Of course you’ve heard some version of this tale before. Winston Churchill says to a woman at a party, “Madam, would you sleep with me for 5 million pounds?”
The woman stammers: “My goodness, Mr. Churchill. Well, yes, I suppose . . . ”
Churchill interrupts: “Would you sleep with me for five pounds?”
The woman responds immediately: “What? Of course not! What kind of woman do you think I am?!”
To which the British bulldog replies: “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price.”
The story comes to mind upon hearing the news that the New York Public Library has gotten into the porn business. “With adults, anything that you can get on the Internet, you can legally get on a computer in the library,” explained an official. “It’s difficult, but we err on the side of free and open access.”
What does this have to do with the Churchill story? Well, imagine you went to your local library in, say, 1989 — or some other year before Al Gore invented the Internet.
Then imagine going up to the librarian and asking him, “Do you carry Hustler?”
The shocked librarian answers, “No.”
“Back issues of Swank? High Society? Penthouse?”
“No, no, and no,” quoth the librarian.
“Okay, okay, I get it. Do you have movies?”
The librarian answers: “Yes, of course.”
“Great!” you reply. “I’d like to sign out the VHS of Debbie Does Dallas.”
“How about On Golden Blonde?”
Finally, the librarian explodes: “Sir, we do not carry any pornography. What do you think we do here?”
Well, the answer to that question is suddenly in doubt. Because up until very, very recently, the idea that public libraries should — nay, must! — peddle unfettered access to hardcore porn would have baffled almost everyone.
I’m hardly an anti-porn crusader, but the list of reasons why libraries didn’t — and shouldn’t — carry porn is vast. The two most obvious and mutually reinforcing reasons are moralistic and budgetary: (a) “It’s wrong,” and (b) “We have very limited resources and we must choose what we think is worthwhile and what has no redeeming value.”
The problem is that the legs have been knocked out from under both answers. Of course, the moralistic — or “judgmental” — bias against porn has been eroding for generations. How bad or good a development that is depends on your point of view.
But until the Internet, it didn’t matter. Sure, Playboy might make it through, “for the articles.” But not even the most radical or deranged librarian could ever justify subscribing to Juggs over National Geographic, because in a world of limited resources, prudential editing is not merely valuable, it’s unavoidable.
The Internet changed all that. The marginal cost of obtaining pornographic materials in libraries, once prohibitively high, is now nearly nonexistent. In fact, it’s actually cheaper just to let it all flood in. Who wants to deal with the filters, blockers, and monitors? Just proclaim that the First Amendment requires unfettered access to porn.