David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: December 2012

Robert Bork: In Memoriam

bork_robert-19871217036F.2_png_300x373_q85When Richard Nixon died, some op-ed or other bemoaned that his death was used as an occasion to forget, not to forgive. I thought the same when William F. Buckley died, and even Christopher Hitchens (a few people like Katha Pollitt excepted).

With that in mind, here are some Robert Bork quotes not to forget. Many are taken from his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah. This man has had a greater impact on the world than almost any other modern writer I’ve written about.

Be sure to read the last quote on the Port Huron Statement even if you skip those in the middle. It’s the punchline.

Robert Bork on gun control:

As the carnage continues, the public is offered such false panaceas as “midnight basketball” and gun control. Midnight basketball is so obviously a frivolous notion that it need not be discussed. Gun control is no less frivolous.

As law professor Daniel Polsby demonstrates, “the conventional wisdom about guns and violence is mistaken. Guns don’t increase national rates of crime and violence – the continued proliferation of gun control laws almost certainly does.” Gun control shifts the equation in favor of the criminal.

Robert Bork on feminism, choice, and sexuality:

Feminist gatherings within traditional denominations celebrate and pray to pagan goddesses. Witchcraft is undergoing an enormous revival in feminist circles as the antagonist of Christian faith…The feminists within the [Catholic] church engage in neo-pagan ritual magic and the worship of pagan goddesses.

The fact that men, who did not cry ten years ago, now do so indicates that something has gone high and soft in the culture.

Kate O’Beirne, Washington editor of National Review, said, “In the end, our girls are going to have to fight their girls.” True, but after that, some males in the academic world, in the military, and in Congress are going to have to summon up the courage to begin to repair the damage feminism has done.

Radical feminists concede that there are two sexes, but they usually claim there are five genders.  Though the list varies somewhat, a common classification is men, women, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

But it is clear, in any event, that the vast majority of all abortions are for convenience. Abortion is seen as a way for women to escape the idea that biology is destiny, and from the tyranny of the family role.

As one might suspect from their hostility to men, marriage, and family, radical feminists are very much in favor of lesbianism. They want not only lawful lesbian marriages but “reproductive rights” for lesbians.  That means the right to bear children through artificial insemination and the right to adopt one’s lesbian partner’s child.  Since sperm is sold freely in the United States, much more freely than in other nations, there are lesbian couples raising children.  It takes little imagination to know how the children will be indoctrinated.

Cornell’s training session for resident advisers featured an X-rated homosexual movie.  Pictures were taken of the advisers’ reactions to detect homophobic squeamishness.

Robert Bork on women in the military:

The armed forces have been intimidated by feminists and their allies in Congress…In physical fitness tests, very few women could do even one pull-up, so the Air Force Academy gave credit for the amount of time they could hang on the bar. During Army basic training, women broke down in tears, particularly on the rifle range.

The Israelis, Soviets, and Germans, when in desperate need of front-line troops, placed women in combat, but later barred them.  Male troops forgot their tactical objectives in order to protect the women from harm or capture, knowing what the enemy would do to female prisoners of war.  In the Gulf War a female American pilot was captured, raped, and sodomized by Iraqi troops.  She declared that this was just part of combat risk.  But can anyone suppose that male pilots will not now divert their efforts to protecting female pilots whenever possible?

Robert Bork on multiculturalism:

Though many Hispanics are white, the law in its impartiality treats them as though they were not. Hispanics, who will outnumber blacks in the United States by the end of the century, often do not regard this country as their own.

Americans of Asian extraction had seemed to be immune to this rejectionist impulse. Yet, perhaps feeling ethnic grievance is necessary to one’s self respect, Asian-American university students are starting to act like an ethnic pressure group.

