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by Jim Sleeper
“Channel surfing with Jessica, who’s 9, we stopped at an early evening rerun of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show — irreverent, we figured, but not wrong for her,” my friend Dave wrote me recently. “Came the bit about the gay male escort/model who’d mysteriously gotten White House press clearance to represent a Republican-funded online ‘news’ service and lob the president softball questions. The show flashed a photo from the escort service’s website showing the man naked, spread-eagled, his genitals blurred. Jessie gasped. Her face clouded over and she looked our way but didn’t ask anything, and sometimes you just let things roll. We clutched hands silently, knowing damage had been done. I don’t want to beat up on Stewart; I’m a liberal. Maybe I should have used better judgment, but, man, my parents never had to think about jumping up and shielding my eyes when we watched Walter Cronkite.”
Why was the photo flashed? Was it news? Social commentary? Ratings lust? All of that, surely – even news of conservative sexual hypocrisy, of which there is no end. But “sex” itself is what sells: “People want it, so we are trying to provide it; the more X’s, the more popular,” an Adelphia Communications spokeswoman told the Boston Globe recently after the company, among its other dubious distinctions, became the first U.S. cable provider to offer triple-X rated pornography. What Dave’s family got wasn’t porn, exactly, but it forced him to think about how he’d explain to his 9-year-old that people sell their bodies – and that TV “sells” their doing it. That Dave faults his own judgment doesn’t quite make him fair game.
It certainly doesn’t explain what’s coming to us unbidden in roadside “Erotic Empire” billboards, bus-shelter underwear posters, fashion-cum-kiddie porn ads, commercials for erectile dysfunction cures, and the fetid currents wafting suddenly through our homes at prime-time. The Thing that’s exposing itself to us increasingly is more degrading than porn because it’s so unchosen, so public, and so purely commercial: The pornification of public spaces and narratives, an eros-burning equivalent of second-hand smoke, isn’t malevolent as much as it’s a mindless groping of our persons to goose profits and market share. Don’t call it free speech; these sensors are beyond censors. They aren’t bringing us artists’ art, activists’ politics, or fellow-citizens’ opinions, and the only social message in their leering come-ons is this: “Our company can bypass your brain and heart and go for your erogenous and other viscera on its way to your wallet. Nothing personal, by the way.”
Nothing liberating, either – and my authority is the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, who thought porn “a sign of a diseased condition of the body politic.” D.H. Lawrence wasn’t ducking indictment or an inquest when he wrote in 1929, in “Pornography and Obscenity,” that “even I would censor genuine pornography, rigorously,” rebuffing “the insult it offers, invariably, to sex, and to the human spirit…. There is no reciprocity… only deadening.” Lawrence hated porn because he exalted sexual love. He was happy that “the intelligent young… are rescuing their young nudity from the stuffy, pornographical hole-and-corner underworld of their elders, and they refuse to sneak about the sexual relation.” He came as close as any well-known writer of his time to seconding Oscar Wilde’s defense of homosexuality. But unquestionably he’d have detested the commercialized, bare-it-all, flip side of porn’s sneaking secrecy that’s inundating us now, not least because, while he abhorred sneaking secrecy, he cherished modesty (and monogamy!).
And let’s not call our problem “liberal permissiveness.” American liberals such as Tipper Gore and Bill Bradley protested years ago that by feeding kids like Jessica “a menu of violence without context and sex without attachment,” as Bradley put it, Americans who are letting corporate investment drive our public culture are abusing “the all-important role of storytelling which is essential to the formation of moral education that sustains a civil society.” That protest was right, even if Gore’s call for warning labels was wrong. You don’t have to want to re-run “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” — with Charlton Heston as Moses, heaven help us – to have worries about such big public narratives as “Titanic,” “Gladiator,” “Revenge of the Sith,” or “Matrix II” – or to wonder why more worthy replacements, such as “Harry Potter” and “Lord of the Rings,” that affirm virtues like loyalty among friends and courage against darkness have to be imported from a British public culture that is expiring, but a little less rapidly than our own. No wonder Lawrence distinguished “personal, superficial, temporary desires” from “impersonal great desires” that are nourished in noble public narratives. Even when the latter are contested, the ardor in the contention nourishes a social faith that’s not for sale: “It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears,” he wrote.
To take proper account of this, we need to change the debate about pornography and freedom of expression in this republic. We need to examine often-unconscious assumptions about where the problem I’ve sketched is coming from and what kind of damage it is doing. Only when our premises have changed enough to permit a new consensus about the problem might we imagine new policies or other solutions. We have no consensus or wisdom about the role of eros in social narratives that shape young people’s social depths and horizons, as Bradley and Gore rightly insisted they do. Nor have we noticed that American conservatives generate not only repressions of eros but also, and perhaps inevitably, its destructive, reactive explosions. Liberals and leftists and honorable conservatives themselves can’t end this see-saw if they’re too busy fighting repression to imagine how a distinctive American, republican culture might renegotiate civilization and its discontents. Lawrence’s novels moved F. Scott Fitzgerald and others to weave sexual and social love into tales of a young republic’s coming of age and of eros’ meanderings through mannered precincts of money and class: In This Side of Paradise 18-year-old Isabelle “strung the names [of her white-shoe suitors] into a fabrication of gaiety that would have dazzled a Viennese nobleman. Such is the power of young contralto voices on sink-down sofas.” However fraught or sad, such story lines didn’t foist on readers the instant, for-sale sex that’s dancing up to Jessica, so close and yet so cold. Our sad public descent from controversy over Lady Chatterly eighty years ago to the shrugs greeting Toni Bentley’s The Surrender (an in-depth appreciation, as it were, of anal intercourse) shows mainly that print has lost its capacity to shock to electronic images that are more intrusive and, increasingly, interactive. Even the worst book remains something you must choose to buy and read, and it retains print’s capacity to deepen reflection, unequalled by torrents of disjointed sensations.
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 148-149.
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