Like some horrid recurring nightmare, Robert Bork is back, and he's carrying a big fat book with him. It's called Slouching Towards Gomorrah, and its contents are pretty much what one would expect from a book with such a title, only worse.
In the 300-odd pages galumphing up to his less-than-ringing final summation, Bork offers a kind of K-Tel's Greatest Hits of conservative cultural curmudgeonism, bringing back for an encore all the tired arguments launched against our culture by the likes of Allan Bloom and William Bennett. He denounces everything from flag burning to feminism, and even manages to work in a small tirade against performance artist Karen Finley, the chocolate-smeared, NEA-supported nemesis of all that is good and true.
For all of the attention Bork pays to popular culture, however, he doesn't seem to know terribly much about it. Indeed, his only contact seems to be with the boilerplate denunciations that clutter the pages of contemporary conservative writings. As a result, most of his attacks are a bit off-key. He believes that MTV stands for "Music Television Videos," and he seems to think Nine Inch Nails are a rap group.
It seems a tad preposterous for a man whose writing is so aggressively unwieldy, whose use of evidence is mercenary at best, and whose facts are often glibly wrong, to prattle on about the decline of intellect and the abandonment of objective truth. Bork begins this long tirade with a memory from the '60s: a heap of burning books, smoldering outside the Yale law library after being set afire, of course, by radical students. The image symbolizes to him the "violence [and] mindless hatred" of that decade. Later, Bork makes a vigorous (if not terribly coherent) case for censorship. After a while, one begins to realize that Bork's book is a case study in what Freudians call "projection."
Like some off-brand version of near-beer, Slouching Towards Gomorrah tastes bad, and isn't the slightest bit filling. But the book did succeed in making me feel good about one thing: I'm just glad its author isn't on the Supreme Court. -- Salon
A brilliant blend of passionate conviction and sustained arguement. May be the most important book of the '90s.
Eugene D. Genovese
Clearly and gracefully written, this humane and well-reasoned analysis. . . invites the respectful attention of liberals and conservatives alike.
William J. Bennett
A brilliant and alarming exploration of the dark side of contemporary American culture. Bork has done an important and good deed.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Controversial former federal court judge Bork (The Tempting of America) has produced a wide-ranging but turgid jeremiad, citing mostly familiar, conservative explanations for American decline. Thus he attacks multiculturalism, racial and sexual politics, the Supreme Court and the criminal justice and welfare systems, among others, often relying on the work of critics such as Charles Murray, Thomas Sowell, Richard Bernstein and Christopher Lasch. Bork's tone can be overwrought: "[M]odern liberalism... is what fascism looks like when it has captured significant institutions, most notably the universities." He also offers a knee-jerk condemnation of rock and rap. Despite such verbiage, Bork does strike a chord with his criticisms that individualism and egalitarianism have loosened social ties and weakened America, and with his warnings that recent decisions on assisted suicide may have broad, Roe v. Wade-like implications. Several arguments should spur debate. Bork disagrees with those who call for greater economic equality"it is not that America is odd compared to Sweden, but that Sweden is odd compared to us." He believes that constitutional legitimacy can only be reclaimed if we pass a constitutional amendment allowing Congress to override federal and state court decisions. He also supports censorship of "the most violent and sexually explicit material," though he doesn't suggest how it might be implemented. Bork finds some hope in the rise of religious conservatism, and proposes a multiple-front strategy to reclaim American institutions.
With its emphasis on outcomes vs. opportunity and on personal gratification, liberalism is destroying the cultural fabric of America, says Bork, author of the best-selling The Tempting of America (LJ 11/1/89). The liberal elites that control all major social institutions, most significantly the universities, churches, media, and government bureaucracies, regard morality as an impediment to personal convenience. Bork regards the 1960s as a loathsome decade when moral integrity was destroyed and the current leaders of these elites were spawned. He details how these "barbarians" have unleashed torrents of political correctness, radical feminism, anti-intellectualism, and affirmative action on society. Writing with an ardent certitude that true conservatives will applaud while those with moderate and liberal leanings will regard as demagoguery, Bork states his views effectively, but he repeatedly uses examples of excess to define mainstream liberalism. For an excellent liberal view of the culture wars, see Todd Gitlin's The Twilight of Common Dreams (Holt, 1995). Strongly recommended for public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 9/15/95.]-Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, Pa.
