What began to concern me more and more were theclear signs of rot and decadence germinating within Americansociety-a rot and decadence that was no longer theconsequence of liberalism but was the actual agenda ofcontemporary liberalism . . . . Sector after sector ofAmerican life has been ruthlessly corrupted by the liberalethos. It is an ethos that aims simultaneously at politicaland social collectivism on the one hand, and moral anarchyon the other.
-Irving Kristol, “My Cold War”
Equivocation has never been Irving Kristol’s long suit. About the factof rot and decadence there can be no dispute, except from those who denythat such terms have meaning, and who are, for that reason, majorcontributors to rot and decadence. We are accustomed to lamentationsabout American crime rates, the devastation wrought by drugs, risingillegitimacy, the decline of civility, and the increasing vulgarity ofpopular entertainment. But the manifestations of American culturaldecline are even more widespread, ranging across virtually the entiresociety, from the violent underclass of the inner cities to our culturaland political elites, from rap music to literary studies, frompornography to law, from journalism to scholarship, from union halls touniversities. Wherever one looks, the traditional virtues of thisculture are being lost, its vices multiplied, its values degraded-inshort, the culture itself is unraveling.
These can hardly be random or isolated developments. A degeneration souniversal, afflicting so many seemingly disparate areas, must proceedfrom common causes. That supposition is strengthened by the observationthat similar trends seem to be occurring in nearly all Westernindustrialized democracies. The main features of these trends arevulgarity and a persistent left-wing bias, the latter being particularlyevident among the semi-skilled intellectuals-academics, bureaucrats, andthe like-that Kristol calls the New Class.
But why should this be happening? The short answer is the one Kristolgives: the rise of modern liberalism. (The extent to which he wouldagree with the following argument about the sources and future of modernliberalism, I do not know.) Modern liberalism grew out of classicalliberalism by expanding its central ideals-liberty and equality-whileprogressively jettisoning the restraints of religion, morality, and laweven as technology lowered the constraint of hard work imposed byeconomic necessity. Those ideals, along with the right to pursuehappiness, are what we said we were about at the beginning, in theDeclaration of Independence. Stirring as rallying cries for rebellion,less useful, because indeterminate, for the purpose of arrangingpolitical and cultural matters, they become positively dangerous whentaken, without very serious qualifications, as social ideals.
The qualifications assumed by the founders’ generation, but unexpressedin the Declaration (it would rather have spoiled the rhetoric to haveadded “up to a point”), have gradually been peeled away so that todayliberalism has reached an extreme, though not one fears its ultimate,stage. “Equality” has become radical egalitarianism (the equality ofoutcomes rather than of opportunities), and “liberty” takes the form ofradical individualism (a refusal to admit limits to the gratificationsof the self). In these extreme forms, they are partly produced by, andpartly produce, the shattering of fraternity (or community) that modernliberals simultaneously long for and destroy.
Individualism and egalitarianism may seem an odd pair, since liberty inany degree produces inequality, while equality of outcomes requirescoercion that destroys liberty. If they are to operate simultaneously,radical egalitarianism and radical individualism, where they do notcomplement one another, must operate in different areas of life, andthat is precisely what we see in today’s culture. Radical egalitarianismadvances, on the one hand, in areas of life and society where superiorachievement is possible and would be rewarded but for coerced equality:quotas, affirmative action, income redistribution through progressivetaxation for some, entitlement programs for others, and the tyranny ofpolitical correctness spreading through universities, primary andsecondary schools, government, and even the private sector. Radicalindividualism, on the other hand, is demanded when there is no dangerthat achievement will produce inequality and people wish to beunhindered in the pursuit of pleasure. This finds expressionparticularly in the areas of sexuality and violence, and their vicariousenjoyment in popular entertainment.
