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Not Free to Desist from the Work: Porn, Guns, and Holding Back the Tide
My hometown is built on a hill that slopes towards the sea. The beach is separated from town by thirty-foot bluffs. For over a century, the city has built staircases to carry locals and tourists from street to sand and back again.
Stone and iron are among the strongest things we humans have, but they are no match for the sea. In the fifty years since my family moved to Carmel, we’ve seen the staircases washed away time and again. They are rebuilt each time, often in different ways as engineers adapt to both technological progress and lessons learned from previous storms. That only means the new staircase lasts a little longer than the old version.
In the summer of 1986, I had a summer job working for the city. I remember the bulldozers pushing huge blocks of granite against the bluffs to shore them up for winter. I remember remarking as I watched, “That will hold back a tsunami.” My supervisor shook his head. “Maybe a very, very small one. The ocean will always win in the end. We will always lose. Doesn’t mean we don’t try to buy a little time.”
I write a lot about having friends across the political spectrum. That probably comes across as boastful, as if I’m the Apostle saying, “I wish all could be as I am, getting along with everybody.” I do wear my deepest convictions lightly, and I think curiosity and amiability are among the very greatest virtues, but at some point, it’s tiresome to keep telling you so. Rodney King’s plaintive “Can’t we all just get along?” has already been answered, and while I don’t like the “Hell no,” that’s turned out to be the reply, I would do well to grumble about it less often.
Bear with me on this one, though: this week, some of my conservative friends have celebrated the success of state-based age-verification laws in restricting access to pornography. (Read more here.) Most of these friends recognize that these new laws do only a little, only in a few places, and only against the biggest American pornography distributors like Pornhub. They know that there are offshore porn distributors, funded by cryptocurrency rather than credit cards (google “Motherless” if you must), who need not observe the restrictions American corporations that accept Mastercard and Visa must observe. My friends know that curious, determined, horny teens will find a way around most barriers. They know that blue states like California and New York will be much more hesitant to impose these age-verification laws.
They know all these things, but they also believe that pornography constitutes an existential danger to marriage and family. They believe it is psyche-warping and soul-destroying. They believe it will damage their children before they have had their first real kiss, fallen in love, or met their soulmate. They are clear-eyed about the threat, and equally clear-eyed about their options in a pluralist society with a robust, rapidly evolving technology infrastructure and a strong First Amendment tradition. Just as the city engineers know that the ocean will never stop coming for the bluffs, but roll the boulders into place anyway, so too my friends celebrate the erecting of even the most imperfect and temporary of firewalls.
We have to try, they say. To do otherwise is unthinkable. Our children must know we tried.
That’s the exact, word-for-word thing my friends on the left say about guns. They know the recent Supreme Court rulings. They see the make-up of Congress. They know that there are tens of millions of AR-15s in private hands. They know that there is neither the legal structure nor the popular consensus necessary to confiscate firearms as was done in other countries. But do these daunting facts stop my lefty friends from trying an incrementalist approach in the blue states? An age-verification here, a background check there, a gun-free zone over there….
“Sometimes I look at this country, and I despair,” a gun-control-advocate friend of mine says. “Then I think of my children and yours, and I say, ‘I must do something. They have to know I did something.’”
My friends on the right tell me that the First Amendment was never meant to extend to hardcore pornography. My friends on the left tell me that the Second Amendment was never meant to extend to AR-15s. I nod, mention that at times the courts have thought otherwise, and I wish them the best. (I also try very hard to squelch the temptation to offer the usual libertarian bromides that strike my loved ones as reckless, irresponsible, and puerile.)
It is a noble thing to put up stone against the sea, when you know who wins in the end. It is a noble thing to say, “I know what is coming for my children, and I may not be able to save them, but by God, as a parent, I have no choice but to try.”
The engineers in my hometown know the sea wins in the end. That doesn’t stop them from experimenting with new materials and new designs, looking for a staircase to the sand that can withstand the greatest of storms. I honor the conviction and the creativity alike. I feel the same way about my anti-porn and anti-gun friends, who recognize the huge legal, technological, and cultural obstacles they face, and still push on.
My conservative friends are luckier than my lefty ones, if only because those on the right tend to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God who will deliver a final and decisive victory. That’s a less widely held conviction on the left, which means that the hope-to-despair calculus sometimes varies a bit between the two sides. And yet, whether they believe in a Final Reckoning or not, they all seem to know they cannot do other than what they are doing. They owe it to God, to their children, to the earth.
One of the most famous lines in the Pirkei Avot (a series of texts in the Jewish rabbinical tradition) offers some comfort here: You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it. Whether you fight the sea, smut, or guns, you know you are not free to desist from a battle so important, even if your victory is unlikely.
As I said, I do not have many convictions, and wear those I do have lightly. That’s no doubt some combination of moral failing and brain injury, and you are free to consider it an abdication of responsibility. What I do have is a great deal of admiration and affection for those of you who possess a fierce sense of right and wrong, of What Must be Done and Who Must be Stopped.
I have a special devotion to those who have looked at the scope and scale of the enemy they face, swallowed hard, and said to themselves, “Right. Probably not going to win this. But we’re going to try.”
You are doing the most beautiful and necessary of human things: struggling against death.
I honor you, and I thank you.