Civilized View By Irving Howe My response to pornography is not so much to be socially alarmed as imaginatively disheartened. I don’t know what damage, if any, it does to society or the future generations. I don’t know if it encourages rape or stimulates perversion. I don’t know if it threatens the family. But when I walk along 42nd Street in New York City and pass the peep-hole joints, the hard-core movie houses, the shabby bookstores, I find myself growing depressed. Is this what humanity, or even a portion of it, has come to in the late years of the 20th century? The association of sex with brutal violence, the ideologizing of sadomasochism, the reduction of love to snickering mechanics, the fixation upon bodily organs that in their photographic enlargement can seem as disgusting as Swift said they wereall these point to some profound derangement of life that no one, to my knowledge, has fully explained as yet. Why should men, even the “rejects” of our society, find pleasure in all this? Or do they find pleasure? Before worrying about “what to do” with regard to pornography, I’d like to know a good deal more about it. The prevalent liberal assumption has been that pornography is a by-product of repression, sexuality twisted and sickened into pathology. But there seems in recent decades to have occurred a decline in social repression, yet the interest in pornography has visibly grown. To which, in turn, the usual answer is that a partial release of repressive mechanisms brings, not immediate health, but an outburst of the symptoms of the disease caused by the repression. This is an argument hard to check, impossible to refute. Suppose it isn’t true? In any case, who knows? The conclusion from the liberal premise is that we must go all the way toward removing social restraints upon sexuality, even if many of the immediate consequences are unattractive. There can surely be no serious return to older modes of repression, denial or even disciplineto speak of a return to Victorianism is to indulge in a fantasy or, at best, a metaphor. My guess is that democratic societies probably have no choice but to go along with this outlook, ragged as it is and uncertain as we may be about its premises. Still, the thought must haunt one: Suppose we go “all the way” \(how does one enforced repression, and what if then we still don’t enter a time of shared health and well-being but instead witness a growth of the debasing, corrupt, inhumane values and tastes upon which pornography feeds? So I walk along 42nd Street and, seeing what one sees there, I remember Trotsky’s expectation, at the end of his book Literature and Revolution, that mankind would yet rise to the levels of Goethe, Beethoven, and Marx. It’s not a program I find entirely attractive, nor is there much evident need to worry about it; but still . . . the sheer moral ugliness of the porn scene, the waste and distortion it suggests of human capacityhow can that be reconciled with social hopes? I find 42nd Street more destructive of my morale as a socialist than all the neoconservative polemics of the last 30 years. Still, the argument for censorship doesn’t seem persuasive. Does anyone remember Prohibition? At this point in history, after all we have tasted of the age of totalitarianism, how can anyone suppose that the possible benefits of censorship could outweigh the probable dangers? Which isn’t to say that certain modes of social protection might not be considered. If you want to go into one of those joints for $5 and see what you see and do what you do there, I don’t propose to stop you. But I see no reason why I or my kids should be forced to look, when we walk along the streets, at the stuff that delights you and disgusts me. Go to the porn movie but don’t oblige me to look at its stills just because I’m walking by. Get your Hustler in a brown paper wrapper, but don’t oblige me to be hustled by it just because there’s a newsstand round my corner. Such a limited management may be feasible, I’m not sure. But it doesn’t begin to get at the deeper problem, the endlessly depressing question of why so many people yield themselves to the wretched stuff. Reprinted from Dissent, Spring 1978, with permission. Bernard Rapoport, Chairman of the Board P.O. Box 208, Waco, Texas 76703 American Income Life Insurance Company JUNE 23, 1978
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