A Conservative Robespierre: A Review of Bork’s Gomorrah

Tod Lindberg contends that the winning Republican coalition of the 1980s is cracking up. The state legislatures, the governorships, the Congress – all are increasingly Republican, while the presidency has now twice gone Democratic for the first time since FDR. Lindberg argues that practical Republicanism sells at the local level. But the Republicans’ ideology does not. While state and local elections are based upon practical matters, presidential contests still involve considerable ideological content.1 Matters are likely only to get worse for, without a charismatic icon such as Ronald Reagan to hold the GOP’s factions together, the coalition’s tendency is centrifugal, with the components spinning out toward extremity.

There were four major groups in the old Republican coalition: (a) economic conservatives, typically socially liberal free-market proponents; (b) neoconservatives, primarily fierce anti-communists; (c) social conservatives, lukewarm on markets, culturally traditionalist; and (d) paleoconservatives, almost free-market opponents, given their hatred of NAFTA, generally isolationist, and harboring a cultural traditionalism that bordered on prejudice. The alliance among these groups has largely disintegrated. Each now pursues its own agenda, often tinged with radicalism, since no combination of three of the groups has sufficient influence on the fourth to keep it from drifting into intellectual outer space. Thus, people in group A, such as Jack Kemp, muse about a return to the gold standard, while people in group D, including Pat Buchanan, talk about resurrecting an immigrant-free Fortress America. There is little common ground. One person in group C, Robert H. Bork, is the subject of this review.

Robert Bork is most famous for being the victim of a well-orchestrated liberal effort to keep him from assuming a position on the Supreme Court after being nominated by President Reagan. His critics charged that he was too conservative, too extreme; that his jurisprudence threatened individual liberties. Many of these arguments rested on half-truths produced by twisting Bork’s relatively benign legal writings into something far more insidious. Still, given the content of Mr. Bork’s recent book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah,2 there may have been some kernel of truth in what his critics argued. Bork has not entered the intellectual stratosphere but, like some of the other prominent figures in the old GOP coalition, he is drifting.

Much of Mr. Bork’s book is spent describing the hedonistic tendencies in contemporary American culture. Nothing new here: Even some liberals have written with shock and dismay about the television shows now being marketed to children, the lyrics of rap songs, and the trendy courses now passing for curricula at universities. Had he left it there, the only criticism that might have been leveled against him is that he is banal and tiresome. But he does not leave it there. He proposes solutions to the problem of what he sees to be a debased culture. This is when things get a bit scary.

For example, in a chapter titled, “The Case for Censorship,” Bork argues that the time has come to censor certain forms of speech, such as pornography and violent rap music, because of their destructive effects on society. Violent and decadent entertainment begets a violent and decadent culture, says Bork.3 Certainly, there is nothing wrong with censoring, say, kiddie-porn, since the film content itself illegal. Nor should anyone flinch at the efforts now being made in Congress to arm parents with warning labels, ratings and devices such as the V-chip to protect children from unsuitable television material. But Bork takes it upon himself to decide what is appropriate for us, the adults. What is worse, he does so in the name of public virtue.4

It is a telltale sign of extremism when censorship is recommended, not to deal with a specific problem – the jerk who yells, “Fire!” in a crowded theater – but, rather, to elevate the morality of the masses. It has a long and nasty tradition – the Committee for the Public Safety during the French Revolution, etc. What evil has not been done in the name of public virtue to protect the less enlightened from decadence? Of course, in this case we must presume that Mr. Bork, by virtue of his extensive education and higher consciousness, is immune to the entreaties of decadent culture and is therefore fit to be our guide. The whole affair smacks of an authoritarian past when dour puritan men wearing black frocks and black hats walked about and glared at those who were having too much fun. Mr. Bork is high-minded but, in this case, he borders on being self-righteous.

By generalizing his case for censorship, not only does Bork risk elevating censorship to a philosophical principle, but he leaves the reader confused. What should we censor? It is like the problem of the Golden Rule – do unto others what you would have them do unto you. But what should you do unto others and what should you have them do unto you? In the case of censorship, Bork says it was “inevitably silly” that, at one time, movies could not show a husband and wife fully dressed on a bed unless each had one foot on the floor.5 Yet, at the time, most people thought it was far from silly – that is why it was the rule. Perhaps the definition of pornography is not as universal or timeless as Mr. Bork argues. And maybe Bork has been more affected by today’s decadence than he realizes, given that his judgment on this particular rule would have made him a far-out liberal in the 1950s.

