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May 24, 2012

Malum in Se

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.

—Justice Potter Stewart, Jacobellis v. Ohio

I have not been following the news very closely due to a heavy work schedule. But yesterday I was pleased to receive an email from Donald Douglas of American Power. Long time sufferers readers of VC may recall that Donald and I had quite the dustup over coverage of the Erin Andrews story a few years ago. Back then, while Donald agreed with me that what happened to Ms. Andrews was wrong and offensive, we disagreed about the best way to respond. Donald wrote to alert me to Hustler mag's decision to alter a photo of a female conservative blogger so she is depicted with a penis stuffed in her mouth (presumably to shut her up, or possibly just because such images are aesthetically pleasing on some level I devoutly hope never to grasp in all its complexity):

I'm shocked, and I don't shock easily. But progressives keep finding news ways to dig down deeper.

Hustler's response to the brouhaha over their intentionally shocking photo is that it is protected satire. The word was carefully chosen for its legal significance in the context of the First Amendment. But what is satire, exactly? The word is commonly (and loosely) understood to mean something like, "You can't sue us! We weren't serious. It's all a big joke." Unfortunately for them, the definition of satire is rather more specific:

1: a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn

2: trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly

If this photo is truly satire, whose "human vices or follies" was it meant to expose? The folly of a lovely woman for daring to voice her opinion? The vice of men who find it amusing to fantasize about shutting women up by forcing themselves on her? It seems pretty clear that the latter was the intended message: "Just keep talking - you're asking for it, b**ch." Or, "I know what will shut her up...".

Funny, no? Unsurprisingly, Grim is thoroughly disgusted by the tactic:

Today's example comes from Hustler magazine, which took a photograph of a young conservative journalist named S. E. Cupp and modified it in a way clearly designed to disgust her -- most people would be disgusted by being portrayed this way in public, in any case. The text accompanying the photo clearly label it as not a real photograph of her, so there's probably no legal way to act against the magazine; the text also makes clear that they are doing this to punish her for her political opinions.

It is not only women who are treated this way (although as Hot Air points out, Playboy did much the same thing in 2009). We remember the case of 'Rick Santorum's Google problem,' in which a gay rights activist (and bully) decided to disgust the Santorums by linking their name to a filthy substance associated with homosexual acts. This was also a use of disgust to punish political opinions.

The old saying that 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me' isn't entirely false, but it isn't entirely true either. Many people of good will are also of sensitive natures, who see the disgusting things being done and would never want it to be done to them. So, they will stay quiet and keep their heads down -- which is just what the bullies want. S. E. Cupp is surely brave enough to face it down, as Rick Santorum was, but the example of what was done to them will quiet others. Those others have every right to be in the public space as well.

Dr. Nussbaum intended for her idea to have a humane effect on the law and the public space. I cannot agree that the effect will be anything of the sort. If anything, we are already too far in that direction. There ought to be a mechanism for replying to bullies of this sort. We need a strong enough medicine that it convinces them to do what decency would compel, had not they been born without it.

Here's where I suppose I will get into trouble once again. I don't think it matters one whit which political party Ms. Cupp belongs to, nor what her opinions or views may be. What makes this wrong is not that she is on "our team", nor even (as Grim hints) that she is a woman being subjected to offensive sexualization and veiled threats. As he points out, the same sexual smear tactics were used against Rick Santorum to punish and embarrass him for his views on homosexuality. It is undeniably true that conservative women have come in for more than their share of such demeaning treatment. Michelle Malkin has been attacked in the filthiest, most racist terms by the party of tolerance and diversity:

... “slut” is one of the nicer things I’ve been called over 20 years of public life. In college during the late 1980s, it was “race traitor,” “coconut” (brown on the outside white on the inside) and “white man’s puppet.” After my first book, “Invasion,” came out in 2001, it was “immigrant-hater,” the “Radical Right’s Asian Pitbull,” “Tokyo Rose” and “Aunt Tomasina.” In my third book, 2005′s “Unhinged,” I published entire chapters of hate mail rife with degrading, unprintable sexual epithets and mockery of my Filipino heritage. If I had a dollar for every time libs have called me a “Manila whore” and “Subic Bay bar girl,” I’d be able to pay for a ticket to a Hollywood-for-Obama fundraiser. To the HuffPo left, whore is my middle name. Self-serving opponents argue that such attacks do not represent “respectable,” “mainstream” liberal opinion about their conservative female counterparts. But it was feminist godmother Gloria Steinem who called Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison a “female impersonator.” It was NOW leader Patricia Ireland who commanded her flock to only vote for “authentic” female political candidates. It was Al Gore consultant Naomi Wolf who accused the late Jeane Kirkpatrick of being “uninflected by the experiences of the female body.” It was Matt Taibbi, now of Rolling Stone magazine, who mocked my early championing of the tea party movement by jibing: “Now when I read her stuff, I imagine her narrating her text, book-on-tape style, with a big, hairy set of (redacted) in her mouth. It vastly improves her prose.”

