What winning looks like

Allan Carlson tells the story of how social conservatism fought and won in nineteenth century America under the zealous leadership of Anthony Comstock:

Even Comstock’s political “descendants” in contemporary America, the socially conservative Religious Right, are largely oblivious of his legacy. My informal survey of a dozen contemporary American pro-family leaders found only one who had even heard of him; this despite the fact that Comstock succeeded in almost every aspect of his purity campaign: from crushing the pornography industry to suppressing abortion and contraception. Indeed, under any fair comparison, the current pro-family and pro-life movements have been failures.

Carlson isn’t exaggerating when he says Comstock “crushed” pornography, abortion, and contraception in America.  Read the article.

At this point, somebody usually points out that it all fell apart after Comstock’s death, so he was really, ultimately a failure.  I disagree.  The culture war must be fought every generation.  The greatest imaginable victory would be to win the battle for one’s generation and then trust to one’s children to carry on the fight when the advocates of sin re-erupt.  Our failure is not his.  If we ever win the culture (for a time…), we should build a monument to Anthony Comstock.

24 Responses

  1. Comstock represents the absolute worst of conservatism. This story helps me understand where liberalism came from, as a reaction to the absurdity of men like Comstock. I support real traditions, things like stable families and patriarchy and consideration for others. This happens to match what Jesus and other founders of religion generally supported. But tradition and Jesus never said a single thing about pornography, abortion, birth control, prostitution, alcohol or anything else that Comstock was obsessed with. Comstock wasn’t a true defender of tradition. He was just an uptight intolerant bastard who undoubtedly played a role discrediting conservatism and boosting liberalism.

  2. Comstock’s problem was that pornography, contraceptives, and abortifacients were legal or winked at in New York City, and could be shipped from there to any town in the country by the U.S. mail. You can find them advertised in the classified section of newspapers from the 1850s, usually under fairly transparent euphemisms like “fancy literature” and “female blockage.” Comstock’s strategy was essentially “containment,” so that the mores and material of what was called the “sporting life” didn’t spread from the lower East Side to Dubuque and Gopher Prairie, and he did this by controlling the delivery system.

    Our problem is that “the sporting life” is now ubiquitous, its mores and material are available everywhere, and the delivery system is wide open. Containment is not an option for us. We’re insurgents in captive territory.

    One thing Comstock understood was that, when it comes to vice, it’s supply that creates demand. This is true of most of today’s economy, but it Comstock’s day, most people assumed it was the other way round. This is our problem. We can’t control supply, and supply determines demand.

  3. Do you think the stability of families might be affected by pornography, abortion, birth control, prostitution, or intemperate use of alcohol? Jesus actually did say something about pornography (“lusting in the heart”), prostitution (“sin no more”), and alcohol (“the best is yet to come!”). The Sexual Revolution was designed (and I mean designed) to destroy the bourgeois family. That was its purpose, and it succeeded.

  4. From the article: His “free love” contemporary D. M. Bennett called Comstock “a first-class Torquemada” who had shown “the same energy, the same cruelty, [and] the same intolerance” as “the envenomed persecutors of the past centuries.”

    I’m hyperventilating with excitement. Are there no such men today?

  5. JMsmith, I most certainly do. In particular, having prostitution available greatly increases the stability of families because horny single men can go to prostitutes instead of chasing other men’s wives. I am not making this up, it is backed by facts. The countries with the most unstable families are those that ban prostitution, particularly the USA and Sweden. Liberal countries that have legal prostitution, like the Netherlands, have much more stable families. The countries with the most stable countries are conservative (Asian) countries like Japan and Thailand where pornography and prostitution are widely available. And in the earlier traditional times of our Western culture, when families were stable, prostitution was widely available.

  6. Cross-country comparisons are untrustworthy because they introduce other variables. A better thing to do would be to look at what happens in a given society when sexual mores are relaxed, and there the evidence is truly unambiguous: marriage and sexual morality have suffered disastrously throughout the West as contraception, abortion, and pornography have been accepted, then celebrated. One cannot honestly say that marriage in America is stronger now than it was in, say, 1900, when Comstock’s movement was going strong. Social censure works. People are more likely to indulge in a vice that is “tolerated” (i.e. celebrated by Hollywood, with expressions of disaproval punished formally or informally) than one that is regarded with horror.

    Abortion, contraception, divorce, pornography, and prostitution are evil, and a people who won’t condemn them publicly and collectively is sick and deserves the ruin that awaits it.

  7. Regardless, fighting sexual sin is something that is good in itself–it makes us a better people–regardless of the consequences, or lack thereof.