Individualism and egalitarianism do not always divide the labor ofproducing cultural decay. Often enough they collaborate. Whenegalitarianism reinforces individualism, denying the possibility thatone culture or moral view can be superior to another, the result iscultural and moral relativism, whose end products includemulticulturalism, sexual license, obscenity in the popular arts, anunwillingness to punish crime adequately and, sometimes, even to convictthe obviously guilty. Both the individualist and the egalitarian(usually in the same skin) are antagonistic to society’s traditionalhierarchies or lines of authority-the one because his pleasures can bemaximized only by freedom from authority, the other because he resentsany distinction among people or forms of behavior that suggestssuperiority in one or the other.
The universality of these forces is indicated by the fact that they areprominent features of two institutions at opposite ends of the culturalspectrum: the Supreme Court of the United States and rock music.
The Court reflects modern cultural trends most obviously when it inventsnew rights of the individual against the decisions of the politicalcommunity, but it also does so in the expansion of rights expressed inthe Constitution beyond anything the drafters and ratifiers could haveintended. Radical individualism surfaced when the Court created a rightof privacy, supposedly about the sanctity of the marital bedchamber,which soon explicitly became a right of individual autonomy unconnectedto privacy. Four justices subsequently pronounced it a “moral fact thata person belongs to himself and not others nor to society as a whole”-a”fact” which means that a person has no obligations outside his ownskin. The same tendency is seen in the Court’s drive to privatizereligion, as when a girl is held to have a First Amendment right not tohave to sit at graduation through a short prayer because it might offendher sensibilities. The list could be extended almost indefinitely. Theautonomy the Court requires, of course, is necessarily selective, almostinvariably consisting of the freedoms preferred by modern liberalism.
The Court’s commitment to egalitarianism is so strong that it overrodethe explicit language and legislative history of the 1964 Civil RightsAct to allow preferences for blacks and women. The Court usually arguedthat the preferences were for prior discrimination, discrimination notagainst the individuals now benefited but against other members of theirrace or sex in the past. Even that requirement was dropped when theCourt allowed preferences for minorities in the grant of stationlicenses by the Federal Communications Commission, despite the lack ofany evidence that such grants had ever been tainted by discrimination.In these ways the Court reflects, and hence illegitimately legitimates,the thrusts of modern liberal culture.
To point the parallel: in a book appropriately titled The Triumph ofVulgarity , Robert Pattison points out that rock music celebratesthe unconstrained self: “The extrovert, the madman, the criminal, thesuicide, or the exhibitionist can rise to heroic stature in rock for thesame reasons that Byron or Raskolnikov became romantic heroes-profligacyand murder are expressions of an emotional intensity that defies thelimits imposed by nature and society.” Rock culture teachesegalitarianism as well, not only in its frequent advocacy of revolution,but in its refusal to make distinctions about morality or aestheticsbased upon any transcendent principle. There is no such principle, onlysensation, energy, the pleasure of the moment, and the expansion of theself.
Vulgarity and obscenity are, of course, rife in popular culture. Rock isfollowed by rap; television situation comedies and magazine advertisingincreasingly rely on explicit sex; such cultural icons as Roseanne Barrand Michael Jackson can be seen on family-oriented television clutchingtheir crotches. The prospect is for more and worse. Companies are nowdoing billions of dollars’ worth of business in pornographic videos, andvolume is increasing rapidly. They are acquiring inventories of thevideos for cable television; and a nationwide chain of pornographicvideo and retail stores is in the works. One pay-per-view networkoperator says, “This thing is a freight train.”
It is likely to become a rocket ship soon if, as George Gilder predicts,computers replace television, allowing viewers to call up digital filmsand files of news, art, and multimedia from around the world. Hedismisses conservatives’ fears that “the boob tube will give way to whatH. L. Mencken might have termed a new Boobissimus, as the liberatedchildren rush away from the network nurse, chasing Pied Piper pederasts,snuff-film sadists, and other trolls of cyberspace.” Gilder concedes,”Under the sway of television, democratic capitalism enshrines aGresham’s law; bad culture drives out good, and ultimately porn and prurience, violence and blasphemy prevail everywhere from the dimwitted ’news’ shows to the lugubrious movies.” But he blames that on the nature of broadcast technology, which requires central control and reduces the audience to its lowest common denominator of tastes and responses.