In a column called The Four Stages of Female Conservative Abuse, Ms. Malkin called on right leaning women to fight back:

We can’t and needn’t wait for NOW to weigh in. Conservative women are waging the counter-offensives against leftist degradation for themselves that no one else will wage. Whether it’s Palin or Ann Romney or Nikki Haley or S.E. Cupp or a local grass-roots activist mom, right-wing sisters are pushing back.

I'd like to broaden that call to action a bit. It's not enough for only right wing women to fight back. Progressive women should be just as outraged by such tactics, and they need to follow the example of Kirsten Powers and speak up. Ms. Powers' well argued critique of media misogynism (and double standards) was particularly powerful because it came from a progressive outraged by attacks on conservatives. And she made another powerful point: progressive women have been subjected to similar attacks, sometimes by people in their own party.

Ms. Powers emphasized something that is often forgotten in these cynical times where outrage seems inextricably tied to partisan politics and political advantage and is thus easily discounted or ignored. Though liberals and conservatives disagree on many, many things, there are some things we do agree upon. Fundamental human decency ought to be one of these things, and when decency is violated it should not matter whether the target is male or female, liberal or conservative, gay or straight, someone we like/agree with or someone who makes us cringe every time they open their mouth.

Men of all political persuasions need to speak up as well. Their outrage motivated Playboy to take down their offensive list of conservative women they'd like to hate f**k. Though it's hard (heh... she said... oh, never mind) to imagine what might make Hustler readers feel ashamed, don't discount the power of widespread customer outrage on a for-profit company. I would guess that the vast majority of Hustler readers are men, and your opinion matters to them. It also matters - very much - that it wasn't only conservative men who objected to the Playboy debacle.

This is going to be a nasty election and people on both sides will lose their heads. In their haste to score points, they will do things that make them (or ought to make them) feel ashamed. This week has been particularly ugly, with union flacks taking swings at Nicki Haley pinatas and thuggish attempts to intimidate several conservative bloggers (just head over to Patterico's place and keep scrolling). I get angry when I finally head up into his neck of the woods only to find that Stacy McCain has had to move his family to an undisclosed location due to heavy handed threats.

Are these attacks partisan in nature? I don't think there's much doubt of that.

Is it tempting to smear all progressives with the same broad brush? Undoubtedly, especially when some of them make it so darned easy. I don't have a problem with pointing out the partisan nature of these attacks, because they are partisan. But I think it's important to remember all the times conservatives have been subjected to the same broad brush tactics.

There is no large, political movement that doesn't have its share of nut jobs. Such jackwaggonry, when it occurs, ought to bother everyone because it often leads to a downward spiral of attack and retaliation in which both sides forget who they are and what they believe. Offense follows upon offense in an escalating cycle of filth flinging that leaves everyone feeling soiled and disgusted.

It's too much to ask not to notice when we're attacked, but it's not too much to ask for us to remember all the times we've said that no one should have to denounce or apologize abjectly for every moron on their own side who does something wrong, offensive, or just plain stupid. These kinds of attacks are not wrong simply because the target is female or conservative. They are malum in se - wrong by their very nature, and they ought to disturb anyone with a pulse, regardless of political orientation. I was encouraged when progressives like Kirsten Powers and the gentleman I linked to a few paragraphs back stood up for decency because I think their principled objections underscored the values we do share in a particularly powerful way. Their courage reminded us that there are brave and decent people on both sides of the political fence, but it had another effect: it shamed the media into covering the story. And that's important.

In our justifiable outrage at the behavior of some, I hope we don't forget that they don't speak for all who share their political views.

Update: Well reasoned and well stated:

Most of Kimberlin’s victims have been “right-wingers,” but not all. So while it probably falls to those of us on the right to ask some awkward questions of those who financially contribute to Kimberlin’s front organizations—Justice Through Music and Velvet Revolution—there is a less-political dimension to this story that has to do with simple human decency and the rule of law.

