May 30, 2004

It Was the Porn That Made Them Do It

New York Times

THE day was April 2, 2003, the town was Najaf, the mood was giddy, and, yes, the citizens did greet the American liberators from the 101st Airborne Division with cheers. One Iraqi was asked what he hoped the Americans would bring, and Jim Dwyer reported the answer on the front page of The New York Times: " `Democracy,' the man said, his voice rising to lift each word to greater prominence. `Whiskey. And sexy!' "

Well, two out of three ain't bad.

This joyous memory came rushing back after the grim revelation of yet another kink in the torture regime at Abu Ghraib. As if sexual humiliation and violent abuse weren't punishment enough, the guards also made prisoners violate Islamic practice by force-feeding them booze.

How do we square the tales of American cruelty with the promise of democracy we thought we were bringing to Iraq? One obvious way might be to acknowledge with some humility that our often proud history has always had a fault line, running from slavery to Wounded Knee to My Lai. (Read accounts of Andersonville, the Confederate-run Civil War prison at which some 13,000 died, for literal echoes of some of Abu Ghraib's inhumanity.) But there's an easier way out in 2004: blame Janet Jackson for what's gone wrong in Iraq, or if not her, then Jenna Jameson.

It sounds laughable, but it's not a joke. Some of our self-appointed moral leaders are defending the morally indefensible by annexing Abu Ghraib as another front in America's election-year culture war. Charles Colson, the Watergate felon turned celebrity preacher, told a group of pastors convened by the Family Research Council that the prison guards had been corrupted by "a steady diet of MTV and pornography." The Concerned Women for America site posted a screed by Robert Knight, of the Culture and Family Institute, calling the Abu Ghraib scandal the " `Perfect Storm' of American cultural depravity," in which porn, especially gay porn, gave soldiers "the idea to engage in sadomasochistic activity and to videotape it in voyeuristic fashion." (His chosen prophylactics to avert future Abu Ghraibs include abolishing sex education, outlawing same-sex marriage and banishing Howard Stern.) The vice president of the Heritage Foundation, Rebecca Hagelin, found a link between the prison scandal and how "our country permits Hollywood to put almost anything in a movie and still call it PG-13."

Some of these same characters also felt that the media shouldn't show the Abu Ghraib pictures too much or at all — as if the pictures were the problem rather than what they reveal. They are of an ideological piece with Jerry Falwell, who, a mere two days after 9/11, tried to shift the blame for al Qaeda's attack to the "pagans" and abortionists and gays and lesbians who have "tried to secularize America."

This time the point of these scolds' political strategy — and it is a political strategy, despite some of its adherents' quasireligiosity — is clear enough. It is not merely to demonize gays and the usual rogue's gallery of secularist bogeymen for any American ill but to clear the Bush administration of any culpability for Abu Ghraib, the disaster that may have destroyed its mission in Iraq. If porn or MTV or Howard Stern can be said to have induced a "few bad apples" in one prison to misbehave, then everyone else in the chain of command, from the commander-in-chief down, is off the hook. If the culture war can be cross-wired with the actual war, then the buck will stop not at the Pentagon or the White House but at the Paris Hilton video, or "Mean Girls," or maybe "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

The hypocrisy of those pushing this line knows few bounds. They choose to ignore the reality that the most popular images of sadomasochism in American pop culture this year have been those in "The Passion of the Christ," an R-rated "religious" movie that many Americans took their children to see, at times with clerical blessings. Mel Gibson's relentlessly violent, distinctly American take on Jesus' martyrdom is a more exact fit for what's been acted out in Abu Ghraib than the flouncings of any cheesy porn-video dominatrix.

The other hypocrisy of the blame-the-culture crowd is that "normal Americans" — a phrase favored by Mr. Knight — don't partake of the "secular" entertainment that is doing all this damage. In other words, the porn that led to prison abuse is all ghettoized in the blue states. The facts say otherwise. Phil Harvey, the president of the North Carolina-based Adam & Eve, one of the country's largest suppliers of mail-order adult products, said in an interview last week that his business has "for years" been roughly the same per capita throughout the continental United States, with those Deep South bastions of the Bible Belt, Alabama and Mississippi, buying only 10 percent fewer sex toys and porn videos than everyone else. Even residents of the Cincinnati metropolitan area — home to Citizens for Community Values and famous for antismut battles over Larry Flynt and Robert Mapplethorpe — turned out to be slightly larger-than-average users of porn Web sites, according to a 2001 Nielsen Internet survey.