So far as I know, no multiethnic society has ever been peaceful except when constrained by force. Ethnicity is so powerful that it can overcome rationality. Canada, for example, one of the five richest countries in the world, is torn and may be destroyed by what, to the outsider, look like utterly senseless ethnic animosities. Since the United States has more ethnic groups than any other nation, it will be a miracle if we maintain a high degree of unity and peace.

Robert Bork on religion:

Culture’s affecting the churches more than churches are affecting the culture. But you can see how for example, the abortion rate is higher among Catholics than it is among Protestants or Jews. I picked that because the church’s opposition to abortion absolute opposition is well known, but apparently it is not affecting the behavior of the Catholic congregations. And I think similar examples could be drawn from Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues.

It is not helpful that the ideas of salvation and damnation, of sin and virtue, which once played major roles in Christian belief, are now almost never heard of in the mainline churches. The sermons and homilies are now almost exclusively about love, kindness, and eternal life. That may be regarded, particularly by the sentimental, as an improvement in humaneness, indeed in civility, but it also means an alteration in the teaching of Christianity that makes the religion less powerful as a moral force. The carrot alone has never been a wholly adequate incentive to desired behavior

Robert Bork on cultural decline, music, and censorship:

The very fact that we have gone from Elvis to Snoop Doggy Dogg is the heart of the case for censorship.

One evening at a hotel in New York I flipped around the television channels. Suddenly there on the public access channel was a voluptuous young woman, naked, her body oiled, writhing on the floor while fondling herself intimately…. I watched for some time–riveted by the sociological significance of it all.

alt.sex is on the Internet. That’s a category. They have a variety of things under alt.sex, which is alternative sex. Particularly horrifying was this alt.sex.stories. I don’t know how to work the Internet yet, but I did that research. I found it written up.

Irving Kristol was going through Romania back when it was a Communist dictatorship, and he learned that, of course, they banned rock ‘n’ roll on the grounds it was a subversive music. And it is, but not just of Communist dictatorships. It’s subversive of bourgeois culture, too.

Dixieland music had real themes to it, had often a very complex musical form. The music of today, a lot of the stuff we’re talking about rap seems to be nothing but noise and a beat without any complexity or without any I don’t understand why anybody listens to it. Well, rock ‘n’ roll still had some melody and I don’t think it could express a lot of emotions that the music before that could express. But it still had some melody and some distinction. And the melody gradually dropped out until we just have this rap.

A lot of people comfort themselves with the thought that this is confined to the black community, but that’s not true — some of the worst rappers are white, like Nine Inch Nails.

Radical individualism is the handmaiden of collective tyranny.

Robert Bork on science:

The fossil record is proving a major embarrassment to evolutionary theory. Michael Behe has shown that Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it. Scientists at the time of Darwin had no conception of the enormous complexity of bodies and their organs.

Upon fertilization, a single cell results containing forty-six chromosomes, which is all that humans have, including, of course the mother and the father. But the new organism’s forty-six chromosomes are in a different combination from those of either parent; the new organism is unique. It is not an organ of the mother’s body but a different individual. This cell produced specifically human proteins and enzymes from the beginning…It is impossible to say that the killing of the organism at any moment after it is originated is not the killing of a human being.

Physician Heal Thyself  Dept:

The Port Huron Statement is a stupefyingly dull document and full of adolescent self confidence and arrogance about their ability to change the world and their superior wisdom about how to change the world and what it should look like.

Books of the Year 2012

So many books, so many books. I consciously tried to expand my reading horizons this year, which has helped to swell my reading list to unmanageable lengths.  Sifting out worthy entries in disciplines with which I’m not especially familiar is not at all easy, so sometimes I just have to go on faith that apparent hard work, diligence, and care have resulted in an enlightening end product.

Krasznahorkai’s Satantango is certainly for me the book of the year, though in its way Lucan’s Civil War was as well, and I was very happy to have William Bronk‘s later poetry collected.