...I also want to see Barbra Streisand, Teresa Heinz, the Tides Foundation, and Fidelity Investments questioned on why they are subsidizing the nexus of evil that surrounds Brad Friedman, Neal Rausauher, and Brett Kimberlin.

Were these organizations and individuals really throwing their weight behind legal harrassment and physical threats? They have some questions to answer—as does Montgomery County, Maryland (see the conclusion to Aaron Worthing’s post, linked above).

As a general rule I'm not a big fan of secondary boycotts, but I don't see anything wrong with encouraging businesses to exercise due diligence. I'm not convinced anyone will ever be able to prevent this kind of thuggery, but exposing it to public opprobrium has a powerful deterrent effect.

Posted by Cassandra at May 24, 2012 08:55 AM

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Comments

I'm not surprised by anything that that scuzzbucket Flynt might do. The Court has given him the green light to wrap his warped expression in the garb of the First Amendment, and he uses it in a manner befitting his diseased mind. It's the price our society charges to allow the rest of us to speak our minds freely. I'm also not surprised at the lack of OUTRAGE emanating from those who favor themselves as "progressive" and their media sycophants. Of course, I recognize that abuse of this nature is (in most instances) only considered misogyny by "progressive" minds when it's directed at someone they agree with by someone they don't agree with. Duh. But this time, it isn't the oh-so-witty-and-hip Bill Maher's spouting off, it's a truly repellent pornographer. Well, hey there, Ms. Progress, look who's just joined your camp! It's Larry Flynt and his desirable reading demographic! Gee, I can't say we're sorry to see them go, but we'll be very interested to see how this works out for you and your new friends. Oh yes we will.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 24, 2012 01:27 PM

Thanks for the link!

Posted by: Donald Douglas at May 24, 2012 01:37 PM

If a thing is malum in se, it is evil regardless of the law. So what do we say about a law that protects such a thing?

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 02:10 PM

Of course, I recognize that abuse of this nature is (in most instances) only considered misogyny by "progressive" minds when it's directed at someone they agree with by someone they don't agree with. Duh.

I can't argue that I haven't seen too many progressives contort themselves into Kama Sutra-esque pretzels trying to justify what they would condemn almost reflexively, were it aimed at someone they agree with.

I would just like people to remember that (especially lately) there have been progressives who have gone against the prevailing headwinds. Most of the time we don't even notice b/c they're not on our regular reading lists, but even when we do see such objections, they are quickly forgotten.

It's natural that we pay more attention to (and are more bothered by) attacks on those we agree with. After all, I wouldn't know about this story, were it not for Donald. But I have to say that I don't generally see the right side of the blogosphere erupt into white hot outrage when a progressive is attacked unfairly, though there are almost always a few reich wingers who can be relied upon to object.

I also think that women are probably more sensitive to this kind of attack, not because we're better people, but because it hits us where we live (just as men are more likely to notice offensive/patronizing male stereotypes in the media than we ladies are). That's why I'm not a big fan of demands for denunciation: many times an attack on someone on the other side doesn't even get on our radar screen. And vice versa.

Just sayin', in my ineffably annoying way :)

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 02:18 PM

If a thing is malum in se, it is evil regardless of the law. So what do we say about a law that protects such a thing?

There are greater and lesser evils in life, I think. Not every wrong has (or even ought to have) a legal remedy. It seems to me that conservatives have been arguing this for quite some time. The law protects some very bad things (racist demonstrations by the KKK, burning people's likenesses in effigy). What makes this episode, reprehensible as it is, worse than hanging a George Bush doll by a noose, or burning it? The message is the same, really.

It's an implied threat: you deserve to be hung by the neck until dead, or burned. You deserve to have a penis stuffed in your mouth. No difference, really.

I suspect its easier for a lot of folks to see how offensive this is because she's a conservative (and as I've admitted, that's natural and normal and even desirable). But I've seen very offensive mocked up graphics showing lefties that skirt quite close to this line - so much so that they made me cringe. A few years back I objected to a conservative blogger talking about the First Lady of the United States using extremely graphic pornographic terms that a lot of people were sorry they Googled.

We have objected to hate speech codes for this very reason: it's the action, not the identity of the target. And many of us (not me) have stood up for pornography, even porn that humiliates or debases women. Do you really believe this is the first time Larry Flynt has done such a thing?

