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The New Pantagruel
A quarterly electronic journal run by 'a cadre of intemperate but friendly Catholics and Protestants' which seeks to 'joyfully engage in earthly reality, insisting on seeing both the divine reflection and the demonic shadow...'

The New Pantagruel’s Caleb Stegall on true conservatism
"To me the political right and left are to a large extent holding hands under the table... You can take the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement on the left and apply it to economic principles, and you have a George Bush speech.’"  [LJ World]

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Plastic Sinners, Plastic Sins

From King David to St. Augustine, Christian tradition affirms the value of bold, strong sins. But the culture of porn has given us the simpering, self-justifying, and machine-like sins of Bill Bennett and Bill Clinton.

Last year, following the revelation that William Bennett—America's Jiminy Cricket—had squandered millions of dollars gambling in casinos, there was a renewed wave of hand-wringing over the state of public virtue. First Clinton's peccadilloes and now Bennett. Some on the right despaired while many on the left gleefully recorded further proof of their theory that "everybody does it." Both sides seemed to concede the underlying fact: we just can't be good.

To me, this is an unremarkable truth, something we have known about ourselves for a very long time. Instead of being surprised to learn from these public failures that we haven't yet figured out how to be good, we ought to ask ourselves why it is we so easily forget this fact. This forgetting, after all, is the more recent development, not the fact of vice. A closer look at the manner in which both Bennett and Clinton acted can, I think, provide an answer to this more important question.

Plastic Sinners

The virtuous vices are virtuous because they carry within them the seed of redemption.
More troubling to me than the fact that the author of The Book of Virtues participated heavily in an industry that exploits a lack of virtue was the way Bennett pursued his habit. Somehow, the image of a robotic Bennett dropping $500 chips into a slot machine at 3 a.m. seemed far less forgivable than the image I would have preferred: that of Bennett, cigar planted firmly in the corner of his mouth, sweating under the dim lights of a high-stakes poker game, or indulging in the glitz of a high-rolling craps game, or holding onto his hat while he urged his horse on at the racetrack. Similarly, why does the image of John F. Kennedy seducing Marilyn Monroe into a full-fledged affair conducted in exotic locations bother me so much less than that of President Clinton convincing his intern to service him in a hallway outside the Oval Office?

Most commentators have made the mistake of wondering whether the Bennett and Clinton (and other) episodes mark the disappearance of virtue. Rather, we ought to wonder whether we are losing something just as important to a healthy society: the existence of "virtuous vice." The practitioners of virtuous vice are more forgivable because their sins are human sins, pursued with human passions. They approach life with the attitude of "real vice or no vice at all." As such, their vices remain on a human scale. Retaining a high level of skill and daring, these sinners celebrate their humanity by consciously risking annihilation. The virtuous vices are virtuous because they carry within them the seed of redemption: a recognition of the truth that human beings are not merely materialistic beings, not just a collection of elements, but spiritual beings capable of a meaningful annihilation. In George Santayana's memorable phrase, those who practice virtuous vice are "moral, though fugitive." As G.K. Chesterton put it, "they accept the essential idea of man; they merely seek it wrongly."

Bennett at his slots and Clinton in his hallway leave us cold precisely because by pursuing the pay-off with nothing but mechanical efficiency, they have dehumanized vice. The real lesson to be learned here is that playing slot machines is the gambling equivalent of receiving oral sex from an office intern. Both of these acts represent within our culture the corrosive effect of modernity; both acts bear the unmistakable marks of pornography.

Pornography is sin carefully processed, packaged, marketed, shopped for, and stored away in the cupboard, ready to satisfy any late night craving we may have.
The success of enlightened democracy is also its greatest bane: it imposes onto every area of human life the calculus of utilitarian efficiency. PornographyI am using the term in its most general sense—is simply the imposition of this calculus on the fact of human sin. It is sin carefully processed, packaged, marketed, shopped for, and stored away in the cupboard, ready to satisfy any late night craving we may have. The attraction of the midnight snack is that it perpetuates the illusion of free and responsible adulthood while all the while allowing us to submit completely to the slavery of desire. The culture of porn is modernity's answer to a Puritan inheritance which declares all men sinners and demands that no man should sin.

Both Bennett and Clinton have demonstrated publicly where we are at in the process of pornifying sin. Clinton pursued oral sex in a hallway to avoid the risk of annihilation inherent in actually "having sex" with his "lover." Bennett stayed away from the card tables because he didn't like to be recognized when gambling. Both men sought the material benefit of vice while at the same time calculating and measuring its cost in ways that denied the virtue of the vice. As a result, both men reduced themselves in some measure to the level of machines. Both were being "serviced" in mechanical ways. They are just two more in a long line of people victimized and self-victimized by pornography's tendency to reduce human passion to its most consumable, mechanistic parts and then offer up those parts as efficiently, ubiquitously, and cheaply as possible. Slot machines and furtive oral sex leave the human scale behind in preference for a mechanical scale. And importantly, these sins are less forgivable because they are less human.

Plastic Sins

The Bennett and Clinton scandals are not isolated incidents. In fact, pornography in all its guises demonstrates that once sin is dehumanized, it is freed to spread out across the land, restrained only by the utilitarian values of the market. There is ample evidence for this in the recent popularity of both Clinton's and Bennett's chosen vices.

