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Equality Is Not Immunity

Societies may improve, but protesters’ arguments remain the same.

· 7 min read
Equality Is Not Immunity

In a 2016 New Yorker profile of first-time American voters, a young respondent explained why he was planning to cast a ballot for the unlikely upstart Donald Trump: “The thing about the word ‘racist’ is that every time it gets used it loses meaning. For the past decade or two, it’s been used by people on the left as a kill shot. That just kills your argument, no matter what you’re trying to say. You’re a racist and therefore you’re evil and therefore you lose. But I think a lot of people are noticing that it doesn’t work that way anymore. ... That’s what a lot of people on the left don’t realize. It’s not 1959 anymore. You’re the establishment. You guys run shit.”

Whatever the wisdom of the voter’s electoral preference, he was correct that 2016 was not 1959. Near the core of today’s bitterly contested politics is a dispute over just how much social justice is necessary, not the necessity of social justice itself. No one, after all, is calling for a return to slavery, or for a repeal of the franchise for women, or for homosexuality to be once again criminalized. No one seriously wants to bring back the standards of 1959; indeed, most of the adults who set those standards are no longer alive.

Instead, the debate now turns on whether the response to objections of specific groups should be single institutional or legislative changes—which have to a large extent already been realized—or an ongoing growth industry. In his 2020 book Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, Christopher Caldwell noted the difference: “At some point in the course of decades, what had seemed in 1964 to be merely an ambitious reform revealed itself to have been something more.” Feminism, the civil rights movement, LGBTQ advocacy, and other causes now divide people not over their original premises but over their ongoing relevance, or lack thereof. Who’s evil and therefore loses? Who’s the establishment and runs shit?

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