Terrorism, Porn, and Other Alibis
Interesting BBC article about web censorship and policing in various authoritarian countries. It offers a lot of hidden lessons for Americans.
China and Cuba both claim not to interfere with their citizens' web access even though they obviously do. They also monitor web usage with a thoroughness that the NSA must envy. China and Cuba say that they only interfere with access to pornographic and terrorist sites. Apparently, in China Amnesty International is either pornographic or terrorist. Its site is blocked. So is the BBC's, Human Rights Watch's, etc, etc.
These days, in secular states (like western democracies or the remaining "communist" countries), it's pretty much impossible for the government to be forthright about censoring, snooping, and arresting simply to protect its own interests or even the religious and moral values of countries whose citizens diagree among themselves what those values are. (In contrast, the United Arab Emirates feels comfortable telling surfers that websites like www.uaeprison.com is being blocked because it's "inconsistent with the religious, cultural, political and moral values of the United Arab Emirates").
So the convenient alibi for censors and snoopers, worldwide, is now fighting "pornography" and "terrorism." It's a good alibi. Most people are opposed to terrorism. And—publicly—most people are opposed to pornography, or at least silent about it. The danger is that, if the government is determined, almost every imaginable behavior or thought of the citizenry will fall under one heading or the other. Criticizing the goverment? Terrorism. Leaking information about dubious coding in the Diebold's touch-screen voting software? Terrorism. Criticizing the war in Iraq? Terrorism.
I think most people—or at least most leftists—get the dangers letting the government censor and snoop indiscriminately on the pretext of fighting terrorism. We all know how dangerous that is, if for no other reason that legitimate anti-terrorist activity left unsupervised by elected officials will almost inevitably devolve into authoritarian and/or politicized spying. So I won't go on about that here.
But I'm not sure it's as clear to most people that the fight against pornography is equally flexible and dangerous.
At the most superficial leve, I think trying to censor or ban porn is itself misguided and dangerous. It's not that I don't understand how anti-porn campaigners feel. Feminist anti-porn activists are probably right that porn tends to reinforce really dangerous notions about women's roles. (Though, theoretically, that means that all gay porn and most genuine lesbian porn are totally unproblematic.) And the religious anti-porn activists probably are right that spending all day wanking off to sex between strangers is probably lousy for people's souls.
(I actually suspect that a lot of PG-13 movies and TV shows are actually worse for us on both counts; mainstream entertainment that sells tight asses, abs, and silicon tits while pretending to not be selling them probably does more to give people stupid ideas about sex, love, and other human motivations than all the copies of Cream-Filled Twinks 5 put together.)
But, even where I agree with some of the assumptions and conclusions of the anti-porn crowd, I've never seen how it's the government's job to regulate it. Once people are over eighteen, their ideas, their kinks, and their bodily fluids should be entirely their own. My diet may be unhealthy, my sleep schedule may be unhealthy, my laundry schedule, my opinions about people different from me, my opinions about cum-drenched cheerleaders may all be desperately unhealthy, but it's none of Uncle Sam's business, thank you very much.
But the bigger problem with the anti-porn campaign is that it's often not actually about porn at all. Over the past five or six years, "pornography" the above-the-waves code phrase for sexuality, and the people in this country who are after porn are often also after a whole lot more—who you sleep with, how you sleep with them, whether you sleep with anyone at all.
With "pornography" as the rallying cry, conservative religious groups in this country (most of them Catholic or evangelical Christian) are subtly and successfully moving to limit access to contraception as part of their efforts to make it practically or even legally impossible to engage in forms of sexual activity that they disapprove of. Check out the Russel Shorto's recent "Contra Contraception" in the New York Times. Dan Savage is also up in arms about this and providing some very interesting—and sobering—coverage in the form of "Straight Rights Updates" in his Savage Love column. Alabama has already banned the sale of sex toys, and South Carolina is making noises about following suit. Group after group, including the Bush administration, wants schools to stop talking to children about contraception–abstinence is the only acceptable sex education.
So not only do we have censorship, we have outright bans on behavior between consenting adults. Or between consenting adults and inanimate objects. The tactical brilliance of this move is that it almost inevitably forces people who don't want to be told who and how to fuck in the position of defending Hustler or the merits of Hairy Slotter's Triple-Head Magic Wand. And that's either intellectually or socially embarrassing. But the real fight has much more important stakes.
This is a fight about whether our society should be structured by historically ossified guidelines about procreation developed in times and places in which women were inconsequential except as wombs and baby-sitters and in which contraception was neither widely available nor reliable. This is a fight about whether gay people get to be considered real people in the eyes of the law. It's about whether you should have to be married to get laid. And, once you're married, it's about whether you should be having only the kind of sex that might lead to procreation.
This is a real fight, and it's about real issues. Don't let them get away with pretending it's okay to censor pornography or, more to the point, don't let them get away with pretending that their attempts to dictate the acceptable limits of human sexuality and behavior are somehow the same as saying that Larry Flynt is an asshole.
And to any conservative Christian readers who've managed to get this far (you're hardy, I'll say), remember, my friends, that China has a lousy record on all modes of expression, not just porn, and it has state policies mandating that parents have no more than one child. Do you really feel comfortable letting the state set policies on such issues, even if the current administration happens to share your sense of how those policies should look?