Richard A. Glenn
William B. Yeats' classic poem "The Second Coming," written in 1919, is about the world disintegrating amidst a brutal force. It concludes: "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" While Yeats could not have known it, that "rough beast" of decadence has reached its maturity in the last three decades and threatens to send the United States slouching not towards Bethlehem, but towards the depravity of Gomorrah. (Gomorrah, a city legendary for its intractable wickedness, was demolished by God in a cataclysm of "brimstone and fire" in the Old Testament book of Genesis.) Such is the thesis of Robert H. Bork's book SLOUCHING TOWARDS GOMORRAH: MODERN LIBERALISM AND AMERICAN DECLINE. Mr. Bork, a John H. Olin Scholar in Legal Scholars at the American Enterprise Institute, served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 1982 to 1988. He was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. (His nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate.) In addition, Mr. Bork has been a partner in a major law firm, taught constitutional law at Yale Law School, and was solicitor general and acting attorney general of the United States.
According to Mr. Bork, the enemy within that brings about this corrosion is modern liberalism, of which the defining characteristics are radical egalitarianism ("the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities") and radical individualism ("the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification"). Modern liberalism differs from classical liberalism. Classic liberalism--the liberalism of Locke, Montesquieu, Smith, and Jefferson, for instance--has the twin thrusts of liberty and equality. But because liberalism has no corrective within itself, all it can do is endorse more liberty and demand more rights. This unqualified enthusiasm for liberty has trumped the need for order. In decades and centuries past, order took care of itself because liberty and equality were tempered by restraining forces in American culture--family, church, school, neighborhood, and inherited morality. Today the authority of those institutions has been eroded. As such, the concepts of liberty and equality have changed since their enshrinement in the Declaration of Independence. Liberty has become "moral anarchy." Equality has become "despotic egalitarianism." Rot and devastation follow. Such is modern liberalism.
According to the author, modern liberalism finds is roots in the radicalism of the 1960s. From the PORT HURON STATEMENT of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 (that he calls the "birth of the sixties") to the "sacking of the universities" (with vivid accounts from Cornell, Yale, and Kent State), Mr. Bork traces the attacks on American culture and bourgeois morals. But while the sixties has passed, modern liberalism has not. Modern liberalism is powerful because those formulations remain deeply embedded in today's culture. Today, student radicals of the sixties occupy positions of power and influence across the nation. Cultural elites dominate "the institutions that manufacture, manipulate, and disseminate ideas, attitudes, and symbols"--universities, churches, Hollywood, the national press, and the judiciary, to name a few.
The most excoriating chapter of this book is devoted to the morally illiterate Supreme Court, an "agent of modern liberalism." Calling the Court arguably "the most powerful force shaping our culture," Mr. Bork derides the transfer of democratic government from elected representatives to unelected ones. (This premise was the foundation for his 1990 best-seller, THE TEMPTING OF AMERICA: THE POLITICAL SEDUCTION OF THE LAW.) As a result, the courts govern us in way not remotely contemplated by the framers and ratifiers of the Constitution, inflating enumerated rights and creating new ones (such as the right of privacy, right to physician-assisted suicide, and right to same-sex marriages). The Court's intolerable assumption of complete governing power "disintegrate[s] the basis for our social unity [and] brings the rule of law into disrepute....We head toward constitutional nihilism." To counter this judicial despotism, Mr. Bork advocates (although he calls its passage "highly unlikely") a constitutional amendment making any federal or state court decision subject to being overruled by a majority vote of each chamber of Congress. Also derided is the twentieth century trend toward administrative rule-making. Increasing and extensive governmental regulations have led to greater bureaucratic authority, which makes the democratic process "increasingly irrelevant." (Mr. Bork is crashing through open doors here. This argument was initially advanced in 1969 by Theodore Lowi in THE END OF LIBERALISM.) Mr. Bork concludes:
Modern liberalism is fundamentally at odds with democratic government because it demands results that ordinary people would not freely choose. Liberals must govern, therefore, through institutions that are largely insulated from the popular will. The most important institutions for liberals' purposes are the judiciary and the bureaucracies. The judiciary and the bureaucracies are staffed with intellectuals....and thus tend to share the views and accept the agenda of modern liberalism.
Judicial and bureaucratic government, which may be well-intentioned, cannot, by definition, be democratic. Yet, in this sense, Mr. Bork's criticism is less an indictment of the judiciary and bureaucracy and directed more appropriately at those who permit the abdication of lawmaking responsibility to institutions that are largely insulated from the popular will.
The bulwark of the book is a well-organized and clearly written critique of the collapse of American culture since the 1960s. (As such, this is NOT a book about government.) No institution of that culture has remained untouched. To hear Mr. Bork tell it, nothing positive has happened in this country since the glory days of "I like Ike." This book reads like all-out assault on American culture in the past four decades. Perhaps Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole used this text as a basis for his "bridge to the past" metaphor. Yet in comparison to Mr. Bork, Mr. Dole may well be "optimistic."
