Book Review: A Time To Speak

A Time To Speak: Selected Writings And Arguments, by Robert H. Bork

Is it really a time to speak? Reading this book was a bit of a puzzling experience for me because it left Bork nearly as opaque and mysterious a figure as he was beforehand. It is hard to make heads or tails of Bork and of his thinking, and though this book is more than 700 pages long, it really does not make the author more clear as a writer and as a thinker. This is a problem, but it’s not necessarily a problem that one can blame Bork for. Despite his intentions to the contrary, Bork is not really a philosopher and his views on the law and on its practice are more than a bit muddled. Not only that, he had a marked tendency to get himself involved in fierce controversies with other conservative thinkers where he talked past them and they talked past him. This is perhaps most notable in his ugly and unpleasant spat with Harry Jaffa (a thinker who I am immensely fond of, and therefore disinclined to take Bork’s side [1]). Admittedly, neither Bork nor Jaffa come off at their best when they are talking about each other, since each of them views the other as being a disciple and successor of Taney and Calhoun and other historically reprehensible figures, rather than being conservatives who for a variety of reasons (including Bork’s immense hostility to egalitarianism of any stripe) simply do not get on. It is regrettable that this is the case, but this sort of polemics mars this work considerably.

This book is a pretty staggering collection of work from a prolific writer, and the writing material itself is even more highly varied than one would expect. The first section of the book consists writings about constitutional law. This is composed of briefs and oral arguments for cases on capital punishment, the crimes of Spiro Agnew, and matters of homosexuality in the military, three opinions from his time in the U.S. District Court, and articles on various matters including a lot of unseemly polemical material. The second section consists of various articles and one opinion where the author presents his views on antitrust law and how it is that he views it as having been a disaster early in his career but later in his career expressed a willingness to support at least some antitrust cases, such as against Microsoft and Visa/Mastercard. The remaining sections of the book are rather brief, including writings on International Law, to which Bork is immensely skeptical, some rather pointed observations on matters of politics and public policy, appreciative of at least a very small number of people, and then ending the book with some entertaining frivolities that express his fondness of Agatha Christie’s characters as well as dry martinis.

There are at least a few good reasons why this book did not greatly clear up my thinking about Bork and my opinions on him. I think that it was, in retrospect, a great shame that he was not confirmed by the Senate, but in looking at his writings there are definitely ways that he could have been confirmed that he did not take advantage of, including expressing an understanding of the ways that rights to privacy exist in the penumbras/implications of amendments, as a way of minimizing the hostility that has been shown to Bork because of a belief that he is hostile to rights to privacy in general, even if Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade are both abominable decisions. Despite the fact that Bork does not come off as poorly as one would think, his strange hostility to the protection of the rights of unborn children and his inconsistent opinions regarding natural law, and his fateful divide between seeking to be a moral philosopher of the sad state of the West and his pragmatic approach to trying to defend conservative and traditional values in a way that is sustainable by electoral majorities as well as the legal philosophy of the Court makes him a muddled and inconsistent figure. If he and his supporters would like to view him as a prophet crying out in the wilderness, he strikes this reader as more of an uncertain trumpet who is not quite as bold in defense of virtue as one would hope. And 700 pages of mostly polemical material written by and about him does not clear up what is an essentially muddled and inconsistent personal and legal philosophy, even if much of the material here is deeply interesting on its own.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s