Because I don't, and I haven't seen a whole lot of bloggers on either side outraged with his antics, or those like him.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 02:36 PM

I'm sure it's not the first time, since I looked into it yesterday; apparently he made a porn film about Sarah Palin within weeks of her nomination as vice president. It featured adultery by both her and her husband, lesbianism, as well as interracial and anal sex; some of those things simply because they were attacks on her character, and others because they are thought by some to be particularly degrading.

So, I mean, I'm not opposed to pornography per se: I think erotica, generally speaking, is a good part of life when it is kept within proper bounds. Those bounds are generally the privacy of one's home; but I think a lot of what goes on is healthy and natural ways for couples, or even lonely individuals, to explore aspects of themselves they might be too shy to explore without the external endorsement of an erotic story or movie showing that other adults also maybe like it.

That's all fine and healthy. A direct attack on an individual woman for the purpose of degrading her strikes me as a fundamentally different thing. It seems like we ought to be able to draw a clear, bright line on this one. Precisely because it is evil in itself, it's the kind of thing that any just culture will abjure. Maybe the law isn't the right tool, but there has to be a way.

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 03:00 PM

That's all fine and healthy. A direct attack on an individual woman for the purpose of degrading her strikes me as a fundamentally different thing. It seems like we ought to be able to draw a clear, bright line on this one.

But we can't, really, because I don't draw the line in the same place and never will. This was not a real act depicted here. No one actually did what was shown in that doctored photo, and no one represented it as being in any way reflective of reality, or of her morals or behavior.

You have made the argument in the past that fantasies are harmless. I don't actually believe that, but let's play along for a moment. This was a fantasy, played out in a way that - in reality - did not cause actual harm. It was simulated, like the simulated child pornography that we all argued over many years ago that was also deemed to be a harmless fantasy and therefore should not be criminalized because that would be thought crime or some such argument.

You wonder why the law protects this sort of thing, but Flynt himself answered that question: it is protected because he (and Hugh Hefner, and others like them) fought long and har... errr... yeah. They fought to make sure the law *does* protect it.

They also fought to bring about a whole of lot of changes to society and our moral foundations that I have sat and watched conservatives complain about for over 7 years, albeit extremely selectively. Inexplicably, those names never do seem to come up in the discussion of how we got where we are.

It's funny - over at Reason Nick Gillespie seems to be feeling conflicted about this. He can't find anything in his philosophy to support that feeling, but it is there nonetheless.

Maybe there is some hope after all.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 03:47 PM

I think having sexual fantasies is probably harmless; publishing them may or may not be. Erotic fiction doesn't strike me as particularly destructive even when it is badly written. (You may have seen that Dr. Althouse posted a video of Gilbert Gottfried reading selections from 50 Shades of Grey. The writing is really horrible.)

Several of the 'great novels' of the 20th century dealt with transgressive subjects, even quite violent and degrading sexual treatment (e.g., Last Exit to Brooklyn). I think the culture in general views this kind of writing as having actual literary value. That value judgment may be wrong, but it's common enough.

Still, I would like to think that publishing a 'fantasy' about a real woman -- especially if it involves her degradation, or defamation of her character -- is rather a different thing. Having an occasional fantasy about a real woman is probably impossible to avoid; even monks I've heard interviewed speak of the difficulty of keeping their vows of chastity, and how it is that very difficulty that makes it worthy as a sacrifice to God.

But to publish a fantasy of this type as an attack on a particular woman? That strikes me as a wrong both to that woman, and also -- as we discussed at the Hall -- to the Republic, because permitting such disgusting punishments of outspoken women will drive many good people out of the political space. That's a harm to us all, to the whole Republic, to the American political project.

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 04:20 PM

If someone did that to my wife I'd track them down and show them what a horsewhip is for. It would probably cost me jail time, but sometimes you just have to pay up.

Posted by: RonF at May 24, 2012 05:01 PM

I think having sexual fantasies is probably harmless;

That's what I thought, until I found myself being wildly turned on by the velvety, sensuous sound of Gilbert Gottfried urging me to meekly surrender to a metrosexual Asperger's patient :p

I saw the Gilbert Gottfried thing somewhere and almost posted it, along with a mind boggling video of women talking about reading the novel.

