"Insofar as women are traditionally icons of the civilizing virtues,” Hendin told me, “their current idealization as cold, ruthless killers says a lot about the rise of nihilism. From the lighthearted Charlie’s Angels remake aimed at teenage girls to Basic Instinct and its clones, the proliferation of good-looking women killing and kickboxing connects sex, nihilism and violence…. That skews private and well as public forms of discourse.”
So writes Jim Sleeper in his essay Behind the Deluge of Porn, a Conservative Sea-Change, a plea for checking public licentiousness by way of a revival of civic republicanism. He scores some very accurate points about the interdependence of the pornocracy and the punditocracy. He also repeats an old analysis when he writes: "conservative moralists won't begin to seriously address what is happening in our society until they take on the very market capitalism and consumerist culture they uphold and promote." Though this may be new to Mr. Sleeper and his readers, many on the so-called right have long known this. However, the various factors supporting the marginalization of these throwback moralists can't simply be ignored as Sleeper ignores them.
Traditionalist moralists have no great redoubt, being both underfunded by wealthy right-wing foundations and demonized by other influential groups of sheltered thinkers, namely journalists and university faculties. Possibly the churches are their strongholds, but various legal and social factors fracture both intradenominational and interdenominational unity.
Sleeper, of course, wishes for a republicanism conscious of Daniel Bell's analysis of the cultural contradictions of capitalism, but his framework dooms his effort to failure:
[Bell] acknowledges that “we need political liberalism to assure the individual of protection from coercive powers” but insists that “the arbiter of both cannot be the market — which has to be seen as a mechanism, not a principle of justice….” A republic can block “public display of … prurient elements which degrade the human personality; but behind the wall, what consenting adults do is their own business.”
Ah, "consenting adults," a phrase beloved by those with flimsy conceptions of both "consent" and "adult." Truly, "consenting adult" has replaced "wise man" as the final arbiter of good politics. Invoke this phrase and it is as if you have cited Confucius.
But I digress.
As Sleeper notes earlier in his own article, when discussing the infamous "Boxers or Briefs" question a youth addressed to Clinton, the factors encouraging public displays of prurience are formed in the private arena. He hopes that moralists can badger corporate pimps into public silence when a great sector of the public themselves don't mind such pandering. I see no solution to this dilemma other than personal conversion en masse or blunt semi-authoritarian intervention.
Sleeper's dilemma shows why pure liberalism, even in its supposedly benign classical version, ultimately undermines civic republicanism unless actively checked by both social and legal constraints. Civic republicanism forms citizens to make and to keep them capable of self-government. Often this is accomplished with harsh demands intruding upon what is currently considered private. Liberalism presupposes the effectiveness of such civic formation, but also the perpetuity thereof even when social and legal restraints are removed. As the unquestionably Liberal Federal government continues to undermine social and legal regimens at the state level, the republican spirit dies a little more each day.