OXFORD, England—Having read through the bio and some history of Oxford University’s Timothy Stanley, I feel safe saying that the historian and writer probably sees himself as somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum, and not as a die-hard Tory (despite his odd fascination with Pat Buchanan, the subject of his newest book). But no matter which way he thinks he leans, his latest blog post entitled Pornotopia is precisely the sort of “thought piece” that people like his current prime minister like to snatch up and use to justify ever greater limitations on speech or activity that the majority (or minority) finds immoral or harmful.
This particular screed takes the cake, though. Besides being truly Orwellian in his conceit, with everything that overwrought term implies, he is stupefyingly enthusiastic in his disgust for sex and nudity, and his intellectual eagerness to extend his own personal puritanism to everyone else in the Western world.
Let us take the opening paragraph as a prime example of Stanley’s embrace of rhetorical excess.
The bus stop I use in Los Angeles has a large poster of a chap in his underwear. I think it’s supposed to be advertising his briefs, but the object of the picture is clearly the man himself. The image is disturbing. Not only is the model being objectified like a prime cut of beef, but he has been blown up so large that his anatomically perfect body looks freakish. Each rib is as thick as my arm. West Hollywood is full of homoerotica of this sort; a sensuality so aggressive that it borders on Hitlerian. Confronted by images of thrusting masculinity in every shop window, I feel soiled just buying a pint of milk. West Hollywood is Pornotopia.
Now, let me just say that having lived in Los Angeles for about three decades, I find this description of the city exaggerated to the point to caricature and borderline homophobia. The Hitler reference, presumably meant to call up the homosexual bent of some of the early German fascists, is obscene in and of itself because it brutalizes the truth of West Hollywood, a rather quiet and unobtrusive community on parade-less days, by equating a few large billboards and store signs with the Nazi Party’s proclivity to shove National Socialism down everyone’s throat through graphical and violent excess. It is also a lie in that none of the images that confront Stanley’s senses so aggressively actually “thrust.” That mechanical activity he provided gratis by way of his own somewhat fertile imagination. I might add, the posters that adorn bus stops are never so large that the images seem freakish. Yes, if one were to get two inches from one of the massive billboards that line Sunset Boulevard, freakish will be the operative term, but here, again, Stanley is lying editorially by magnifying the effect of the offending graphic through the prism of his own effete sensibility. And he’s only getting started.
Apparently, calling up the greatest mass murderer in history was not enough to satiate Stanley’s metaphoric blood lust. In his second paragraph, he bonds with the North Koreans over the internet.
Back home, in Great Britain, there’s a discussion going on about whether or not to force internet providers to put filters on porn sites. Prime Minister David Cameron’s modest proposal was denounced by “conservative” commentators as injurious to liberty. The government cannot and should not legislate morality, they cried. I am confused as to why such people use the label conservative to describe themselves. The single purpose of conservatism is to protect what is good about the traditional order. The internet is a threat to the traditional order and so it is not our friend. The North Koreans understand that, even if we do not.
So, if one were to object to my Orwell reference above, perhaps they could then explain how it could not be used when confronted by a position that posits “the traditional order” as a justification for government legislating morality, for proclaiming the internet as a threat while posting to it, and then having the gall to state that the North Koreans get it right. Now, it seems apparent to me that this fellow revels in excess like this and probably loves it when liberals respond with outrage, but my contention is that this is not just any British wanker spouting off into his beer, but a rational academic and author of respectable tomes making a serious argument that just happens to veer off into controlled insanity. (This is proven by the fact that he himself references American academics who themselves have been proven to be quacks of the highest order when it comes to adding anything serious to the subject of sex. This is how it works: one quack references another quack and the next thing you know we’re all eating duck!)
In the next paragraph, Stanley applauds the right of governments to legislate morality, but even worse, he makes an argument at the end that would be laughed out of class by the worst first-year student of philosophy on the planet.
Government can legislate morality and it does. Aside from murder and theft, it also outlaws things that can be consensual – like incest and polygamy. Against this regulation of the sexual code, critics often argue that whatever the government prohibits instantly becomes fashionable. The fact that arrests for public drunkenness actually increased under Prohibition is often cited as evidence that state censorship of this kind never works. The argument is redundant on two counts. A) Morality takes its authority from something other than popular sentiment. B) There are plenty of instances in which something has been outlawed and the public hasn’t reacted with civil disobedience. Florida recently banned sex with animals. By this logic, are we to expect a sudden spike in assaults on chickens? Are Floridians really that bloody minded?
Where to start. First, let me state that just because governments can and does legislate morality does not mean that it should. But that aside, now is a good time to point out what Stanley is doing in this piece. In order to make an argument that pornography should be criminalized, which he is about to do, he must first set up his argument by created a syllogism that is supposed to support the larger point. Unfortunately, his syllogism—government can legislate morality, porn is immoral, therefore government can legislate porn—is imbecilic. Unequivocally, the very fact that morality is individual and does not take its authority from popular sentiment is the reason why governments should not legislate it. The idea is in and of itself undemocratic, with an approving nod to minority rule. Prohibition, as everyone watching the current documentary on it knows, failed for many reasons, including because it was ineffective. In that ineffectiveness, one might add, millions of Americans were criminalized overnight. Is Stanley really the sort of democrat (assuming he is one) who would support a regime in which the government is an enemy of the people? Apparently, he would. In that sense, they really got it right in North Korea!