But the computer will give everyone his own channel: “The creator of a program on a specialized subject-from Canaletto’s art to chaos theory,from GM car transmission repair to cowboy poetry, from Szechuan restaurant finance to C++ computer codes-will be able to reach everyone in the industrialized world who shares the interest.”
Perhaps. But there seems little reason to think there will not also bean enormous increase in obscene and violent programs. Many places already have fifty or more cable channels, including some very good educational channels, but there are still MTV’s music videos, and the porn channels are coming on line. The more private viewing becomes, the more likely that salacious and perverted tastes will be indulged. That is suggested by the explosion of pornographic film titles and profits when videocassettes enabled customers to avoid going to “adult”theaters. Another boom should occur when those customers don’t even have to ask for the cassettes in a store. The new technology, while it may bring the wonders Gilder predicts, will almost certainly make our culture more vulgar and violent.
The leader of the revolution in pornographic video, referred to admiringly by a competitor as the Ted Turner of the business, offers the usual defenses of decadence: “Adults have a right to see [pornography]if they want to. If it offends you, don’t buy it.” Modern liberalism employs the rhetoric of “rights” incessantly to delegitimize restraints on individuals by communities. It is a pernicious rhetoric because it asserts a right without giving reasons. If there is to be anything that can be called a community, the case for previously unrecognized individual freedoms must be thought through, and “rights” cannot win every time.
The second notion-“If it offends you, don’t buy it”-is both lulling and destructive. Whether you buy it or not, you will be greatly affected by those who do. The aesthetic and moral environment in which you and your family live will be coarsened and brutalized. There are economists who confuse the idea that markets should be free with the idea that everything should be on the market. The first idea rests on the efficiency of the free market in satisfying wants; the second raises the question of which wants it is moral to satisfy. The latter question brings up the topic of externalities: you are free not to make steel,but you will be affected by the air pollution of those who do make it.To complaints about pornography and violence on television, libertarians reply, “All you have to do is hit the remote control and change channels.” But, like the person who chooses not to make steel, you and your family will be affected by the people who do not change the channel. As Michael Medved puts it, “To say that if you don’t like the popular culture then turn it off, is like saying, if you don’t like the smog, stop breathing . . . . There are Amish kids in Pennsylvania who know about Madonna.” And their parents can do nothing about that.
Can there be any doubt that as pornography and violence becomeincreasingly popular and accessible entertainment, attitudes aboutmarriage, fidelity, divorce, obligations to children, the use of force,and permissible public behavior and language will change, and with thechange of attitudes will come changes in conduct, both public andprivate? The contrary view must assume that people are unaffected bywhat they see and hear. Advertisers bet billions the other way.Advocates of liberal arts education assure us those studies improvecharacter; it is not very likely that only uplifting culture affectsattitudes and behavior. “Don’t buy it” and “Change the channel” aresimply advice to accept a degenerating culture and its consequences.
Modern liberalism also presses our politics to the left becauseegalitarianism is hostile to the authorities and hierarchies-moral,religious, social, economic, and intellectual-that are characteristic ofa bourgeois or traditional culture and a capitalist economy. Yet modernliberalism is not hostile to hierarchy as such. Egalitarianism requireshierarchy because equality of condition cannot be achieved orapproximated without coercion. The coercers will be bureaucrats andpoliticians who will, and already do, form a new elite class. Politicaland governmental authority replace the authorities of family, church,profession, and business. The project is to sap the strength of theselatter institutions so that individuals stand bare before the state,which, liberals assume with considerable justification, they willadminister. We will be coerced into virtue, as modern liberals definevirtue: a ruthlessly egalitarian society. This agenda is, of course,already well advanced.
Both diminished performance and personal injustice are accomplishedthrough radically egalitarian measures. Quotas and affirmative action,for example, are common and increasing not only in the workplace but inuniversity admissions, faculty hiring, and promotion. The excuse is pastdiscrimination, but the result is that individuals who have never beendiscriminated against are preferred to individuals who have neverdiscriminated, regardless of their respective achievements. Predictably,the result is anger on both sides and an increasingly polarized society.After years of struggle to emplace the principle of reward according toachievement, the achievement principle is being jettisoned for one ofreward according to birth once more.
