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above: demonstrators at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963 (photo by Warren K. Leffler/Glasshouse Images/Alamy Stock Photo)


What Civil Rights Hath Wrought

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties; by Christopher Caldwell; New York: Simon & Schuster; 352 pp., $28.00


The social and legal order that emerged from the civil rights movement of the 1960s now dominates public life. While Christopher Caldwell seems to accept in his new book the view of that movement as at least initially a noble enterprise, he is remarkably willing, for a member of the establishment commentariat, to discuss its actual workings and implications.

The term “civil rights” once referred simply to everyday rights legally secured to citizens. These included the right under the law to acquire and dispose of property, to practice a profession, and so on. When government was limited and the law was mostly concerned with securing ordinary expectations, the scope of civil rights was also limited and played almost no role in public discussion.

In contrast, the new order’s basic principle is continuous compulsory transformation of social attitudes and relationships. This is fundamentally at odds with a free and self-governing society, and even at odds with the traditional, liberal distinction between public and private. As such, it is intrinsically totalitarian, though the author doesn’t use that term. It is certainly at odds with the American constitutional order as it existed before the 1960s.


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