Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 3G1.
Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah is a truly awful book.
Bork, you probably remember, was the Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court who was rejected by the Senate because many felt his views were extremist. If you had any doubt that that controversial decision was a good one, reading this book should convince you how lucky we really were.
The book isn't awful because Bork criticizes university professors (and I'm one), or because Bork criticizes atheists (I'm one), or because Bork criticizes pro-choicers (I'm one of those, too). It's awful because it's illogical, incoherent, uninformed, and inaccurate.
The main thrust of Bork's argument is that two of the most fundamental principles of democracy (namely, egalitarianism and liberty) have been taken to extremes by the bogeyman he calls the "modern liberal", and the very survival of human civilization is threatened as a result. Modern liberalism is a "corrosive agent". According to Bork, "[m]odern liberals ... have a need to lie, and do so abundantly, since many Americans would not like their actual agenda." Chief among the culprits, Bork says, are the universities, feminists, homosexuals, artists, and, of course, atheists and church-state separatists.
Bork traces this supposed destruction of society to 1960's activism. The first few chapters are indicative of Bork's style. There's no detailed analysis. Instead, we get a few anecdotes about the Vietnam War protests at Yale (which, we are informed, weren't really about Vietnam at all). Bork claims in no uncertain terms that what happened at Yale happened all over the US, and thereby falls victim to one of the oldest fallacies in the book: the Fallacy of Extrapolation from Personal Experience. In fact, many, perhaps even most, colleges and universities were quiet during the 1960's. Protests were largely confined to major East and West coast schools, and a few of the larger state universities.
I'm surprised because I expected Slouching to be much better. After all, Bork has genuine credentials as an intellectual. He was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and as a former member of the faculty there I can tell you the undergrads were no slackers. He got a law degree from the U. of C., too, and that's one of the most prestigious law schools in the US. He taught constitutional law at Yale, which is another one of the top US law schools. During his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, witness after witness testified how brilliant he was. Yet, somehow, even with all this evidence of mental firepower, his book packs the intellectual wallop of a wet noodle.
Why is it so weak? For one thing, Bork prefers repeating tired old saws of the religious right rather than doing his homework. Although Bork purports to analyze economics, history, and politics, he's gotten much of his information from secondary sources such as newspaper and magazine articles. You'll have to look hard in Slouching to find citations to peer-reviewed journals in these fields. Along the way, Bork cites such deep thinkers as Charles Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, and Merle Haggard.
Bork frequently appeals to a nostalgic view of pre-1950 American society. Therefore, it's worthwhile to compare Slouching with another recent book on American popular culture, The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. The difference is astonishing. Unlike Bork's book, Coontz's is a genuine intellectual contribution, demonstrating that many of Bork's claims about America's past are in fact baseless. Unlike Bork, Coontz relies mostly on primary sources, not personal anecdotes or secondary sources. The notes for Coontz's book take up 87 pages for 288 pages of text, while Bork gets by with 22 pages for 343 pages of text.
It's not just Bork's shoddy scholarship that's the problem. His thinking is often embarrassingly ill-informed and naive. Here are just a few examples:
(1) Bork's discussion of changes to the crime rate does not even consider the variation due to demographics alone. Due to the baby boom, the percentage of the population consisting of single males between 15 and 40 (who commit most of the crimes) has fluctuated significantly over the last 40 years. But this simple fact is never mentioned.
(2) Bork's discussion of the morality of abortion centers completely around discussing whether a fetus is biologically a human being. It may be, but there are certainly other considerations. For example, children are not allowed to vote; hence children, though human beings, do not have the same rights as adults. The fetus is, historically and legally, considerably further removed from personhood. And, of course, in the case of abortion there is another competing interest: namely, the interest of the woman carrying the fetus, whose personhood is not in doubt.
(3) Here is Bork's analysis of midnight basketball in its entirety: "Midnight basketball is so obviously a frivolous notion that it need not be discussed." Well, that certainly convinced me with its deep, penetrating analysis.
(4) Here is Bork's analysis of male crying: "The fact that men, who did not cry ten years ago, now do so indicates that something has gone high and soft in the culture." No further explanation is provided.
Like much of the loony Right, one of Bork's main obsessions is with sex. He hates it. More precisely, he hates anything that is "perverted" (the word, or variations on it, is used at least a dozen times) although no definition of the word is provided. (A wag once defined "perversion" as follows: if it turns me on, then it's normal; but if it turns you on, then it's perverted.) Bork claims a particular hatred for pornography, but like another Supreme Court candidate, is happy to watch it himself:
"One evening at a hotel in New York I flipped around the television channels. Suddenly there on the public access channel was a voluptuous young woman, naked, her body oiled, writhing on the floor while fondling herself intimately... I watched for some time --- riveted by the sociological significance of it all."I imagine that wasn't the only thing he was riveted by.
