Pornography, many conservatives argue, poses a threat to society grave enough to justify censorship. This is a point of view I respect, especially now that I am a father, yet not one I can wholeheartedly espouse, because it doesn't jibe with my experience. It was pornography, after all, that turned me into a conservative.
Until the summer before I started college, I considered myself a leftist, or as I would have said then, a "progressive." I subscribed to Mother Jones and the New York Review of Books, and once got into trouble with my sixth-grade teacher Sister Dorothy for coming to school with a copy of Ms.
But I was a teenage boy, too, so my magazine consumption also included less politically correct titles, the kind with pictures of naked women. I justified the apparent contradiction with the thought that any blow against censorship was a blow for liberty.
In eighth grade I organized an after-school reading group, whose assigned texts were the kind that we weren't allowed to buy at 7-Eleven. (So we shoplifted them, and justified our crimes with the thought that any blow against censorship was a blow for liberty.) Sometimes we met in empty classrooms, sometimes in my room at home, where I kept the material interspersed with more respectable periodicals like Variety and Film Comment (I was a movie lover too).
By the summer after my senior year in high school, I had calmed down sufficiently that naughty magazines laid less of a claim on my attention. I had also developed a stronger sense of shame, so that even though I was old enough to buy them, I never did.
Never, that is, till I saw a cover of Playboy announcing an interview with George Gilder inside. I had heard a bit about Gilder; his book Wealth and Poverty was a bestseller at the time (1981), and he was said to be the eccentric genius behind the Reagan revolution. He was apparently pushing the wild idea that capitalism was not a necessary evil but a positive good.
To this seventeen-year-old, that sounded almost as sensational as naked women. It certainly violated a bigger taboo. Yet in another sense it was eminently respectable. The man was talking economics, after all. He'd even gone to Harvard. Obviously he deserved a hearing. If my eyes happened to stray to some of the pictures on nearby pages, so be it.
I can't remember anything else in that issue, but as corny as it sounds, the interview with Gilder changed my life. By the time I showed up at college that fall, I was a classical liberal: a believer in economic freedom, or in the parlance of the time (inadequate then as it is today), a "conservative."
What provokes this reminiscence is a report in La Stampa that Bob Guccione's General Media, Inc., publisher of Penthouse, has declared Chapter 11 and could soon go the way of all flesh. The magazine's circulation is now a measly half-million, one tenth of what it was in its '70s heyday. Playboy is losing money too, and surviving thanks only to more adept exploitation of the Internet.
The Internet is of course the culprit here. Why bother to face down the clerk at 7-Eleven, and risk having neighbors peek over your shoulder, when you can download far raunchier fare in the privacy of your home and in many cases for free?
And if you're a pornographer today, you're under no pressure, legal or otherwise, to add "socially redeeming" content to your smut. On the contrary, specialization is the byword of the Internet. A story by John Updike or an interview with Tiger Woods has no place on a site dedicated to "Hot Asian Hooters."
So among the many casualties of the torrent of obscenity now pouring through our modems could be more than one future conservative. Who knows? I might well have skipped that Gilder interview had it appeared in nothing sexier than The American Spectator.