Posted on | July 22, 2012 | 27 Comments
More than 15 years have passed since Robert Bork published Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, one of the most astute analyses of its kind ever written. Bork emphasized that the 1960s were the pivotal epoch. In his introduction, however, Bork made an important point: The remarkably sudden collapse of the “Establishment” under the assault of Sixties radicalism indicated an inherent weakness within America’s elite, a vulnerability that was little suspected during the tranquil decade of the 1950s.
The Sixties, Bork observed, “brought to a crescendo developments in the Fifties and before that most of us had overlooked or misunderstood.” Citing various phenomena of the 1950s — including rock music, the radical social critique of C. Wright Mills and the so-called “Beat” culture of Kerouac and Ginsberg — Bork asserts that these were “harbingers of a new culture”:
“The Fifties were the years of Eisenhower’s presidency. Our domestic world seemed normal and, for the most part, almost placid. The signs were misleading. Politics is a lagging indicator. . . .
“[The rapid triumph of Sixties radicalism] suggests that the supposedly oppressive ‘Establishment,’ without realizing it themselves, had already been eaten hollow by the assumptions that flowered into modern liberalism. When the push came in the Sixies, an empty and guilt-ridden Establishment surrendered.”
— Robert H. Bork, Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (1996)
Anyone who carefuly studies the era must endorse Bork’s conclusion, whether or not they share his politics. He was clearly onto something, and it is extraordinary that his insight has not been further developed. What happened in the years between triumph in World War II — the pinnacle of our national prestige in what has been called “The American Century” — and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, which proved the flashpoint of the Culture Revolution? How was the Establishment “eaten hollow” during the roughly 15 years that elapsed between Whittaker Chambers’s exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy and that November afternoon in Dallas when a Communist sympathizer aimed his rifle at the motorcade in Dealey Plaza?
It’s not as if America had no warnings of the impending storm. In 1944, Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, which documented the inherent dangers of Western liberalism’s embrace of the Welfare State. In 1948, Richard Weaver published Ideas Have Consequences, examining the philosophical roots of modern cultural decline. And in 1951, a young man named William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale, showing how leaders of America’s leading universities defended intellectual subversion in the name of “academic freedom.”
Taken together, those three books are now recognized as sort of an intellectual pedigree of post-war American conservatism, and constitute a fairly comprehensive critique of what Bork calls “the assumptions that flowered into modern liberalism.” Yet it is amazing in retrospect that, insofar as the Establishment’s ability to resist the subsequent radical onlaught, these prescient warnings fell on deaf ears. The Establishment either underestimated the sincerity of its radical enemies or else became “empty and guilt-ridden” because of its (perhaps not entirely conscious) sympathies with radical beliefs.
Bork’s insight has been stuck in my mind since I first encountered it in the mid-1990s, and the thought of turning it into a book, examining how we went from the Cold War liberalism of Harry Truman to the anti-American radicalism of the 1960s, has been in mind mind ever since.
What is needed, I think, is not an argumentative polemic, but rather a lively, detailed narrative history of the era, modeled somewhat on the pattern of liberal historian William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream. The point to be demonstrated is that historical change is not a product of anonymous deterministic forces — trends that are as irresistible as they are impersonal — but rather (a) history results from the ideas and actions of individuals, and (b) the beliefs and choices of leaders have a disproportionate influence on history.
Leaders who make change happen are often not recognized as leaders until after the fact. Prior to 1948, for example, almost no one could have predicted the enormous influence of the work of an Indiana University biology professor named Alfred Kinsey. Nor, for that matter, did anyone prior to 1963 suspect what changes would result from the work of a freelance magazine writer named Betty Friedan. What I have in mind would in some ways be a countweight to the Left’s class-oriented “social history” and its mechanical, materialistic concepts of change, as well as a rebuttal to the anti-American perspectives of Howard Zinn and other academic leftists.
This is another one of those Books Nobody Will Ever Pay Me to Write, but the idea has been stuck in my brain for 15 years. I spent a few minutes turning it over in my mind while driving home from the Smart Girls Summit today. It’s still a good idea. Just sayin’ . . .