Porn isn't the only subject where Bork contradicts himself. His introduction opens with an incident where students in the '60's burned books in the Yale law library. Bork correctly decries this, but also thinks the government has a legitimate role in censoring books he doesn't approve of. If government censorship is not the moral equivalent of book-burning, what is?
In another contradiction, Bork extols talk radio because it "bypass[es] the print press and television", but hates the Internet, which accomplishes the same kind of end run. Why? Because talk radio generates "hysteria ... in the liberal press and among liberal politicians", but the Internet (which is actually a far more democratic medium than talk radio, where callers are selected according to the host's ideology) is condemned because "[u]sers can download pornographic pictures as well as prose".
Even in Bork's own field -- the law -- his ideas contradict themselves. For example, Bork agrees with the result of Brown v. Board of Education, which held that segregated public schools violated the 14th Amendment. Yet he decries the proposed Equal Rights Amendment because it "provided that it should be primarily the function of the judiciary to define and enforce equality between the sexes." What logical principle makes it acceptable for the judiciary to define and enforce equality between the races, but not the sexes? We are not told.
Bork maunders on and on about the supposed usurpation of the democratic process by the judiciary, so you might think Bork is a fan of democracy. The truth is that Bork is an elitist. By this, I don't mean he thinks excellence should be rewarded. I mean that he thinks the great unwashed masses have little or no reasoning ability of their own. To ensure morality, then, the masses must be protected and tranquilized. They must be protected by censoring expression that could harm them. They must be tranquilized, Bork says, with religion: "For most people, only revealed religion can supply the premises from which the prescriptions of morality can be deduced."
Religion is necessary, Bork says, because only religion can maintain social order. Never mind that in countries such as Czechia, populated largely by skeptics and unbelievers, the crime rate is a small fraction of that in the US, where polls consistently show that 90% believe in a supreme being. Bork shrugs off that sort of reasoning by claiming that atheists are living off what he calls the "moral capital" stored up by generations of theists. (He likes this turn of phrase so much he repeats it twice.) Never mind the loss of "moral capital" through religiously-inspired tragedies such as the Crusades, the Inquisition, Northern Ireland, and Islamic fundamentalism. Never mind that there is no serious evidence for the existence of God -- Bork never says that we should believe the claims of religion because they are true. No, the masses must believe because it keeps them tranquil. Bork is less clear about whether he himself needs to believe to keep his anti-social impulses under control.
Although Bork wants religion for social control, he seems to be quite puzzled by the demonstrable fact that people have a moral sense independent of their religious beliefs. He discusses the work of James Q. Wilson and Christian apologist C. S. Lewis, but does not seem to be aware of the huge body of recent literature interpreting morality as a consequence of biological evolution acting on social species. You will look in vain to see the names of pioneers such as Richard Alexander (author of Darwinism and Human Affairs and The Biology of Moral Systems) or Frans de Waal (author of Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured) who have explored the biological basis for morality. Neither does Bork cite Robert Wright (author of The Moral Animal, an excellent popular treatment of these topics).
In fact, nearly every chapter demonstrates some facet of Bork's apparently boundless ignorance.
On science: Bork claims that "the fossil record is proving a major embarrassment to evolution", despite the fact that not a single reputable paleontologist would agree with that statement.
On popular music: Bork seems to think that Nine Inch Nails is a rap group.
On assisted suicide: Bork can't even get the name of Derek Humphry, the author of Final Exit, correct.
It's not just inaccuracies such as these that damn Slouching Towards Gomorrah; there's also the dishonest, almost Orwellian rhetoric. For example, Bork approvingly quotes Neuhaus that liberalism consists of "bigotry and anti-intellectualism and intolerance and illiberality". We learn that "American conservatism, neo or otherwise, in fact represents the older classical liberal tradition." Yes, and freedom is slavery, and black is white.
He also likes to use dubious moral equivalences. We learn that wearing a jacket that says "F... the Draft" (Bork cannot bring himself to spell `fuck' in its entirety) is morally equivalent to assault. We also learn that 1960's radicals were the moral equivalent of Nazis. Funny, I wasn't aware that Jerry Rubin had ordered the killing of millions of civilians. Controversial song lyrics, Bork implies, are the moral equivalent of selling addictive drugs.
