Speed Reread

Speed Read: Best Bits From Robert Bork’s ‘Slouching Towards Gomorrah’

To mark his passing, Michael Moynihan rereads Bork’s famous 1996 jeremiad, ‘Slouching Towards Gomorrah.’

Former solicitor general Robert Bork, whose bruising 1987 confirmation fight for a seat on the Supreme Court entered the verb “bork” into the American political lexicon, died Wednesday. He was 85. A notoriously cranky and conservative jurist, Bork was a stalwart “originalist” who argued that American freedom, prosperity, and morality were under siege by liberalism.

It was a thesis Bork bluntly explicated in his bestselling 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, an angry jeremiad cataloguing the supposed moral collapse of the United States. A once great country, he argued, had come under assault by feminists, multiculturalists, gay- rights activists, the professoriate, libertarians, and liberals. The New York Times called it an “an ugly and intemperate book”; Christian conservative leader Ralph Reed praised it as “a must-read for anyone concerned about the state of American society at the close of the twentieth century.” And it sold by the pallet load.

A younger generation of conservatives, wary of a waging an endless culture war, moved away from Bork-style rhetoric. In 1999, then-Gov. George W. Bush told a gathering at the Manhattan Institute that the Republican Party required a certain degree of modernization to compete in the 21st century, taking a not-so-veiled dig at Bork: “Too often on social issues my party has painted an image of America slouching towards Gomorrah.”

Rereading Slouching Towards Gomorrah, it’s rather apparent why Bush, then preparing a run for the presidency, bristled at Bork’s almost cartoonishly reactionary politics.

1. Bork made the ‘case for censorship’ to ‘avoid social devastation.’

Bork had a seething contempt for unfettered speech rights. Like Irving Kristol before him, he advocated targeted censorship in hopes of straightening America’s slouch: “Sooner or later censorship is going to have to be considered as popular culture continues to plunge to ever more sickening lows.” If America didn’t limit speech, he argued, it would surely speed the end of Western civilization: “There is, of course, more to the case for censorship than the need to preserve a viable democracy. We need also to avoid the social devastation wrought by pornography and endless incitements to murder and mayhem.” Indeed, the Founding Fathers, Bork claimed, would be appalled by what modern culture had wrought: “Any serious attempt to root out the worst in our popular culture may be doomed unless the judiciary comes to understand that the First Amendment was adopted for good reasons, and those reasons did not include the furtherance of radical personal autonomy.”

Bork underscored that he was, indeed, advocating the censoring of films, pornographic “prose” and images, and the still-new Internet: “I am suggesting that censorship be considered for the most violent and sexually explicit material now on offer, starting with the obscene prose and pictures available on the Internet, motion pictures that are mere rhapsodies to violence, and the more degenerate lyrics of rap music [Ed: emphasis in original].”

2. Bork attacked multiculturalism and the focus on ‘allegedly’ oppressed minorities.

Like many of his contemporaries, Bork railed against the prevailing doctrines of multiculturalism, arguing that American universities were captive to a broad ideology of anti-Americanism and corrosive identity politics. He objected to the academic focus on groups who “allegedly”—his word—suffered from institutionalized discrimination: “Courses are not offered on the cultures of China or India or Brazil or Nigeria, nor does the curriculum require the study of languages without which foreign cultures cannot be fully understood. Instead the focus is on groups that, allegedly, have been subjected to oppression by American and Western civilization—homosexuals, American Indians, blacks, Hispanics, women, and so on.”

3. Bork argued for maintaining the social ‘taint’ on homosexuality.

Bork thundered against gay marriage and the “normalization” of homosexuality: “If all traces of taint are removed, if homosexuality is made to seem completely normal, a matter of indifference to anyone else or to society, young men and women uncertain of their sexuality will be that much more likely to be drawn into a homosexual life.”

4. Bork saw libertarianism as a ‘virus.’

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While a proponent of limited government, Bork nevertheless believed that the “virus” of libertarianism—which he saw as indistinguishable from libertinism—had infected too many supporters of classical liberal economics: “Free market economists are particularly vulnerable to the libertarian virus. They know that free economic exchanges usually benefit both parties to them. But they mistake that general rule for a universal rule. Benefits do not invariably result from free market exchanges. When it comes to pornography or addictive drugs, libertarians all too often confuse the idea that markets should be free with the idea that everything should be available on the market.”

Libertarians concerned with personal choice, Bork said, should be worried about the effect of those choices on the collective: “To complaints about those products being on the market, libertarians respond with something like ‘Just hit the remote control and change channels on your TV set.’ But, like the person who chooses not to run a smelter while others do, you, your family, and your neighbors will be affected by the people who do not change the channel, who do rent the pornographic videos, who do read alt.sex.stories.”

5. Bork thought a hedonistic culture would foster anemic economic growth.

Indeed, Bork’s moralism infused all of his thinking. Slouching Towards Gomorrah maintains that if a society’s moral health is compromised, so too will its economic health: “Improbable as it may seem, science and technology themselves are increasingly under attack, and it seems highly unlikely that a vigorous economy can be sustained in an enfeebled, hedonistic culture, particularly when that culture distorts incentives by increasingly rejecting personal achievement as the criterion for the distribution of rewards.”

6. Bork said modern liberals have to use devious lies to get elected.

Many of those who voted for President Clinton, Bork averred, did so because they were rooked by devious liberal lies. Unwittingly cribbing from Friedrich Engels, he argued that right-leaning Americans were frequently overwhelmed by “false consciousness,” voting for policies they didn’t want and underwriting universities they would hold in contempt—if they only knew the truth: “Modern liberals, being in charge of the institutions they once attacked, have no need to break heads and only an occasional need to break laws. They do, however, have a need to lie, and do so abundantly, since many Americans would not like their actual agenda.”

7. Bork argued that women in the military will lead to more lives—and battles—lost.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah was released not long after the Tailhook sexual harassment scandal, and around the same time as the integration of women into military schools like the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute, by court order. Bork, unsurprisingly, opposed the rulings and stood squarely against female participation in combat units. “What has happened to education at all levels is paralleled by the ongoing feminization of the military. Because of the political strength of the feminist movement, women are assigned jobs close to combat and, in some cases, placed in combat roles. The result is certain to be additional lost lives—of men as well as women and perhaps lost battles.”

8. Bork wanted to amend the Constitution to fight activist judges.

Bork advocated amending the Constitution to allow a congressional supermajority to overturn Supreme Court decisions: “To the contrary, it is now clear that it is the courts that threaten our liberty—the liberty to govern ourselves—more profoundly than does any legislature.”