Which Enemy? Which Doorstep?

It’s impossible to read this piece by The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf and not think that anti-racist activism is in serious trouble of going wildly off the rails. I would encourage any reader who feels invested in advocating for racial justice to read Friedersdorf’s long retelling of a complete meltdown inside a very progressive New York school board meeting. It’s an astonishing narrative that gets more disheartening the longer it goes on.

On the other hand, it’s also impossible to listen or read to the testimonies of many pastors across the US, especially the South, and not think that American churches are in serious trouble of fomenting a deep and deeply spiritual racism. That’s disorienting. Which narrative should I buy: the narrative about elite progressive institutions slouching toward a woke form of segregation? Or the narrative about a conservative evangelical culture that appears unwilling to preach the Bible at its own culture of white supremacy and Neo-Confederate ancestral worship? Which is the real problem?

It depends on where you are.

A media age upends many things, but one of the first is place. If TV and radio dislodged political awareness from its local roots and biased it toward “the nation,” the internet burned the root entirely. In the world shaped by the internet all eyes are trained on that which is national and global. Narratives are useful to the degree they paint in broad strokes and give a sense of omnipresent problems. What most of us mean by “culture” is huge. We mean millions of people, saying and making and doing something on a massive scale. Our heightened consciousness of this kind of large-scale culture is almost totally engineered by media technologies.

And in that heightened consciousness, we tend to confuse what is most depicted with what is most real. Our concern is disproportionately directed toward things that loom large in the media hive, because that’s where our awareness of The World comes from. This is what I mean when I say that many evangelicals often engage culture reactively, from behind. Here’s the way I put it last year:

 [E]ngaging culture by centering one’s intellectual orbit around what comes out of elite journalism can lead Christians to perpetually express the public implications of our faith in the direction of people least likely to heed our message, and on current events least likely to be urgent in actual churches. In other words, if your idea of culture is dictated to you by The Atlantic, you might think the most important thing you can talk about as a Christian is why polyamory is sinful, or why Drag Queen Story Hour is a moral outrage. Assuming, though, that your local church is unexceptional, the odds are incredibly good that suicide, depression, smartphone addiction, and sexless marriages are much bigger issues for you than those. If however the agenda for Christian thinking is being set by elite media, concentrated in affluent coastal bastions of progressivism, the witness of evangelicalism is always from behind—reactive—and never from ahead.

Here’s the thing: You very well may be in a cultural context in which something like Drag Queen Story Hour is the most pressing moral issue on the docket. You might, for example, be an employee of public library that is considering hosting such an event. You might be the parent of a child who unexpectedly attended one. You might be a pastor of a church in a very progressive city where members are being asked for their opinions on it. But my suspicion is that Christians who talk most voluminously about DQSH are not in any of these scenarios. The actual life context they’re in is one dominated by anxious and depressed teens, porn addicts, dysfunctional marriages, 14 year olds being pressured to send naked pictures of themselves…and racism.

I’m guess I’m mostly talking to myself here, because when I read Friedersdorf’s piece I come away convinced that much anti-racist activism is going to create enemies out of allies and drill resentments and mistrust deeper into American culture. But when I talk on the phone with a friend who was fired by his church for saying that George Floyd should not have been killed, I don’t feel this way. I think evangelicals have failed on the topic of race so spectacularly that their failure has soaked through the fabric of society to the point of tearing. So which thought is true? Are the excesses of woke-ism going to tear us apart, or will the failure to address racism?

Well, both. Both theses have evidence to support them, and both are compatible. My point is that two things can be true at the same time, but in different places and because of different things. When a New York school system meeting finds members outraged that a white man can hold a black infant, that tells us something important about that meeting, what dynamics were present, and what that outrage may mean for other people close to those dynamics. It’s completely legitimate to infer that something in that meeting was broken: either, as Friedersdorf argues, the interpersonal laws of charity and goodwill, or, as someone like John McWhorter would argue, the actual beliefs about race and justice. We can come away from reading about this meeting dutifully concerned that a harmful ideology reigns among some New York school boards.

But that truth doesn’t cancel out others. We can also come away from watching Republican primaries dutifully concerned that a major political party appears to have surrendered wholly to racist conspiracy mongering. We can come away from watching American evangelicalism horrified at the vacuum of prophetic leadership on racism and public justice. From where I write, this is the pressing issue for most Bible-preaching ministers. The majority of pastors reading this blog have churches that are probably not reading White Fragility and How to Be Antiracist. Those congregations, especially the men, are more likely reading Breitbart and hateful email newsletter blasts from “Christian Youth Brigade.” The enemy of the doorstep is not the same enemy as the one that sits on a New York school board. We fail to see this only because we look with one eye closed.

Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

The Real Price of Porn

Conor Friedersdorf, a writer I respect and enjoy, disagrees with my old professor Denny Burk about the impact of porn on culture. Burk’s original blog post was a reflection on Time’s recent cover story about a generation of young men who believe their years indulging in pornography had greatly affected their capacity for sexual and romantic flourishing. Denny pivoted off that point to reflect, accurately I believe, that porn was a “civilizational calamity” that was fostering an insidious form of enmity between men and the real-life women they’ve spent so long objectifying and avoiding.