Remarkably little thought attends this process. The demand is always formore equality, but no egalitarian ever specifies how much equality willbe enough. And so the leveling process grinds insensately on . TheWall Street Journal recently reprinted a Kurt Vonnegut story, whichthe paper retitled “It Seemed Like Fiction” because it was written “in1961, before the passage of the Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil RightsAct (1964), the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (1967), the EqualEmployment Opportunity Act (1972), the Rehabilitation Act (1973), theAmericans with Disabilities Act (1990), the Older Workers’ BenefitProtection Act (1990), and the Civil Rights Act (1991).” At the time ofreprinting, Congress was preparing hearings on “The EmploymentNondiscrimination Act of 1994” and was considering additional amendmentsto the Civil Rights Act. Even before all this, Vonnegut saw the trendand envisioned the day when Americans would achieve perfect equality:persons of superior intelligence required to wear mental handicap radiosthat emit a sharp noise every twenty seconds to keep them from takingunfair advantage of their brains, persons of superior strength or graceburdened with weights, those of uncommon beauty forced to wear masks.Why not?
Modern liberalism is most particularly a disease of our cultural elites,the people who control the institutions that manufacture or disseminateideas, attitudes, and symbols-universities, some churches, Hollywood,the national press (print and electronic), much of the congressionalDemocratic party and some of the congressional Republicans as well,large sections of the judiciary, foundation staffs, and almost all the”public interest” organizations that exercise a profound if largelyunseen effect on public policy. So pervasive is the influence of thosewho occupy the commanding heights of our culture that it is not entirelyaccurate to call the United States a majoritarian democracy. The elitesof modern liberalism do not win all the battles, but despite theirrelatively small numbers, they win more than their share and move theculture always in one direction.
This is not a conspiracy but a syndrome. These are people who view theworld from a common perspective, a perspective to the left of theattitudes of the general public. Two explanations for this phenomenonhave been advanced. Both seem accurate. One is a heretical version ofMarxism, a theory of class warfare; the other might be called aheretical version of religion, a theory of the hunger for spirituality,for a meaning to life.
Joseph Schumpeter first articulated the idea that capitalism requiresand hence produces a large intellectual class. The members of that classare not necessarily very good at intellectual work; they are merelypeople who work with or transmit ideas at wholesale or retail, the folkscollectively referred to above as the New Class (also known as the”knowledge class,” the “class of semiskilled intellectuals,” or the”chattering class”).
Why should the New Class be hostile to traditional or bourgeois society?The answer, according to the class warfare theory, is that capitalismbestows its favors, money, and prestige on the business class. The NewClass, filled with resentment and envy, seeks to enhance its own powerand prestige by attacking capitalism, its institutions, and itsmorality. It is necessary to attack from the left because America hasnever had an aristocratic ethos and because the weapons at hand are bytheir nature suited to the left. The ideas are held not for their meritbut because they are weapons.
There is probably a good deal to this, but it seems not quitesufficient. For one thing, it does not account for the Hollywood left.These are folks with no need whatever to envy the CEO of General Motorshis prestige or financial rewards. And no one, to my knowledge, has everclassified Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Ed Asner, and Norman Lear asintellectuals.
There is, however, an additional theory. Max Weber noted the predicamentof intellectuals in a world from which “ultimate and sublime values”have been withdrawn: “The salvation sought by an intellectual is alwaysbased on inner need . . . . The intellectual seeks in various ways, thecasuistry of which extends to infinity, to endow his life with apervasive meaning.” The subsidence of religion leaves a void that mustbe filled. Richard Grenier observes that among those intellectuals “mostsubject to longings for meaning, Max Weber listed, prophetically:university professors, clergymen, government officials . . . ‘couponclippers’ . . . journalists, school teachers, ‘wandering poets.’” By”coupon clippers,” I take it, Weber meant the generations that inheritthe wealth of the men who made it, which would explain why so manyfoundations created by wealthy conservatives become liberal when thechildren or grandchildren take over. And for “wandering poets,” read thelikes of Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. The epitome of Weber’suniversity professors is John Rawls, whose egalitarian theory of justiceswept the academy. Among other odd notions, Rawls laid it down that noinequalities are just unless they benefit the most disadvantaged membersof society. There is, of course, no good reason for such a rule, and itis a prescription for permanent hostility to actual societies, and mostparticularly that of the United States, which can never operate in thatfashion. No vital society could.
