Putting Perfection before Liberty

Robert Bork's Slouching towards Gomorrah - a Review


Victor L. Worsfold




et me begin with a confession: I have found writing a review of Robert Bork's Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline1 very difficult. In fact, I found myself putting off the task almost to the last minute (the editor's deadline is embarrassingly close as I write!), something quite foreign to my usual work habits. Identifying the source(s) of my procrastination, however, may provide something of a starting place for wrestling with Bork's text.

The book, unsurprisingly, turns out to be a neo-conservative critique of the contemporary condition of the Republic's culture. Bork characterizes that condition as "a hollowing out of democracy from within" (317), so much so that Americans are witnessing the destruction of what America means because its rewards are no longer "achieved by individual merits" (249) but simply by belonging to the group presently in favor. But I have read other such conservative critiques, especially Christopher Lasch's to whom Bork refers, although disparagingly as no conservative of his stripe (274), and found such critiques not difficult to come to terms with whether I found their drift congenial to my own point view or not. For, usually, such writings provide stimulus for reconsideration of long unchallenged convictions, testing my assumptions about such issues as abortion and euthanasia, feminism, public education and the long arm of the law. But Bork provided no such stimulus. On the contrary, time and again I found myself setting aside his chapters on these issues, unable to continue to read his views and, worse still, unwilling to engage in dialogue with them, despite their provocative nature and the seeming authoritativeness of their presentation. More about their substance and portrayal in a moment.

Nor can my procrastination in working on this review be explained by the book's subject-matter. Bork's thesis is that the present version of individualism and egalitarianism --radical individualism and radical egalitarianism, he calls them (11)-- abroad in the land, are derived from the Sixties' mind set of the then-extremists who focused upon these notions. Tracing how these notions account for America's decline because they constitute, in their radical form, what Bork calls modern liberalism, takes Bork over such subjects as the role of intellectuals in today's America, the kind of Supreme Court presently on the bench, the case for censorship in contemporary popular culture, crime, abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia (acts which he characterizes as "Killing for Convenience" in Chapter 10), feminism, race and religion in today's secular society --all of which anyone concerned about the Republic's well-being must tackle. Indeed, it might be thought that Bork is quite courageous in weaving together a mosaic of his views on these matters such that a coherent justification for accepting his stance on them might emerge to challenge the complacent liberalism of the day found especially in the academy for which Bork reserves some of his harshest criticism (Chapter 13: "The Decline of the Intellect"-my emphasis). But his attack on the liberal view on these matters is as unrelenting as it is unequivocal. Page after page of such aphoristic statements as [racial antagonism] "has led to the systematic denigration of white, heterosexual males" (235), or "Radical feminism is the most destructive and fanatical movement to come down to us from the Sixties" (193), or when discussing the contemporary distrust of America's power and intentions around the world: "The preference for the United Nations over the U.S. is characteristic of modern liberals. That is probably today's manifestation of the Sixties belief in the moral superiority of the Third World" (91) lead one to shut down one's critical antennae so that the search for the source for any merit the book may have becomes less than enthusiastic. But perseverance is endemic to my work ethic --I was raised in Presbyterian Scotland-- and I am not normally so pusillanimous in dealing with such overstatement. Again, therefore, I have been at a loss to explain my procrastination in writing about Bork's book.

Finally, I reached the end of Bork's work and, in the first half of the last chapter's opening sentence, I began to understand the answer to my unwonted unwillingness to deal with Bork's drift. The sentence begins: "There is ample room for pessimism" (331). Pessimism! I had written that word in the margins of Bork's book over and over again. Such reflections as "It may be, in fact, that a democratic nation will be unable to take the measures necessary, [to deal with the rise in crime] once we know what those measures are" (154), or when commenting on the aspiration to a substantial equality amongst all human beings, the hope for fraternity or a generalized love, Bork quotes James Fitzjames Stephen when Stephen, over a century ago, commented on the same aspiration by saying, "I do not believe it," and Bork adds "Neither does anyone with eyes to see and even a trace of common sense" (294) certainly merit Bork's own view of his thinking about our plight as pessimistic. But I wonder --philosophers, of whom I am one, are professional wonderers-- whether Bork's dyspeptic view of our world had not infected his intellectual judgment about the condition of our society, so much so that ultimately Bork's book is not so much a neo-conservative response to that condition as it is a personal diatribe against a culture Bork finds uncongenial to his late middle age. After all, in a fascinating footnote, he confesses to understanding the Sixties generation "because at that stage in life, I reacted similarly" (32). What has happened in the interim to lead Bork to such pessimism? Bork believes his experiences in the Marine Corps and at the University of Chicago "educated me out of my dreams of socialism" (ibid.) --but into the appalling pessimism about late 20th-century American culture which suffuses Bork's assessment of the culture? Surely not! But wondering about how this transformation might have occurred --his distinguished career on the bench might already argue against such personal pessimism-- I had another insight about the way Bork's pessimism is expressed.

