Saturday, February 17, 2018

Logic Bomb

Christianity, as a general rule, has a problem with sex. Perhaps not a big a problem as Islam may have with sex, or Hinduism, but the stereotype of Christians, especially when you move to the conservative end of the spectrum, wanting sexuality to be controlled and limited to circumstances that comport with their reading of the Bible, is fairly grounded in reality.

The Republican party of the United States, as a general rule, is the party of Christianity. This isn't to say that one must be a Christian in order to be a Republican (although it certainly helps). But the stereotype of Republicans, in that if anyone is likely to propose or push for legislation that effectively encodes Christian mores and strictures into ostensibly secular law, it will be a Republican, is fairly grounded in reality.

This semi-overt religiosity forms one of the commonly understood pillars of the modern-day Republican party: Social conservatism, generally understood as adhering to a particular brand of more-or-less Christian ethics; defense hawkishness, commonly manifesting itself as a commitment to a strong national military (and, collaterally, a strong military-industrial complex, even in the negative connotations of that term) and fiscal conservatism, which is something of an umbrella term that generally encompasses a desire to see government spend as little money as possible and leave things to private industry whenever remotely feasible. Pro-business and pro-capitalism may or may not be considered a pillar, depending on if you park it under the umbrella of fiscal conservatism. And there's small government/"individual liberty." This is a contentious one, because it's often at odds with other things that Republicans tend to associate themselves with, such as law and order.

But one of the big conflicts in the stereotypical Republican platform is between individual liberty and social conservatism. Grover Norquist may be famous for driving the Republican party to support the idea of a government so small that one could drown it in one's bathtub, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a push to allow it remain large enough to effectively police people's morality.

And that's where Republican moves against pornography come into play. It doesn't take long to figure out that a political party that wants to both encode lip service to Christian sexual morality into law and allow people to do as they please is going to have a conflict in this space. To be sure, regardless of whatever principles a political party claims to hold, political pillars are generally matters of expediency. The American Right might claim a desire for greater personal liberty, but if that results in the perception that the Left is indulging in libertinism, all of that goes out the window. Enforcing sexual continence trumps small government.

But this fact, in an of itself, does not mean that everything trumps small government, and so the Liberal argument that says: If Republicans are willing to entertain bans on pornography and use social harms as a reasoning, then they should be willing to entertain restrictions on civilian access to firearms, since the arguments for those are also a reduction of social (not to mention physical) harms. While on the one hand, it's a clever trap to use the bogus cover story for what is mainly an attempt impose Christian morality on society at large as evidence of hypocrisy, on the other, because the Republican focus on alleged social harm is transparently a cover story, the hypocrisy angle becomes moot. The article in The Atlantic that makes this case becomes something of a straw man argument in this, mainly because while it attributes support for pornography bans to Utah Republican representative Todd Weiler, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and Boyce College professor of biblical studies Denny Burk, it never attributes support for small government and personal liberty to them, instead describing the infrastructure needed to enforce it as "contrary to many conservatives’ stated objectives and free-market approach." (Emphasis mine.)

That sort of charge of institutional hypocrisy is not only logically dubious, but it works both ways. One could easily see a conservative publication making the point that if writers for The Atlantic are willing to employ the tools of government to ban firearms in the name of preventing social harms, Democrats should conceivably be open to discussing further restrictions on abortion, which car be argued to cause social harm. And if liberals are willing to use the use the arguments that some Republicans and conservative voices have used as a rationale to ban pornography to argue that those same people should support greater restrictions on firearms, does that mean that they would accept bans on pornography, or sex-related media more broadly? Should prosecutions of sex-workers be stepped up? Should the crackdown on illegal drugs be continued? What about illegal immigration? If the point is that socially-conservative Republicans should be willing to deploy the government to fight guns, as well as social issues, does that mean that Democrats should also work with them to implement the social bans?

Setting hypocrisy traps for people whose ideas one doesn't like is a waste of time. Especially when, as in the column in The Atlantic, the point is little more than to cast the other side as unreasonable and inconsistent. The world is a complicated place. And people have complicated views on it, that tends to lead to a interwoven raft of compromises. Pretending not to recognize that, so that one can criticize people for failing to shackle themselves to a foolish constancy accomplishes nothing.

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