In Bork's bizarre, conspiratorial world view, the Left is such a powerful demon that the Right has virtually no chance of countering it: "There is no symmetry of `left' and `right' in religion, in our culture, or in our politics. The Left, as has been apparent throughout our history, and never more so than in the Sixties, is alienated and hostile to American institutions and traditions. They will destroy those institutions and traditions if they can. There is no group of comparable size and influence to balance the extremists of modern liberalism, no `right' that has a similarly destructive program in mind." This denial that there is a Right in American politics persists throughout the book. Bork even resorts to the ploy of capitalizing the Left throughout the book, but never capitalizing the Right.
So why was such an inept hatchet job deemed worthy of publication? Some hint can be extracted from the book's dust jacket. There one can find praise from such renowned intellectuals such as Ralph Reed, Chuck Grassley, and William Bennett. Slouching Towards Gomorrah cannot possibly have been meant as a serious contribution to the national debate. It is evidently merely a cheerleading effort for the religious right, probably to position Bork as a future far-right candidate for public office. By mouthing all the bigotry of the religious right, from anti-evolutionism to anti-homosexuality to anti-choice on abortion, Bork illustrates the truth of William James' famous quip, "A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices."
The title of Slouching Towards Gomorrah, of course, is an allusion to William Butler Yeats' famous poem, The Second Coming, which is conveniently reproduced before the table of contents. As Yeats said, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." I wonder which camp Bork thinks he belongs to.
Here's a juicy example from someone named Don, who didn't have the courage to give his last name:
I just read your review of: Slouching Towards Gomorrah on line. Your sense of morality at a very basic level is evident in that you would use the university site to propagate your personal, political and ethical views. If you want a soap box, pay for it yourself. I fervently hope you are a better teacher of computer science than a part time philosopher and book reviewer. Here is some free advice: remove the page in future and, in future, stick to what you know otherwise it will become even more apparent that you are an idiot.
And here's another example, this time from someone named "R. Mejia".
I suppose the majority of my concern with this review was your lack of scholarship. We attempt with great success to expand any likeness to the conservative and their inability for progress, but what you have done in the book review was disgusting. As I complete background for actual academic progress, I came across your review with complete astonishment. It is pathetic to find any college level review, such as the one you have written, on the web site of institution. Your critique is merely an attack on a man's principles and character. You use the whole gamete of communication errors, systematically, focusing especially on the that of the straw man. You embarrass your institution by using your position to create an illusion of authority in the matters outside of your field. Your ignorance was almost tolerable until you mention Bork's view of the fossil record. It is stated in the review, "not a single reputable paleontologist would agree with that statement.! " Do you not understand the position we battle for against these creationists, is because they do have "reputable" sources. In my opinion your review is so filled with idiocy, as the response you posted mentions, you condemn yourself to a state invalidating you from a platform of argument. Your end of the debate is lost. You have reduced yourself to the same closed minded and illogical mentality held to by the right, but now giving them the edge for the sake that they fight for morality. Please do the academic community a favor an remove yourself from any attempt to combat of social restraint. I will admit, I write this as a response, full of digust at the moment of writing, but do plan on furthering a response to this review
I particular enjoyed the charming misspelling contained in "gamete of communication errors".
May 20 2009: Here's yet another example from "Doc". Yet another response from someone without the courage to give his real name, full of faux outrage but completely incapable of articulating a single thing he thought was wrong in my review:
I was shocked when I read your review of Robert Borks [sic] book. I was shocked that a "college professor" could write such a poor review. I [sic] showed virtually no understanding of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and the postmodernist evolution of societies with all its [sic] pitfalls. It did show your motives were political in nature and not necessarily seeking the truth.
Instead you chose to use hyperbole as your argument and then denigrated critics because they refused to use their names or because they may have mispelllllled a word. Childish.
Stick with computer science and leave the higher level and more abstract intellectual pursuits to people like Robert Bork.
And, from January 2012, shortly after Bork's unlamented demise, here's yet another moron, this time one "Bob Brooks" of Shiloh, Georgia -- full of sound and fury but curiously incapable of pointing out a single error in my review:
Modern liberalism is destroying the very fabric of society (and here the proof is in looking at society today, which is nothing like our founders established originally). The tendency is immorality, dishonesty, war at all levels--from delinquincy [sic] to adult warmongers, political corruption, and you can fill in some more.
Since there is no answer in religion or any other attempts to better society, we're doomed to slide down to annihilation without hope. All the government education hasn't changed this tendency, but, I believe it has created it and maintains it.
You accuse Bork of shoddy scholarship, but your attempt to dishonor him shows your lack of honest scholarship, instead resorting to defamation of character.