Bork writes in what David Rieff has called "the denunciative."2 Rieff is writing about Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind,3 another neo-conservative tract about the times in which we live, though a tract focused on the plight of higher education in our times, when he says of Bloom that he "speaks only in what might be called that new grammatical mood invented by neo-conservatives: the denunciative."4 Rieff might just as well have been writing about Bork as I hope my quotations above indicate. It is Bork's apparent love of over statement, with the hope of shocking his readers out of complacency about their plight, that I believe leads to his use of this mood. From the unfavorable comparison of today's popular music to the music of Tin Pan Alley (124), to the condemnation of society's attempts at affirmative action (238) and its concomitant aspiration to multiculturalism (311), to his ridicule of the bishops of the American Roman Catholic Church --I cannot resist quoting his view: "The Catholic bishops often look like the Democratic Party in robes." (282) Bork drips his bilious assessment of various aspects of our contemporary culture. That assessment is bleak, unremittingly bleak, so bleak that I was left wondering if there was any help left in us. I had finally tapped into my unaccustomed resistance when reading the kind of book Bork's book is. But having acknowledged my resistance, I want now to attempt to answer some of the substantive issues Bork's bile raised for me. First amongst these issues is: to whom is Bork's book addressed?

In attempting to answer this issue, several candidates for addressees come to mind. Most obvious amongst these are Bork's fellow conservatives, his most sympathetic audience. Perhaps this book is Bork's demonstration that he is worthy of another nomination to the Supreme Court, by the next Republican President, as the darling intellectual of the conservative movement. Or perhaps the book is aimed at Bork's present and former academic colleagues. The book's jacket proclaims Bork to be the John M. Olin Scholar in Legal Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and the book itself opens with Bork recounting his years as a professor at the Yale Law School. If this is his target group, then the book may fulfill two purposes simultaneously: a way of showing his former colleagues just how wrong they were to support Sixties radicalism and a call to the present professional cohort to cry "enough" and challenge what Bork claims is so much "voguish and pernicious nonsense" (313), namely, multiculturalism --a group, by the way, whom Bork refers to in Nixonian terms as "the great silent majority" (ibid.). Or, perhaps, Bork is trying to reform his adversaries' views, those left over from the Sixties, especially Hillary Rodham Clinton (87) and William Jefferson Clinton (341). Bork presents himself as knowledgeable in so many of the areas which the Sixties touched --music, the women's movement, the secularization of society, even the development of television and pornography. Who cannot but be impressed by this legal scholar's range of (self-proclaimed) expertise? The leftover radicals must bow to his superior grasp of their legacy. But if these individuals are his intended audience, then I suspect Bork is going to fail to win them over, as he might those already more sympathetic to his stance. For persuasion is not Bork's forte so that, rather than reasoning with his adversaries in measured tones, Bork's chosen modus operandi is bombast, as I hope the quotations above signal. Let one more quotation suffice to make my point here. As a summary of his stance on abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia, Bork writes, "Convenience is becoming the theme of our culture. Humans tend to be inconvenient at both ends of their lives." (192). And with this explosion, which comes as the conclusion to a series of utterances about the fashionability of the separation of humanity from personhood (184) and the assertion that once euthanasia is allowed "patients who have not requested [it] will be subjected to it nonetheless," (185) we pass to the politics of sex!

What is so lacking in this book is any real engagement with the thinking of his intellectual adversaries. Bork never really essays an understanding of what lies behind liberalism's urge towards individualism and egalitarianism, namely, cultural membership or, as Will Kymlicka puts the liberal's question: "What does it mean for people to `belong' to a cultural community?" In fact, Bork does not even attempt a definition of the term "radical" in all he has to say about radical individualism and radical egalitarianism beyond the idea that radical for him implies coercion on the part of those who support these two "ideologies," as Bork implies these ideas are. Bork never asks whether there might be worthwhile aspirations to which supporters of individualism and egalitarianism could subscribe, even if only to show that these supporters are mistaken in their beliefs. Always, as I have tried to show, Bork denounces those aspirations and their supporters. There is no sense in Bork that liberalism might be attempting to offer a sense of belonging to those who claim outcast status in society by advancing the individualistic and egalitarian programs these so-called "ideological" principles enunciate --affirmative action, women's rights, honoring homosexual orientations, allowing individuals to worship their God as they can. In other words, Bork shows no appreciation for liberalism's normative political philosophy of inclusion, but, instead, an incessant, furious fragmentation of the culture by his insistence that his (and those of his supporters from whom he borrows liberally, as his footnotes testify) is the only possible response to America's moral malaise. In a moment that response --that religious response-- will come under scrutiny, but for now let us observe Bork in action with one whose liberal views Bork abhors, namely, John Rawls.

