Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Our Pornographic Age

A left-wing terrorist tried to assassinate — may yet have assassinated, our prayers notwithstanding — Republican members of Congress practicing for a bipartisan baseball game that raises money for disadvantaged youths.

Some wondered on social media whether House majority whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, then fighting for his life with a hundred bits of 7.62 millimeter in his guts, had it coming, what with being the only devoutly Catholic Klansman in Dixie and all.

American student Otto Warmbier succumbed to the time-delayed torture of North Korea’s antediluvian regime, whose goons somehow liquefied his brains and forgot to tell anybody for a year.

At the time of his capture, hot takes from Salon and Ebony and Larry Wilmore blamed Warmbier’s “frat boy” attitude and “white privilege” for his show trial and banishment to a Pyongyang gulag. Wilmore, you’ll be forgiven for forgetting, is one of those now-canceled members of the Daily Show diaspora who for a time said snarky things to images of Republicans digitally projected over their right shoulder. And oh how his audience whooped and hollered at his taking the Caucasian victim of a murdering bastard down a peg.

A 17-year-old Muslim girl breaking her Ramadan fast was beaten to death with an aluminum baseball bat and her body dumped in a pond after an apparent dispute with a passing motorist.

A spirited race up Mount Virtue commenced between those preemptively, and it appears wrongly, blaming her murder on Islamophobia and those giddy to point out that her killer was a Salvadoran migrant. It remains to be seen whether any of the contestants will remember the child’s name this time next month.

This was one week in America in 2017. And I said nothing about the craptacular geopolitical gestalt against which it’s all set. Corbyns and Putins and Muellers, oh my.

A friend of mine, sensing my glumness, suggested the other day that I pick up my Tacitus, if for no other reason than to reassure me that there’s nothing new under the sun. Sure enough, in the first pages of the Histories we have this, Tacitus’s description of Rome at the first century of this epoch, which with the few bracketed amendments could describe our own age:

The period upon which I embark is one full of incident, marked by bitter fighting, rent by treason, and even in peace sinister. . . . Things holy were desecrated, there was adultery in high places. The [sea] swarmed with exiles and its rocky islets ran with blood. The reign of terror was particularly ruthless at [home]. Rank, wealth, and office, whether surrendered or retained, provided grounds for accusation, and the reward for virtue was inevitable death. The profits made by the prosecutors were no less odious than their crimes. Some helped themselves to priesthoods and consulships as the prize of victory. Others acquired official posts and backstairs influence, creating a universal pandemonium of hatred and terror.

Then I got to the part that, knowing my friend, I realized was the pitch-black-comic punchline he’d really wanted me to read all along:

However, the period was not so barren of merit that it failed to teach some good lessons as well. . . . Distinguished men driven to suicide faced the last agony with unflinching courage, and there were death scenes not inferior to those held up to our admiration in the history of early Rome.

That’s old Publius Cornelius’s definition of “the bright side.” Who knows whether the historians of our stubby 21st century will find such cause for optimism.

For my own part, I’m fickler than waters, as the poet said. But I do think our age, if not uniquely awful, is at least uniquely obscene.

Think about it. Each of the horrific crimes I describe above was followed by a kind of prurient glee from the danker corners of our public fora, a level of sadistic pleasure that can be experienced only by the self-righteous wicked. The immaculate conscience of someone gawping at the deserving dead.

This sort of thing has been called “outrage porn” for some time, but it only recently occurred to me watching it unfold on social media that a good test of whether someone’s opinion is profane is whether you can imagine him masturbating while typing it. You’ll learn quick, as I did, that Twitter is mostly wankery of varying levels of depravity.

In fact, what we’re living through is worse than porn — or rather, actually has the deleterious effects on the soul that the Comstockers imagine all porn does.

I’ve seen naked ladies in print and liked it, and I don’t think this fact condemns me to perdition. I understand the pathologies that come along with pornography proper — the abuse, the blurry lines of consent, what it does to real relationships. But at least with smut the, er, proximate objective of the viewer isn’t necessarily dependent on the viciousness of the material. With outrage porn, it seems to me, there isn’t even that plausible deniability.

Outrage porn’s audience revels in being bystanders to cruelty, voyeurs to woe, consumers of its enemies’ misery. (Think here of “I drink [liberal/conservative/feminist/meninist] tears.”)

Of course the irony about being entertained by things you hate is that you increase the demand for them. As leftist Harvard historian Peter E. Gordon put it in a study of the 2016 election, the current president of the United States “holds a powerful fascination for [his] critics precisely because [he] serves as an object for our negative self-definition. . . . [The President] is indeed entertainment but not only for those whom [he] entertains. If [he] enchants his supporters, he awakens a no less powerful fascination for the critics who loathe him since love and loathing are only two sides of the same coin.”

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

In This Issue



Books, Arts & Manners


Politics & Policy


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The Week

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