Mr. Bork equates popular culture with "unrestrained hedonism." He advocates censorship ""for the most violent and sexually explicit material" easily available through popular music, movies, and the internet. ("The very fact that we have gone from Elvis to Snoop Doggy Dogg is the heart of the case for censorship.") Crime has proliferated. The war on drugs has failed. Abortion has led to a lack of respect for human life--"killing for convenience." Physician-assisted suicide will spiral into euthanasia. ("It is entirely predictable that many of the elderly, ill, and infirm will be killed, and often without consent.") Feminism, the "most fanatical and destructive movement of the 1960s," is an attack on hierarchy, family, religion, and national security. Racial tensions have escalated. Affirmative action "was a serious mistake....Continuing it would be a disaster." Education has become politicized to the point that competency has decreased. Teachers do not teach; students do not learn. Religion, "essential to a civilized culture," has become marginalized. (However, Mr. Bork calls the rise in religious conservatism "most promising.") Multiculturalism is a lie because all cultures are not equal. It has fragmented America. A culture of chaos persists. America heads toward moral decline and spiritual decay.
While the data presented are solid and the analysis penetrating, the latter is incomplete. Mr. Bork never addresses the major criticisms directed toward his agenda. He ignores the dangers of censorship, the successes of affirmative action, the arguments in favor of assisted suicide, the perils of a union between church and state, and the pitfalls of cultural gerrymandering. On no issue does he offer a balanced analysis. Legitimate discussion is replaced with bold assertions: modern liberalism "is intellectually and morally bankrupt;" modern liberals are "today's barbarians;" Bill Clinton is "the very model of the modern liberal;" etc.
Moreover, while Mr. Bork attacks each component of American culture, he fails to offer much in the way of a solution. His book is heavy on description, light on prescription. Only the last chapter (a total of 13 pages)--entitled "Can America Avoid Gomorrah?"--is forward looking. Mr. Bork advocates a revival of conservative culture--a self-confidence about the worth of traditional values. There are signs that this is happening (i.e., the conservative political climate of the last fifteen years, President Clinton's move to the "vital center"). But the courage to resist Gomorrah is ultimately "the optimism of the will." This first requisite is knowing what is happening to us (the stated purpose of this book). The second step is resistance to radical individualism and radical egalitarianism in every area of American culture. Resist radical individualism? America has always been headed to hell in a handbasket. (See calls for censoring Elvis.) Radical egalitarianism? A simple look at economic outcomes would suggest that, particularly in the decade of the eighties, wealth and income have become more disparate.
While the diagnosis may be correct, the cure may be unacceptable and unattainable. Mr. Bork appears to assume that America holds to a commonly-agreed upon moral core. Such moral consensus is difficult to find today. It remains doubtful that America will be willing to swallow the medication that Mr. Bork has prescribed for a return to normalcy and health. After all, "popular culture" is "popular" for a reason. And, most of us would agree, the courts are not to blame for that.
A former judge's stinging indictment of the havoc postmodern liberalism has wrought on the state of the American union.
An eloquent, often elegant, advocate, Bork (whose ultimately aborted nomination to the US Supreme Court unleashed an ideological firestorm in mid-1987) defines latter-day liberalism as an ad hoc coalition of cultural elites (academics, ecclesiastics, entertainers, filmmakers, foundation professionals, journalists, jurists, public-interest groups, et al.) committed to a radical egalitarianism and unfettered individualism. In sorrow as well as anger, he assesses the demonstrably corrosive impact these no-fault credos have had on a host of activities and institutions. Cases in point range from the violently misogynistic lyrics of rap music through permissive sexual attitudes that have escalated teen pregnancy rates, the debasement of university curricula with trivial or spurious courses of study, insistence on equality of outcomes as well as opportunity, and the emergence of moral relativism as an acceptable alternative to traditional values. Citing an increasing incidence of self-segregation by ethnic minorities, a discernible rise in anti-intellectualism, antipathy toward mainstream religions, the left's intolerance of dissent, and a half-hearted approach to crime and punishment, Bork (The Tempting of America, 1989, etc.) decries liberalism's capacity for divisiveness. He also condemns "killing for convenience" (abortion, assisted suicide) and activist judges who usurp the power of the people with decisions that owe more to political correctness than statutory or constitutional authority. The author is by no means sanguine on the score of whether the US can reverse its long-term slide. To do so, he concludes, the populace will have to regain control over increasingly coercive government bureaucracies and court systems that have been setting an agenda decidedly at odds with majority wishes.
