Robert H. Bork’s Slouching Towards Gomorrah (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 382 pages, $ 25) has an air of authority that borders on the magisterial. The legal scholar, former appealscourt judge, and defeated nominee for the United States Supreme Court has written a work of intellectual history and social criticism that, in fewer than 350 pages, means to offer a comprehensive account of the failure of modern liberalism (the book’s subtitle is Modern Liberalism and American Decline). It is easy to imagine such an ambitious project ending in superficiality, eccentricity, or triviality. Slouching Towards Gomorrah does not.
On the contrary, the book is steeped in serious thought about Modern Times. The prose is engaging. But the manner is that of the serious if not fusty law professor scouring casebooks for illuminating precedents — in this case meticulously selecting source material on the basis of the quality and clarity of the analysis that has gone before.
Slouching Towards Gomorrah is not, therefore, a particularly original or eye-popping work. But then again, it is clear that Bork does not consider originality to be much of a virtue — certainly not something to which one aspires at the expense of clear-headedness and accuracy of observation. On page 66, about the point at which a reader might be musing that he has been down this road before, Bork offers a notably revealing sentence about his own purpose: “If there is anything new in this book, it is the demonstration of the ill effects of the passion [for equality] in a variety of contemporary social and cultural fields.” If there is anything new in this book. In this, the age of the publicist, an honest willingness to admit that one might or might not be saying something new, and then to go on and say it because it needs saying — well, that is more striking in its way than even the most dazzling exercises in literary or intellectual pyrotechnics.
Slouching Towards Gomorrah is a deeply pessimistic book, one that fully delivers on the promise of its doleful title. Our cultural condition is not merely as bad as Yeats’s description of it in “The Second Coming” — the center not holding, the best lacking all conviction, the worst full of passionate intensity, mere anarchy loosed upon the world. Our condition is worse. We are slouching past Bethlehem all the way to Gomorrah, the sin city destroyed by God in a fit of disgust with what His creatures were capable of. Illegitimacy is staggeringly high, the universities are collapsing, porn is proliferating on the Internet: In policy area after policy area, things are bad. But the totality of our failure is far worse than the sum of its parts. It is, in Bork’s view, biblical in proportion.
The first two chapters of Slouching Towards Gomorrah are about the intellectual upheaval of the 1960s, the period in which contemporary liberalism’s two most noxious strains suffused the body politic. They were radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. The first amounts to an assault on the notion that a society or culture can legitimately impose standards on people’s behavior. The second is the doctrine that, in the interest of justice, a society must work to ensure equal social outcomes.
Each of these doctrines has a pedigree stretching back much farther than the 1960s. And Bork, unlike a number of other scholars, is unwilling to let classical liberalism off the hook for the perversions and wretched excess of its radicalized 1960s incarnation. The passions for equality and liberty, in his view, have always contained the germinal material for our current afflictions.
But it was only in the ’60s, with the rise of the youth movement and the counterculture, that these ideas attained critical mass and exploded. The damage was everywhere. Universities capitulated, surrendering their academic standards as the price of peace with the radical student thugs who had taken over the administration buildings. The street protests against the war in Vietnam made a confused policy all the more tortured. Legislators struggled to pass bills designed to bring more equality, but the political system was under attack as fundamentally illegitimate.
The counterculture’s more visible manifestations faded after the end of the draft and the war. Surveying it all, and taking into consideration Richard Nixon’s evocation of the “silent majority” that provided his landslide win over George McGovern, one might conclude that the United States weathered the worst of the storm tolerably well. The hangover would persist in a host of subsidiary maladies ranging from Watergate to the “Vietnam syndrome” to stagflation. But the worst was over.
Bork disagrees. The radical passions that animated the student movement of the 1960s neither diminished nor were repudiated by their adherents. It’s just that those adherents fanned out into junior positions in political and broadly “cultural” professions. Three decades later, they are at the peaks of their careers. And from the heights they now command — as federal judges, tenured full professors, media and entertainment superstars and moguls, foundation chiefs, and advocacy eminences — they propagate exactly the same dogma of radical individualism and radical egalitarianism they learned in their youth.
Only to much, much greater effect. Bork writes: “It was a malignant decade that, after a fifteen-year remission, returned in the 1980s to metastasize more devastatingly throughout our culture than it had in the Sixties, not with tumult but quietly, in the moral and political assumptions of those who now control and guide our major cultural institutions. The Sixties radicals are still with us, but now they do not paralyze the universities, they run the universities.”
