In his article 'Appealing to Prurient Interests' in the Sep 1999 Chronicles, syndicated columnist Samuel Francis observes that the basic argument of the liberal side in the pornography controversy is that '[s]omtimes, if you have strict laws against obscenity, you might in error silence a Shakespeare', while the argument on the conservative side is 'the equally obvious truth that the state has every right to regulate and discipline the private moral life of its citizens. [This is because m]orally proper behavior is fundamental to the elementary cohesion of human society, not to speak of the higher levels of civilization that most people would like to sustain, and the systematic assault on morality, taste, beauty and decency that pornography perpetrates is a perfectly appropriate target of public coercion.'
Unfortunately for Dr Francis, there are a few thousand things wrong with the latter argument. To explain, let us start with the assertion that 'morally proper behavior is fundamental to the elementary cohesion of society'. What Dr Francis might correctly have said is that there are certain behavioral standards which are necessary for social cohesion -- no murder, no stealing, no rape, etc -- but these are matters of 'public behavior' -- ie, matters concerning two or more individuals, one of whom regards himself as a victim -- not matters of 'private moral life', by which we must assume Dr Francis means either behavior involving only oneself, or else consensual behavior among several, ie, 'victimless crimes'.
But could Dr Francis be correct in his suggestion that there are certain private behaviors which will impair 'social cohesion'? Is there any evidence for such an assertion? Consider pornography for example, which has always been considered by the conservative element to be the ultimate solvent of the social fabric, an instant mind-rot, and an unleasher of brigades of rapists and perverts. In fact, the reality of porn is pretty much the opposite. For example, when porn was legalized in Sweden many years ago, sex crime actually went down. Likewise, when President Nixon's committee on pornography wrote its final report, the conclusion reached was that porn was harmless -- a conclusion sufficiently inconsonant with what the members were 's'pozed' to find that Nixon attempted -- not very successfully -- to suppress it.
But the ugly fact about porn is that the debate has been framed in the wrong terms: While the question has always been 'is it bad?', no one has ever bothered to ask 'Is it good?' And in fact it is good: Porn -- whether in the format of a magazine, a movie, or the mind's eye -- is precisely what gives a man an erection, and in case the reader hadn't noticed, without erections there wouldn't be any families, to say nothing of 'family values' whose praises conservatives are forever and a day extolling. But if this isn't enuf, within only the last year we been treated to a spectacle of one of the conservative poster boys, Bob 'War Hero' Dole, telling how he saved the life of Mr Wiggly by popping Viagra. Or to put it another way, why are conservatives perfectly happy to resuscitate Mr Wiggly with a pill that has numerous dangerous side effects, including death (Don't they hold the life of even jelly blobs as sacred?) and (at ten bucks a pop) poverty, but fume and fulminate unceasingly against achieving the same result with something harmless?
The point I am trying to make is that, in spite of the mountain of tomes and torrent of Sunday sermons which have been written against it, the theory that porn is a solvent of society simply will not wash. So what then is left of Dr Francis' assertion that each citizen's 'private moral life' should be under the control of 'the state', ie, the government which gave us Ruby Ridge, Waco, the attack on Serbia, 'peacekeeping' missions to Haiti and Somalia, WWI and WWII, probably the Oklahoma City bombing, and a few other delightful interludes. (Not a hill of a lot, I would guess.)
What I am really getting at is this: Conservatives, like their liberal opponents, are great moral poseurs, constantly claiming the moral high ground for their favorite totalitarian strictures ('They're for your own good, you know.'). Thus while liberals want to take away my gun, my profits, my car, my junk foods, my health food supplements ('unapproved substances'), my access to alternative medical treatment ('quackery'), my hard money ('gold buggery'), my right to plan for disaster ('hoarding'), my right to speak disdainfully of minorities ('hate crime laws'), my right to associate freely ('anti-discrimination laws'), my right to contract freely ('affirmative action'), my (white) cultural heritage ('multiculturalism'), my property rights ('environmental protection'), my children's education ('publik skoolz') and the like, conservatives want to take away my dirty pictures, my recreational drugs, my long hair, my right to travel and leisure (vagrancy laws), my right to get rid of jelly-blobs (abortion), my freedom from servitude (conscription), my right to show contempt for their sacred cows (flag-burning amendment), my right to speak disdainfully of God ('blasphemy'), my right to alternative religious views ('cults'), my right to criticize their splendid little wars ('treason') and the like. And of course both liberals and conservatives want to pick my pocket to enforce their strictures, to pay off their political constituencies and -- above all -- to keep themselves in power.
In conclusion, I would like to respond directly to Dr Francis' assertion that pornography constitutes a 'systematic assault on morality, taste, beauty and decency'. To begin with taste and beauty, the scholarly Dr Francis should know better than anyone the proverbial wisdom that De gustibus non est disputandum ('There is no argument about taste') and that 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder' (and if a lot of people are looking at porn -- which they are -- then it must be considered beautiful). As for morality, Dr Francis and his conservative cohorts appear to believe that morality has been fixed for all time by inscription in some stones from Mt Sinai, whereas in reality morality constitutes the collective behavioral standards which have evolved (and are evolving) as human beings and their societies have evolved, and which have been embraced because human beings, thru a process of trial and error, have found them good and useful rules. Or to put this another way, morality is that set of rules which experience (or more precisely, evolution) has shown to produce the most desirable consequences, ie, morality is simply the course reckoned most likely to result in the greatest human happiness. A particularly good illustration of this is sexual morality: At one time sex outside of marriage was counted immoral because it was a good way to get nasty diseases and unwanted little bastards; but now with birth control and venereal prophylaxis, extramarital sex no longer produces the kinds of consequences it once did, and hence has been reduced from a felony to, in most cases, just a misbehavior. This, I might add, does not reduce morality to a matter of 'if it feels good, do it'; but it makes plain that morality is fungible, and that there is nothing unethical about 'situation ethics', however much the pulpiteers may remonstrate against it. Indeed, the morality of the Sinai Stones is consequentialist: If you don't do what the Stones say, you'll be breaking your stones in Hell.
And finally, in response to Dr Francis' remark that pornography offends 'decency', I will close with a well-known quote of Woody Allen's: Sex is dirty, but only if it's done right.
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