It is difficult to say which social activities have harmful effects and, thus, need to be censored. Alexis de Tocqueville, a writer lauded by conservatives, noted a fair amount of prostitution on the streets of 19th-century America. But he noted that such activity was less threatening to the institution of marriage than intrigue.6 Old World Europeans, with their paramours enjoyed discreetly on the side, inflicted greater damage on the institution of marriage than an entire boardwalk of tramps. This was true, Tocqueville believed, even though prostitution was a high-profile activity. Today’s link between overt decadence and the decline of the America family, emphasized by cultural conservatives in preparation for wielding the censorship weapon, also lacks the precision necessary for for excising only the truly damaging.

Bork also goes after the Declaration of Independence. He links the liberties guaranteed in that document with today’s excesses: “The street predator of the underclass may be the natural outcome of the mistake the founders of liberalism made.”7 This is intellectual reductionism of a dangerous kind. It presumes that all forms of liberalism are related to one another and that each is inherently decadent. But not all forms of liberalism are related. Serious scholarship on 18th-century American liberalism, for example, demonstrates that it is impossible to separate the principle of individualism as it was then conceived from popular religious fervor.8 Conservatives such as Bork are not known for their criticism of religion, yet Christian worship and the Protestant ethic so powerfully influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence that historians often debate what came first in America – liberalism or Christianity.

Words like freedom, liberty and equality can be found in the Declaration, just as they can be found in the contemporary rap musician’s manifesto. But it is crude and artificial to chart the rise and fall of America by measuring the relative frequency with which they appear on paper. In a way, Mr. Bork’s tendency to make generalizations about liberalism reminds one of the person who reaches the same conclusion every time he hears the words, “I love you.” Sometimes those words are uttered sincerely, sometimes cynically and sometimes jokingly. The discerning person knows that what matters most is not the words, but the spirit in which they are spoken.

It is same with the liberty and the Declaration of Independence. It takes no great genius to find the words freedom, equality and happiness in the Declaration and then to say, upon noting the abuse of freedom in contemporary America, “See, one follows from the other.” By contrast, it takes worldly wisdom to understand that the first set of words might have been filtered through an entirely different atmosphere of belief. If America is decadent today, do not put the blame Jefferson, Franklin or classical liberalism. Do not fiddle with a document that has perhaps done more to encourage respect for others and promote the ideal of self-governance than any other in history. The flaw is not in the Declaration or in our past. It is in ourselves.

In the November 1996 issue of First Things, the proceedings of a symposium were published under the title, “The End of Democracy?”9 As a result of his disenchantment with contemporary America, Bork, one of the contributors, gave support to the tactic of civil disobedience as a way of challenging what other authors in the symposium concluded to be an “illegitimate regime,” meaning in this case the contemporary political and social establishment.10 The result was a fight between neoconservatives and social conservatives, between groups B and C, that ended in several prominent neoconservatives, including Gertrude Himmelfarb and Peter Berger, resigning from the editorial board of the publication. Himmelfarb said she had not become a conservative to become a “revolutionary.” Mr. Bork may well have become just that.

Not many people subscribe to publications like First Things or follow philosophical debates or even know who Bork and Himmelfarb are. Nevertheless, the dispute is important. On the seismograph of politics, such arcane academic fights often serve as a first tremor. They warn of a clash of extreme positions that is coming down the road, one that will shake up not just academics but everyone. A real earthquake on its way and, when it arrives, Mr. Bork will be there at the epicenter, presenting his case for undoing an American ideal.

Dr. Dworkin is the co-director and CFO of the Calvert Institute and the author of a book about the culture wars.

End Notes
[Top] 1. Tod Lindberg, “The Broken Arc,” Weekly Standard, Vol. 2, No. 11, Nov. 24, 1996, p. 26.

[Top] 2. Robert H. Bork, Slouching Toward Gomorrah (New York, N.Y.: Regan Books, 1996).

[Top] 3. Bork, Slouching, p. 140.

[Top] 4. Bork, Slouching, pp. 140, 145.

[Top] 5. Bork, Slouching, p. 141.

[Top] 6. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Vol. 2 (New York, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 1990), pp. 207-208.

[Top] 7. Bork, Slouching, p. 64.

[Top] 8. Barry Shain, The Myth of American Individualism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), passim.

[Top] 9. “The End of Democracy,” a symposium, First Things, Vol. 67, Nov. 1996.

[Top] 10. Bork, “Our Judicial Oligarchy,” First Things, Vol. 67, Nov. 1996, p. 23.

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