What we are seeing in modern liberalism is the ultimate triumph of theNew Left of the 1960s-the New Left that collapsed as a unified politicalmovement and splintered into a multitude of intense, single-issuegroups. We now have, to name but a few, radical feminists, blackextremists, animal rights groups, radical environmentalists, activisthomosexual groups, multiculturalists, People for the American Way,Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and many more.In a real sense, however, the New Left did not collapse. Each of itssplinters pursues a leftist agenda, but there is no publicly announcedoverarching philosophy that enables people to see easily that theseparate groups and causes add up to a general radical left philosophy.The groups support one another and come together easily on many issues.In that sense, the splintering of the New Left made it less visible andtherefore more powerful, its goals more attainable, than ever before.
In their final stages, radical egalitarianism becomes tyranny andradical individualism descends into hedonism. These translate as breadand circuses. Government grows larger and more intrusive in order todirect the distribution of goods and services in an ever more equalfashion, while people are diverted, led to believe that their freedomsare increasing, by a great variety of entertainments featuring violenceand sex. David Frum argues that the root of our trouble is biggovernment, but the root of big government is the egalitarian passion,which intimidates even many conservatives. So long as that passionpersists, government is likely only to get bigger and more intrusive.
We sometimes console ourselves with the thought that our current moralanarchy and statism are merely one phase of a pendulum’s swing, that intime the pendulum will swing the other way. No doubt such movements andcountermovements are often observable, but it is entirely possible thatthey are merely ephiphenomena that do not affect the larger movement ofthe culture. After each swing the bottom of the pendulum’s arc is alwaysfurther to the cultural and political left. Certainly, in the UnitedStates, we have never experienced a period of cultural depravity andgovernmental intrusiveness to rival today’s condition.
The prospects look bleak, moreover, if we reflect on the sources ofmodern liberalism’s components. The root of egalitarianism lies in envyand insecurity, which are in turn products of self-pity, arguably themost pervasive and powerful emotion known to mankind. The root ofindividualism lies in self-interest, not always expressed as a desirefor money but also for power, celebrity, pleasures, and titillations ofall varieties. Western civilization, of course, has been uniquelyindividualistic. Envy and self-interest often have socially beneficialresults, but when fully unleashed, freed of constraints, theirconsequences are rot, decadence, and statism.
Because they arise out of fundamental human emotions, it is obvious thatindividualism and egalitarianism were not invented in the 1960s. Theyhave been working inexorably through Western civilization for centuries,perhaps for millennia, but they have only recently overcome almost allobstacles to their full realization. These forces were beneficent formost of their careers; they produced the glories of our civilizationand, freed of the restraints of the past, became malignant only in thiscentury. We are delighted that the restraints that afflicted men in theclassical world, in the Middle Ages, even in the last century and muchof this have been weakened or removed. Our names for particular eventsand eras celebrate that movement: the Renaissance, the Reformation, theEnlightenment, our own Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights,the Civil Rights Movement. Though they had other complex effects, allinvolved the loosening of restraints: religious, legal, and moral. Butany progression can at last go too far.
The constraints that made individualism and egalitarianism beneficialincluded economic necessity, which channeled individualism intoproductive work, and religion (with its corollaries of morality andlaw), which tempered self-interest and envy. It is only in this century,and particularly in the years since World War II, that Americans haveknown an affluence that frees many of us from absorption with making aliving, and it is in that same period that the decline in religion,which began centuries ago, reached its low point. Religious beliefremains strong but seems to have a diminishing effect on behavior. Andonly lately have we developed the technologies that not only make workeasier but also make the opportunities for sensation almost boundless.We have always known that unfettered human nature does not present anattractive face, but it is that face that is coming into view as modernliberalism progresses. It is difficult to imagine the constraints thatcould now be put in place to do the work that economic necessity andreligion once did.
