Bork argues that during the 1960’s, likely starting with the SDS, a form of liberalism took shape that promotes radical egalitarianism (social justice, equality of outcomes) and radical individualism (excessive freedom from the moral and legal doctrines which require an individual’s duty and which form the fabric of civil society). This is the New Left.
Grounded in an utopian vision, fed in part by the affluence of the previous decades and the boredom and yearning of largely well-off youth, the New Left blossomed not merely into the anti-draft Vietnam protests across the nation’s universities, but into a movement that has forever altered American life in mostly negative ways for Bork (see Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic: That Party At Lenny’s… for a rich account of the times).
Bork is quite explicit about the violence and threats of violence he witnessed, the barbarism on display, and the confused, tense years that unfolded (culminating in the Kent State debacle). He was one of two conservative law professors at Yale during the late 1960’s and he argues that events have rarely been represented accurately as he saw them. It is a personal account.
On Bork’s view, the New Left is still quite with us, for the New Left, to some extent, has morphed into the multi-cultural, diversity politicking, equality pursuing liberal left we’ve come to know and love. How much equality is enough? There’s never enough. How free is the individual? Well, he’s almost, if not totally, free. Radically liberating’s one’s self is central, usually from oppression, and once sexually, morally and politically liberated, utopia will arrive.
I think Bork is at his best when he highlights how portions of the radical individualist project continue to seek meaning in life through collectivist political philosophy, politics, political ideology, gender equality, feminism etc (whereas I would think Bork finds this meaning, a deeper, wiser meaning, in Church doctrine, but the Natural Law folks have problems with him). Bork even concedes that it may be something in the pursuit of liberty itself, as we do have liberty and equality defined in our Constitution, such as they are. On this view, the seeds of its destruction lie within liberty and our founding documents to some extent. Perhaps the old, classical liberalism (equality of opportunity, free markets, party of the working man) will eventually go soft and give way to more radical liberty, given due time. This is what Bork, as a nearly lone conservative amongst older-school liberals, claims happened at Yale in 1967-69.
Bork also puts forth an originalist interpretation of the Constitution. He makes the case that there are simply a lot of cultural elites legislating from the bench, using the Supreme Court as a means to the end of more diversity and equality-making, and that they’ve wandered far afield from the document itself (some background here, if you have a better link or better understanding, drop a line). They court an ultimate danger of undermining themselves, cultivating radicalized people and setting themselves up as the only authority capable of interpreting and directing those people:
If the Constitution is law, then presumably its meaning, like that of all other law, is the meaning the lawmakers were understood to have intended. If the Constitution is law, then presumably, like all other law, the meaning the lawmakers intended is as binding upon judges as it is upon legislatures and executives. There is no other sense in which the Constitution can be what article VI proclaims it to be: “Law….” This means, of course, that a judge, no matter on what court he sits, may never create new constitutional rights or destroy old ones. Any time he does so, he violates not only the limits to his own authority but, and for that reason, also violates the rights of the legislature and the people….the philosophy of original understanding is thus a necessary inference from the structure of government apparent on the face of the Constitution.
As to the legal aspects, I do know that Justices Clarence Thomas, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia have been/were influenced by originalism to some extent. Of course, like Bork, this makes them targets for attack by the opposition:
I must say I find Bork refreshing reading when he helps to reveal the authoritarian (nay, totalitarian) impulses of the “personal is political” crowd. It’s fun to have someone provide context when observing the tolerance crowd keep on doing intolerant things, yet piously and humourlessly demanding tolerance all the same (see what FIRE does in response at college campuses). Many of these people actually do run our universities, or those who run our universities will cave to groups of the loudest activist professors and students.
***As an aside, I think what’s happened at Slate magazine helps advance the theory. While politically left, I liked Slate when it can be a bit edgy, thoughtful, occasionally more of a haven for artists, writers, creative thinkers and iconoclasts (Christopher Hitchens was a good example). As of this writing, I find a commitment to the shibboleths of the Left is the ruling order of the day (see the NY Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic as well): You have to toe the line with political correctness and gender and racial equality, and all that individual freedom has limits, obviously, and coalesces around regulated markets, trying to control the public square, and other Statist projects. Such collectivism should make every individual stop and think about how they fit into such a framework.
Why, it’s almost enough to make a man yearn to live back in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
As for art, as T.S. Eliot points out, a first-rate poet can also chart a course back to church doctrine, though this blog believes art is best served when one points out the obvious problems that religion, politics, law, and polite society have with it. Robert Bork quoting Yeats and Auden is interesting though potentially problematic, but Robert Bork quoting rap lyrics to show cultural decay probably just emboldens the opposition.
I think Bork is arguing that unless we stay religious to some extent, and recognize that truth can be revealed to us through the word of God as well as through reason, we will decline (and there are all sorts of declinists out there).
Any thoughts and comments are welcome.
Related On This Site: Charles Murray is trying to get virtue back with the social sciences: Charles Murray At The New Criterion: ‘Belmont & Fishtown’…Can you maintain the virtues of religion without the church…of England?: From The City Journal: Roger Scruton On “Forgiveness And Irony”…
What about black people held in bondage by the laws..the liberation theology of Rev Wright…the progressive vision and the folks over at the Nation gathered piously around John Brown’s body?: Milton Friedman Via Youtube: ‘Responsibility To The Poor’……Robert George And Cornel West At Bloggingheads: “The Scandal Of The Cross”…
How does Natural Law Philosophy deal with these problems, and those of knowledge?
Richard Rorty tried to tie postmodernism and trendy leftist solidarity to liberalism: Repost: Another Take On J.S. Mill From “Liberal England”