Although he begins by acknowledging Rawls' "high intelligence" (79) in developing the principles of a just social order, Bork goes on to denigrate Rawls' championing of the vantage point of the least advantaged members of society in his quest to minimize their inequality. Bork asks, "What reason is there to think that justice requires such a principle?" and asserts flatly, "There is none" (80). But, patently, given the number of individuals at or below the poverty level, individuals who never figure in Bork's book, there is reason to focus on such individuals' well-being. Bork believes that to focus on these individuals' plight as the basis for eliminating social inequalities is to bring everyone down to their level (ibid). But this is not Rawls' idea at all, nor need it be the unintended consequence of Rawls' idea. For Rawls' political urge is towards inclusion so that everyone's interests are addressed in the social distribution of society's benefits. To be sure, the most wealthy --perhaps even Bork himself-- may have to sacrifice some tax break to benefit those at the opposite end of the social scale, but Rawls does not intend that sacrifice impoverish the wealthy. Rather, he expects, and rightly expects in my view, the sacrifice of the wealthy to the benefit of the least advantaged will ultimately bring overall benefit to society because the least advantaged individuals in it may thereby not feel punished by the position they find themselves in and so be more willing contributors to the welfare of society as a whole. But Bork's assessment is that the implementation of Rawls' principle would necessitate society's submitting to a "despotism" (81). And here we find the kind of fragmenting thinking that Bork embraces, fragmenting because it pits one social class against another and, in fact, is dismissive of the well-being of one at the expense of the other.

Frankly, it is this dismissiveness in Bork's assertions that I find so repugnant. Perhaps the worst of these is to be found in his insistence that "European-American culture is the best the world has to offer, if one judges by where people of the world want to immigrate" (312). There is no hint in this judgment that people might want to immigrate to America not to participate in a Euro-centric consensus of values but in order to participate in the development of a kind of overlapping consensus amongst the many divergent points of view here. Again, it is Rawls'6 inclusive thinking that leads him to encourage in today's society a consensus built on a plurality of cultural viewpoints in which there is enough convergence of conviction that tolerance amongst the consensus-makers permits their non-convergent opinions to flourish unabated. A recent example of just such an overlapping consensus at work is to be found in Chicago where The Dallas Morning News reports "Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration is setting a precedent, casting Chicago as the first city in the nation to place a gay neighborhood on the same plane as an ethnic neighborhood --and proposing to spend nearly half a million dollars to do so,"7 thereby admitting gay individuals to the consensus that constitutes Chicago. (Of course, Chicago gays are now encouraged not only to share in the benefits of fellow Chicagoans but also to contribute to the well-being of the city.) But Bork does not engage Rawls' notion of the overlapping consensus because it might sully Bork's championing of Euro-American culture to the exclusion of all others in the United States.

And it is just this kind of monochromatic thinking that leads to the ultimate question of Bork's book, namely, what is Bork's response to the moral malaise generated by the inheritors, like Rawls, of the Sixties mind set? It is, I believe, a perfectionist response. But Bork's perfectionism is not a variegated perfection by which he encourages "a thousand flowers to bloom," as those in the Sixties might have said. Rather, as his championing of the Euro-American cultural perspective heralds, Bork's perfectionist response is a uniformity of perfectionism. Each individual, doomed to living in the late 20th century, is to be saved by living according to a similar set of guidelines because Bork believes that each must practice the virtues of religious conservatism (332). And, he avers, religious conservatives are not authoritarian (337). Yet in the next line he writes were these conservatives to have their way "the culture would then resemble the better aspects of the 1950s" (ibid.) --a period of homogenized thought whose intolerance for deviation from the norm led to McCarthyism, which, at the time, was certainly thought to be one of the "better aspects" of the '40s and '50s. To be sure, Bork is only hinting at his solution to our current cultural malaise for his book is an effort in "knowing what is happening to us" (342). Another book on the details of Bork's solution will undoubtedly follow. But, to my mind, the final page of this book is ominous: "[government]", he says, "should leave to private institutions the task of redeeming the culture" (342). Their self-serving record in public life hardly gives cause for rejoicing. And, because Bork believes we may be witnessing another religious awakening so that all the signs are that religion is gaining strength (336), churches are to be entrusted with perfecting the moral and spiritual character of their congregants (329). The present Pope, John Paul II, is his cited moral exemplar (337) of what he calls "energetic, optimistic, and politically energetic sophisticated religious conservatism" (336).