I have hardly read all of all of the nonfiction selections–I’ll be lucky if I ever read the Bailyn book cover to cover–but they have all been of note to me at least as reference or inspiration. Some stragglers from 2011 have snuck in as well.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Reviews on a couple are forthcoming.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links–this was just by far the simplest way to get thumbnails and metadata.)



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Truth and Muddlement

The main reason why I pursued philosophy alongside literature was my increasing certainty that the closer I looked at words and sentences, the less idea I had of what they meant. The apparent correspondence between my thoughts, our language, and the world fell apart as I matured, in much the same way that Kafka described in Diogenes:


In my case one can imagine three circles, an innermost one, A, then B, then C. The core A explains to B why this man must torment and mistrust himself, why he must renounce, why he must not live. (Was not Diogenes, for instance, gravely ill in this sense? Which of us would not have been happy under Alexander’s radiant gaze? But Diogenes frantically begged him to move out of the way of the sun. That tub was full of ghosts.) To C, the active man, no explanations are given, he is merely terribly ordered about by B; C acts under the most severe pressure, but more in fear that in understanding, he trusts, he believes, that A explains everything to B and that B has understood everything rightly.

Franz Kafka (tr. Kaiser/Wilkins)

Where A is thought and mind, B is language, and C is the world, including our physical selves. It would be so much simpler if there were only two pieces to the puzzle and we could measure one against the other, but since each is a medium onto the other two, stability seems absurdly out of reach.

Yet analytic philosophy was disappointing in that the grave problems of correspondence between language, mind, and reality had given way in the 80s and 90s to a neo-Aristotelian essentialism, which once again wished to see language as a transparent window onto the world. Its counterpart in poststructuralism was equally disappointing, positing that meaning was endlessly deferred or wholly constructed, something which was rather evidently not the case. The world has some pull on language, though that pull is slippery, non-atomic, and ever-shifting.

And at the center of it (or perhaps the bottom of it) lies that big notion of truth. There are so many hazy concept around today that I hesitate to single out any one as being overridingly problematic, but of all the concepts that people simultaneously trumpet and denigrate, while not even being aware of the contradiction, truth must rank damn close to the top.

People claiming to do away with truth produce more heat than light, frequently falling into absolutist claims that would embarrass the targets of their attacks. Meanwhile, attempts to account for truth in logic and positivism have yielded poor results: special cases in which a method for knowing truth is somewhat more available than usual.

Attacks on scientism are really just attacks on the claim of special access to truth that that has been made by every dominant methodology, from animism to shamanism to alchemy, since the beginning of time. If science today provides the clothes with which educated people dress up would-be truths, that says nothing more about the worth of science than it said about alchemy. Other considerations factor into those assessments. But truth requires some methodology in order for us to see it as truth, and so you get what Polanyi calls “dynamo-objective coupling”:

These supposedly scientific assertions are, of course, accepted only because they satisfy certain moral passions. We have here a self-confirmatory reverberation between the theory of bourgeois ideologies and the concealed motives which underlie it. This is the characteristic structure of what I shall call a dynamo-objective coupling. Alleged scientific assertions, which are accepted as such because they satisfy moral passions, will excite these passions further, and thus lend increased convincing power to the scientific affirmations in question—and so on, indefinitely. Moreover, such a dynamo-objective coupling is also potent in its own defence. Any criticism of its scientific part is rebutted by the moral passions behind it, while any moral objections to it are coldly brushed aside by invoking the inexorable verdict of its scientific findings. Each of the two components, the dynamic and the objective, takes it in turn to draw attention away from the other when it is under attack.

Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge

Polanyi was referring to Marxism but the sentiment applies just as easily to the rhetoric of countless other ideologies, Ayn Rand being one crude example. And “science” can just as easily be swapped out for the previous justificatory methodology of your choice. And that makes the problem that much worse since the methodology now remains under question itself.