But let’s not forget about the B) above. This point is truly one for the academic books. Does this man actually believe that the fact that Floridians did not run out and start fucking animals when a ridiculous law was enacted banning such acts is an argument for or against anything? By his logic, the only reason I don’t go home and beat my wife to a pulp is because of domestic violence laws, and not because I love and cherish her. In fact, laws are supposed to be promulgated not to support a certain moral position but to protect the interest of the public, and also to support an important or vital government interest. These are concepts that Stanley should but apparently does not understand; or if he does, does not respect.
And we’re just to paragraph three, in which the main argument against pornography is introduced.
Internet pornography is an obvious example of how permitting one variety of perversion invariably leads to greater and more terrible crimes. The internet turned pedophilia from a private sin into an organized crime. It put people in touch with each other who would never have otherwise met, allowing them to pool resources and share victims. It gave predators access to kids through forums. It also used mainstream porn as a gateway drug. By introducing younger and younger models into erotica, it blurred the lines between childhood and adulthood. People who previously would never have had access to material by which to test their inclinations were now goaded into more and more depravity (“If you enjoyed that, you’ll love this…”). It’s the expansiveness of the internet that makes it so ripe for regulating.
Note the blanket definition of pornography as “perversion.” Add to that his unsupported claims that the internet makes everything more and worse, and that its very connectivity adds an unacceptable level of dangerous interaction to the world, and one can start to see how Stanley’s line of reasoning was so utterly predicted by his far more brilliant (and prophetic) countryman, George Orwell, especially in 1984 and Winston Smith’s desperate attempts to find some private time with Julia. For someone like Stanley, unfettered connectivity only leads to greater access to the dark side of our nature, and the government has a compelling interest to prevent or inhibit such a slide into moral oblivion. Expansiveness, the devil’s playground, makes the regulating moral.
Oddly, the next paragraph, a supposed nostalgic walk through a halcyon past in which “getting access to filth was bloody hard work,” is presumably meant to offer a better alternative to the present but in fact provides no solace for Stanley, whose memories of his sexual glimpses culled from The Daily Sport are suffused with angst.
When I was a child, getting access to filth was bloody hard work. The best source was The Daily Sport, a silly old rag that featured saucy stories. America could have dropped a bomb on China, and The Sport would have run with the headline, “Six in a Barracks Sexy Sex Shock!” Beyond The Sport, there were one or two books in the school library that covered the sexual cycle in terms of the birds and the bees (with the occasional reference to the behavior of monkeys). I also recall a sex education video that featured a family playing Frisbee in the nude. I'll never play Frisbee again.
Perhaps it would be best if he never had sex again, because metaphorically, that seems to be exactly what he is saying, and that even those brief glimpses were enough to sour him on the act for all time. No wonder he takes the argument and runs with it.
All of this contact with nudity was fleeting and furtive. The joy was less in the seeing than the getting. Nowadays, all a child has to do to access some muck is to log on to the family computer. Within seconds they can see videos of whips, goats, origami and tantric projection – the whole T&A. ‘O brave new world that has such people in’t!’ It is madness to suggest that this environmental pollution should not be subject to regulation. We shall never expunge the natural curiosity of the young, but we can at least make sure that the messages they get about sex are healthy ones.
Cute, that reference to Huxley’s Brave New World, but few will be fooled. What madness is it that would lead this academic to project his own incapacities onto the world, and thus suggest that his emotional shortcomings are in line with “the natural curiosity of the young?” Kill me now if I were ever to allow my 7-year-old son to come under the thrall of such an ignorant view of our internal universe. What sort of a black hole would this man have us crawl back into?
Four equally depressing paragraphs round out this execrable screed that will probably make the rounds as a rational (if passionate) call for online discipline … finally. The first two sentences of the next paragraph do need to be noted, though, for they say what only the far right wing in this country are calling for.
I would go one step further and suggest that it’s time to give back to local authorities the power to outlaw the sale of pornography altogether. Like heroin, porn has been proven to be addictive.
To support the addiction reference, Stanley travels back to 2004 and the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, the panel for which was swiftly dispatched by Mark Kernes back then. Suffice to say, the good historian is banking on questionable science that he has apparently not bothered to research for himself. But, as mentioned above, this is precisely how it works with the defenders of limited free speech and the prosecutors of sexual speech. Bad science begets bad thought pieces which begets bad laws. This is truly what is meant by the “traditional order.”
Three of the final four paragraphs in this remarkable piece only pile on the absurd claims of the ills caused by porn—the objectification of humans, porn’s association with serial killers, etc.—and the weak references in support of the claims. The final paragraph, however, is pasted below because it presumes to sum up what has come before with a universal cry that revisits gay culture in a most dismissive and insulting way, while decrying a paradoxical stance toward children that implies a support for across the board censorship of anything that might possibly offend a little darling. But most of all, it calls out conservatives as being unfocused on what a conservative really is—and states in no uncertain terms that this writer wants the man (or woman, one hopes) who throws caution (i.e. democracy) to the wind, takes the bull (i.e. penis and vagina) by the horns and protects us from ourselves, even if it means making the lot of us into criminals.
The profusion of legalized porn reflects so many paradoxes about 21st century society. We are supposedly an epoch that respects the personhood of women, and yet we objectify them. Gays are trying to build stable families, and yet they are ghettoized by a culture that stresses fetish and permissiveness. We assiduously protect the virginity of children, but we take away their emotional innocence as soon as possible. Most bizarrely of all, we have a conservative movement that prioritizes the freedoms of business over the health of society as a whole. Give me a conservative presidential candidate who values the souls of the vulnerable over the bottom dollar and there you will find my vote.
Hat tip: TechDirt.com, for pointing me to Timothy Stanley’s post
Photo: from 1984, the movie