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Last week, I returned to the Baptist church that I grew up in for a wedding. It was quite a culture shock. Having spent ten years going to Catholic Masses – with Latin, choirs and enough incense to suffocate an elephant – I’d forgotten the simple joy of a few chairs slung around a table and a band belting out Shine Jesus Shine (the pastor’s wife was on keyboard). The bride was so overcome with emotion that she almost had to be carried down the aisle (“We finally did it, ma!”). The pastor gave a fine, Old Time Gospel sermon that struck the right note of love and wrath. And afterwards there was even a little wine, soaked up by fruit cake.

One of the greatest gifts we have in life is the sacred. Most of the human experience is mundane or tarnished by mundanity; the body rots, eye sight fails, friends let you down, temptation wins, the will saps and the mind slips. But then there are rules and rituals that help us transcend all of this and experience a moment of Heaven on Earth. Marriage is a good example.

Much of what I’ve seen of marriage has not been great. A good proportion of my family are divorced or raised by single parents, and everywhere else there is routine and bitterness. The closest relationship I’ve known is between my aunt and uncle. My uncle is one of those perennially, terminal ill men who has relied on my aunt for everything. And yet my aunt has never shirked her duty and never would. They are not in love, but they love each other. My aunt says, “He was a very good father and he always looks after us. So now we look after him.” It might not be romantic, but their partnership is rooted in a an old fashioned commitment to the marriage vows. And the vows are strict and unbending. The “in sickness and in health” bit terrifies me the most; I’m far too selfish to waste my time making chicken soup for the ill.

Looking over all the photos on my aunt's mantelpiece, the ones that are still polished and sparkling are the wedding ones. A woman clothed in white, like a princess; a man in top hat and tails like a Victorian gentleman. It says something about the meaning of marriage that no one ever dresses down for it. And why is everyone in tears? Remembering that some folks insist that marriage is purely a social contract designed to perpetuate the Capitalist patriarchy, why does it make people weep for joy? Is this a purely Pavlovian response bred by Hollywood and the Church?

No, the emotion is real and justified. The marriage ceremony takes the banal reality of a very basic human function – the desire to be with someone as much as possible – and elevates it to the divine. It’s a union blessed by God and what we’re witnessing is nothing less than a miracle: two individuals who are broken without each other becoming healed by each other's love. Life is best appreciated this way - as a series of miracles, of which these natural imperatives are among the most wonderful. Next will come conception, then birth, then baptism, and finally death. It isn’t just a biological cycle. It’s a journey every bit as challenging and rewarding as swimming the Sea of Tranquility.

But we have to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate the splendor, which is probably what accounts for the white dress and tails. I suspect that few people who get married nowadays are as virginal as the bride gown suggests. But romance is all about creating new states of being that take us closer to perfection. Much as the Tristan chord transports us to Valhalla, or the smell of strawberries evokes a perpetual summer, so the ritual of marriage makes us better prepared to receive and love one another. Again, that’s what the sanctification is all about: the transformation of something ordinary into something extraordinary. That experience prepares us well for a lifetime of dull holidays, long silences, arguments over the in-laws, and chicken soup.

How wonderful it is that we have the tools to make this happen, to experience the divine in this life. It's one of the great legacies of a Judeo-Christian culture, which preached that we could know God personally if we wanted. Plato would be jealous. For while he dreamed of imitating the “music of the spheres,” he could never hope to hear it for himself because it was only a metaphysical speculation. We, by contrast, live in an age of miracles. I only wish that we better equipped our people to seek and see them. Materialism and secularism blind us to how incredible ordinary life really is.

 

Pornotopia

10/15/2011

 
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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.

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.

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?

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…”). Its the expansiveness of the internet that makes it so ripe for regulating.

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.

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.

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. Back in 2004, medical witnesses told the Senate Commerce Committee's Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee that there was no doubt that it can lead to physical dependence. Sexual activity releases hormones that provide a short term high. If that high is not associated with ordinary, socialized sexual activity, then it becomes internalized and unhealthy. Mary Anne Layden of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Cognitive Therapy, called porn the “most concerning thing to psychological health that I know of existing today. The internet is a perfect drug delivery system because you are anonymous, aroused and have role models for these behaviors.”

Given how potentially dangerous it can be, it’s astonishing how weakly pornography is regulated across the Western world. It is even more astonishing considering the West’s supposed commitment to human rights. The porn industry is an unpleasant sector that often mistreats its workers. Innocents are dragged off the street with an offer of "modelling work" and then intimidated into more. Inevitably, rates of venereal disease are high. To quote one official report, “In September 2009, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 2,396 cases of Chlamydia, 1,389 cases of gonorrhea, and five syphilis cases among porn performers. It was also reported that Chlamydia and gonorrhea prevalence in porn performers is ten times higher than that of Los Angeles County 20-24 year olds and five times higher than that of one of Los Angeles County’s highest risk populations.” 

On an existential level, pornography objectifies human beings, reducing them to the status of commodities. There is no need to engage with them as real people because the sexual stimulus is entirely one sided. This encourages the viewer to regard the subject as less than human. Of course, all of us like to be objectified on some level – to be told that we are handsome or pretty. But for us to benefit, we have to have some degree of personal exchange with the spectator. Pornography lends distance and alienation.

That objectification has lethal consequences. Porn addiction is a common trait among serial killers. The murderer Ted Bundy detailed his experiences thus: “I would keep looking for more explicit, more graphic kinds of materials … until you reach the point where the pornography only goes so far. You reach that jumping-off point where you begin to wonder if maybe actually doing it will give you that which is beyond just reading about it or looking at it.” This is not to suggest that pornography conditions the madman’s mind. But, as with latent pedophilia, it normalizes and feeds perverse desires. It reduces humanity to fresh meat. It becomes easy to disassociate sex from mutual pleasure, violence from pain.

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.