Seriously, I do see the distinction you're trying to draw between generic published fantasies that disrespect, humiliate, hurt, or degrade women in general (and moreover, encourage the view that women want or deserve such treatment, our helpless feminine protestations notwitstanding) and ones aimed at a particular woman.

I don't think it's nearly as clear cut as you're making it out to be, though. I suspect this is one of those things that doesn't bother anyone until they're on the receiving end.... which I hope with all my heart that men never are.


Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 05:08 PM

An excellent point, Ron. Besides, the jury might agree with you.

Still, this strikes me as a clear enough example of a wrong that the law shouldn't be against you. It ought to be on the side of you and your wife.

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 05:09 PM

If someone did that to my wife I'd track them down and show them what a horsewhip is for.

Just one more reason I adore you guys, though I fear I will never understand you :)

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 05:10 PM

Well, I think men even are, if we include men in prison. The depiction of prison rape in the popular culture seems to run almost toward approving, and certainly amused.

That's the kind of callous attitude toward the weak that I find disgusting to be sure. It strikes me as a separate problem from direct attacks on individuals, but something that we might usefully deal with in a different way (e.g., not necessarily by horsewhipping the movie producers).

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 05:14 PM

Do a lot of women fantasize about men being raped in prison? If so, it's the first I've heard of it. Without for one moment wishing to suggest that it's funny when men are raped, allow me to suggest two very big differences:

1. There an element of "He preyed on someone else, and now he is the prey." IOW, rightly or wrongly, there's the notion of some twisted kind of justice that isn't present in the situations I'm talking about.

People usually find that sort of thing funny when the criminal has done something particularly heinous (pederasty, rape, violent crime). They don't find it so funny if the man was incarcerated for a victimless crime because the retribution aspect is missing.

2. There also may be (for at least some people) some degree of, "well women/children get raped all the time by men. This time, it's a man on the receiving end".

Since I've always been of the opinion that two wrongs don't make a right, I don't think much of either of these sentiments.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 05:31 PM

I don't actually have any evidence on hand for what women fantasize about. I just meant to convey that I can see the point you were making about objecting to generally degrading generic or fictional portrayals in media. It's wrong that our television programs tend to mock people in a position of weakness, and at least semi-celebrate their sexual violation.

It's not the same kind of wrong as this sort of direct attack on an individual to punish her for not sharing your political opinions. We might come at the two problems in different ways, is all.

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 05:39 PM

As a matter of law, I think the behavior we decry here should be unassailable. It's too hard for a government to draw lines in the sand, and when they do, they generally botch it badly.

Justice Stewart had his view of what is wrong when he could not articulate it, but he only got to impose his view because of the happenstance that he had a government's power to do so. To go to an illustrative extreme, Hitler had such power, too.

But there's law and there's morality. Occasionally they overlap, but not always. Thus, If someone did that to my wife I'd track them down and show them what a horsewhip is for is an entirely appropriate response for a moral man, and hopefully he'd have help conducting the search. Though some of us might eschew the whip. I, for instance, would be less inclined to deter the one from future such behaviors than I would be to deter his...friends.

Tactically and politically, I think, beyond the specific instances of retribution, the correct response is to conduct ourselves in a manner that is above reproach and to move on. Unaffected by the assault. Don't give it the success it does not deserve by reacting in angered protest. Publicly invite the other to offer facts and specifics to support the thesis he's proffering with the imagery (in the present case)--either thesis--and let his inability to do so speak for itself. Of course there will be little response, or publicity, from such as those who read the Hustlers of the world, but those are both unreachable and don't need to be reached in the first place.

And it's difficult for the target of the slur. Words do hurt. One has only to read the Michelle Malkin post to which Cassandra linked; the pain that she felt, and feels, is still evident.

There will be some few with the grace to be embarrassable over their behavior, whether because they come to realize that their behavior was indefensible, or simply because they cannot defend it. Some time back on BLACKFIVE, a...person...misrepresented, mysogynously, a position our hostess had taken on a sensitive matter. Grim and I invited him to offer specifics; rather than do so, he at least went away. And I don't recall seeing him on BLACKFIVE since.

It won't work always, and likely it won't even work usually. But it does work sometimes, and that's better than giving them their success by acknowledging that they've scored, even only personally.

