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Slouching Towards Gomorrah
Modern Liberalism and American Decline

By Robert H. Bork
Regan Books, 382 pp, 1996

A former judge, Yale law professor, Solicitor General, and Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork is pessimistic about America's future. In fact, though he never uses these exact words, he thinks we're all doomed. Sure, he holds out a glimmer of hope at the end (more on that later), but unless we turn things around quickly, it's over. America's toast.

If you don't believe my characterization, here it is in his own words:

This is a book about American decline. Since American culture is a variant of the cultures of all Western industrialized democracies, it may even, inadvertently, be a book about Western decline. In the United States, at least, that decline and the mounting resistance to it have produced what we now call a culture war. It is impossible to say what the outcome will be, but for the moment our trajectory continues downward. This is not to deny that much in our culture remains healthy, that many families are intact and continue to raise children with strong moral values. American culture is complex and resilient. But it is also not to be denied that there are aspects of almost every branch of our culture that are worse than ever before and that the rot is spreading.

What is to blame for American's slouch toward Gomorrah? As the title implies, the fault lies with modern liberalism, particularly the two components that comprise it: radical individualism ("the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification") and radical egalitarianism ("the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities").

As Bork points out, it's difficult for radical individualism and radical egalitarianism to co-exist, because the liberty required for individualism leads to inequality. But the two operate in different spheres. Radical egalitarianism (hereafter known as RE) rears its ugly head in "areas of life and society where superior achievement is possible and would be rewarded but for coercion towards a state of equality," like quotas and affirmative action. Radical individualism (hereafter known as RI) "is demanded when there is no danger that achievement will produce inequality and people wish to be unhindered in the pursuit of pleasure."

As you might expect, Bork condemns both philosophies. RE "presses us towards collectivism because a powerful state is required to suppress the differences that freedom produces." RI

attacks the authority of family, church, and private associations. The family is said to be oppressive, the fount of our miseries. It is denied that the church may legitimately insist upon what it regards as moral behavior in its members. Private associations are routinely denied the autonomy to define their membership for themselves. The upshot is that these institutions, which stand between the state and the individual, are progressively weakened and their functions increasingly dictated to or taken over by the state. The individual becomes less of a member of powerful private institutions and a member of an unstructured mass that is vulnerable to the collectivist coercion of the state. Thus does radical individualism prepare the way for its opposite.

But why has American and Western culture been subjected to these sinister forces, and not the rest of the world? Bork cites our use of technology that makes our lives easier. Hard labor has rapidly given way to white collar work, in which typing at a keyboard for eight hours is considered work. This absence of true labor can lead to boredom, which causes people to pursue pleasure in other areas, some constructive, some destructive. Envy also plays a role, because American is a wealthy nation, and those who are not wealthy often are jealous of those who are.

Like many conservatives, Bork lays much of the blame of the recent rise in RE and RI on the Sixties. Students and other activists rebelled against authority and sought to tear down institutions or at least bully them into adopting reforms, and our institutions proved too weak or unwilling to put up much of a fight. So they caved and the "barbarians" won, and these same barbarians now run these same institutions, thus becoming the establishment, the intellectual elite that wields so much influence in America.

However, unlike may conservatives, Bork believes the Sixties were merely the time that RE and RI rose to full prominence. The roots of revolution existed in America long before that, but their growth was stunted by World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. In fact, RE and RI is ingrained in our culture by the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which claimed that all men were created equal. This gave birth to the rise of RI, and is also why Bork is so pessimistic about America's chances. This is all part of our nature and character as a nation - we can cut it out no more than we can remove our hearts and still live.

Many institutions and groups have done their part in leading us towards Gomorrah. Bork writes a scathing chapter on the Supreme Court and ridicules several of its opinions, such as Roe v. Wade and cases involving flag burning, education, religion, and sex and race discrimination. The Court, in Bork's view, has gotten all this dreadfully wrong and ignored the Constitution to impose its own view on the rest of the country. It has become its own little dictatorship and robbed us of the authority and power to govern ourselves. This leads Bork to propose a constitutional amendment giving Congress the right, by a majority vote, to review and if necessary overturn any Supreme Court ruling. He believes the Court must be checked by some democratic process so the people can regain self-government. 

As a brief aside, I'm not sure what I think of this proposal, but it does remind me of James Madison's idea to give Congress veto power over any state law, which his peers rejected. But something must be done, because nothing in the Constitution gives the Supreme Court the final authority over what is constitutional, and several matters they have ruled on, like abortion, euthanasia, and so on, are certainly better left for us to decide through our elected representatives.

Bork also tackles the issue of pornography, which he believes must be censored. Its influence is so pervasive and destructive that if left unchecked, it could consume our culture and destroy it. At the very least, it could strip away our ability to govern ourselves. In making his case, Bork ignores such practical matters like the government's ability to effectively control such a popular and wealthy industry, but he does offer a fine comeback to those who say if you don't like it, don't watch it. Of course, he says, but what if I am affected or harmed by someone who does watch it? What if I restrict my child from watching pornography, and yet some sicko whose perverse passions are fueled by pornography molests my child? What then?

The rest of the book, until the end, is more of a conventional conservative critique of radical feminism, abortion on demand, affirmative action, the fictional separation of church and state, and higher education. 

At the end, Bork wonders if America is capable of reversing its march to Gomorrah. He's not very hopeful. He wonders if we should set up tiny enclaves of resistance, not unlike the Irish monasteries that kept the flame of Western civilization alive during the Dark Ages. He's not crazy about that idea (neither am I, it's akin to surrendering to the hordes), and concludes that the only way to stop our slide is to muster up the political will to resist modern liberalism, RE and RI in all its forms and manifestations. 

I see evidence of that happening right now, with the success of conservatives on talk radio and the Internet. But is it enough? 

All right, so what's my take on the book? I agree with Bork on most issues. I don't think censorship is necessary or workable. I agree American culture isn't in the best shape right now. I don't think it's as bad as he believes, or beyond repair, mainly because I disagree with his premise that our problems are inherent in our political nature. The founders did not, as Bork claims, worship at the altar of equality. When Jefferson wrote that all men were created equal, he meant that all citizens were entitled to the same rights under the law, not that everyone was the same. In fact, one way to counter the radical individualists is to summon the spirit of Jefferson and the founders, and show they would never approve of what is happening now in their name.

Bork sometimes suggests a contradiction, or at least a tension, between liberty and community, as if more liberty weakens a community. I think liberty and community work just fine together - America's success proves that. Are liberty and community under assault? Constantly. They always will be, which is why they require constant vigilance and defense. Only good people can do it. We have to.

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