Porn Versus Christianity — I

Porn Versus Christianity — I was delighted to be quoted by Virginia Postrel in her reply to Goldberg during the late cultural libertarianism bruhaha. And I was flabbergasted to be quoted by Goldberg on NRO in his riposte. It is perhaps a dubious distinction to become known for defending the merits of pornography against Christianity, but the noble do not blanch in the face of uncomfortable truth. [Clears throat.]

In response to my points that a comparison between porn and Christian books requires a dimension of comparison (you probably don't want to use the Bible for self satisfaction, Batsheba notwithstanding), and that the immorality of porn must be argued, not assumed, Goldberg replies:

Touché, I suppose. But doesn't this make my point? Cultural libertarians are uncomfortable with, and quite defensive about, drawing distinctions between such bedrock components of Western civilization — in this case a little thing called “Christianity” — and the latest installment of On Golden Blonde. According to these guys, the burden is on me to explain why and how porn is worse than Christianity. I'd be glad to do it sometime (though I'm hardly an anti-porn zealot); it doesn't sound too tough.

Golberg's point, I take it, is that cultural libertarians are relativists or nihilists, unable or unwilling to make firm judgments about value. If that's his point, then I certainly haven't made it. I'm keen to make value-judgments. That my judgments conflict with Goldberg's may appear to Goldberg to reduce them to absurdity, but we aren't (thank God) all Goldberg. Goldberg keeps missing our (or at least my) point: judgments of value require an answer to “Valuable to whom and for what purpose?” Although I certainly believe Christianity is false, and has been far more harmful than porn could ever be, that's not to the point. The point is that conservatives need to stop pounding tables and explain to us why their cultural preferences really are valuable and what justifies us in believing that they are. That Christianity, say, is a “bedrock component of Western Civilization” says absolutely nothing in its defense. Here's why.

Although I certainly count myself a defender of certain Enlightenment ideals, I don't think it even begins to make sense to fight for something so ill-defined and contradiction-laden as “Western Civilization.” My background is in western philosophical thought, and although there is, to an extent, a unified conversation that stretches over the ages, that conversation contains both truths and their contraries, and the cultural expression of that conversation contains both genuine values and genuine evils. The Inquisition, the Divine Right of Kings, American slavery, German National Socialism, and Soviet Communism are just as much an expression of “The Western Tradition” as the scientific method and the Bill of Rights. It's absurd on its face to bundle all this together, call it one thing, and come to it's defense.

Goldberg accuses cultural libertarians of failing to draw important distinctions of value, yet this is precisely the crime of conservatives who make axiomatic the value of an incoherent Western tradition, and then ridicule those who are careful to distinguish between what is genuinely good and bad within the tradition. Indeed, conservatives try to have it both ways — to glorify something called Western Civilization, and at the same time to criticize key strands of the tradition, such as scientific secularism (good) or totalitarian collectivism (bad), as being somehow outside of it.

Goldberg pretends to loathe grab-bag culture, but he and his ilk do it just the same when they pick Christianity over Celtic paganism and individual rights over collectivist subjugation. However, conservatives attempt to camouflage that their preferences are just preferences by constructing a highly selective narrative about “Western Civilization” that gives their preferences the illusion of intrinsic worth as necessary keystones of their fictitious cultural edifice. I'm not being postmodern here. I'm being descriptive.

Of the essentials of Western Civilization, Goldberg writes:

… some of the ingredients for Western civilization I have in mind are such categories as Christianity and religion in general, sexual norms, individualism, patriotism, the Canon, community standards of conduct, democracy, the rule of law, fairness, modesty, self-denial, and the patriarchy.

Why not Stoic mysticism, collectivism, military nationalism, absolute monarchy, slavery and the Napoleonic Code? Why don't these go in Jonah's grab bag?

Conservatives need to stop making up self-justifying historical quasi-fictions about “Western Civilization” and just tell us straight why we all should all value what they value. They always demur because they cannot do it. They cannot do it because they have derived their package of values from contingent emotive attachments, not from an objective standard grounded on the real, various nature of human beings. It's not relativism or nihilism to argue that there are more legitimate human values on heaven and earth than in the dreams of conservatives. It's just true.