If the drive of modern liberalism cannot be blunted and then reversed,we are also likely to see an increasingly inefficient economy. Thehedonism of radical individualism is not consistent with the habits ofwork and saving that are essential to a vigorous economy. The quotas andaffirmative action that are growing in our educational institutions andin our corporations, the dilution of the achievement principle, coupledwith the government’s determination to intervene in the economy throughmanifold regulations, mandates, and taxes, will place additional burdenson productivity. Despite all we have learned from watching othereconomies, perhaps we are fated to repeat the socialist mistakes andsuffer the inevitable consequences.
This is a picture of a bleak landscape, and there are many who disagree.Optimists point out, for example, that American culture is complex andresilient, that it contains much that is good and healthy, that manyfamilies continue to raise children with strong moral values. All thatis true. I have been describing trends, not the overall condition of theculture, but the trends have been running the wrong way, dramatically so in the past thirty years. It would be difficult to contend that, the endof racial segregation aside, American culture today is superior to, or even on a par with, the culture of the 1950s.
Others might argue that the elections of 1994 are an indication that a cultural swing is taking place, that Americans have rejected huge,regulation-happy government. That may be so, but I remember thinking the same thing in November 1980 when the electorate chose Ronald Reagan and defeated a clutch of the most liberal Senators. But little long-term improvement occurred. Government now regulates more than it did then. It was fifteen years between Reagan’s first inauguration and the Republican domination of Congress. We will know that a sea change has happened if,fifteen years from now, government is smaller, less expensive, and less intrusive.
Modern liberalism, moreover, maintains its hold on the institutions that shape values and manipulate symbols. Hollywood and the network eveningnews will not change their ways because of Republican majorities.Political correctness and multiculturalism will not be ejected from the universities by Newt Gingrich. If the reaction of the left to Reagan’ selections is any guide, modern liberalism will become more aggressive and intolerant. In any event, even a persistently conservative government can do little to deal with social deterioration other than stop subsidizing it through welfare, and it remains to be seen whetherRepublicans have the will to overcome the constituencies that want welfare. Moral decay is evident, moreover, among people who are not onwelfare and never will be.
No one can be certain of the future, of course. Cultures in decline have, unpredictably, turned themselves around before. Perhaps ours willtoo. Perhaps, ultimately, we will become so sick of the moral and aesthetic environment that is growing in America that stricterstandards will be imposed democratically or by moral disapproval.Perhaps we will reject a government that is controlling more and more ofour lives. A hopeful sign is the degree to which modern liberalism and its works-political correctness, affirmative action, multiculturalism,and the like-is coming under intellectual attack, not merely from conservative but also from liberal intellectuals. If its intellectual and moral bankruptcy is repeatedly exposed, perhaps modern liberalismwill die of shame.
But then again, perhaps not. Country singer and social philosopher MerleHaggard, whose perspective is like Irving Kristol’s, says that thedecade of the 1960s “was just the evening of it all. I think we’re into the dead of night now.” Chances are, that is too optimistic and the deadof night still lies ahead. For the immediate future, in any event, what we probably face is an increasingly vulgar, violent, chaotic, andpoliticized culture and, unless the conservative resurgence of 1994 is both long-lasting and effective, an increasingly incompetent,bureaucratic, and despotic government. Kristol refers to himself as acheerful pessimist. If the argument here is even close to the mark, and if the counterattack falls short, we had all better start working on thecheerful part.
Robert H. Bork is author of The Tempting of America and iscurrently at work on Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalismand American Decline , scheduled for publication by Regan Books, animprint of HarperCollins. An earlier version of this essay appeared in
The Neoconservative Imagination: Essays in Honor of IrvingKristol , edited by Christopher DeMuth and William Kristol (AEIPress).