On a specific item, the distinction you're trying to draw between generic published fantasies that disrespect, humiliate, hurt, or degrade women in general...and ones aimed at a particular woman[,] is flawed in another way than the blurrings that have been identified, and that is that it's too hard (or certainly not worth the effort) to tell that the individual "fantasy" really is aimed at a particular person and not simply a specific example of the general, offered for concreteness of the general.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 24, 2012 06:14 PM

I can see the point you were making about objecting to generally degrading generic or fictional portrayals in media. It's wrong that our television programs tend to mock people in a position of weakness, and at least semi-celebrate their sexual violation.

And yet you don't think porn is wrong. You see the danger of encouraging callousness or mockery of criminals, but there's somehow no problem with encouraging men to fantasize about women (or children) being degraded or abused with no "semi" about it?

I understand that human sexuality can be perverse, Grim. If it were not, you wouldn't see women going gaga over a novel involving a doormat who signs a contract that gives another person total control over her life....and feels positively *empowered* by it, byGod!!!

Sex is also one of the most powerful forces on earth. It has brought powerful men to their knees (and not in a good way, IFKWIMAITYD) :p Having had a fairly strong sex drive for as long as I can remember, however, I'm not convinced that all aspects of our hard wiring need to be indulged or encouraged.

In fact, I'm quite sure they should not, as even this nitwit seems to have discovered belatedly.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 24, 2012 06:21 PM

I think you and Grim are agreeing again.

I think all porn is a little weird, but Grim's tactful but clear articulation of that line is why people like Flynt and Hefner make sure those laws protecting free speech are not taken off the books. Especially if it allows them to keep uppity wimmin in their place while still portraying themselves as progressive.

Sort of like the preacher in 'Jamaica Inn.'

Posted by: Carolyn at May 24, 2012 06:37 PM

Hearing Gilbert Gottfried's reading has cast such a pall of anxiety upon my mind as it embraces fond reflections on that most delicate and delicious of intimate relations, I am caused to contemplate joining a monastery, or shooting a poor donkey.


Luckily at my age and with my past, no self respecting monastery would have me.

RonF-- I sir will be happy to be your Second and to cover your bail bond, but a word of advice. Should the opportunity arise, it's best not to announce intent in public. Proof of premeditation would hobble the best passion in the heat of the moment defense, eh what?

Posted by: Sir Harry Flashman at May 24, 2012 08:21 PM

Proof of premeditation....

Premeditation of what? I'm reminded of the opening to my college coach's half-time football speech after an unsuccessful first half: "Gentlemen, this is a football."

All RonF said he would do would be to show a kind stranger a funny-looking stick.

Eric Hines

Posted by: E Hines at May 24, 2012 09:25 PM

Cass:

When you ask if I think porn is bad, I think the category is too broad for a simple answer.

One of the books that's been banned as pornographic in America at times is Chaucer. It's true that there is a scene or two that is bawdy to the extreme, lewd and even degrading. If you look at that in isolation, you might decide that the book is degrading.

If you look at the work as a whole, though, you see that it is a work that treats the whole of humanity with remarkable honesty and clarity. There are low people of low character treating each other badly, and we see how that works out for them. There are good, honest people treating each other decently, and we see how that works out. There are people of a very high nature who treat each other generously and lovingly -- especially in the Franklin's Tale -- with shining results. There are female (and male) characters who are cunning and deceptive, and ones who are clever and honest and bold. The Wife of Bath's prologue gives robust arguments for women's equality, and Lady Prudence shows a tremendous education and patience in her argument.

In other words, the book taken as a whole is a work of tremendous literary merit. It will make you a better person to engage it. The low scenes are a part of that, because they are part of taking an honest look at all of humanity. The work would be diminished without them.

The Canterbury Tales stands at one end of the spectrum, then. We can see a lot of things that cluster around it, playful erotic fantasies that rekindle the fire between husband and wife, or sustain someone through a lonely period of their life when they have no one to love in person.

Towards the middle, we find things like this 50 Shades book. It's picturing degrading acts (and apparently badly written), but look at the audience for it: highly empowered, wealthy women.

One of the well-known aspects of human sexual fantasy is that powerful people often fantasize about letting go of the power they have. This provides an escape for them, for a few minutes of the day they can escape from the weight of the responsibility that attends to their power.

As you see women becoming empowered, and holding positions of responsibility and authority, why wouldn't you expect them to develop fantasies akin to the female-domination fantasies that powerful men seem often to have? It's not reflective of their degradation, but of their empowerment; they're expressing a kind of psychic human need to balance the load.

