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12:00 AM, Oct 21, 1996 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Robert H. Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 382 pages, $ 25) has an air of authority that borders on the magisterial. The legal scholar, former appealscourt judge, and defeated nominee for the United States Supreme Court has written a work of intellectual history and social criticism that, in fewer than 350 pages, means to offer a comprehensive account of the failure of modern liberalism (the book's subtitle is Modern Liberalism and American Decline). It is easy to imagine such an ambitious project ending in superficiality, eccentricity, or triviality. Slouching Towards Gomorrah does not.

On the contrary, the book is steeped in serious thought about Modern Times. The prose is engaging. But the manner is that of the serious if not fusty law professor scouring casebooks for illuminating precedents -- in this case meticulously selecting source material on the basis of the quality and clarity of the analysis that has gone before.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah is not, therefore, a particularly original or eye-popping work. But then again, it is clear that Bork does not consider originality to be much of a virtue -- certainly not something to which one aspires at the expense of clear-headedness and accuracy of observation. On page 66, about the point at which a reader might be musing that he has been down this road before, Bork offers a notably revealing sentence about his own purpose: "If there is anything new in this book, it is the demonstration of the ill effects of the passion [for equality] in a variety of contemporary social and cultural fields." If there is anything new in this book. In this, the age of the publicist, an honest willingness to admit that one might or might not be saying something new, and then to go on and say it because it needs saying -- well, that is more striking in its way than even the most dazzling exercises in literary or intellectual pyrotechnics.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah is a deeply pessimistic book, one that fully delivers on the promise of its doleful title. Our cultural condition is not merely as bad as Yeats's description of it in "The Second Coming" -- the center not holding, the best lacking all conviction, the worst full of passionate intensity, mere anarchy loosed upon the world. Our condition is worse. We are slouching past Bethlehem all the way to Gomorrah, the sin city destroyed by God in a fit of disgust with what His creatures were capable of. Illegitimacy is staggeringly high, the universities are collapsing, porn is proliferating on the Internet: In policy area after policy area, things are bad. But the totality of our failure is far worse than the sum of its parts. It is, in Bork's view, biblical in proportion.

The first two chapters of Slouching Towards Gomorrah are about the intellectual upheaval of the 1960s, the period in which contemporary liberalism's two most noxious strains suffused the body politic. They were radical individualism and radical egalitarianism. The first amounts to an assault on the notion that a society or culture can legitimately impose standards on people's behavior. The second is the doctrine that, in the interest of justice, a society must work to ensure equal social outcomes.

Each of these doctrines has a pedigree stretching back much farther than the 1960s. And Bork, unlike a number of other scholars, is unwilling to let classical liberalism off the hook for the perversions and wretched excess of its radicalized 1960s incarnation. The passions for equality and liberty, in his view, have always contained the germinal material for our current afflictions.

But it was only in the '60s, with the rise of the youth movement and the counterculture, that these ideas attained critical mass and exploded. The damage was everywhere. Universities capitulated, surrendering their academic standards as the price of peace with the radical student thugs who had taken over the administration buildings. The street protests against the war in Vietnam made a confused policy all the more tortured. Legislators struggled to pass bills designed to bring more equality, but the political system was under attack as fundamentally illegitimate.

The counterculture's more visible manifestations faded after the end of the draft and the war. Surveying it all, and taking into consideration Richard Nixon's evocation of the "silent majority" that provided his landslide win over George McGovern, one might conclude that the United States weathered the worst of the storm tolerably well. The hangover would persist in a host of subsidiary maladies ranging from Watergate to the "Vietnam syndrome" to stagflation. But the worst was over.