The cause de jour is pornography; only this time it is the feminists, not the bluenoses, who are angry. The feminist Establishment -- Steinem, Abzug, Brownmiller -- is holding conferences, planning marches, conducting tours of 42nd Street. Its thesis, in the words of Dolores Alexander of Women Against Pornography, is that "pornography is anti-woman propaganda."
Don Marquis pointed out that an idea can't be held responsible for the people who believe in it. But an idea is not merely an idea: it takes on its coloration from the way it is held and asserted. Opposing pornography is one thing. Calling it "anti-woman propaganda" is another.
True, porn is now a multibillion-dollar industry. But most of it is cheesecake run amok. And it's just a little bit silly to talk as if the GIs who kept pinups of Betty Grable in their lockers were anti-Grable. At least Miss Grable [how sad to recall that she died of cancer a few years ago] took it as a huge compliment. Recently the Ivy League girls were eagerly posing for Playboy.
Is that kind of thing immoral? Yes. But good bluenoses should understand why. The human personality has structure. There is more to us than meets the eye, and the sense of privacy is rooted in our instinctive resistance to premature exposure. Only shallow people give themselves away at once.
Was Betty Grable immoral? That's pushing things. I don't know that the Miss America pageant is immoral, but somehow it offends me to see women putting themselves on display for a panel of judges. The things that are obvious to strangers are rarely the important things about us. That level of attention is a little vulgar in itself, with or without nudity. But it's nothing to mount a high horse about. [I am willing to leave alone those people whose idea of felicity is being serenaded by Bert Parks.]
The feminist agitation over pornography focuses on the sadomasochistic variety, the sick, Hustler-and-then-some kind -- what a friend of mine calls "concentration camp stuff." But this is a minority taste. What interests me about the current concern is the way the feminists are insistently treating it as typical of commercial porn. I suspect this says more about the feminist movement than about porn consumers in general, most of whom are guilty of nothing worse than perceiving women as candy bars.
Today's feminism is of a special kind. It is only distantly related to the suffragette movement with which it claims continuity. The suffragettes were demanding citizenship for women. They were a modernizing movement, part of a deep shift in Western culture from tribal and familial social order to individualism. Like the abolitionists, they were ethnically dissenting Protestants. Susan B. Anthony's father was a Massachusetts Quaker abolitionist: extending citizenship ran in the family.
Today's feminists are anti-modern and anti-individualist. They bring to their causes the bickering style of New York bloc politics: tribal, accusatory, gimme-gimme. Men, to them, are The Enemy -- less a sex than a brutal conspiracy. Brownmiller has written a whole book charging that all men are rapists at heart. Which pretty well sets the tone for the movement.
The days of oppression are over, but these women can hardly afford to admit that. Hence the harping on the worst male behavior as if it were the norm, the loose charges of things like "anti-woman propaganda" as if porn were a phase of the War Between the Sexes. The extreme rhetoric serves to justify extravagant demands, when the essential victory has long since been secured -- by the likes of Susan B. Anthony.
Inconsistency is usually a good tipoff. Today's feminists rarely complain about double standards, because they favor them -- in affirmative action and the like. They want Ann Meyers to be able to play in the National Basketball Association, but they don't want "equal pay for equal work" to mean Billie Jean King has to face Bjorn Borg. Equality of the sexes means executive jobs for women, but not, apparently, giving fathers an equal [or "affirmative"] shot at child custody.
Let Dr. Johnson have the last word: "Your levelers always want to level down as far as themselves, but they cannot bear leveling up to themselves."