Further on down the scale we would find things like Playboy or Penthouse. These things strike me as being akin to Hardees Monster Thickburgers. They aren't good for you, and in more or less the same way: the one hardens the arteries, the other the heart. In return, they provide only momentary pleasure.

Still, within moderation, a free society endures this. We accept the bad choices people make.

Then at the far end of the scale, we have things like this S. E. Cupp attack, or the porn film about Sarah Palin. This is where I think we find things that are indeed malum in se: evil in themselves. There is not only no excuse for them, but rather they are evil enough that we have no choice but to oppose them.

There are a lot of other cases that fit in on the scale somewhere. Actual child pornography is surely on the same part of the scale as these public attacks on individual women. They represent a particular evil act being done to an actual individual. That is the bright line I think I see.

"Simulated" child porn -- I suppose you mean stories or cartoons -- is close to it but just on the other side of that bright line. There's no problem about being opposed to it, and things like it, but the toolset that you use to oppose it is different. The law ought to clearly permit vigorous opposition to things on the side of the line with this S. E. Cupp photo. The law might protect things on the other side, but cultural tools could be brought to bear to keep those things out of the public spaces and in the shadows.

Still, when we look at this whole scale of erotic art -- that is, all the things that people have sometimes called "pornographic" -- we see that it encompasses a very diverse set of things. Some of them are positive goods. Others are probably healthy ways of dealing with the ordinary stresses of life. Some are unhealthy pleasures. Some other things are wicked, and a few are truly evil.

That's how it seems to me, in any case.

Posted by: Grim at May 24, 2012 09:31 PM

Hearing Gilbert Gottfried's reading has cast such a pall of anxiety upon my mind as it embraces fond reflections on that most delicate and delicious of intimate relations, I am caused to contemplate joining a monastery, or shooting a poor donkey.

Heh...

I played it for the Spousal Unit last night. I just thought it was inspired, but I can understand the trauma it might induce :p

Posted by: Cassandra at May 25, 2012 06:12 AM

Grim:

First of all, thank you for explaining. With a few differences here and there, that's basically the way I see things.

When I was just a young lass, I thought "p0rn" was Playboy, Penthouse, or Hustler. Being of a curious nature, I checked out all three and was annoyed and mildly disgusted by the way women were portrayed but had no particularly strong opposition to the genre. Carolyn's response pretty much sums up my reaction: I thought it was natural to be interested, but weird and kind of dumb to spend large amounts of time on such fare or take it seriously.

40 years later, I'm still of the same mind: I get the appeal but then I get the allure of lots of things I have decided not to do. Often, that strong appeal is precisely *why* we don't do certain things: the emotion overcomes our good sense and our values. They're far easier/more fun than real life, and they encourage people to think in ways that generally don't make them happy or end well. I prefer living in the real world.

My mercifully limited knowledge of 50 Shades of Grey leads me to believe it panders to some very powerful female fantasies, some of which are sexual and some of which aren't:

1. Rescuing/healing a desirable but damaged man.

2. Being desired passionately/being needed.

3. Being able to trust a man so much that you know you are safe with him no matter what.

4. Being able to admit/give in to powerful sexual desires of your own.

5. Satisfying a man completely (and being able to give him something no one else will/can, which makes you unique and oh so important and him, dependent on you in a way). And boy is *that* a fantasy, b/c there's always someone out there who will go farther than you will.

I suspect the BDSM is more a frisson than anything else, but it doesn't surprise me that women might fantasize about being powerless as an antidote to the stresses of daily life b/c men have fantasized about that for centuries.

What I find troubling about modern porn is that it has gone far beyond cheesecake. If I had to pick a word, it would be "unhealthy": I think it's unhealthy to condition yourself to be aroused by images of underaged girls, voyeurism, gang bangs, hurting or humiliating women. And I think it's unhealthy to condition yourself to ratcheted up images far exceeding what you're going to encounter during real sex with a real woman.

Conditioning is exactly the right word here, because this stuff lights off all the pleasure centers in the brain, and the brain is quite sensitive to the contrast effect/desensitization as a disturbing number of men are finding out to their sorrow.

It may or may not surprise you that I put 50 Shades of Grey in this general category, though I do see a critical distinction: any degradation that occurs is part of helping the man to heal. The man is a real person, she cares about him intensely. He's not a prop or object to be acted upon and then discarded. This ties into another feminine fantasy: sacrificing oneself for love. Far from being powerless, the woman can actually be seen as a heroine of sorts. She is doing something scary and dangerous to help the man she loves.