A great deal was made of the fact that Clinton insisted that he had been truthful when he publicly declared never to have had a "sexual relationship" with "that woman." Whether this was pure sophistry on Clinton's part or not, the notion that oral sex is "not sex" is a fact to millions of young people today. A 1997 New York Times story reported on the dramatic increase in oral sex practiced among the county's teenagers. The Times explained that most high-school students considered oral sex to be far less dangerous both physically and emotionally than intercourse. National media was soon reporting on the trend among middle-school students to engage in casual oral sex in homes, parks, and schools. In 2000, the Times quoted a psychologist talking about seventh-graders as saying that oral sex is "like a good night kiss to them."

The percentage of casino revenues from slot machines and other automated gambling machines has increased dramatically.
The notion of oral sex as little more than a good night kiss seems to be gaining greater acceptability in the adult world as well. Not only was there Clinton's strained defense, a 1999 survey of health educators conducted by North Carolina State University revealed that 30% of the respondents viewed oral sex as abstinent behavior. Just last year, the London Times reported that a British government backed health curricula being taught to more than 100,000 children was "encouraging pupils under 16 to experiment with oral sex, as part of a drive to cut rates of teenage pregnancy."

The recent history of slot machines is eerily similar. In the last two decades, the percentage of casino revenues from slot machines and other automated gambling machines has increased dramatically. According to the 2001 Nevada Gaming Almanac, slot revenues now routinely account for 75% of total gaming revenues in various casinos. For some casinos, the slot percentage was as high as 86%.

This dramatic increase in revenue from slot machines has come at a needed time for the gaming industry. Before slot machines took over, gambling revenues had held steady at best. Many sectors of the industry, particularly outside traditional gambling zones such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City, have actually seen their profits decline to the point of an uncertain future. The industry's solution has been to turn to slot machines. In recent years, lobbying for expanded slots across the country has been intense.

Bold sins tend to either burn a person up, or burn him into a saint.
For example, lobbyists for the three biggest dog and horse racing tracks in my home state of Kansas have been pushing our state legislature hard for slot machines. Last year, one representative of the industry claimed that by seeking slot machines, the tracks were "just [asking] for a chance to stay in business." "Many tracks around the country have gone to slot machines," the lobbyist argued, "because racing won't support itself." "Pari-mutuel wagering hasn't attracted the young sports enthusiast. Our patrons generally are middle age and older," he said. "[And] the numbers are dwindling."

In Pennsylvania, the racing industry recently released a study titled "Crime Declines around Racetracks with Slot Machines" meant to prepare the way for the argument in favor of slots. The industry there took the position that the presence of slot machines in gambling establishments actually reduces the negative side-effects of gambling.

Back here in Kansas, during the 2003 legislative session the state legislature narrowly defeated a gaming industry bill that would have allowed slot machines in all 105 Kansas counties at establishments ranging from convenience stores to casinos. Most telling of all, a prejudice against table games was written into the bill. Establishments that offered slots but no table games would have been taxed at a much lower rate by the state than full blown casino-style operations.

Clearly we are a people who want our "comfort sins"vices that assuage our mechanical needs but leave our souls untouched. Society's structures of efficient machinery aim to put a slot machine in every laundramat and oral sex in every hallway. As a result, we have become fundamentally incapable of approaching the hard work of sinning with an attitude of "serious vice or no vice at all"; incapable of "going all the way." This soul-denial is the lie at the heart of the culture of porn; and our acceptance of this lie as it is spun out on glimmering, gossamer thread guarantees death waiting at the center of the web.

Sin Boldly

The culture of porn is modernity’s answer to a Puritan inheritance which declares all men sinners and demands that no man should sin.
There is a long Christian tradition affirming the value to society of bold, strong sins. From King David to Saint Augustine, our knowledge of grace has been fortified by our knowledge of depravity. Martin Luther understood this when he wrote in a letter to Philip Melanchthon, "Be a sinner, and sin boldly." Luther spoke in contrast to those who disgusted him by finding "excuses for their sins" and by "justify[ing] themselves."

We need virtuous vice and bold sinners. Such vice affirms our humanity and tends to either burn a person up, or burn him into a saint. Outbreaks are violent and ugly, but can usually be contained. The culture of porn, on the other hand, operates like a deadly but patient virus: it lurks in the blood and succeeds by maintaining in its host the illusion of health. It creates simpering, self-justifying, and machine-like sins; outbreaks are prettified, and devastation seeps into society like a water into a sponge, mostly unnoticed.

Vice will always be with us. It is a fact those concerned with the future of virtue ought to remember. But better that it be rare, exotic, and expensive than common, pedestrian, and cheap. We need sins that affirm us as spiritual beings in all of our fallenness. Therefore sinner, sin boldly, but, as Luther also admonished, pray boldly too. For you are human after all.

January 5, 2005

CALEB STEGALL is editor of The New Pantagruel, and a practicing attorney and former law clerk to the Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He has previously published commentary in Touchstone, Books & Culture, Comment, Re:generation Quarterly, and Reformed Presbyterian Witness. He lives with his wife, Ann, and their four sons in rural Kansas.

This article was originally published in The New Pantagruel. Copyright ©2004 The New Pantagruel. Reprinted with permission. All right reserved.

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