BEN WATTENBERG is such a pathological optimist that whenever his column runs on the op/ed page we can count on getting a vituperative letter or two from fulminating sourpusses eager to reassure us that the world is, too, going to hell in a handbasket. Who better, then, to take the affirmative side in a debate resolving "That America's Brightest Days Lie Yet Before Her?"
And for the negative side, who better than the failed Supreme Court nominee, Robert H. Bork, whose hot-selling new book is "Slouching Toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and America in Decline." (Gomorrah, you may recall, was one of the biblical cities God destroyed in a rain of fire and brimstone, on account of the inhabitants' wickedness.)
Mr. Wattenberg and Judge Bork met in rhetorical combat the other day at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. An informal poll afterward suggested that few minds were changed. Pathological optimists tended to agree with Mr. Wattenberg; fulminating sourpusses thought Judge Bork had hit the nail on the head.
Looking back, said Mr. Wattenberg, we can see that at any given moment in the last nearly 400 years it would have been true that America's brightest days lay ahead. With our country indisputably No. 1 in the world, technologically, culturally, militarily, economically, why do we say we are in decline?
Because, countered Judge Bork, there is no common moral consensus, without which military and economic strength mean
little. He sees an America fragmenting into polarized and angry tribes of race, gender and ethnicity, within a "nihilistic" larger culture. "Nihilistic," because there is no agreement on truths of general application, leaving each person free to act for his own convenience.
Mainstream churches, universities, newspapers, foundations promote permissiveness in mores, the judge said, while they try to enforce an intellectual tyranny on ideas and attitudes. And the process feeds on itself. Judges, professors and other possible authority figures go along with the prevailing cultural drift in order to win media approval. Meanwhile, lacking guidance, people live incoherently, picking and choosing what suits them from the vast cultural smorgasbord.
Things fall apart
What's wrong with that? In a society that cannot define and defend its core values, "things fall apart; the center cannot hold." The words are those of W.B. Yeats, who is also invoked in the title of Judge Bork's book, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah."
In another conversation in another context, the think-tank thinker Irving Kristol said he knew in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was doomed, though he couldn't predict the date of its demise. On a visit to Moscow he found no communists. A civilization has lost its vitality, Mr. Kristol said, when no one will argue and advocate for it. (The few remaining communists, he noted, were in the West, where communism, unburdened by messy daily reality, remained a lively intellectual abstraction.)
Have we reached that point? It seems to me that many Americans still are inspired by the ideals of our democracy and want to perfect it in our country. Is it too late for that?
"Civilizations don't last forever," warned Judge Bork, and history surely witnesses to that. The judge quoted George Bernard Shaw: "Rome fell. Babylon fell. Scarsdale's time will come."
Mr. Wattenberg's riposte was that "sex and drugs and rock'n' roll" is simply our generation's update on "wine, women and song." He closed with a parody of "the Prophetess Annie from the Book of Warbucks: 'Gomorrah, Gomorrah, I love you, Gomorrah. You're always a day away.' "
Hal Piper edits The Sun's Opinion Commentary page.
Pub Date: 12/07/96