Slouching Towards Gomorrah.
As parody, Slouching Towards Gomorrah barely succeeds. Its vituperative tone and inflated rhetoric quickly become tiresome, its arguments are all too familiar, and its complaints numbingly repetitive. One begins to feel like one is seated at a family dinner next to a cantankerous great uncle who can't stop talking about how bad things are these days long enough to pass the mashed potatoes.
As a thoughtful work of non-fiction, Slouching Towards Gomorrah is hard to take seriously, in part because it's difficult to believe that Bork is serious. The book broadly indicts "modern liberalism" for all of our ills, from increasing crime to decreasing civility, from affirmative action to the feminization of religion and the military, from non-harmonious pop music to sexy television shows. Somehow all of this is linked to the 1960s, of course, and more specifically, to the advent of portable radios at that time, which allowed youth to listen to music without parental oversight. The result: "modern liberalism," which is one part "radical individualism" and one part "radical egalitarianism," the extremes of which, respectively, are nihilism and fascism. To Bork, we are virtually, if not already, there.
There are several reasons why it is difficult to take this argument seriously. The first is that Bork fails to engage any of the serious defenders of that which he criticizes. preferring instead to attack straw men of his own creation. Thus, he attacks modern liberalism without even discussing the work of today's pre-eminent defenders of liberalism, such as Isaiah Berlin or Ronald Dworkin. He does the same thing with feminism, abortion, and affirmative action.
It is also difficult to take Bork seriously because he practices precisely what he preaches against. He laments the left's "tactic of assaulting one's opponents as not merely wrong but morally evil," but his book is nothing more than an extended assault on the left as morally evil. He criticizes the president of the ACLU for calling Bork a fascist just because he advocated censorship, disparages the civil rights movement for using "incendiary" rhetoric, and scolds feminists for "whining." Yet Bork himself repeatedly labels modern liberalism as fascist, totalitarian, and even Nazi-like. He cannot resist incendiary rhetoric when describing his opponents. (He declares that "multiculturalism is barbarism," that "feminists' ideology is a fantasy of persecution," and that the federal courts have "increasing[ly] accept[ed] nihilism as a constitutional value.") And when it comes to the victimization of white males, no one can whine like Bork.
One wonders whether Bork ever looks in the mirror. He contends that the "politically motivated scholar and teacher is engaged in a dishonest act: pretending that his conclusions are reached impartially when they are not." Yet one would be hard-pressed to name a more politically motivated scholar than the author himself, the John M. Olin Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He criticizes those who would apply reason to religious faith, and castigates "cafeteria Catholics" who subscribe only to those religious dictates with which they agree, but then argues that the Catholic Church's call for "a just wage" is based on "misunderstood economics"
Perhaps most ironically of all, Bork sees "the end of Western civilization in living color" in the televised hearings of Anita Hill's charges of sexual misconduct by Clarence Thomas, but then turns around and concludes that the American public's failure to show interest in sexual misconduct charges against Bill Clinton is a sign of our moral decline. Apparently, moral means being interested in sexual misconduct charges only when they are leveled against one's enemies.
Bork's proposals for reform also seem at sharp odds with his critique. This is in part inevitable, because the critique is so all-encompassing - not an institution in our society escapes his wrath. The government, the universities, the arts, the press, and even religion have all been ravaged by liberalism, and have all contributed to our collective moral degradation. After 330-odd pages of venting his fury and rage, Bork does append a 10-page discussion of "hope," but it's awfully half-hearted - the best he can do is suggest that religious fundamentalists and talk radio hosts may be able to reintroduce morality into our degraded liberal culture.
In the course of the book, Bork does advance two concrete proposals, but neither makes any sense. He calls for censorship to stem the tide of sexually explicit and offensive speech that has proliferated under the First Amendment's protection. But he never explains why he trusts the censors to suppress the right stuff, particularly in light of his assessment that all institutions in our culture have been polluted by modern liberalism's creed.
Still more provocatively, Bork calls for a constitutional amendment allowing Supreme Court decisions to be overridden by a majority vote of Congress. While presented as a mere "amendment," the effect would in fact be to abandon the Constitution. The whole point of the Constitution is to be supra-majoritarian, in order to constrain the momentary impulses of transient majorities, who have sometimes done terrible things to unpopular minorities. In its supra-majoritarian character, of course, the Constitution is a deeply conservative document. Yet under Judge Bork's rewrite, the Constitution would have no more status than a piece of legislation. For a man who laments the loss of constraint in the modern world, this is a strange proposal indeed.
Not content to limit his analysis to that about which he should know something - constitutional law - Bork extends his analysis to "all human behavior and institutions." This leads him, of course, to rock-and-roll and rap music. In Bork's world, the following passes for cultural criticism: "Rock and rap are utterly impoverished by comparison with swing or jazz or any pre-World War 11 music, impoverished emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually." He contends that it is bad enough that black youth listen to rap, but what's worse, rap is not just "black music," but has white fans too. His explanation for rays popularity in the suburbs? It is white youths revenge against "the domineering whining feminists."
In the end, Bork's book does raise questions, but the principal one is: What planet does he live on? Bork claims that the Supreme Court, seven of whose justices were appointed by Republicans, is doing the left's bidding. He maintains that the court has been relentlessly expanding criminal defendants' rights, but cites only the exclusionary rule and Miranda warnings, rules that were developed 80 and 30 years ago, respectively, and which have been substantially undercut by today's court, which has issued an unrelenting series of pro-government decisions in criminal cases. In a remartable feat of stretching the facts to fit one's theory, Bork explains that the reason antitrust defendants now get a favorable hearing in the Supreme Court is because the left is no longer interested in economic justice. Neither the proposition about the left's interests nor the claim that the Supreme Court cares about the left's interests are defended. Bork barely mentions that the court's activism these days is in the name of invalidating affirmative action, striking down electoral districts designed to encourage minority representation, and limiting federal power over states and private property.
Bork's America is simply unrecognizable. In his view, we have been overtaken by "radical egalitarianism," even though we boast the largest income gap in the developed world. He claims that we are soft on crime, yet we have the highest incarceration rates in the industrialized world. He asserts that "there are no artificial barriers left to women's achievement," and that racism and sexism today "are mere wisps of their former selves, except when it comes to white, heterosexual males," Indeed, in his view, "it would be difficult to contend that, the end of racial segregation aside, American culture today is as healthy as the culture of the 1950s" The 1950s? If Bork had bothered to ask the question from the perspective of anyone other than himself - women, the poor, gays and lesbians, immigrants targeted by the McCarran-Walter Act, criminals convicted without counsel, or any of those blacklisted as Communists - Bork might not have found it so "difficult to contend" But Bork is evidently not interested in listening to their voices; he's too busy launching his own diatribe.
Please pass the mashed potatoes.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1997|
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