Thursday, February 6, 2020

The War on Porn Is Back

By Katherine Mangu-Ward - February 06, 2020 at 06:00AM

"If you want better men by any standard, there is every reason to regard ubiquitous pornography as an obstacle," declared New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in a 2018 column bluntly headlined "Let's Ban Porn."

In this, as in many things, Douthat was ahead of the conservative intellectual curve by a year or two. And in this, as in many things, he was dangerously wrong.

In due course, Douthat has been joined by the folks at the Christian journal First Things, who have taken up the anti-pornography banner as part of their peculiar subvariant of a resurgent interest in nationalism among traditionalist conservatives. In last year's manifesto, "Against the Dead Consensus," a clutch of First Things friends and familiars reject "economic libertarianism" and "the soulless society of individual affluence" and add that they "respectfully decline to join with those who would resurrect warmed-over Reaganism." Which makes it all the more disconcerting when they turn around and immediately kneel before the scolding ghost of Ed Meese.

As attorney general, Meese sought to deliver on Reagan's 1987 threat to "purveyors" of obscene material that the "industry's days are numbered." It was Meese who pulled together the first National Obscenity Enforcement Unit. (One surprising and familiar name also crops up in the tale: then–assistant attorney general and recent Libertarian Party vice presidential pick William F. Weld, who was given the task of bringing together various agencies for the task force.)

Meese's bill of grievances against the relatively constrained pornography of his day—which he credited in a speech to a report from a federal Commission on Pornography convened the previous year—will sound alarmingly familiar to readers of Douthat and First Things. He asserts "that violence, far from being an altogether separate category of pornography, is involved with almost all of it; that there are empirically verifiable connections between pornography and violent sex-related crimes; that the pornography industry is a brutal one that exploits and often ruins the lives of its 'performers' as well as its consumers, and that the 'performers' often include abused children and people plied with hard drugs; that whether or not it is directly imitated by those who consume it, pornography has a deleterious effect on what its consumers view as normal and healthy."

The effort was, in some sense, successful. By 1990, the Department of Justice had managed to use obscenity statutes to force seven national porn distributors out of business. But the decades that followed were boom times for porn as the industry moved into new forms of distribution, so the success was far from permanent.

In a rare moment of sanity in 2011, the Justice Department shuttered what had come to be known as the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, resulting in the delightful Politico headline "Holder accused of neglecting porn" and a harrumph from peeved conservatives, who vowed to reverse the Obama administration's decision as soon as they could.

In December, four Republican congressmen wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr asking his Justice Department to do just that by prioritizing obscenity prosecutions.

"The Internet and other evolving technologies are fueling the explosion of obscene pornography by making it more accessible and visceral," they wrote. "This explosion in pornography coincides with an increase in violence towards women and an increase in the volume of human trafficking as well as child pornography. Victims are not limited to those directly exploited, however, and include society writ large."

Like herpes, the war on porn flares up when the body politic is compromised or stressed. Both in the 1980s and today, cherry-picked social science write-ups purposely conflate "addicts" and users, assert connections between porn and violence at a time of increasing porn consumption and decreasing violence, and offer terrifying but unsubstantiated stories about brain damage and erectile dysfunction in the nation's young men. Such coverage fuels the porn panic even as the predicted hairy-palmed decline of the U.S. fails to materialize.

The proposed crackdown fits nicely with the nationalist agenda, which is focused—as nationalists tend to be—on purity. As has too often been the case historically, a campaign for moral purity can slide awfully smoothly into efforts to preserve ethnic purity, as Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown documents in her cover story on the current panic over Asian-run massage parlors.

In his 1987 speech, Meese was careful to limn the distinction between pornography and obscenity, acknowledging that only the latter is subject to prosecution per the Supreme Court's clear instruction.

By contrast, at the end of 2019, Reason's Damon Root was compelled to publish a basic explainer about the First Amendment protections afforded to material that fails the three-pronged Miller test of obscenity. Too many would-be porn banners have simply ignored the legal guardrails the Court provided.

The porn-banning conservatives, though newly impatient with their former allies on the libertarian side of the spectrum, are often the same folks who were quite recently willing to fight bans on smoking, extra-large sodas, and trans fats to the death, and who would never entertain a return to alcohol prohibition.

There are people on the left, of course, who would forbid porn along with the rest of that list and much more as well, and Catholic writer Sohrab Ahmari would happily make common cause with them: "Conservatives must partner with anti-porn feminists. We won't agree on everything, but imagine how powerful such an alliance could be," he tweeted in December.

The utterly unfunny joke, of course, is that we don't need to imagine such an alliance. It was indeed a powerful force in 1980s politics, with rhetoric crafted by feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon furnishing talking points for Reagan and Meese. In 1984, legislation defining pornography as a violation of women's civil rights was passed with the support of conservatives on the Indianapolis city council and signed into law by a Republican mayor. (It was later struck down in the courts.)

Conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly borrowed from Dworkin in her 1987 book Pornography's Victims: "Those who become addicted crave more and more bizarre and more perverted pornography, and become more callous toward their victims. Pornography changes the perceptions and attitudes of men toward women, individually and collectively, and desensitizes men so that what was once repulsive and unthinkable eventually becomes not only acceptable but desirable. What was once fantasy becomes reality. Thus conditioned and stimulated by pornography, the user seeks a victim."

Douthat has noted that porn is "a product," which he helpfully defines as "something made and distributed and sold, and therefore subject to regulation and restriction if we so desire."

"We are rightfully skeptical of government overreach, but I think we take that skepticism so far that we're skeptical of even using political power when we have it for ends that we think are valuable," Hillbilly Elegy author and conservative golden boy J.D. Vance explained in a podcast episode taped following a July conference on national conservatism that brought together the new movement's leading lights. "And I do think that we have to get over that, and we have to recognize that when people entrust us with political power to solve problems we should at least try to solve them." Suffice it to say that in political rhetoric, as in pornography, everything before the but should be ignored.

To do as Ahmari wishes and "fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square re-ordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good" will not eliminate vice, nor will it eliminate the production and consumption of porn. As with all prohibitions, a ban would discourage generally law-abiding and nonproblematic users while driving more committed or addicted users to darker places to find what they want. Meanwhile, more committed producers, taking on more risk, would likely produce more outré content. The new war on porn is a dangerous symptom of a recurring delusion on both the left and the right that men can be reshaped by the state into better versions of themselves.


from Reason Magazine Articles
via IFTTT