A thoughtful conservative's devastating judgment on intemperate liberalism, one that seems sure to reopen the bitter national debate over individual rights and responsibilities.
Read an Excerpt
"The Vertical Invasion of the Barbarians"
It is important to understand what the Sixties turmoil was about, for the youth culture that became manifest then is the modern liberal culture of today. Where that culture will take us next may be impossible to say, but it is also impossible even to make an informed guess without understanding the forces let loose by the decade that changed America.
Many people attribute the student frenzy, civil disobedience, and violence of the Sixties to the war in Vietnam. That is a comforting thought, for, if true, it would mean that the Sixties pivoted on a single ephemeral issue rather than representing a major, and perhaps permanent, upheaval across all of American culture. Unfortunately, the evidence seems clear that Vietnam was more an occasion for the outbreaks than their cause. The war at most intensified into hatred a contempt for American civilization that was already in place.
During the same period, other countries that had no involvement in the Vietnamese war, notably France, Italy, and Germany, saw serious student rebellions. In France the students came closer to toppling the government than the radicals ever did in the United States. The turmoil seems to have had more to do with attitudes that reached their culmination in a particular generation in Western democracies than with the war.
Contrast the reaction of American youth to the wars in Korea and in Vietnam. Both were wars in Asia, both exacted high prices in Americans killed or disabled, both had only the rationale ofcontaining communism, both soon became unpopular. Yet American youth went willingly, if not gladly, to Korea, while they demonstrated against Vietnam, marched on the Pentagon, threw blood on draft records, fled to Canada and Sweden, and denounced "Amerika." Something in our culture, or at least the culture of our youth, had changed between the two wars. Vietnam was a convenient and powerful metaphor for what was in reality the belief that America's culture, society, economy, and polity were corrupt.
One must not, of course, discount the great reservoir of self-interest that underlay much of the rhetoric of morality. The generation that fought in Korea had not grown up with affluence. Many had served in World War II or grew up during the war. The middle-class youths who were asked to fight in Vietnam were of a pampered generation, one that prized personal convenience above almost all else. The prospect that their comfortable lives might be disrupted, or even endangered, by having to serve their country in Vietnam was for many intolerable. Thus, the student protests wound down when the draft ended.
Yet to this day, many contend that the radicals' protests against the war were honorable. Professor James Miller of the New School for Social Research, for example, argues that there were substantial benefits from the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention because of the "dissent, confrontation, the passionate expression of moral outrage at a war that was, after all, morally reprehensible and unjust in its brutality, as well as strategically mistaken." Those who speak in this fashion, and there are many, realize that something is still at stake in the argument over Vietnam. Indeed there is. The debate about that war is a contest between two opposed ways of viewing the world, whose current form is the war in the culture. That makes Vietnam worth a word or two.
It may be doubted, to begin with, that a difference of opinion about strategy brought the radicals into the streets. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) did not arrive at its position on the war through a close study of Clausewitz and Jomini. Nor has anyone persuasively explained why the war was morally reprehensible or unjust in its brutality. It was a time of very worrisome communist expansion by force around the world. The United States had succeeded in saving South Korea by force of arms but had seen China and Cuba fall and was facing an aggressive and heavily armed Soviet Union. Attempting to contain communist dictatorships was hardly an immoral project. It was known at the time that Ho Chi Minh's triumph in the North had resulted in the killing of about 100,000 people, and it was certainly reasonable to anticipate a larger slaughter in the South if we lost the war.
The subsequent fate of the South Vietnamese people ought to convince anyone that the war should have been fought and won. We know of the tortures and murders in the re-education camps, and of the "postwar terror which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and which produced over a million refugees." To anyone with the slightest knowledge of communist takeovers in other countries, these things were entirely foreseeable. The almost complete indifference of American antiwar radicals to the terrible fate of the South Vietnamese after the Communists' victory demonstrates that the protests were not motivated by concern for the people of Vietnam. The protests were primarily about the moral superiority of the protesters and their rage against their own country.
What was morally reprehensible were the New Lefts attempts to ensure the American and South Vietnamese defeat. North Vietnam's resolve was greatly increased by the demonstrations against the war in the United States. Bui Tin, a former colonel on the general staff of the North Vietnamese army who left after the war because he became disillusioned with his country's communism, said in an interview that Hanoi intended to defeat the United States by fighting a long war to break America's will. The American antiwar movement was "essential to our strategy. Support for the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and various clergy gave us... Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Copyright © by Robert H. Bork. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.