While the rest of us were gearing up for the holiday season, a small group of conservatives was busy cranking up something a good deal less cheerful: a new war on pornography.
On Dec. 6, four members of Congress wrote a letter to Attorney General William Barr, beseeching him to “declare the prosecution of obscene pornography a criminal justice priority,” and “bring prosecutions against the major producers and distributors of such material.”
We’ve been down this speech-trampling road before, most recently with the Bush administration’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. It was disbanded in 2011, having been such a debacle that U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon delivered the following lecture when dismissing all federal charges against adult-film producer John Stagliano: “I hope the government will learn a lesson from its experience.”
But political memory is notoriously short. Social conservatives have reacted to this latest suggested smut crackdown with a flurry of high-fives.
Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh suggested moving toward an outright ban on pornography. New York Post opinion editor Sohrab Ahmari, echoing a prior argument in the increasingly assertive First Things magazine, posited that reality has changed the conditions underpinning the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1997 Reno vs. ACLU decision striking down the indecency provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
And at the Trumpy American Greatness website, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry disgorged a long “Science-Based Case for Ending the Porn Epidemic,” which if nothing else demonstrates that our public discourse epidemic of pronouncing things “epidemics” shows little sign of receding.
The new anti-porn movement isn’t without its amusements. “Conservatives must partner with anti-porn feminists,” Ahmari tweeted, then later deleted, last month. “We won’t agree on everything, but imagine how powerful such an alliance could be.”
But there is a more serious project afoot. Emboldened conservatives are trying to use the Trump moment to steer the GOP firmly away from its commitments to individual liberty.
A manifesto last spring in First Things, Against the Dead Consensus, helped define the battle lines, arguing that too many in the pre-Trump conservative camp were guilty of “fetishizing” individual “autonomy,” which allegedly “yielded the very tyranny that consensus conservatives claim most to detest.” The first item on the Dead Consensus statement, signed by Ahmari, Gobry and a dozen others, would not be out of place at a Bernie Sanders rally: “We oppose the soulless society of individual affluence.” The authors dismiss as “dogmas” the notions of “free trade on every front, free movement through every boundary, small government as an end in itself, technological advancement as a cure-all.”
But these are the same people who also brought us a whole month last year of internecine conservative warfare over drag-queen story hour. They are itching to go on the offensive in the culture wars, whether on abortion or gender pronouns or porn, and they consider your constitutional objections to be about as relevant as stopping a tidal wave with a slide rule.
“The Founding generation,” Ahmari wrote last month, “would likely have reacted to [Pornhub] not with high-libertarian nostrums, but with tar and feathers.”
So is it time to start pre-emptively deleting your browser history? Not yet. Four members of Congress are considerably fewer than the 42 senators — including such Democrats as Dianne Feinstein, Calif., and Amy Klobuchar, Minn. — who objected to the dissolution of the last Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. And the Supreme Court these past two decades has been on a pro-free speech tear, one that has been strengthened, not weakened, by the Republican appointment of judges.
But ideology of all stripes is up for grabs right now, a fact our resurgent social conservative friends grasped more quickly than the rest of us. If and when they can partner up with the puritans of the left — as happened in 2018 with the passage of the speech-squelching FOSTA-SESTA sex trafficking act — the implications will leap from page to prison.
As the anti-porn troops are quick to point out, then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 signed a pledge to “give serious consideration to appointing a presidential commission to examine the harmful public health impact of internet pornography on youth, families and the American culture.”
Social cons may be moral scolds, but they are not above a little pragmatism in using a thrice-married consorter with adult actresses to achieve their policy ends. “Whatever else might be said about it,” the Dead Consensus manifesto concludes, “the Trump phenomenon has opened up space in which to pose these questions anew.”
The intellectual tendency toward leaning hungrily into the wind of power has been with us for all recorded history. So has, as any visitor to Pompei can tell you, the human desire to view sexual imagery. Trump-era manifesto artists, responding as they are to a democratic upheaval, are seeking to use anti-democratic means to criminalize expression enjoyed by tens of millions. A task that herculean will require much more than strongly worded letters.
Matt Welch is editor-at-large at Reason magazine. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.