  8. bonald, who said anything about relaxing sexual mores? It is just that my sexual mores are different from yours and other modern conservatives who are confused in my opinion. I am strongly against adultery and I think women should be virgins are marriage, but I fully support prostitution, pornography, and abortion. If you look at the sexual mores of rising cultures, they look like my mores, not yours. When was marriage in America strongest? In the mid 1800s when prostitution was very widespread. People like Comstock led conservatives in the wrong direction. They are as responsible for ruining America as any liberal is. This is why I see no difference today between liberals and conservatives, because both support things that destroy marriage, and making prostitution illegal is one thing that destroys marriage.

    I know your views come from Christianity, and I am no Christian. But to be clear, Jesus never said anything against prostitution or male premarital sex. That was Paul, and Paul said many things in direct contradiction to Jesus. I much prefer Jesus to Paul. But even if you oppose sex outside of marriage, that is no reason to support making it illegal. It is like free speech, people should be free to speak even if they say objectionable things. Making prostitution and pornography illegal does nothing to reduce sex outside of marriage, it just redirects this sex down worse avenues like sex with other men’s wives and daughters. Even Saint Augustine recognized this when he said “If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.”

    As a general rule, I suggest questioning any belief you have that happens to align with feminists. Feminists are wrong about absolutely everything, the optimal belief is that diametrically opposed to that of feminists. In this case, you are in agreement with feminists which should give you second thoughts.

  9. Questioning any belief that aligns with feminism is good advice, and I’ll certainly follow it. Where have I agreed with feminists, though? I thought they were all for contraception and abortion. I suppose they’re divided on prostitution and pornography, which means I’ll have to agree with some of them no matter what position I take. I admit that’s unfortunate.

    People should not be free to say objectionable things when it subverts the community’s moral concensus. See my “Defense of Censorship”. (I know that wasn’t a main point of yours. Just wanted to make a plug for one of my essays.)

    I also feel the need to say that Christians aren’t as stupid as you think. We don’t have any kind of rule that says anything is permitted unless Jesus Christ explicitly discusses it. Jesus said that to even look at a woman who is not one’s wife with lust is equivalent to adultery, so it’s absurd to think He would countenance fornication or prostitution. A better case could be made that Jesus’ sexual ethic is not lax but impossibly strict. And indeed without grace it is impossible, since what He demands is a total interior transformation. I’m not sure why you keep insisting that one thing or the other comes from Paul rather than Jesus. You have no reason to find either the Gospels or Paul’s Epistles authoritative, but your Christian interlocutors are bound to find them both authoritative. It is true that Saint Augustine didn’t think criminalizing prostitution wise, but the Roman empire was collapsing around him. Today, the state is more powerful, and we have the opportunity to stamp out more sins.

  10. I won’t debate my main points anymore, but I find it depressing how badly Christians misunderstand the Gospels. You said “Jesus said that to even look at a woman who is not one’s wife with lust is equivalent to adultery, so it’s absurd to think He would countenance fornication or prostitution.” This comes from Matthew 5. Here is the context:

    Murder Begins in the Heart
    21 “You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, [e] Do not murder , (U) (V) and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. (W) 22 But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother [f] will be subject to judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ [g] will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire. (X) [h] 23 So if you are offering your gift on the altar, and there you remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to [i] the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. (Y) 26 I assure you: You will never get out of there until you have paid the last penny! [j]

    Adultery in the Heart
    27 “You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. (Z) (AA) 28 But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (AB) 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, (AC) gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (AD) 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell!

    Divorce Practices Censured
    31 “It was also said, Whoever divorces (AE) his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. (AF) (AG) 32 But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, [k] causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (AH)

    Two points are clear. First, Jesus’s point is to control not just actions but also feelings. (I happen to disagree with Jesus on this, but anyway…) He is not expanding the meaning of adultery which was well understood in his time to only mean sex with another man’s wife. So by “woman”, he clearly meant a married woman. And this is confirmed in his comments about divorce practices which only make sense in this context.

    The contradictions between Paul and Jesus are so numerous that I don’t know where to begin. I understand that Christians accept Paul as authoritative and just paper over these differences. After Jesus died, there was obviously a power struggle between different factions who admired Jesus, and Paul happened to be the most politically skilled and so he beat out the others. I admire Jesus for his basic decency and for the strength of convictions. I don’t much admire Paul whose main strength was only political skill and whose revisions to the ideas of Jesus I generally find detestable. I do admire Christian traditions and Christianity has historically been largely based on Jesus, but Jesus seems to be losing out to Paul lately and this reflects most of my complaints about modern conservatism.

  11. Comstock’s example is certainly worth remembering.

    Have you considered that morals legislation forms its own kind of patronage network which can serve as leverage for higher goals? It helps place defenders of public morality at all levels of government.

    In this light, judicial rulings against Comstock-inspired legislation should be interpreted as an effort to destroy a traditionalist patronage system and replace it with another — the “free speech lawyer” or “sex ed” patronage networks.

