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Free to Be You and Me


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Jonah Goldberg

FREE TO BE YOU AND ME

“The liberal paradigm of regulation and license has led to a society where an 18-year-old girl has the right to public fornication in a pornographic movie – but only if she is paid the minimum wage. Now you don’t have to be the father of a daughter to think that there is something crazy about this situation.”

–Irving Kristol in the Wall Street Journal, 1975.

Kristol (the father of the guy who looks like Bob Woodward you always see on ABC’s This Week) has one of the longest-running streaks of being right in American history. While the concern has changed from whether or not porn actresses make minimum wage to whether or not their partners wear condoms, the central insight remains the same. Remember how that feminist wag commented in the New York Observer that the real scandal of the Lewinsky saga was that the President didn’t use protection?

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For all the talk in Washington about how marginal libertarians are, the truth is that in cultural affairs they’ve won the main battle. The rest of their struggles are essentially regional conflicts, minor skirmishes and clean up efforts. They’re like the red army during the Russian Civil War, using the Moscow train yards as a fulcrum to fight both the left and the right..

Whatever floats your boat is now the American creed. (Don’t worry: this column won’t offer the usual complaint found in these pages about how Americans would rather drink the week-old weenie water from a New York City hot dog stand than be called “judgmental.” [Note to the usual people who email me screeching, "Who are you to judge!?" Consider myself emailed.])

Witness the latest news from the hallowed halls of academia. Mount Holyoke College is offering a course — not for credit mind you — in stripping. (It used to be called “striptease” but the “tease” ain’t what it used to be.) Pornography studies has been the hip and chic “discipline” for the last few years. And frankly, who can say which is worse. One all woman’s college teaching young women how to take off their clothes — or dozens of colleges teaching young men and women that there is some greater significance to porn than the clever titles – “Sperms of Endearment,” for example.

Mount Holyoke student Patty McCarthy, who took the class last year, told the AP she’d take it again. “It was sort of fun” she says.

No doubt.

“I don’t see any way how an exchange of pleasure is something to be condemned,” the instructor, Ms. Scotto, told the Union-News in Springfield. “Someone in any form of work can feel exploited. It’s all a state of mind.”

And there we have it. Exploitation is a matter of feelings. Secretaries and rocket scientists can “feel” exploited, and, abracadabra, they would be. How is that any different than women who spin around steel poles in front of most of my friends?

To be honest, I should be careful dismissing feelings as the key to exploitation. Feelings are relevant and historians risk hypocrisy by denying it outright. For example, those of us who think that child labor is a very complicated issue (rather than the stuff of Union-fed liberal demagogues), rely on this analysis quite a bit. The children don’t think they are being exploited. They think they’re doing something that will get themselves and their families food and shelter.

But everyone from Marxist academics to people who go to Children’s Defense Fund cocktail parties — oh wait those are often the same people — think that the children aren’t qualified to judge whether they are being exploited. It’s not just kids. Marxists and feminists across the land assert that workers and women and other “adults” suffer from false consciousness when they don’t see their interests as invested in certain attributes like race, gender or class. Some of those better trained in the psycho-babble sciences, call it denial. But the facts are the same.

Eugene Genovese, now something of a conservative curmudgeon, used to be a Marxist. And a damn fine one. In fact he is considered one of the best historians of the South to have ever lived. He changed the debate over slavery — when he was still a Marxist mind you — by arguing that many blacks were perfectly content with being slaves. Slavery was a natural part of their moral universe. His colleagues on the Left were infuriated arguing that no universe that allowed slavery could be moral.

In a sense they were both right. The slaves were, in fact, suffering from false consciousness. Genovese would recount how blacks would often assume great risks saving the lives of their white masters. Other times slaves would help catch other slaves. How could they do this if they fully realized the evil of their situation? Well, the answer was: they didn’t, and these average blacks were doing right as they saw it. And in an obvious retail sense, they were simply doing good.

The situation with spoiled girls wanting play dirty games on Mom and Dad’s dime is of course quite different. These women — like so many college students — are imbibing the libertarian elixir. Irving Kristol writing on similar themes said, “What is at stake is civilization and humanity, nothing less. The idea that ‘everything is permitted,’ as Nietzsche put it, rests on the premise of nihilism.” In other words freedom without meaning, is meaningless. By seeking satisfaction in testing boundaries and shocking people only leads to more numbness and more nihilism.

There is much revisionism about the stifling constraints of pre-1960s America. Yes, blacks and, to a much lesser extent, women faced legal barriers that were rightly torn down. But that’s not the “constraint” most people talk about. That constraint was really just an expectation that people should do something with their freedom. Freedom then, as now, had a purpose. It’s just that today we are taught that freedom is a glandular thing.

The associate dean of Mount Holyoke says, “Where else but a women’s college could provide a safe and secure place to explore the boundaries of an art form that slides over into pornography and exploitation?”

Where else indeed. W.H. Auden said that a person “emancipated from the traditional beliefs of a closed society…can no longer believe simply because his forefathers did and he cannot imagine not believing — he has found no source or principle of direction to replace them … Liberalism is at a loss to know how to handle him, for the only thing liberalism knows to offer is more freedom, and it is precisely freedom in the sense of lack of necessity that is his trouble.”

I don’t want to gripe my way into a corner where I’m against freedom. So let’s stick close to Mount Holyoke. The “Liberal” in Liberal Arts doesn’t mean “in accordance with the Michael Dukaki of the world” It means liberal as in the skills, habits, and knowledge necessary for citizens to both appreciate, maintain, and deserve a free society.

“It was sort of fun” twirling around bare-assed doesn’t quite seem consonant with that does it?



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