Herbert Streicher is dead. Passing from this life last March, his is numbered among the notable deaths of 2013. Herbert Streicher—a.k.a. Harry Reems—is fondly remembered as a champion of First Amendment rights. In 1974, Mr. Streicher was arrested and indicted by the FBI on federal charges for his appearance in a film and a conspiracy to distribute said film over state lines. The conviction was overturned in 1977, and thus is Mr. Streicher’s memory cherished by a corrupt culture as the pioneer who cleared a path into the mainstream media for pornography.
And the industry has not stood idly by.
Today, everyone has encountered pornography. This is a simple, unavoidable fact because pornography is simply unavoidable. What is worse, very few have been prepared to face it. Part of this preparation is to realize the truth about pornography, and lay bare a fundamental quality that permeates beyond Playboy. The poison that makes pornography deadly is everywhere. The attitude and addiction associated with pornography is endemic in our society. The blights of passive vanity and sterile pleasures thrive in many different forms; forms which many deem harmless but are, in fact, wolves in sheep’s clothing. (If there is to be any stripping, let it be reserved for such as these.)
Inherent shame and silence on the subject are among pornography’s greatest strengths. Few feel comfortable talking about porn, so porn goes unspoken; which is how it goes unhindered. Pornography is, at its core, a lie; and a surefire way to combat falsehood is plain, honest truth. Conversation about pornography that is blunt and levelheaded can remedy and repel this plague more effectively than any parental filter. Given that everyone has been exposed to pornography in one way or another, Catholics have a grave duty to expose the conspiracy of pornography; to take it on as the enemy it is by talking about it matter-of-factly.
The consideration of pornography and its effects, however, should not stop at sexual depiction. Eroticism is just one mode of a versatile evil. Pornography, when considered by its function, has many faces and many facets. The essential nature of its evil is to provide artificial access to what is not morally accessible for the sake of some immediate stimulus, some visceral gratification. In other words, the pornographic is a sensationally skewed experience of the sacred; and sex is not the only sacred thing vulnerable to abuse. The underlying principle at work, which is central to the pornographic experience, is refusal to engage in the real and revelry in the unreal.
This modus operandi may be applied to things other than sexually explicit material. There is, in fact, a rampant epidemic in our so-called connected world of disconnection with the world. Ours is a civilization of personal segregation. For every individual, for every “I,” there is a “pod,” an enclosed casing. Without this synthetic protection, there is too much risk of commitment, the ultimate horror for a people who live life as though it were a chat session. Real interaction, real contact, is curtailed as fast as technology can leap and bound. Meetings are reduced to calls, calls to emails, emails to texts, texts to tweets, in a rapid departure from anything that can be called interpersonal or real. Is convenience worth losing touch with our surroundings and growing, as Wordsworth says, “out of tune?” Moreover, does the cold control and distant privacy it provides recall anything else to mind? True, smart phones and social media are not what would immediately be labeled as “pornographic,” but the motivating factors and their effects are strikingly similar. There is, for instance, a sacred element in the act of communication. Language—the Word—is sacred. Do modern usages and devices give the art of interaction its due? Words, like women, participate in a sacred nature and should never be taken lightly, much less violated. To do so may be considered a species of pornography, for pornography can be understood as an attitude in action.
The isolation which networking ironically breeds is a harbinger of a new narcissism. Self-centeredness seeks seclusion and the license to exercise control, as do those absorbed with online-selves, surfing a virtual world of avatars. These pursuits are addictive and buried in ego-stroking falsehoods designed to affect a stimulating pleasure—a pleasure isolated from reality. The eventuality is a hunger that gorges on what can never satisfy. There can be no fulfillment, no consummation. It is perverse. It is pornographic. In other words, pornography is not necessarily restricted to “adult” films, “men’s” magazines, and forty percent of the worldwide web. The principle and the practice of pornography are present in those things that put a prophylactic on reality. X-ratings or Xboxes; communication or contraception; sadism or stimulants—it may be considered “pornographic” if it crosses a line that was not meant for man to cross, allowing the senses to soar on Icarian wings for the sake of self-gratification.
This line is no less than the boundary between the physical and the metaphysical. There are mysteries that must be revered and left alone. To reduce such mysteries to objects of indulgence is to do an act of tremendous spiritual violence—violence that causes damage. When men attempt to exercise mastery over mystery, they are themselves forced into a type of enslavement—slaves to the very thing they sought control over. Pornography, in all its forms, robs people of their innocence through the elimination of mystery, crippling the ability to wonder and take authentic pleasure in beauty. Cynicism quickly develops as a defensive posture, and the rest is downhill. Whether this damage is caused by filth or by Facebook the cause and effect are the same: the fantasy—or blasphemy—of reality results in a loss of appetite for reality.
Unless people awaken their hearts through naked encounters with the real, they will never know anything that can truly fulfill, either in this world or the next. Pornography is a barrier to the reality we all must know as inheritors of Adam and Eve’s stewardship and our Maker’s Image and Likeness. The first step to being a good steward, though, is to have a healthy respect for the things of the earth and the things of heaven; which respect forbids exploitation for pleasure’s sake. For those who truly love the real, pleasure—or rather, enjoyment—is derived by virtue of the reality loved. The heart teaches what is worth loving and therefore worth knowing intimately. No category of pornography can ever offer intimacy since pornography does not access the real with love—it can only trample the real underfoot without really appreciating it.
Only actual engagement will reduce of the sway of virtual disengagement. Reality cannot be uploaded; neither should it necessarily be something accessed easily—but it must remain the goal. Connected to the real, innocence and wonder can be safeguarded or rekindled. Wisdom, as Aristotle said, begins with wonder; and wonder is something men experience as they experience the mysteries of the world. Men need mysteries if they are to be wise. Perhaps the eradication of wisdom by the eradication of mystery is the agenda of the conspiracy of pornography.
Let us not stand idly by.