Still, I think it's a bit problematic because encouraging women to be aroused by damaged, controlling men with issues is not exactly what I'd call healthy either. Women already fall for such men too often in real life, but unlike novels, in real life their affections are usually not reciprocated and they end up doing incredibly stupid things in the vain hope of a fairy tale ending.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 25, 2012 07:13 AM

In the history of political cartoonage (as it were) there is lots of vulgarity. Abraham Lincoln was portrayed as a baboon in some cartoons of the 1860's.

On one level, that's all this is, a vulgar political cartoon trying to ridicule S.E. Cupp because what she tends to espouse and believe in is different than Larry Flynt. Yay Larry, I think.

But on another level, this is just another spiral downward of the general coarsening and vulgarizing of popular society. Nobody in the 1860's wrote satire about Lincoln being the victim of homosexual sex in prison, as was done to George Bush in his term of office. Of course, Larry Flynt will get away with this, because that is the sort of society that people seem to want.

It is not the sort of society that I particularly want. I frankly do not have the urge to protray Barbara Boxer or Debbie Wasserman-Schultz in some kind of degrading or adsurd sexual act in the hopes of getting some buffoon to laught at them. Just quoting them honestly and examining the consequences of what they say is enough ridicule for them.

The point here is not" pornography or no pornography" in the public square. That train left the station years ago, and we can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. The point is what is the public tolerance for this - which actually appears pretty high, because the only places I read about this are on a couple of blogs in the right-o-sphere that are kinda outraged.

The actual constancy of human nature is well illustrated by the reference to Chaucer. Some people will always be rat-bastard jerks. Some people try to live with a modicum of dignity and temperance. A few people strive to live virtuous lives. VIrtue is its own reward.

And being Larry Flynt is its own punishment. Although it is pretty insulting and vulgar portrayal of S.E. Cupp, I think the proper reaction is just to ignore it. What Larry and Jimmy Flynt WANT is to attract attention and outrage, which helps them sell the garbage they create. What they want to do is to tweak the sensibilities of the people on the Right and get the outrage meter pegged. That seems to make them happy - because they are the latter day vulgar scum that Chaucer portrayed centuries ago - the constancy of the human nature.


And that's who we are - human beings trying to overcome the darkness in our souls. Some people do a better job than others. Some people don't even try, and some people just wallow in it.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at May 25, 2012 09:02 AM

The point is what is the public tolerance for this - which actually appears pretty high, because the only places I read about this are on a couple of blogs in the right-o-sphere that are kinda outraged.

I'm not so sure that's true, though. We are influenced by our perceptions of what other people think - they affect the degree of seriousness with which we treat various issues and our willingness to buck the tide.

This is where I have a problem with ignoring things: the people who are in your face are the only voices who are heard, and they're generally not the voices of reason. This is a big part of that downward spiral you mention. People start to believe they're the only ones who have a problem with where the line is currently drawn, so they give up. They won't fight for the kind of world they want to live in.

This is why leaders shape public opinion - by championing a cause and articulating what they believe, they can encourage like minded people to speak up, persuade those who are undecided, and perhaps most importantly, provide a counterweight against the race to the bottom.

I was not particularly surprised by the Erin Andrews story. It's not news to me that there are scumbags in the world. What upset and depressed me was the number of people who didn't see anything wrong with what happened to her.

They were glad it happened. And when no one speaks up to say, "Wait a minute - how would you feel if that were your wife or daughter?", people like me are left with the impression that the majority of men agree.

And who knows? That may be so. God, I hope it's not.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 25, 2012 11:03 AM

"I'm not so sure that's true, though. We are influenced by our perceptions of what other people think - they affect the degree of seriousness with which we treat various issues and our willingness to buck the tide.

This is where I have a problem with ignoring things: the people who are in your face are the only voices who are heard, and they're generally not the voices of reason. This is a big part of that downward spiral you mention. People start to believe they're the only ones who have a problem with where the line is currently drawn, so they give up. They won't fight for the kind of world they want to live in.

This is why leaders shape public opinion - by championing a cause and articulating what they believe, they can encourage like minded people to speak up, persuade those who are undecided, and perhaps most importantly, provide a counterweight against the race to the bottom."

Why is the above blockquoted? I'm of the opinion those thoughts needed an encore!

Posted by: bthun at May 25, 2012 11:19 AM

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