based in sources and a publisher’s imprimatur, generally. Caldwell has the latter, alas.
The thesis here is pretty simple: the Civil Rights movement, and it’s legal denouement in the Civil Rights Act and associated laws, upended the United States Constitution and ushered in a radical new understanding of governance in the US (file under “things conservatives believe that would rule if they were true”). Instead of a nation of laws and limited government, we became a nation of judicial fiat and big government. Rather than limiting behavior, civil rights laws made affirmative guarantees and empowered the federal government to make those guarantees real. It started with guarantees to black people but extended to women, other people of color, gay people, etc. This in turn can be understood as an instantiation of a class revolution- the dread Professional Managerial Class doing in their betters, lording it over the poor working stiffs and making them take sensitivity trainings in the bargain. By the end of the book he’s calling white men “second-class citizens.”
Christopher Caldwell’s Wikipedia entry refers to him as a “journalist.” Journalists can and have produced fine works of history. Journalists, the good ones anyway, have a respect for sources. But Caldwell does not. Most of his sources appear to be anecdotes from journalistic profile pieces. He repeats the kind of ludicrous claims that have become stock-in-trade for idiots, cutouts where knowledge would be, like that one that claims that every dollar any American governing body has spent on anything other than the military between (whichever year, usually sometime around when “those people” started “acting up” in a way the cracker in question started noticing) and (now) equals spending on “welfare” or “social justice,” therefore constituting “the most expensive failed social experiment in history” or whatever. Like the “100 million dead from communism” number, it’s a ridiculous claim, and unlike the communism one, doesn’t paper over anything real, just a category error. But who cares? It’s a meme. It’s all memes- one way in which Caldwell really has been “red-pilled” since his Weekly Standard days. That’s the quality of argument here.
I was curious what would happen when this ding dong got to Reagan and neoliberalism. How was he going to frame a story of expanding government power through decades of rule by politicians of both parties slashing the welfare state and denouncing “government as we know it?” Well, that was my turn for a category error. Because I have a class analysis, I understand what Reagan and Clinton did as part of a class war, a highly successful one- retrenching the scraps of power previous generations of workers wrested from the bourgeoisie. But this guy is actually dumb enough to be paid to write about politics and still think “government” exists in an existentially discrete category, subject to binary switches you can toggle- “small-good; big-bad.” And, of course, he’s both a right-winger and a member in good standing of the upper classes (even as he plays populist at times), so he doesn’t give a shit or notice what happens to poor or working people under these conditions. The government in some sense stayed the same size or got bigger (mostly due to police and military power but ok), gays got more accepted, immigration continued, the news was bad, Reagan or no Reagan. I shouldn’t have expected different.
Of course, if you think of “government” as a thing in and of itself, a building downtown sending out orders and goons according to its own logic, the “second class citizen” business as applied to privileged people the law attempts to blunt the privilege of — white men, usually — makes more sense. This is as good a reason as any to not make that category error, and one of the reasons why the Republican Party and the conservative movement could so easily get swallowed by someone who would say the quiet parts loud. The list of things you need to think in order to wedge such an understanding into the other accoutrements surrounding it — from the expansive power all of these people, libertarians included, want to give the cops, to the long long history of government action specifically propping up white supremacy up to and including literally conquering a continent and handing government land to white squatters and railroads, to a completely fictitious “freedom of association” Caldwell somehow finds in the Constitution — is… long. Arguably, that list is coextensive with white American culture (as opposed to other cultures to which white Americans can and sometimes do belong). Many of its greatest proponents think it’s not long for this earth. Let’s hope they’re right, for once. ‘