Americans, regardless of location or political affiliation, have always consumed a culture of sex and violence. David Milch's explicit HBO recollection of the cruelty and carnality that accompanied our "winning" of the west, "Deadwood," is hardly fiction. As Luc Sante and Susan Sontag have pointed out, the photographs from Abu Ghraib themselves have a nearly exact historical antecedent in those touristy snapshots of shameless Americans posing underneath the victims of lynchings for decades after the Civil War. The horrific photos were sent around as postcards in the same insouciant spirit that moved Abu Ghraib guards to e-mail their torture pictures or turn them into screensavers — even though the reigning mass-culture pin-ups of the time were Mary Pickford and Shirley Temple rather than Janet Jackson or Britney Spears.

To blame every American transgression on the culture, whether the transgression is as grievous as Abu Ghraib or the shootings at Columbine or as trivial as lubricious teenage fashions, is to absolve Americans of any responsibility for anything. It used to be that liberals pinned all American sins on the military-industrial complex; now it's conservatives who pin them all on the Viacom-Time Warner complex. It used to be liberals that found criminals victims of "root causes"; now it's conservatives who find criminals victims of X-rated causes. Since it's conservatives who are now in power, we've reached the absurd state where we have an attorney general who arrived in Washington placing a higher priority on stamping out porn than terrorism; we have a Federal Communications Commission that is ready to sacrifice a bedrock American value (the First Amendment) to the cause of spanking Bono for using a four-letter word on TV. As Congress threatens to police cable TV as well, we face the prospect that the history in "Deadwood" may yet be airbrushed by the government until it resembles "Little Women."

All of this is at odds with one of President Bush's most persistent campaign themes. He has repeatedly vowed to introduce "a culture of responsibility in America" in which "each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life." Up to a point. Now he talks about how the Abu Ghraib pictures are not "the America I know." (Maybe he should get out more.) If he really practiced "a culture of responsibility" he would take responsibility for his own government's actions rather than plead ignorance and express dismay. He might, for instance, explain how his own White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, came to write a January 2002 memo that labeled the Geneva Conventions "quaint" and "obsolete" for dealing with prisoners in the war on terrorism (of which Iraq, we're told, is a part). The dissemination of that memo's legal wisdom through the Defense Department and the military command over the past 26 months may tell us more about what led to Abu Ghraib than anything else we've heard so far from the administration, let alone any Heritage Foundation press release that finds the genesis of torture in the sexual innuendos of prime-time television.

In his speech last Monday night, the president, reeling in the polls and seeking a life raft, seemed to be well on his way to adopting the cultural defense being pushed by his political allies. He called Abu Ghraib a symbol of "death and torture" under Saddam Hussein and then said that the same prison also "became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops." The idea, it seemed, was to concede American fallibility, if not exactly error. But by reducing the charge to "disgraceful conduct," he was performing a verbal sleight-of-hand that acquitted those troops of torture and found them guilty instead of the lesser crime of pornographic horseplay. (He was also trying to confine culpability to a "few" troops.) Perhaps he hopes that we will believe that what happened at Abu Ghraib is the work of just a handful of porn-addled freaks, and that by razing the prison we can shut the whole incident down the way Rudy Giuliani banished the sex emporiums of Times Square.

But it's hard to imagine that any of this will fool that man in Najaf who had hoped we'd replace the terror of Saddam with that elixir he rightly called democracy. Whatever else America may represent — whiskey and sexy included — it stands most of all for the rule of law. We won't bring democracy to Iraq until those of high rank and low alike submit to an all-American prosecution for crimes that clearly extend well beyond the perimeters of pornographic pictures that, in the end, are merely the evidence.