American Agonistes

American Agonistes
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

hristopher Caldwell’s essays advance exquisite understandings of politics, culture, and institutions not with syllogistic arguments, essays laced with ideology, but with observations alone. Caldwellian reflections are typically inserted with precision after a string of uncomfortable facts has been listed. They untidy our collective wisdom, and sear the essay in the reader’s mind. His judgment on a subject frequently becomes the measuring rod for additional arguments and theories on the same matter.  In a 2017 First Things essay “American Carnage” on the opioid crisis that cataloged its unprecedented devastation compared with prior drug abuse episodes in American history, came this demanding reflection on our ineffectual response:

We in the sober world have, for about half a century, been renouncing our allegiance to anything that forbids or commands. Perhaps this is why, as this drug epidemic has spread, our efforts have been so unavailing and we have struggled even to describe it. Addicts, in their own short-circuited, reductive, and destructive way, are armed with a sense of purpose. We aren’t.

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