Friedersdorf isn’t sure about this. Without passing a moral judgment either way, Friedersdorf says the data just doesn’t quite support the idea that a pornified culture turns against its women.

As I wrote two years ago, Western culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which 14- and 15-year-old girls were married off to middle-aged bachelors with whom sexual congress was terrifying and obligatory, often because the resulting union benefited the father of the bride financially. American culture isn’t so far removed from an era in which wives were expected to have intercourse with their husbands whether they wanted to or not, so much so that an intoxicated husband forcing himself on his wife as she fought and screamed “No! Stop!” wasn’t legally defined as rape.

More recently, over the same period that pornography has grown much more common, the rape rate has plummeted. It was higher throughout the aughts than it is today. There is no more extreme or pernicious act of using and abusing women as sexual objects rather than treating them as humans. And to get rape rates as low as porn-saturated 2013 and 2014, you’ve got to go back to the 1970s.

Friedersdorf goes on to make similar points with statistics of domestic abuse (likewise falling as the internet has grown) and international women’s rights (“Lots of countries with ubiquitous pornography seem to be much more successful, and to treat women much better…than countries where porn is more restricted or unavailable”). In short, what Friedersdorf sees is at best a conflicted account of the effect of porn on culture. It may be true, he concedes, that today’s generation of pornified youth will grow up to use and abuse the vulnerable, but until we have data on that, porn’s effect on culture is ambiguous.

Friedersdorf’s reply here seems to embody some of the strengths and weaknesses of data-oriented cultural arguments. Obviously, at first glance his statistics seem to be defeater for the evangelical claim that porn harms women. After all, if rape and domestic abuse are actually down in the age of digital porn, doesn’t that settle it? Well, not quite. A more careful look at the exchange happening here reveals that Friedersdforf is working off some assumptions that most critics of porn—evangelical and otherwise—don’t share.

Friedersdorf seems under the impression that if porn were really such a threat to culture, the decline of patriarchal systems and attitudes that we’ve seen over the last few decades wouldn’t have happened. But is this a valid equivocation? I don’t believe Burk or any other serious critic of porn would actually say that wherever porn flourishes, the force of law is less willing to protect women from harm, or that women are de facto viewed as second class citizens.

Most conservative critics of porn culture that I’ve read are careful to avoid implying that cultures that don’t have newsstands, theaters or streaming video automatically treat their women better. That’s a rather vacuous claim anyway, since it could be applied to obscure moral reality in a lot of cases. For instance, most would agree that children are better off with modern child labor and abuse laws, but it would be a pernicious folly to infer that modern proflieration of child pornography has had no effect on culture or the well-being of children. In other words, there’s no contradiction in saying that women and children may be protected by law much better in the age of porn than before it, and yet are still victimized through it.

In any event, I wonder: is it really wise, or even effective, to use rape statistics as the ultimate metric of porn’s impact on culture? This seems to be a rather egregious case of low expectations. Violent crime as a whole has been descending throughout the last two decades, and the decline in reported rapes has actually not kept pace with the decline in overall violent crime. Again, this data would be more compelling if the argument being made by Burk and others was that the objectification of women in culture by necessity leads to more open violence. But that’s not the argument. We should absolutely welcome any and all decline in sexual violence, but we need not invite pornography to the celebration in order to do so.

I think Friedersdorf misses the crucial point. The reason that Time, and many other publications, are covering the pornification of American culture is not a sexual violence epidemic, but it’s an epidemic nonetheless. It’s an epidemic of sexual and spiritual dysfunction. Psychologists and social scientists are literally just beginning to uncover porn’s terrifying neural imprint. As Aaron Kheriarty has noted in an excellent essay for The Public Discourse, the mental and emotional stakes of sexual habits are high, and where those habits involve isolation, fantasy, and authoritarian control of the sexual ritual, the human brain quite literally begins “fusing” reality with unreality.

This psychological phenomenon has consequences. As Time and others have noted, those addicted to porn tend to struggle with even the basic elements of interpersonal relationships. But the consequences also go far beyond social skills. Pornography doesn’t just absorb libido, it replaces it with something completely different. This is why, for example, Kevin Williamson saw scores of men paying for access to an adult entertainment convention when cheaper and legal prostitution was nearby. What these men want, by definition, isn’t a sexual experience but a pornographic one. They aren’t getting bootleg copies; they’re going into another business altogether.

This gets at the heart of what I think professor Burk meant when he said “civilizational calamity.” Porn doesn’t supplement sex. It replaces it. And what many in our culture are beginning to understand is that whatever it replaces it with is an acid to healthy sexual psychology. Lest we pat ourselves on the back for ending the kind of patriarchy that Friedersdorf mentions, let’s remember that in the porn-saturated world of the internet, women are still subjugated to the language, attitudes, and behavior that exemplifies a culture where they are in real physical danger.

Using a different currency doesn’t mean you can’t still get robbed. Don’t underestimate the price of porn.