The distinctive virtues of American life, indeed the distinctive features of Western civilization, are in peril in new ways. The threat, however, is neither military nor external. Instead, "we face, and seem to be succumbing to, an attack mounted by a force not only within Western civilization, but one that is perhaps its legitimate child," Robert H. Bork, John M. Olin Scholar in Legal Studies at AEI, writes in his new book, Slouching towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. The release of Mr. Bork's first book since his bestseller, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law, was marked by a reception on September 19 at AEI.
The enemy within that is responsible for these dramatic alterations to our moral life and culture is modern liberalism. This modern liberalism, according to Mr. Bork, "is very different in content from the liberalism of the 1940s or 1950s and certainly from the liberalism of the past century." The sentiments and beliefs that drive it, however, are the same: the ideals of liberty and equality. While these ideals are worthy, the author contends that they have been pressed too far, resulting in the ascendancy of modern liberalism's defining characteristics: radical egalitarianism (the equality of outcomes rather than of opportunities) and radical individualism (the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification). Not a single American institution, from popular music to higher education to science, has remained untouched by their corrosive effects.
"The encroachments of liberalism upon traditional ways of thinking and acting," writes Mr. Bork, "have created not just a battle here and a skirmish there but a conflict across the entire culture." This attack differs from the usual piecemeal revisions our culture has experienced in the past. "What we experience now," according to the author, "is not the subtraction or addition of one or another element of our moral life but an assault that aims at, and largely accomplishes, sweeping changes across the entire cultural landscape. Large chunks of the moral life of the United States, major features of its culture, have disappeared altogether, and more are in the process of extinction. These are being, or already have been, replaced by new modes of conduct, ways of thought, and standards of morality that are unwelcome to many of us."
Modern liberalism is powerful, the AEI scholar argues, because it has enlisted our cultural elites, those who man the institutions that manufacture, manipulate, and disseminate ideas, attitudes, and symbols, such as universities, churches, and the media. This, Mr. Bork emphasizes, is not a conspiracy but a syndrome. These are institutions controlled by people who view the world from a common perspective, a perspective not generally shared by the public at large. "But so pervasive is the influence of those who occupy the commanding heights of our culture," writes Mr. Bork, "that it is important to understand what modern liberalism is and what its ascendancy means." Slouching towards Gomorrah will be published by Regan Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, on October 10.