Wednesday, December 19, 2012

You Will Be Assimilated

Robert Bork has died, at the age of 85.  Whatever It Is I'm Against It has posted perhaps the best tribute to his memory, a (probably partial) list of things that Robert Bork thought are not unconstitutional, among them banning the sale of contraceptives to married couples and the eugenic sterilization of prisoners.  To that I can only add this opinion piece I wrote for the Indiana University newspaper in 1996.

Speaking of victims' culture, Robert Bork has a new book out.  Bork has made a career out of whining that an unholy cabal of politically correct liberals deprived him of his God-given right to sit on the Supreme Court.  Slouching Toward Gomorrah, his new tome, would be your typical conservative tract on America's moral decline, if not for its author's explicit self-pity.

Old folks like your Junkyard Intellectual remember Bork as the Nixon toady who presided over the Saturday Night Massacre, the firing of Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox on October 20, 1973.  Nixon's men Eliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus resigned rather than obstruct justice, but Bork was a boy who couldn't say no.  He even declined to resign after doing the deed, for his President needed him.

For his collaboration with the Nixon gang, Bork suffered the appropriate penalty: Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Federal judiciary, where he built a reputation as a hardline Constitutional reactionary.  Sniffing the possibility of a Supreme Court nomination, however, he began to moderate his position.  That is, he swerved from right to left like an American driver who has suddenly materialized on an English highway.  (Overturn Roe. v. Wade?  No, Senator, the thought never crossed my mind!)  After Bork's rejection by the Senate, Reagan and Bush preferred nominees with minimal judicial experience, to avoid those embarrassing "paper trails."  Since then Robert Bork has had only his media access, speaking tours, and lucrative Olin Foundation fellowship to console him.

Given Bork's personal history, it should come as no surprise that Slouching Toward Gomorrah is a complaint about the decline of other people's public morality.  Its index has one entry under "Watergate scandal" (Bork is truly honked off by the "thorough indoctrination in Watergate" schoolchildren supposedly receive), but a couple dozen under "White heterosexual males," including multiple references to "Feminist harassment of," "Religious attacks on," and so forth.  As Clarence Thomas, another notable right-wing whiner, once said, "Bitch, bitch, bitch, moan, moan, moan."  I'm also reminded of James Carville's book We're Right, They're Wrong, a celebration and defense of liberalism in general and of the Clinton administration in particular, which managed to avoid all mention of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Bork blames the nihilistic Sixties for the breakdown of traditional values.  In the real world, political radicals of the Sixties were criticized not for a lack of morality, but for being too moralistic and idealistic; it was conservatives and liberals who congratulated themselves for their tough-minded acceptance of the bigotry, corruption, and violence that make the world go round.  More recently, it was not Baby Boomers but the Reagan administration which plumbed new depths in cynical expediency.  Those Boomers who have distinguished themselves for nihilistic amorality, such as Newt Gingrich, aligned themselves with the Right.

Bill Clinton's sex life, or rather its failure to cost Clinton the 1992 election, especially galls Bork.  Thirty years ago, he laments, you couldn't have had a political career in America if people knew such things about you.  Of course, thirty years ago John Kennedy's extramarital escapades, like those of Franklin Roosevelt and Warren G. Harding before him, were well known in Washington, but in those days the press corps preferred to shield the American public from such information.

But it's true that Americans have become more tolerant of sexual license in their public figures.  Ronald Reagan's divorce and remarriage were well known from the start of his political career, and it was no secret that Nancy was pregnant when they married, yet the Religious Right celebrated Reagan's election to the Presidency as a vindication of "family values."  By 1988 Pat Robertson's unrepentant acknowledgment that his wife was pregnant when they married was hardly news at all.

Ironically, then, Bork has a defensible point.  It's just that American political morality was shoddy long before Clinton, as Bork knows first-hand but wishes we'd forget.  The conservative whine that children aren't learning their history goes hand in hand with the conservative insistence that American history be taught as feel-good propaganda.  The social movements of the Sixties were really attempts to raise the standards of American political morality, and they must be vilified by the likes of Robert Bork because they nearly succeeded.  The barbarians at the gates who trouble our rulers' dreams are the American people, seeking justice.
WIIIA recalled having written in 2005 that "Bork is living proof that one can also be driven mad by lack of power."  Power he may have lacked, but he had plenty of influence.  Look at that partial list of his positions, and you'll see that Bork was the kind of right-winger our Constitutional scholar of a President can use to make himself look moderate by comparison.