IT SHOULD come as no surprise to observers of recent American political muggings that the target of Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah is modern liberalism. In 1987, a constellation of liberal forces—NOW activists, ACLU libertarians, NAACP enthusiasts, Hollywood celebrities, etc.—handily defeated Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court. The learned former U.S. Court of Appeals judge is still smarting. This is not to suggest that Slouching Towards Gomorrah is a score-settling memoir. On the contrary, the book combines trenchant philosophy and sober cultural analysis.
Bork's philosophical critique is particularly illuminating. Modern liberalism, he argues, rests on two calamitous ideas: radical egalitarianism (“the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities”) and radical individualism (“the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification”). Both ideas conspire to make modern liberalism illiberal: Radical egalitarianism denies the freedom to achieve, he argues, which leads to a bogus, oppressive equality; radical individualism denigrates restraining disciplines, which invites the tyranny of sin or licentiousness. The two ideas, Bork notes, form a curious pair, “for individualism means liberty and liberty produces inequality, while equality of outcomes means coercion and coercion destroys liberty.”
Nevertheless, the two ideas, for Bork, now coexist and press modern liberalism towards a paradoxical destination—collectivism. Radical egalitarianism encourages collectivism by demanding the elimination of all differences; radical individualism, by unleashing moral chaos and by destroying the institutions (family, Church, etc.) that stand between the individual and the state (“[t]he individual becomes less of a member of powerful private institutions and more a member of an unstructured mass that is vulnerable to the collectivist coercion of the state,” Bork's argument goes).
According to Bork, classical liberals bear some intellectual responsibility for the perilous condition of their modern offspring. By leaving the concepts of liberty and equality rather undefined, he says, they laid the groundwork for the dangerous conclusions of their ideological descendants. The great English utilitarian John Stuart Mill, for example, advanced a concept of liberty that lacked specific moral content or limits, helping to inspire the modern liberal divorce of freedom from truth. Similarly, the stirring but ambiguous liberalism in the Declaration of Independence has proven problematic. “The signers of the Declaration took the moral order they had inherited for granted,” Bork writes. “It never occurred to them that the document's rhetorical flourishes might be dangerous if the moral order weakened.”
Bork's cultural survey is less striking. To readers conversant with the recent spate of right-wing tracts, this collection of liberal cultural horrors may seem tired. All of the usual suspects are trotted out: hopelessly liberal academics who foist anti-Americanism on their students; rappers who craft paeans to misogyny and primal passions; judges who override the traditional moral sensibilities of communities; feminists who spew venom at the traditional family; toothless religious leaders who succumb to the siren song of secularism, etc.
Understandably, Bork concludes on a dark note. It is midnight in America. The barbarians are not at the gate; they're inside, running the show. The poet William Butler Yeats was right: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
The barbarians are not at the gate; they're inside, running the show.
Still, Bork warns, total moral resignation is unacceptable. While “the pessimism of the intellect tells us that Gomorrah is our probable destination,” the “optimism of the will” can give us the courage to halt the destructive march of modern liberalism. Bork draws a modicum of hope from the Irish monks who lived during the Dark Ages at the shrine of Skellig Michael, a rock seven miles off the Irish coast. As the barbarians pillaged the European continent, the monks, “on the fringe of civilization,” preserved religion and classical learning. When “the Continent was once more ready for civilization, the Irish reintroduced Christianity and the religious and secular classics their monks had copied.” Such a regeneration, Bork suggests, could happen again: “When the barbarians struck in the 60s, America did not show confidence in its own worth and values. We were taken by surprise, but we have had time to recover and form a new center that just may hold.”
George Neumayr is based in Arlington, Va.