Now, science works and alchemy (or augury, or poetry) does not. But when reduced to its seemingly essential components, science does not yield anything so lofty to be called truth, at least not in the sense of a human truth graspable by anyone meeting the basic criterion of being human. Robert Musil phrased the disappointment like this:

It is hard to say why engineers don’t quite live up to this Vision. Why, for instance, do they so often wear a watch chain slung on a steep, lopsided curve from the vest pocket to a button higher up, or across the stomach in one high and two low loops, as if it were a metrical foot in a poem? Why do they favor tiepins topped with stag’s teeth or tiny horseshoes? Why do they wear suits constructed like the early stages of the automobile? And why, finally, do they never speak of anything but their profession, or if they do speak of something else, why do they have that peculiar, stiff, remote, superficial manner that never goes deeper inside than the epiglottis? Of course this is not true of all of them, far from it, but it is true of many, and it was true of all those Ulrich met the first time he went to work in a factory office, and it was true of those he met the second time. They all turned out to be men firmly tied to their drawing boards, who loved their profession and were wonderfully efficient at it. But any suggestion that they might apply their daring ideas to themselves instead of to their machines would have taken them aback, much as if they had been asked to use a hammer for the unnatural purpose of killing a man.

But one thing, on the other hand, could safely be said about Ulrich: he loved mathematics because of the kind of people who could not endure it. He was in love with science not so much on scientific as on human grounds. He saw that in all the problems that come within its orbit, science thinks differently from the laity. If we translate “scientific outlook” into “view of life,” “hypothesis” into “attempt,” and “truth” into “action,” then there would be no notable scientist or mathematician whose life’s work, in courage and revolutionary impact, did not far outmatch the greatest deeds in history. The man has not yet been born who could say to his followers: “You may steal, kill, fornicate–our teaching is so strong that it will transform the cesspool of your sins into clear, sparkling mountain streams.” But in science it happens every few years that something till then held to be in error suddenly revolutionizes the field, or that some dim and disdained idea becomes the ruler of a new realm of thought. Such events are not merely upheavals but lead us upward like a Jacob’s ladder. The life of science is as strong and carefree and glorious as a fairy tale.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

In its most distilled form, science (and especially mathematics) provides a certain temptation toward pristine and unvarnished truth that I have never experienced anywhere else–unfortunately, some have taken this to mean that science provides the complete vision of what truth can be and so we’d better get used to it. At least in its present form, science does not do that, because I have had enough glimpses of it through other methodologies to know that science, at least in its common naive sense, is not sufficient.

The better answer, at least from those who see what a mess science is and has always been, is that “science” is a broad enough methodology to encompass these other methodologies as well, if the criteria of science are restricted to what seem to be its core essentials: fallibilism, skepticism, and provisionality. (You could say humility and modesty, except that these traits are often applied without much of either.) More and more I see these traits in most of my favorite literary authors, and I also see their absence in a great many writers I disdain.

Here is a scientist speaking of how little we are privileged to know, something you would never guess at were you to find yourself reading Henry Miller, Max Stirner, or Christopher Hitchens:

We walk through the world as the spectator walks through a great factory: he does not see the details of machines and working operations, or the comprehensive connections between the different departments which determine the working processes on a large scale. We do not see the things, not even the concreta, as they are but in a distorted form; we see a substitute world–not the world as it is, objectively speaking.

Hans Reichenbach, Experience and Prediction

Reichenbach’s statement at the beginning is not just about science, but about our observation and study of anything. We are tearing our way through thick layers of the gauze of preconceived notions and biases instilled in us by seemingly every single damn thing in the universe. We won’t pass the final layer (probably not ever, though hope springs eternal I suppose), so the myriad disguised claims of truth that constantly shriek and harangue us would do better to come clean and be exposed for the false promises they are. Our tub is full of ghosts.

This is what I’ve learned in my years (today is my birthday). The more I’ve held to this sort of a systematic, coherent system of fallibilism in every aspect of my life, particularly with regard to myself and my beliefs, the better off I have been.

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