Porn Generation (05 Edition)
A review by Alexander Barnes Dryer
It's hard to identify a single flaw in Ben Shapiro's tiresome Porn Generation.
The book is so riddled with problems -- poor reasoning, poor research, and poor
writing -- that to highlight even a handful of errors would diminish the totality
of his failure. Yet in all fairness to Shapiro, the problems with his book are
common to much of contemporary conservative commentary. Porn Generation
is merely a symptom of a larger problem on the right.
Shapiro's thesis in Porn Generation is simple enough: Generation Y (of which both he and I are members) has been hopelessly degraded by America's raucous, oversexualized culture. While Shapiro goes a bit too far in his estimation of the damage done, his observation itself is entirely uncontroversial. Serious people on both the left and right can (and do) agree that the coarsening of our culture is a deplorable trend. No less of a Shapiro bête noir than Hillary Clinton has been making essentially the same point for nearly 15 years. Where Shapiro falls down, then, is not in observation but in argument. He lays the blame for cultural degradation entirely at the feet of social liberals. Apparently everything from the hookup culture of college campuses to the lyrics of pop music can be blamed on a left-leaning cultural elite. It's an argument nonsensical enough to defy refutation -- it's non-falsifiable.
If Shapiro's argument is thin, perhaps that's because he did little of the research required to write a more serious book. Judging from the endnotes, entire chapters of Porn Generation have been based on reading a few issues of teen magazines, watching an afternoon of MTV, and listening to a radio station's Top-40 countdown. And Shapiro's quasi-sociological examination of his peers is especially preposterous. It seems the only twenty-somethings he interviewed were his classmates at Harvard Law School, and many of the stories he recounts are hard to believe. The thought that young men might exaggerate tales of their sexual exploits apparently never dawned on Shapiro.
Even if one is somehow capable of overlooking Shapiro's poor reasoning, it's hard to make it through Porn Generation without stumbling over his language. For someone supposedly concerned with the coarsening of our culture, Shapiro throws around insults pretty freely: A fifteen-year-old worried about pregnancy is a "tramp," Paris Hilton is a "fabulously rich slut," and John Kerry "had to bus' a few caps in Vietnam, you know, to protect the bruthas and all" (I'll confess to having no idea what that last one even means). Apparently the culture can be dragged down by flirtatious movie stars but not by vicious polemicists.
Still, singling out Porn Generation for criticism is unfair. The book is symptomatic of a larger problem with right-wing commentary. The popular polemicists Shapiro clearly is imitating -- successful authors such as Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity -- have given up any pretense that conservatism is separate from Republican electoral victory. The idea that true conservatism sometimes diverges from Republican orthodoxy -- particularly its worship of big business -- never seems to intrude on their angry screeds.
To return to Shapiro's argument, for example, a more honest accounting of the debasing of popular culture might focus on the government's retreat from television. In 1961 John Kennedy's FCC chairman, Newton Minow, went before the National Association of Broadcasters and described television as a "vast wasteland." He vowed to "uphold and protect the public interest" and voiced his disagreement with those who "say the public interest is merely what interests the public." Kennedy's FCC sought to limit advertising to children and increase educational programming. But by the '80s, Reagan's FCC chairman, Mark Fowler, derided the idea of the public interest. Television, he said, was only a "toaster with pictures." Reagan's FCC sought to limit government control of broadcasters.
Shapiro avoids this point because it might force him to criticize Republicans. But as GOP control of government solidifies, conservative polemicists will -- or at least should -- find it increasingly difficult to remain so deferential to their party. How much longer can Coulter attack liberals as soft on terror, for instance, when liberals play virtually no role in setting national security policy? The day is coming when the Shapiros of the world will have to criticize the Republican Party or surrender any claim to intellectual honesty. The complete failure of Porn Generation indicates that day is close -- or maybe already here.
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