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Sunday, June 19, 2005

Dear Prudence

In Tom Jones, Henry Fielding once wrote: "Indeed, I have observed (though it may seem unaccountable to the reader) that this guard of prudence, like the trained bands, is always readiest to go on duty where there is the least danger."

The "trained bands" in 18th century England were a sort of military reserve of local citizenry, and Fielding notes that they were often criticized for incompetence and cowardice. Which brings to mind the Virgin Ben, who is smarting this week in his Clown Hall column from TBogg's tidy summation of his own prudence ("some people choose celibacy, while others have it thrust upon them. Poor Ben. He no more chose abstinence than Clarence Thomas chose to be black.") But Ben is proud of the moral superiority his immaculate condition confers, which somehow lends him the expertise needed to pen his new tome entitled Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism is Corrupting Our Future.

Says Ben:
Such heated, inarticulate and unreasoned hatred for moral standards should not be shocking. Social liberalism seeks to promote a "live and let live" society wherein all types of deviant behavior is tolerated and accepted.


By discarding traditional morality in favor of amoralism, we have catered to the lowest common denominator. Social liberals have taken control of our culture through music, film, television and other mass media. R-rated films today often include soft-core pornography; television shows like "Friends" promote a fun-filled, promiscuous lifestyle with no consequences; rap music is misogynistic, glorifying its own degradation; pop music holds aloft cultural wrecking balls like Madonna as empowered feminist heroes.
Although his previous works have been pockmarked with factual errors, Ben is still quite smugly Better Than All That. In proudly trumpeting his own purity and measuring the decline of western civilization by using himself as a yardstick, Ben joins a long tradition of patronizing, intolerant right-wing kooks who practice bigotry and hypocrisy for fun and profit.

He writes a book called Porn Generation, for starters. Not Low SAT Score or High Triglyceride Generation. It's called Porn Generation, for which he tells us he interviewed many porn stars. Nice. Ben gets to stare unblinkingly at this most popular of past times without ever taking responsibility for it. In this he is much like the agents for the New York Society for Suppression of Vice (NYSSV), who used to show up at Minsky's burlesque house in the 30s and "tisk-tisk" as they counted the number of bosoms that appeared each evening. It's a neat trick if you can manage it -- you get to take a bath in the so-called "depravity" even as you're railing against it, and in Ben's case, capitalize on a sexy title to make a fast buck.

The NYSSV was the bastard child of Anthony Comstock, who like Ben appointed himself arbiter of public morality with no more than the dubious qualification of a hairy palm. He managed to get Walt Whitman fired from the Department of the Interior for writing Leaves of Grass, campaigned against birth control, cried out against George Bernard Shaw for his "smutty" plays, and directed the burning of 120 tons of literature -- including works by Dos Passos and Hemmingway. Comstock was downright dangerous. So far the Virgin Ben is just an annoying, grubby little opportunist.

In her excellent book Striptease: The Untold History Of The Girlie Show,Rachael Shteir notes that the early crusaders against burlesque like Comstock and Sumner were basically promoting themselves as civic leaders by playing into class and ethnic bigotry. The broad physical comedy and risque dancing found at the burlesque halls were the entertainment of working class patrons, who were often immigrants and enjoyed a show whose appreciation did not depend on tremendous cultural sophistication. When Fiorello LaGuardia finally closed the burlesque halls in New York in 1939, it is telling that the ban on nudity did not apply to the high-brow shows put on at the time just down the street by Flo Ziegfeld, where long legged beauties regularly posed bare-ass naked for the enjoyment of the upper classes at a much higher price. Likewise, Ben picks his pop-culture targets with care. It is the common man who cannot be trusted with his own penis.

When Mary Carey made her trip to Washington to profess her love for George Bush, at least she was honest about her intentions -- she has a flair for self-promotion and the desire to make a buck. But Ben cannot lay claim to either the honesty or the self-awareness of a Bush-loving porn star. His imminent dread that she will corrupt him and (God forbid) others like him is, quite frankly, unneccessary.