    One option for concrete local action: investigate nominally Catholic universities’ policies on internet pornography. Embarrass the permissive schools into blocking it from their networks, or force them to make explicit their indifference to moral corruption and the exploitation of abused and damaged men and women.

    Knights of Columbus councils still have a vestigial position for a decency officer. I wonder if any people are still filling that position at the local level.

  12. Hi fschmidt,

    I think you’re missing the whole point of the Gospels with these sorts of legalistic/minimalistic readings. Christ’s greatest apostle, Paul, could help you on this. The point is not to see how much you can get away with without technically violating one of the rules Jesus (or Moses) laid down. The point is to be entirely transformed through charity into a child of God, “another Christ”. You must not only abstain from extralegal revenge; you must renounce the hatred you’ve been nursing. You must not only abstain from fooling around with other men’s wives; you must renounce the lust that would lead you to instrumentalize other people and the holy marriage act. Viewed as a system of laws to bind the unregenerate, these are impossible to follow, but as Paul explains that that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Even the Mosaic law is too hard without God; it’s final lesson is to teach us our own insufficiency. The point of the new covanent is to be transformed by Christ through faith.

    As for “contradictions”, you could have made even stronger statements showing that Jesus seems to contradict Himself a number of times. (I was surprised reading Augustine’s On the Trinity how many of these cases he finds to take up.) I’ll bet a hostile reader could grab fragments from different posts on my weblog which would seem to show that I am a mass of contradictions. Anyone who reads this blog fully and sympathetically, though, will see the overall coherence and interpret the fragments accordingly.

  13. Excellent point! I like it how you bring things back to the issue of institutions and what kind of inertia they have. I think the clearest example of a new patronage system would be civil rights lawyers, though.

  14. fschmidt,
    Horny single men do not normally chase other men’s wives. And unless they are very ugly, shy, or perverted, they don’t normally patronize prostitutes. They have girlfriends and hook-ups, neither of which have homicidally jealous husbands, and the latter of which are almost free. The kind of guy who patronizes high-end prostitutes is not interested in sex with your wife; and your wife is not interested in the kind of guy who has sex with low-end prostitutes.

    The stability of marriages in the Netherlands is simply a function of the low marriage rate. The easiest way to lower the divorce rate is to encourage cohabitation, since this keeps most of the unstable relationships off the marriage registry. The same thing has happened, although to a lesser degree, here in the U.S., which is why the increase in the divorce rate since, say, 1965 is far greater than statistics say.

    The relative stability of Asian marriages is at least partly attributable to (a) lower testosterone, (b) lower impulsivity, (c) the fact that divorce in Asia leaves the woman very, very poor.

    Prostitutes were certainly available in the past, but they were not more available than at present.

    Are you defending these things on libertarian grounds, or because you see nothing wrong in prostitution, etc.?

  15. In Imperial Japan prostitution was quite tolerated. Their moral code tolerated it, and it insured that young men would go after prostitutes instead of other women. It isn’t morally acceptable for a Christian, but that doesn’t mean it should be illegal.

  16. bonald, my point isn’t legalistic at all. I believe that Paul intentionally hijacked Christianity to promote his own agenda which largely contradicted what Jesus preached. Even if I differ with Jesus on a few minor points, I really like the guy and what he had to say. I have no doubt that Jesus would be outraged by what Paul said and by the kind of beliefs expressed by today’s Christians. Jesus would undoubtedly have the wisdom to understand why prostitution is needed.

    By the way, it was Paul said that Mosaic law is too hard and that we are all sinners. Jesus said that he wanted to uphold every letter of Mosaic law and that people should strive to avoid sin. So you are again repeating the views of Paul in contradiction to the teachings of Jesus.

    JMsmith, you sound just like a feminist.

    I read this blog because I am a reactionary and I love traditional values. I support marriage, family, decency, honesty, consideration for others, etc. I totally detest modern culture, both liberal and conservative. I had looked at Christianity as a possible refuge from the modern world but I now realize that Christianity has strayed so far from its roots as to be worthless. So I am planning to join Orthodox Judaism. (And I just got back from synagogue a little while ago.)

  17. Dear fschmidt,

    Congratulations on reconnecting with your ancestral faith. Of course, I wish you had become a Christian, but I’m happy for you and hope you will find what you’re looking for in your new spiritual home.

  18. Thanks bonald. I probably shouldn’t have been so harsh on Christianity but these issues are very recent in my mind as I read the Bible and sorted through my personal options. What is relevant to this group is what can be done to restore traditional values. And what this thread makes clear is that people can differ on exactly what traditional values are. If one constructs a long list of values, one will find very few people who agree on all of them. The shorter the list, the more possible it is to get more people to support it. Even if I disagree with you on some specific issues like prostitution, I believe that we agree on enough core values that it should be possible for us to work together. So if someone ever does get around to trying to take action, I hope they stay focused on shared traditional values and avoid issues where different traditions held conflicting views.