Bork devotes much of his book to a survey course in our cultural horrors: a Supreme Court intent on imposing its egalitarian, individualist ideas on a benighted society; a bureaucracy that feels the same way; a popular culture that wallows in obscenity, degradation, and rape-and-murder fantasies that desensitize to violence those whom they don’t incite to it; a justice system that has lost faith in the idea that it is right to punish criminals; a sexual revolution yielding rampant illegitimacy and convenience abortion; a ” gender” feminism and multiculturalism that decry reason as oppressive; a race- based spoils system according to which individual merit is subordinated to group identity; and more.
How dark is Slouching Towards Gomorrah? This dark: “At another conference, I referred, not approvingly, to Michael Jackson’s crotch- clutching performance at the Super Bowl. Another panelist tartly informed me that it was precisely the desire to enjoy such manifestations of American culture that had brought down the Berlin Wall. That seems as good an argument as any for putting the wall back up again.”
And this dark: “We are, then, entering a period of tribal hostilities. Some of what we may expect includes a rise in interethnic violence, a slowing of economic productivity, a vulgarization of scholarship (which is already well underway), and increasing government intrusion into our lives in the name of producing greater equality and ethnic peace, which will, predictably, produce still greater polarization and fractiousness.”
And this dark: “Sir Henry Maine made the point that, looking back, we are amazed at the blindness of the privileged classes in France to the approach of the Revolution that was to overwhelm them. . . . Yet we seem at least as sanguine about the prospects for democratic government as were Maine’s contemporaries.”
Bork offers little hope, though along the way he recommends such measures as censorship of obscene and pornographic speech and allowing Congress to vote to overturn Supreme Court decisions. At the end, he avers that the ” pessimism of the intellect” still allows room for the “optimism of the will.” But he doesn’t sound persuaded himself, and the optimism here sounds more like religious consolation than a program for action.
Are we, then, finished?
Bork won’t let us take any comfort from the fact that, for example, most of popular music is merely pleasant — and has no truck with the derangements of the rapper Tupac Shakur. We delude ourselves, he believes, if we base an assessment of our condition on a sugar-coated view that does not take into account the extremes of the degradation we allow. But the act of keeping the spotlight focused so unforgivingly on the extremes also foreordains Bork’s gloomy conclusion.
In fact, he allows into evidence a couple of points that, though he does not explore them, offer some measure of surcease from all this sorrow. In the course of detailing the riot of political correctness currently disfiguring campus life and curricula, he notes, “But a student who rejects the criteria by which our society judges achievement is himself handicapped, probably for life.” And though he laments a loss of national identity and deplores the tribalization of American life, he also observes, “Immigrant parents want their children to learn English and become Americans.”
A tony elite may make a buck, garner status, and wreak havoc by wallowing in the mire or by trying to impose an egalitarian and individualist vision on people. It would be foolish to deny or minimize the problems this causes. But there is a price to be paid for indulging it. Sometimes (Tupac Shakur is dead) members of the elite themselves pay a price — though, to be sure, rarely, since money and status offer insulation from the folly of their actions.
A far more serious price attaches to the folly of those who have not arrived in the top quintile, but perhaps aspire to it, or at least to their own advancement. A young woman of modest talent and humble origin who gets into Brown on a scholarship and decides to devote her time there to an exploration of gender politics and her own lesbian side — well, she may miss an opportunity. Similarly, an immigrant who disdains the cultural imperialism implicit in the English language and boycotts learning it is, precisely, not going to go far. By and large, the young woman and the immigrant know this, or at least their parents do.
Common sense is a substantial counterweight to the pile of moral and intellectual depravity Bork has heaped on one side of the scale. It is tempting to attribute the one-sidedness to the unique persecution Bork endured at the hands of a cultural elite bent on keeping him off the Supreme Court. But that’s unfair to the man; his conservatism and cultural pessimism have deeper and profounder roots than that. In the end, the case he makes in Slouching Towards Gomorrah is one we are obliged to confront and take seriously, even if it is not finally persuasive and even if its relentless morbidity leads the author himself into such occasional flights of perversity as a faux longing for the return of the Berlin Wall.