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BORKING THE CULTURE

12:00 AM, Oct 21, 1996 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Bork disagrees. The radical passions that animated the student movement of the 1960s neither diminished nor were repudiated by their adherents. It's just that those adherents fanned out into junior positions in political and broadly "cultural" professions. Three decades later, they are at the peaks of their careers. And from the heights they now command -- as federal judges, tenured full professors, media and entertainment superstars and moguls, foundation chiefs, and advocacy eminences -- they propagate exactly the same dogma of radical individualism and radical egalitarianism they learned in their youth.


Only to much, much greater effect. Bork writes: "It was a malignant decade that, after a fifteen-year remission, returned in the 1980s to metastasize more devastatingly throughout our culture than it had in the Sixties, not with tumult but quietly, in the moral and political assumptions of those who now control and guide our major cultural institutions. The Sixties radicals are still with us, but now they do not paralyze the universities, they run the universities."


Bork devotes much of his book to a survey course in our cultural horrors: a Supreme Court intent on imposing its egalitarian, individualist ideas on a benighted society; a bureaucracy that feels the same way; a popular culture that wallows in obscenity, degradation, and rape-and-murder fantasies that desensitize to violence those whom they don't incite to it; a justice system that has lost faith in the idea that it is right to punish criminals; a sexual revolution yielding rampant illegitimacy and convenience abortion; a " gender" feminism and multiculturalism that decry reason as oppressive; a race- based spoils system according to which individual merit is subordinated to group identity; and more.


How dark is Slouching Towards Gomorrah? This dark: "At another conference, I referred, not approvingly, to Michael Jackson's crotch- clutching performance at the Super Bowl. Another panelist tartly informed me that it was precisely the desire to enjoy such manifestations of American culture that had brought down the Berlin Wall. That seems as good an argument as any for putting the wall back up again."


And this dark: "We are, then, entering a period of tribal hostilities. Some of what we may expect includes a rise in interethnic violence, a slowing of economic productivity, a vulgarization of scholarship (which is already well underway), and increasing government intrusion into our lives in the name of producing greater equality and ethnic peace, which will, predictably, produce still greater polarization and fractiousness."


And this dark: "Sir Henry Maine made the point that, looking back, we are amazed at the blindness of the privileged classes in France to the approach of the Revolution that was to overwhelm them. . . . Yet we seem at least as sanguine about the prospects for democratic government as were Maine's contemporaries."


Bork offers little hope, though along the way he recommends such measures as censorship of obscene and pornographic speech and allowing Congress to vote to overturn Supreme Court decisions. At the end, he avers that the " pessimism of the intellect" still allows room for the "optimism of the will." But he doesn't sound persuaded himself, and the optimism here sounds more like religious consolation than a program for action.


Are we, then, finished?


Bork won't let us take any comfort from the fact that, for example, most of popular music is merely pleasant -- and has no truck with the derangements of the rapper Tupac Shakur. We delude ourselves, he believes, if we base an assessment of our condition on a sugar-coated view that does not take into account the extremes of the degradation we allow. But the act of keeping the spotlight focused so unforgivingly on the extremes also foreordains Bork's gloomy conclusion.


In fact, he allows into evidence a couple of points that, though he does not explore them, offer some measure of surcease from all this sorrow. In the course of detailing the riot of political correctness currently disfiguring campus life and curricula, he notes, "But a student who rejects the criteria by which our society judges achievement is himself handicapped, probably for life." And though he laments a loss of national identity and deplores the tribalization of American life, he also observes, "Immigrant parents want their children to learn English and become Americans."