But the Holy Father's record hardly provides hope for anything other than the imposition of a uniformity of conduct as his solution to America's cultural malaise. He shows little sign of understanding the need for debate amongst competing points of view which "the agonistic dynamic"8 of the American republic necessitates if its members are to act in accordance with E.M.Forster's injunction "only connect." Thus, the question arises whether the values John Paul, and by implication Bork, proclaims are appropriate to dealing with the society's current cultural condition. I must say, and it will come as no surprise, that I have my doubts.

The first question of liberalism is: what is it for each of us to lead a good life? Because there are so many possible answers to this question, a cardinal virtue of the liberal society has been tolerance, tolerance construed not as an unwillingness to be critical of the individual's values and the choices made by individuals on the basis of these values, but tolerance construed as respect for the liberty of others so that they can achieve "freedom in securing the conditions under which [they] can best make judgments"9 about their values and consequent choices. Now it is certainly likely that individuals may hold mistaken beliefs about values, moral, spiritual, and otherwise. But from this possibility, as Kymlicka rightly argues, "it doesn't follow that someone else, who has reason to believe a mistake has been made, can come along and improve my life by leading it for me, in accordance with the (my emphasis) correct account of value"10 --precisely what Bork (and Pope John Paul II) wants to do. Bork's quest for what he calls the culture's "sense of decency" (132-133) is not meant to engender a cultural dialogue about the range of possible constructions of this notoriously slippery ideal, all the way from simple civility to Kantian respect for persons.11<.SUP> Rather, Bork intends by this quest to provide a certainty about the conduct of life, a certainty that will alleviate the need for debate because the value of decency (so well understood, Bork seems to presume, that he need not define it) will provide that certainty. But today's fragmentation of viewpoint, not likely to recede in the future, makes that certainty of a uniformity of value a virtual impossibility. And it is Benjamin Barber who reminds us that this is the moment when "democracy begins,"12 because the democratic process, properly instituted, brings with it the values of civility, justice, participation and community,13 all of these values antidotes to fragmentation.

But these are the very values of liberalism, a liberalism which believes in addressing the moral principles of liberty and equality. Thus it appears that Bork's attack on these moral principles is ultimately an attack on a set of values appropriate to the kind of democracy we most urgently need in today's fragmented circumstances. Because Bork does not accept that this fragmentation of viewpoint is, and likely will be, the order of the day, he pushes a construction of values inappropriate to the needs of the day --what he calls sophisticated religious conservatism. Surely such a construction will not serve as an antidote to our moral malaise, even if the liberal principles of individualism and egalitarianism have been pushed to an extreme as Bork is at pains to demonstrate throughout his book. If American democracy is being undermined --"hollowed out from within"-- then the correct response is not the imposition of a retrograde conservatism but a thorough airing of dissatisfaction with the direction the republic is taking by those who sense this in hopes of restoring the balance created by the liberal values Bork's text is so keen to disparage. Liberalism need not be ended but rather mended, using its own values to accomplish this endeavor.

In the end, liberty of choice is the essence of individualism for the liberal: freedom, thus, precedes perfection.14 Ironically, it is this very liberty that encourages Bork to write his book disparaging such liberty. Bork ultimately misleads us, I think, by implying by his remarks about the importance of religion in our society (329) that there is a natural order from which he can draw moral and political conclusions about our conduct. The fact of pluralism in today's society denies the very possibility of such a order. Not to recognize this fact is not simply to turn from reality but to miss the fruits of living in it --tolerance for diversity, a willingness to experiment and thereby to make mistakes, the enjoyment of including in our society as wide a range of individuals as possible-- did not Christ bid us do so by his example? --and a kind of optimism that sharing the fruits of our diversity with one another will bring. Let Bork rejoice in these fruits of liberalism instead of focusing on its faults. Perhaps, then, his work will be less insufferable to read because it will be more balanced in its perspective.



1. Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Regan Books, 1996). All future references to this text are contained in parentheses in the text.

2. David Rieff, "The Colonel and the Professor," The Times Literary Supplement (September 4, 1987) 960

3. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987)

4. Rieff, (ibid)

5. Will Kymlicka, Liberalism, Community and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989) 3

6. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 131-172

7. Judy Pasternak, "Chicago project in gay neighborhood has fans, critics," The Dallas Morning News (September 21, 1997) 9A

8. Chantel Mouffe, The Return of the Political (New York: Routledge, 1992) 6

9. Kymlicka, 10

10. Kymlicka, 12

11. Victor L. Worsfold, "Israel Scheffler's Ethics: Theory and Practice" in Harvey Siegel, ed., Reason and Education: Essays in Honor of lsrael Scheffler (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997) 195

12. Bernard Murchland, "Making Democracy Strong: A Conversation with Benjamin Barber, Civic Arts Review (Vol. 9, No. 3, Summer-Fall 1996) 11

13. Murchland, 6

14. c.f. Richard Rorty, "The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy" in Gene Outka and John P. Reeder, Jr., eds., Prospects for a Common Morality (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993) 262