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Christopher Caldwell On The Unintended Consequences Of The Civil Rights Act

Christopher Caldwell On The Unintended Consequences Of The Civil Rights Act

Chris is an old friend and, in my view, one of the sharpest right-of-center writers in journalism. A senior fellow at the Claremont Institute and contributing editor to the Claremont Review of Books, his latest book, The Age of Entitlement, is a constitutional narrative of the last half-century that is indispensable — especially for liberals — in understanding the roots of our polarization. Here’s a great primer from Sean Illing:

Caldwell doesn’t defend racism or the apartheid system the Civil Rights Act dismantled; rather, he argues that the civil rights movement spawned a whole constellation of other liberation struggles — for immigrants, for gay and transgender rights, for sexual freedom — that Americans did not sign up for and did not want. And the result of this steady encroachment is what Caldwell calls a “rival Constitution” that is incompatible with the original one and the source of a great deal of social unrest.

It’s a challenging way to understand our tribal divide. You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. To listen to two excerpts from my conversation with Christopher — on the exodus of elites from Middle America; and on the dearth of intellectuals on the Republican right — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, a reader remarks on last week’s episode:

Your conversation with David Frum was excellent. His perspectives are always worth listening to, and I enjoyed your challenging questions. To think you two are supposed to be on the right side of things (and I, as a left-leaning person, agreed with most of what you said) shows what a strange — nuanced? — world we live in.

Another reader focuses on a specific part:

I felt the most thought-provoking part of your discussion with David Frum came near the end, where he talks about not having spent any time in a hospital. Does he deserve this good fortune?

I suppose the woke answer would be that he is health-privileged and should be forced to do his fair share of hospital time. Perhaps he should intentionally be made sick? Or more likely the less-healthy should be given some other benefit to level the playing field. So indeed Frum’s advantage is undeserved and we should try to take it from him.

I think the classic American answer (if it had occurred to anyone to ask the question) is that “deserving” doesn’t enter into it. We want everyone to reach their full potential, aware that ability (i.e. “luck”) is not evenly distributed. We want our best and brightest to fly the highest, and they will elevate the whole country with them. To borrow a phrase, this is what made America great.

The left now tells us that “meritocracy” is a code word for racism, but really one of the problems with racism is that it prevents us from having a true meritocracy.

This next reader appreciates the Dishcast medium in general:

I am new to your commentary, which I got onto after your episode with Sam Harris. I’ve struggled to understand your (and Sam’s) critiques of the left on race since you also make it clear you recognize there is a problem with race in America. Your conversation with Mr. Frum went a long way toward helping me reconcile and better understand your positions. Please keep talking about this stuff, including talking more about what the race problems are, and not just what they aren’t. I’ll stay tuned. 

Another reader has a recommendation for a future episode:

There was a very charming moment at the beginning of this week’s podcast, where David referred to you as a star teaching assistant at Harvard’s government department. People would apparently come out of your section burbling with enthusiasm, and then the next group of David’s students would trudge into his section. (“Another hour with this guy.”)

Anyhow, it got me thinking: What was the class? Who was the professor?  (Mansfield?) How did you approach teaching those undergraduate sections? (I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that you were once at T.A.)

I started reading you in the early 2000s, and even though I’m a huge fan, I’ve never heard you systematically discuss your intellectual origins and development. I know bits and pieces of the story — a provincial kid, debated at Oxford, proud Tory and Reagan supporter, came to the States, courted controversy at The New Republic, was a pioneering supporter of gay marriage, supported the Iraq War and lived to regret it, and so on ...

But I bet podcast listeners might enjoy hearing you interviewed thoroughly and in-depth about how you see the trajectory of your intellectual life. (I know I would.) Another impetus for this suggestion is that I recently enjoyed listening to Glenn Loury do something like this on his own podcast. He allowed himself to be interviewed about his intellectual origins for three hours! I loved it and learned a lot. (My other, more prosaic suggestion for an interview subject is Christopher Caldwell, who puzzles and fascinates me.) 

Good idea, perhaps. This podcast interview with Giles Fraser gets at some of this, and, believe it or not, my dissertation is in print. The Conservative Soul defines what conservatism means for me, if for very few others. Later this year, a collection of my essays from 1989 - 2021 will be published. To get a good sense of my intellectual connection to Michael Oakeshott — the English philosopher I wrote my doctoral thesis on — see my profile of him for The Spectator. Money quote:

When you think of Oakeshott in this way, you realise why co-opting him for a political party — the way some tried to turn him into a patron saint of Thatcherism — was a profound misreading. Such passing allegiances seemed alien and trivial to him. So too did the incessant chatter we now call politics. I remember telling him I thought I would become a journalist after my PhD. His face fell. ‘I’ve always thought the need to know the news every day is a nervous disorder,’ he said, with a slight grin.

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