  19. Hello Fschmidt,

    If you believe that Paul (or the Pauline faction) hijacked the religion of Jesus Christ, you should read Machen’s “The Origin of Paul’s Religion,” which demonstrates in a scholarly manner that Paul taught what Christ taught.

    The problem with Orthodox Judaism is the problem with all non-Christian religion: It has no solution to man’s real problem, which is sin. Forgiveness of sin is found only through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ; as Christ Himself said:

    Mark 10:45: For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

    Luke 24: 46, 47 And [Jesus] said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behooved Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

    John 6:28, 29 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.

    That’s what Paul taught, and that’s what Christ taught.

  20. fschmidt, I hope you realise you need a lot more knowledge of Orthodox Judaism before you convert – fortunately, they’ll require that. Due to personal circumstances, I’ve had a lot more social contact with Orthodox Jews than your average goy, and I can tell you that a surprising number of them, even the so-called ultra-Orthodox, are more politically liberal than you might think. Also, gerim are not always fully accepted (depends on the exact community) even though in most respects there’s not supposed to be any distinction. Furthermore, keep in mind that while they may be patriarchal, they’re certainly not libertarians – so, to answer an implied question on your own website, the husband’s consent is required for a divorce – but if community sentiment is on your wife’s side, you could be seriously ostracised or even physically threatened if you withhold that consent. And rabbinical courts can actually compel divorce under certain circumstances! That latter possibility wouldn’t even occur to conservative Christians, because it’s so far outside our traditional understanding of marriage. So make sure you’re not importing mistaken assumptions into your evaluation of Orthodox Judaism before you get too excited about converting.

  21. Brock, I really like what I see so far in Orthodox Judaism. I met with the rabbi and told him that I am an atheist and he told me that it makes no difference as long as I follow God’s commandments. In other words, action matters, not belief. Judaism seems much closer to the moral framework that I want than any other religion. I will keep learning and see how it goes. By the way, the rabbi is Chabad.

  22. Well, Chabad people tend to be personally quite nice and very knowledgable, so that’s good. There’s no way any Orthodox Jew is going to let you convert without a lot more preparation, so, fine. I’m just trying to save you a little time here: I’ve seen an (admittedly limited) amount of your postings, and I don’t think Orthodox Judaism is going to be what you want.

    You can view Chabad (and other Jewish outreach organisations) as having two parts. The first is the communities at shuls dedicated to outreach (ie most of them), where the congregations are mostly ‘fringe’ Jews who are probably never going to be fully observant. In my experience, most of these people are not themselves conservative/traditionalist, some are ex-observant Jews who’ve fallen off the derech (often in non-conservative ways) and frankly, a fair number are damaged and dysfunctional people that Chabad is reaching out to. I can’t imagine a conservative atheist wanting this group as his primary social community.

    The other part is the ‘real’ Chabad-Lubavitcher community. If you go for this (tough but possible), you and your children will always be at some disadvantage as converts, even though technically it’s not supposed to matter for most things. Your children, for example, may having trouble finding good spouses in the community, because not only would they be converts, but they won’t have any yichus. I know a couple of ba’alei teshuvah and a giyores who have been through the Charedi matchmaking process (without finding anyone) and they seem to be frequently matched up with the divorced, the troubled, the returnees with iffy pasts (e.g. drugs, promiscuity, white-collar crime), etc.

    Just keep your eyes and ears open.

    (As a side point, I don’t know if anything is going to meet your requirements: as I see it, groups that are solidly conservative/ traditionalist come in two main types (which can overlap): either centred on a religion that requires genuine belief, or centred on being a shared historical community – which an outsider may be able be adopted into, but will always remain something of an outsider, because he doesn’t come from that shared history.)

  23. Brock, I have really simple question for you. Do you have any better suggestion for me than Chabad? If not, I might as well stick with it.

    About my local Chabad, I am in El Paso which doesn’t have a big Chabad presence. So it is mostly outreach. But the people there seem to be traditional Orthodox Jews, maybe not has hardcore as true Chabad, but still a lot better than the general population.

    I don’t care if my kids marry other Orthodox Jews because whoever they marry can also convert to Orthodox Judaism. What matters is just belonging to a community as free of liberal insanity as possible.

  24. El Paso…so the local demographics are no doubt a lot different than where I am. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chabad was the only Orthodox presence in the area, so it is plausible that the general congregation attracts a lot of local Orthodox Jews who aren’t themselves Chabad-Lubavitchers.

    I would stick with Chabad in your circumstances; once you know more about Orthodox Judaism, you can review the various options then.

    I don’t care if my kids marry other Orthodox Jews because whoever they marry can also convert to Orthodox Judaism.

    You say that so breezily that I have to wonder if you are aware how much is involved.

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