Robert Bork's hyperbolic assault on contemporary culture is a best-seller. But it has even his conservative allies backing away.
Say what you will about the ferment on the traditionalist right these days, it certainly makes for some memorable headlines. "Is Our Society Worth Saving?" asked a perfectly serious January article in the magazine Insight, the premise being that it might be wiser, faced with a nation as forgetful of the Deity's will as ours, just to leave it to its brimstone fate. Denouncers of Darwinism and of the separation of church and state are making it into even respectable conservative magazines. The religion-in-public-life journal First Things grabbed its moment in the darkness with a symposium positing that the federal government - GOP Congress and all - had become "illegitimate," a "regime" based on "usurpation" led by the courts but connived at by other branches. Panelists mused whether divine intent might be better served by passive disobedience, selective violence, or all-out revolution to install the faithful in power.
One of the First Things symposiasts was former judge and law professor Robert Bork, who did disavow some of the more extreme proposals. It's not hard to see, though, why the organizers might have expected to find him a kindred spirit in head-for-the-hillsery. "This is a book about American decline," he declares on page 2 of his Slouching Towards Gomorrah. In fact, ours is "a degenerate society," "enfeebled, hedonistic,.... subpagan," and headed for "ultimate degradation" in "the coming of a new Dark Ages." "Bork Blames Yale for Decline of Western Civilization," reported the Chicago Tribune, in another of those memorable headlines.
Slouching became a national best-seller, and it's a book likely to have unhappy consequences for some time to come. One is to finish off any reputation that Judge Bork, who once studied economics at the University of Chicago, might have retained as. even vaguely sympathetic to libertarian ideas and concerns. America's real problem, he now proposes, is that Americans enjoy too much freedom, not too little. One chapter title inveighs against "The Rage for Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness"; throughout the book "liberty" and "pursuit of happiness" turn up as pejoratives. Bork traces "our modern, virtually unqualified enthusiasm for liberty" in part to the Declaration of Independence, a document whose influence he generally deplores. He assails as "both impossible and empty" John Stuart Mill's principle that law should interfere with the individual's liberty only for the sake of protecting other persons. Instead he calls for "law based on morality": "society may properly set limits on what may be shown, said and sung." His pivotal chapter is titled "The Case for Censorship."
The blue-jacketed, purple-titled tome illustrates the extent to which many conservatives have shifted their polemical energies from earlier themes to that new preoccupation, the culture war, bringing to it in many cases the sort of combativeness of tone that befits a war rather than a mere disagreement among fellow citizens. For Bork himself, the shift means departing from his earlier role as a leading public spokesman for the case against judicial activism (a case that many, including this writer, believe still badly needs making on its own terms) in favor of a less obviously suitable role as roving analyst and decrier of American popular culture.
Finally, Slouching serves as another sign, if one were needed, of how tense relations are getting these days between the libertarian and traditionalist wings of American conservatism. In recent years a sizable phalanx of trad writers and thinkers has emerged who on principle, it seems, reject an appeal to such concepts as liberty, rights, individualism, and choice in resolving questions about the appropriate domestic scope of government. During the long struggle against leftism, many of these thinkers …